“All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.” (Ernest Hemingway)
Teach Tolerance. It’s a mantra of many in the social justice movement, and I know their intentions are laudable and lofty. But I have a problem with the word “tolerance.” It seems to me that if that’s what we’re aiming for, we’re setting the bar pretty low.
The venerable Merriam-Webster defines tolerance as 1: the capacity to endure pain or hardship, and 2: a) sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own, or b) the act of allowing something. (There are further definitions relating to drug or pesticide exposure, but that sort of tolerance is a conversation for another day.)
Tolerance is what I feel when a clueless stranger says something annoying but innocuous; it’s what I feel when a friend has too much to drink and becomes maudlin; it’s what I feel when I’m in the dentist’s chair waiting for my semi-annual checkup to be over and for them to send me on my way with a new toothbrush. I tolerate the situations, but I’d rather be somewhere else.
Judging by the last couple of years, perhaps teaching tolerance is already a pretty big stretch for much of the world, but why not aim higher anyway? Why not teach inclusion, or welcome, or diversity, or—dare I say it—love?
I think about words a lot. I took Semantics in college, so my occasional quibbles over words may be inconsequential to most. Indulge me. Here’s another take on “tolerance.”
On the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance website, they reprint UNESCO’s definitions of the term, as spelled out in its Declaration of Principles on Tolerance:
Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human.
Tolerance is harmony in difference.
SPLC notes that the UNESCO definition most closely matches their own philosophical use of the word. Further, they say, “Tolerance is surely an imperfect term, yet the English language offers no single word that embraces the broad range of skills we need to live together peacefully.” Sad, but true. Sadder still is how many different words we have for hate.
A few moments on the Teaching Tolerance website provide inspiration for anyone who would like to see humankind move to a new level of understanding, acceptance, and cooperation. The website offers countless resources for combatting prejudice and promoting equality. It’s an informative, motivating, and hopeful site. I recommend it.
So, I’m torn. I certainly support and applaud the SPLC and UNESCO use of the term, but I do wish in everyday usage, it was stronger and more positive. I wish it fully reflected the world we want to manifest.
Next time you see a Tolerance bumper sticker (predictably on a Subaru or VW bug or bus), think about how words evolve and meaning changes. Let’s get beyond “forbearance” and “sufferance” and embrace the higher intentions of inclusion, appreciation, and harmony. Words are powerful. They change us. They matter.
Next up: Covfefe
“…we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” (John F. Kennedy)