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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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