November 13, 2011 Rebellion!

The Meaning of Tolerance

By: V.A. Luttrell

Tolerance has become a common word in our society. No longer simply the purview of physicists, engineers, or nerds of other varieties, tolerance has now entered the realm of common speech. Parents and their kids, feuding lovers, civil rights activists, and the layman alike all claim use of this word. As with most terms, we use “tolerance” with varying meanings, thinking we are all on the same page. Usually, we’re wrong.

Social tolerance is a belief most often cited as part of “left” ideology and is usually said to be lacking on the “right.” Even though this dichotomy is tacitly accepted, tolerance is ubiquitously understood as a must-have, and those who are deemed intolerant face social condemnation and exclusion. Thus, when we all mean something different when we use this word, people can get hurt.

To many, tolerance equals acceptance. In order to be dubbed “tolerant,” we must submit to a particular set of ethics, wherein everything approved by pre-tolerant people is morally acceptable. To be tolerant of homosexuals one must accept that having sex with people of the same gender is morally permissible. Under this schema, if a person believes that homosexuality is wrong yet believes that people have the legal freedom to do what they please, he or she is still not tolerant and is scorned.

This is wrong. Tolerance is not acceptance. A Christian who purports to tolerate everyone who shares his or her beliefs would not be considered truly tolerant. So too, liberals who call themselves tolerant but react to the religious, conservative, or free-market minded with the same mistrust, suspicion, and aversion like bigots are not so.

Tolerance requires tension. Disagreement, fundamental differences of belief, and deep-seeded spite — these are the origins of tolerance. Tolerance is that which allows a social conservative and a man who feels as if he is a woman to sit down, have a coffee, and talk about their lives. They can simultaneously believe that each other is wrong, but by the end of their coffees they have gained each other’s perspectives and has become better for doing so.

Libertarians come to issues of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered (LGBT) people from a myriad of places, more diverse than either mainstream political ideology. Many libertarians identify as LGBT themselves. Some feel that being gay is a sin against God. Others have a limited understanding of any of these concepts. Many and most fall somewhere between. Tolerance is the thing that unites us. It is the simple claim that no matter how we think lives should be lived, neither the individual nor a government has the authority to say how another can peaceably live his or her life. It requires that we recognize our imperfections, our shortcomings, and our nature as human beings — that we do not have all the answers. It necessitates the humility to admit that we may be wrong. Perhaps this is why true tolerance is so hard to achieve.

Tolerance of race was the greatest challenge of the previous generation, and it is a challenge that it, for the most part, has overcome. To even say “I am tolerant of black people” will strike most today as odd. Why would you not accept them, for they are rights-wielding human beings like all others? In regards to race, we have moved from tolerance to acceptance., This is the same move that the current generation must make for the LGBT community. But in order to achieve acceptance, we must first understand what tolerance means and accomplish that. It is unrealistic to demand someone who ardently believes that homosexuality is wrong to go straight from passing out pamphlets to accepting that homosexuality is morally permissible. So to, we cannot accept a society to make that leap.

This does not means that initiatives like marriage equality are flawed. In fact, seeking marriage equality is an important step to achieve LGBT tolerance in this country.  When a government discriminates, it legitimates the act and hinders the progress towards tolerance.

It is for precisely this reason that libertarians hold the key to making sure that the country moves towards tolerance. It is our commitment to minimal government interference that will help spur things forward. Historically, governments hinder this movement. It is people learning from each other in free systems that move societies towards tolerance and acceptance. This is what we promote. We are that change.

V.A. Luttrell is a political writer and blogger currently residing in Atlanta, Georgia. Her main project to date is her blog, Thoughts on Liberty, which she has been writing since 2008. It is there that she works to promote “active tolerance,” a concept conceived on Thoughts on Liberty and which fully integrates into the rules there.  Some of her other interests include gender and race politics, class divisions, and constitutional law. In addition to libertarian politics, Luttrell also writes fiction and is an amateur graphic designer and web page designer. She receives her Bachelor’s in Philosophy and Political Science from Agnes Scott College this May.

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