An intolerance for tolerance

Toleranc e- Print campaign for Red Cross
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There is technically nothing wrong with the word ‘tolerance’, but I squirm every time I see it used to describe the notion of social and cultural egalitarianism (and this is its most common application, so the squirming is rather frequent).

I just can’t shake the feeling that when people use the word ‘tolerance’, they either

a) mean completely natural, unconscious, unforced, unqualified equality… which ‘tolerance’ by definition, is not. These people are unwittingly underselling their inspirational ideals.


b) mean tolerance in the true sense of the word, and tolerance, in this literal sense, is not much of an ideal at all.

In the OED, to ‘tolerate’ is

  1. a) To endure, sustain (pain or hardship) b) To endure with impunity or comparative impunity the action of (a poison or strong drug)
  2. a) To allow to exist or to be done or practised without authoritative interference or molestation; also generally, to allow, permit b) To allow, permit, suffer to do something
  3. To bear without repugnance; to allow intellectually, or in taste, sentiment or principle; to put up with

Similarly, ‘toleration’ is

  1. a) The action of sustaining or enduring; endurance (of evil, suffering etc)

  2. a) The action of allowing; permission granted by authority
  3. b) Locally in the US applied to license to gather oysters or keep oysterbeds
  4. a) Allowance (with or without limits), by the ruling power, of the exercise of religion otherwise than in the form officially established or recognised

And hence ‘tolerance’ is

  1. a) The action or practice of enduring or sustaining pain or hardship; the power or capacity of enduring; endurance b) (Physiological) The power…of enduring large doses of active drugs…c) (Forestry) …The ability of any organism to withstand some particular environmental conditiond) (Biological) The ability of an organism to survive or flourish despite infection with a parasite or an otherwise pathogenic organisme) (Immunological) The ability to accept without an immunological reaction an antigen that normally produces one
  2. [totally irrelevant]
  3. * The action or practice of tolerating; toleration; the disposition to be patient with or indulgent of the practices of others; freedom from bigotry or undue severity in judging the conduct of others; forbearance; Catholicity of spirit**

  4. a) (Technical) Coining: the small margin with which coins, when minted, are allowed to deviate from the standard fineness and weight; b) (Mechanical) an allowable amount of deviation in the dimensions of a machine or part.

On the whole, (apart from the oysters) I don’t think any of these convey a very positive meaning. And the thing with words is, they can’t drop their connotations from moment to moment. If the word ‘tolerance’ in the social context in any way suggests “an allowable amount of deviation” (because of its mechanical definition) it is an instant FAIL at expressing the ideal of tolerance. And even in the actual social definition, “to put up with” is an ugly, ugly, attitude (and a little off the mark, wouldn’t you say?).

What to do?  There is a facebook group advocating the word ‘acceptance’ instead of ‘tolerance’, but even this has a touch of ‘permission’ about it.

For now, I will experiment with ‘egalitarianism’, and sing along with Ben Lee: “We are all in this together”.

* The OED here quotes Coleridge’s Friend (1856): “The only true spirit of tolerance consists of our conscientious toleration of each other’s intolerance”.

** And don’t get me started on the irony of ‘Catholicity of spirit’

First published at tumblr Proof (v.)

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