The Trouble with Tolerance

Thursday, April 20, 2017 - 5:00 am

The Trouble with Tolerance

In our current political discourse, there is a tendency to assume that conflict is bound to ensue whenever people of different races, ethnicities, and religions come into contact with one another. To provide a remedy against this clash, many political figures resort to singing the praises of “tolerance” and “toleration.” They speak in glowing terms about the need for us to become a “tolerant America.”

I am not so sure that this is the loftiest standard we can aspire to; in fact, I think that to become a beloved community we have to aspire to be much, much better than merely “tolerant” of one another.

Let’s have a look at how many politicians have praised tolerance. Barack Obama introduced himself to America by speaking of his parents’ faith in a “tolerant America.”

“My parents shared not only an improbable love; they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation. They would give me an African name, Barack or “blessed,” believing that in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success.”

As president, Obama again and again returned to the “values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity.”

Hillary Clinton had likewise sung the praises of the “young, diverse, and tolerant America of the 21st century.”

Not being content to merely praise America, Bill Clinton had previously praised Lebanon and Morocco for being “tolerant” of their refugees.

Nor was the praise for tolerance limited to Democratic figures. Former president George W. Bush likewise spoke of America as a nation whose greatness was in our “tolerance”:

“Ours is a country based upon tolerance and we welcome people of all faiths in America.”

Moving beyond America’s “tolerance,” George W. Bush also praised Muslims for their tolerance:

“I have a hope for the people of Muslim countries. Your commitments to morality and learning and tolerance led to great historical achievements.”

Perhaps no figure is more beloved to recent conservatives than Ronald Reagan. Reagan, too, praised tolerance:

“We must never remain silent in the face of bigotry. We must condemn those who seek to divide us. In all quarters and at all times, we must teach tolerance and denounce racism, anti-Semitism, and all ethnic or religious bigotry wherever they exist as unacceptable evils. We have no place for haters in America — none, whatsoever.”

How rare it is to find Democrat and Republican alike agreeing on a virtue. Who could possibly object to such a unifying theme?


The truth of the matter is that “tolerance” is not such a lofty concept. Sure, if we compare it with outright bigotry, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia that we see today, tolerance is indeed a virtue. But dig a little deeper, and behind tolerance is a concept far from our loftiest ideals.

Tolerance has a yucky origin. It comes from medieval toxicology and pharmacology. It essentially has to do with how much foreign and poisonous substance a body can “tolerate” before it dies. When we apply this paradigm to a nation, what we are talking about is ultimately that some people (majority-white culture in the case of the United States of America) gets to be the body, the host, and the rest are not even guests, they are parasites. Viruses. Invading, disease-inducing agents of disease. And, not surprisingly, it is often immigrants, Muslims, Hispanics, gays/lesbians who are described as being on the recipient side of “tolerance.” [Have you ever heard someone talk about being tolerant towards white people?]

A look at the etymology of “tolerance” may be useful here. Let us turn here to the hallowed unabridged version of Oxford English Dictionary, where “tolerance” is defined as follows:

1. The action or practice of enduring or sustaining pain or hardship; the power or capacity of enduring; endurance.

[Great. We are asking people to endure the pain or hardship of tolerating us.]

1. b. Physiology. The power, constitutional or acquired, of enduring large doses of active drugs, or of resisting the action of poison, etc.; hence diminution in the response to a drug after continued use.

[Enduring large doses of drugs, or resisting poison. No, thanks.]

c. Forestry. The capacity of a tree to endure shade. More widely in biology, the ability of any organism to withstand some particular environmental condition.

[Talk about throwing shade. I am not anyone’s environmental condition.]

d. Biology. The ability of an organism to survive or to flourish despite infection with a parasite or an otherwise pathogenic organism.

[Parasite, or otherwise pathogenic organism. No, thanks.]

e. The ability to accept without an immunological reaction an antigen that normally produces one.

[Accept without an immunological reaction. Awesome. Wow.]

This is why we need to move beyond tolerance, toleration. I do not need anyone to tolerate me. I am not your poison, and you are not my poison. We need a different metaphor for the body politic. How about a garden, in which lilies, roses, and jasmines all bloom? No one has to be the weed. May a thousand flowers bloom.

No, being a “tolerant” nation still assumes that some of us are the host, the body. Rather than merely reflecting existing social hierarchies, the language of “tolerance” actually reinforces those hierarchies. Tolerance is surely preferable to fighting, violence, bigotry, hatred, and discrimination. But it is nowhere as sublime as starting with a fact — diversity — and moving to the moral high ground of pluralism.

