Tolerance leaves no leeway for disagreement

by Ryan Stevens

G.K. Chesterton said “Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions.”

We are often told in our modern day society to be tolerant of other cultures, religions, sexual orientations and even moral outlooks on life. In fact, tolerance is becoming so pervasive in our American culture that it breeds a notion of extremity, one that inherently separates personal lives and public lives.

It is highly discouraged to impress one’s religious beliefs on anyone else, be it even in the form of disagreement. I would be ridiculed as intolerant if I were to publicize an opposition to homosexuality, a belief that my specific religion is the only truth, or perhaps the assertion that I disagree with someone else’s lifestyle. When, in fact, the very discouragement of my individualism, expressed through these ideas, is the very heart of intolerance.

Today’s version of tolerance has gone much further than the actual definition. The word tolerance implies acceptance of other ideas, and respect toward others who hold them. What it does not suggest is that we privatize our beliefs to avoid argument or in some cases even discussion. In fact, tolerance implies just the opposite. If I accept that another human being differs from me in matters of morality or lifestyle, I should respect them enough to disagree with them in a manner that is respectful. Tolerance calls for respect, but not for unconditional acceptance.

But modern tolerance has gone even further than blind acceptance. As society progresses, we are taught to accept all truths as equally valid, and that to criticize other ideas of morality is intolerant. This is a corrupt strand of logic. To hold the idea that one’s own personal moral identity is truth, and to assert that belief publicly is intolerant. But at the same time, to reject such an assertion is equally intolerant. By saying that no one can hold absolute truth, we are intolerant of those who believe they do.

Even further, this argument for tolerance defies the assertions of many of the major belief systems of the world today, markedly Christianity. If, for example, I say that I believe that Christ is the only path of salvation I am, by definition, intolerant of every other religious belief on the planet. It is then dictated that I should not express this morally exclusive idea to others who disagree, because to do so would be intolerant of their own exclusive beliefs. Today’s tolerance says that I shouldn’t discuss my beliefs with others, merely that I should put up with them.

In fact, modern tolerance has merged into what is commonly known as relativism — the idea that all truths and notions of morality are equally valid and should be accepted. This, too, is directly contradictory to most of the world’s major religious beliefs, which claim to hold an exclusive path toward moral truth. The problem with relativism is that there is such a thing as absolute truth. A writer for a Catholic website puts forth a scenario: “I have a blind friend. He didn’t believe there was a car coming down the street. That was his truth and he believed it. He was wrong. The car hit him and broke his leg.”

While simplistic in nature, the idea is very applicable to tolerance. We could see a blind person in that situation and let them go on believing their own truth, or we could try to engage them in conversation with the intent of bettering their circumstances.

This motivation is exactly that of the Christian faith, a religion notoriously labeled as intolerant. While admittedly the methods used by many Christians become tainted with personal biases and decisions, the heart of Christ’s message is to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth, and action that requires a severe violation of modern, relativistic tolerance.

I am not saying that tolerance in today’s society is never a good thing, nor that we should become insensitive to the beliefs of others. What I am saying is that we should redefine tolerance to include active engagement with others, and allow for discussion and even occasionally argument. It is OK that I believe someone else’s lifestyle is wrong, and it is even encouraged that I discuss it with them, out of love and respect, and with due sensitivity. That is the true meaning of tolerance.

Stevens is a sophomore majoring in English and French. Comments can be sent to

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