I've been thinking about the meaning of the term tolerance. The term is closely associated with the term politically correct (or political correctness, PC). In the late 90s in the US and into the 00s tolerance was an umbrella term for accepting diverse people-groups into various aspects of life: the workforce, religious institutions, public buildings, etc. One of the more noticeable shifts was from referring to a mixed group of people as men, gentlemen, or guys. People stopped saying mankind as much and instead started saying humankind (Star Trek helped pioneer this when they gave the Enterprise-D a new plaque and changed the phrasing from "to boldly go where no man has gone before" over to "to boldly go where no one has gone before"). Tolerance fell out of favor in place of terms like sensitivity and diversity (note: in the US universities they had already made the switch and tolerance was more used in the workplace and among children in schools as far as I know). It may be the case that different regions in America favored one term over another, but now all I see these days is "diversity". This also says nothing about attitudes towards tolerance, sensitivity, and diversity outside the US.

Here at the Temple we don't use the term tolerance in that context, and frankly I couldn't be more happy about it. The concept and practice of tolerance is incredibly misunderstood and misused. Tolerance as it is used here is more in the classical sense and in line with the definition of the phrase critical thinking. We tolerate other people's ideas and opinions in order to evaluate our own and judge which idea has the most merit, that's called critical thinking. Unfortunately, a few pea-brained fools combined with herd mentality have come to twist the meaning of the term tolerance to mean treating all ideas as equally true and valid. If I were to take on that puerile definition of tolerance, I would have to hold the idea that the Earth is flat as equally valid and true as the idea that the Earth is an imperfect sphere. More insidiously, the term gets used as a defensive mechanism whenever someone doesn't want to examine their own problematic ideologies. This unwillingness to be introspective is a defect of character, a gaping hole in their ability to function as a human being with cognitive powers. It's a kneejerk weapon for those who wish to mask their weak argument in the fashionable but misunderstood idea of taking in new ideas and giving them room to be examined.

Tolerance does not mean I have to like your idea, it doesn't mean I have to agree with it, and it most certainly doesn't mean your idea has equal merit with my own. Tolerance means that I listen to your idea long enough to understand it. If I am to be a critical thinker, I have to examine my own ideas in comparison with yours and determine which idea best represents my understanding of reality or determine if your idea has more merit because it reveals something that was previously not a part of my reality. Tolerance is not a license to be abusive, use ad hominem/red herring attacks, or dismissive of other ideas (ironically it's the exact opposite yet tolerance gets used to dismiss new ideas all the time). The purpose of tolerance is to give room for new ideas to present themselves without the incumbent supposition dominating the minds and hearts of the people examining any given idea.

I would go so far as to say that tolerance is less of a moral or ethical injunction against hostility in discussion so much as a method of approaching discussion. While tolerance does imply a certain level of civility, there is no real reason why I couldn't state my position and then insult my opponent for being a rotten avocado (because really, rotten avocados are the worst). The main thing I'm trying to point out is that the issue of tolerance is not whom we should tolerate, but what should we tolerate? Should we tolerate Nazi ideology at the Temple? Should we tolerate KKK ideology? How about Men's Rights Movements (MRM) which have been declared a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center? It seems to me that we can draw a line at what point we're willing to engage with ideas. That doesn't mean we shouldn't talk about Nazi, KKK, or MRM ideologies; in joining this Temple you are already agreeing that you will not endorse and spread such ideologies.

In this light it's easy to see why diversity advocates would latch on to the term tolerance, but in doing so they muddied the proverbial waters and I would argue really hurt their efforts. Tolerance, PC, and sensitivity are all spoken of with such disdain you'd think they were obscenities. In truth, I believe we need diversity, tolerance, and critical thinking. We need diversity in order to have people with various worldviews. We need tolerance to listen to those differing worldviews. We need critical thinking to examine each worldview (especially our own) and change our ideas about the world based off of new information. We can't stop people from being scruffy-looking nerfherders, some people with weak arguments will cower and try to lash out with feeble appeals to tolerance, but we can get a better understanding of the world if we continue to allow ourselves to be exposed to new ideas and new information at the risk of discovering our earlier assumptions were wrong.

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I love this.

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