Diversity is not an ideological claim, it is a simple fact: we as members of a human community are remarkably diverse. We are diverse in our races, cultures, languages, religions, etc. Pluralism is striving for a notion of a greater We that acknowledges and builds on our particularity, and does not seek to wash it away. It does not privilege some of us at the expense of others, and does not treat any of us as a pathogen or contaminant.

That, that is the start of building a beloved community here and now.

So in this light, friends, let us not settle for merely tolerating one another.

Let us embrace one another in a beloved community, one that we have to build together. That would be a lovely and beloved America, a humble and responsible citizen of the lovely and beloved world community.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads educational tours every year to Turkey, Morocco, or other countries, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trips are open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

Share Your Reflection


  • BJ Lindsey

    In the late eighties, I was asked to coordinate the University’s Welcome Back Days with the theme “tolerate diversity.” I immediately changed the theme to “CELEBRATE DIVERSITY,” although I entertained “embrace” as well, as you mention in your final paragraph. Words matter. Thank you for this wonderful essay!

  • Cindy Buckley

    This article plays right into the theme of the book I am now reading for a second time, “Beyond Tolerance…..How People Across America Are Building Bridges Between Faiths” by Gustav Niebuhr. Thank you for this awesome article!

  • Louis Schmier

    How much I agree. I am not one to practice tolerance. I see tolerance as one person with authority to allow another person of lesser stature to grace her/his presence. I don’t see it as a relationship of equals. Instead, I practice respect, a relationship between and among equal, noble, sacred, unique human beings. It is respect that truly breaks barriers, builds bridges, and creates community as tolerance cannot.

  • Agreed. “Tolerance” is a very base-level ambition. It’s a step above open hatred and violence so it’s still valuable. But it is not the endgame.

    What’s the better word or phrase we’re after here? What’s the behavior we want to promote instead of mere tolerance?

    Perhaps it’s Honoring Difference. Or Generous Respect. Or Reciprocity. Or Humility. Maybe it’s Graciousness, redefined for our time. Really, it’s just Love, isn’t it? But that still feels to us too lofty and squishy to call people toward a specific behavior.

    As Krista has said, we need a new way to talk about the way we want to relate to one another. I think it all begins with settling on a new term or phrase that’s more compelling and interesting that “tolerance,” and comes closer to the outcome we actually want to produce in ourselves and in the world.

  • Lyle Mook

    Very important distinction. I can ‘tolerate’ you and ignore you; despise you; look down on you; hate your guts; show no neighbor love or fight injustice toward you. Civility with Convictions and Compassion is the 3-fold cord we need for public discourse and beloved community.

  • Beautifully articulated. So powerful to examine the roots of the world “tolerance.” I’m honored to be part of this beloved community.

  • Pingback: Belonging to One Another and Taking Back Stolen Time | On Being()

  • Tim Sullivan

    I’ve had trouble with the word tolerance for awhile. Is it really enough just to put up with someone? How about the words “acceptance” or even better, “welcoming.” Instead of tolerating someone who is different than us, how about welcoming them into our lives.

  • flowerplough

    Sappy, gloppy stuff like this, from seeming adults, is often difficult to endure, but tolerate it we must…
    All children are God’s children, as are all creatures great and small, but do we embrace God’s complex, microscopic wonder that just happens to give small children polio? Or that small satan, McVeigh, who bombed the Murrah building in Oklahoma City? No, of course not. We don’t embrace obvious evil, we don’t tolerate it, we hunt it and destroy. You might hug anthrax, or cannibals, but we don’t. We, in real life, are often forced into “Finding the Spirit to Question Our Messy Realities”, and the choices and compromises we make are what makes us real, and what makes up reality.

  • Roy Reichle

    I agree with you Mr. Safi. The word tolerance is not suitable for what our nation needs to do. But at the same time, I don’t think diversity is what we’re looking for either.

    I see nations and their societies similar to organisms. Imagine an organism with cells that are diverse in the way people use the term.
    It wouldn’t live long.

    A body needs diverse cells with different jobs, but with one supreme task–keeping the body alive. This takes cooperation and unity of purpose. The way people talk about diversity seems to focus on individual needs and ignores the larger, societal needs.

    Societies adhere and remain strong by their singleness of purpose. In America–apparently, there is can be no American culture. We’re not allowed to have one by the Brave New Committee for Political Correctness. To have an American Culture would be exclusive of all other cultures and this would be blasphemy.

    A diverse society without singleness of purpose and a unity of vision is a doomed society. It will die the disease of self-absorption as each segment vies for validity and acceptance.

    Since we’re examining word origins–diverse, diversity, and divide have the same Latin origin: divertere–turn in separate ways. Is that what America needs?

  • flowerplough

    Conformity sometimes (often?) beckons to us an easier route – excellent point. The naked emperor comes to mind.