The Definition of Tolerance

After a short discussion today on the meaning of the much-overused word “tolerance”, I got to thinking a little more about it this afternoon.

The following definitions are from Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary:

  • “Tolerance”: The power or capacity of enduring; or the act of enduring. [Little used]
  • “Intolerance”: Want of toleration; the not enduring at all or not suffering to exist without persecution; as the intolerance of a prince or a church towards a religious sect.
  • “Tolerate”: To suffer to be or to be done without prohibition or hinderance; to allow or permit negatively, by not preventing; not to restrain; as, to tolerate opinions or practices. The law of love tolerates no vice, and patronizes every virtue.

First of all, I think it’s a little interesting that Webster noted that the word “tolerance” was little used. Today, a Google search for the term returns 89 million results! How did this become such a buzzword?

Secondly, it seems the people who use these words most frequently do not understand what they truly mean. The word “intolerance” is nearly synonymous with “hate” in today’s vernacular. Similarly, when most people demand “tolerance”, what they actually desire is “approval”. Thus, anything less than approval or affirmation (of religions, lifestyles, political affiliations, race, etc) now qualifies as hate.

As you can see from the definition, tolerance is merely an act of endurance. To be intolerant of something is to actually prevent or restrain it. Approval and hatred are nowhere implied. Tolerance is an action, not a feeling.

I wonder if folks would be as quick to use those words if they were understood to be using the legitimate definitions. For instance, imagine Whoopi Goldberg saying, “Why can’t Americans just endure Muslims?” Doesn’t have the same connotation, does it?

Of course, that’s exactly the connotation the word used to have. The British Toleration Act of 1689 made it legal for Protestants who refused to align themselves with the Church of England to practice their religion free from fear of imprisonment or execution (no such tolerance for Catholics). Anyone who believes the Anglican Church did anything other than merely endure the presence of Baptists and Presbyterians might want to study up on their history. In our own country, the Intolerable Acts were so-named because they led the liberty-loving American colonists to launch a rebellion.

You see, it is entirely possible to tolerate something without approving of it. I tolerate loads of things I don’t approve of (smokers, cats, country music, and Red Wings fans, to name a few); we all do. Liberty is simply not possible without enduring things one does not affirm. I’ve never lifted a finger to prevent someone practicing a false religion or voting their conscience, yet if I had a dollar for every time I’ve been called “intolerant” I could build my own private solid gold mosque in the back yard.

It’s also possible to be intolerant of things without hating them. I do not tolerate children who disrespect me or other teachers at our School of Performing Arts. If they continue after a stern warning, I remove them from the classroom and the lesson is over. But I don’t hate them. As a matter of fact, I do that because I love them.

That’s also the way the word “tolerate” is used in the Bible. When Paul warned the Corinthian church that they ought not tolerate a man who was sleeping with his father’s wife, he told them to remove him from among them (1 Corinthians 5:2). But this, like other examples of excommunication, was a form of love meant to bring about repentance and reconciliation.

It’s probably too much to hope that the abuse of words like “tolerance” and “intolerance” will end. People have way too much riding on their rhetoric to back down now. At the very least, though, I hope we will find words that will reintroduce the vast array of complex emotions and intellectual positions that lie across the spectrum from hatred to approval. There’s a whole lot missing between there.

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