Tolerance as position and direction

June 6

I want you to picture a scene in which a really dumb guy is having his picture taken at the edge of the cliffs of Moher. “I can frame this picture better,” says the picture taker (probably a secret enemy, depending on what kind of movies you are used to seeing) “if you woulIMG_0088.jpgd just take one step back. No…one more.” At that point the dumb guy takes that last step back and falls backward off the cliff and dies (saying something funny or something pathetic, depending on the kinds of movies you are used to seeing).

If the dumb guy had asked, “How far back should I go?” he would have saved his life. But then, if he had asked that he would’t have been so dumb after all.

So what’s the difference between those two orientations? One is a direction (“one more step”) and one is a location. There is no way to criticize a direction without reference to a location. You can’t say that tightening up your belt is a good thing unless you know how tight or loose it is now. “Tighten it up” is a direction entirely innocent of location. You can’t say of a direction, “…but it’s too tight now;” nor can you say, “…but if I do that, my pants will fall off.”

Those crucially important protests require a location.

Now let’s talk about tolerance. The idea that some things should be “tolerated” [1] is a ditolerate 6rection, not a location. We are admonished to “be more tolerant” as if tolerance were a good thing all by itself. Obviously, it is not. There is such a thing as too much tolerance, just as there is such a thing as too little.

So “we should be tolerant” is a meaningless admonition. What is it we should tolerate? How long should we tolerate it? This is all obvious is you are willing to take the belt as the master metaphor. “Tighter” and “looser” (directions) make no sense at all by themselves, while “too tight” and “too loose” (locations) do make sense.

The person as agent

Then there is the question of the agent. Just who is it who is being asked to be more tolerant? Is it a person, as in “You should be more tolerant,” or is it society as a whole [2] as in “We should be more tolerant?”

I have treated this question so far as if the content can be filled in later, but most often in the U. S. today, the context of social morals or religious beliefs or immigration is presumed. Someone who thinks we would all be better off if we followed more conservative moral guides or had more orthodox (Christian) beliefs or had fewer unassimilable immigrants will be urged to be more tolerant.  This person will respond by saying that those who are criticizing him are too tolerant already.

Let’s follow the tolerant person case first. The belt metaphor leads us to tolerate 1ask, “How much more tolerant should I be?” Or, to revert to the “carry” meaning of the Latin source of “tolerate,” how much longer must I carry this burden. (Or, alternatively, how much heavier a burden should I carry.)

I don’t remember ever hearing a good answer to this question. [3] I have heard, “It won’t be as onerous as you think.” I have heard, “It’s the right thing to do and whatever the costs to you, they should be paid.” I have never heard, “I think it would not harm you to be a little more tolerant, but not too much or the costs will begin to escalate.” That sounds like something a friend might say; maybe a counselor.

Society as agent

Maybe things will be better if we look at society as the agent, as in “we” should be more tolerant. “How much more tolerant should we be?” is one of the two questions that come immediately to mind. “Tolerant of what?” is the other.

The laws we have are instructions about what kinds of things we should not tolerate. This is played on by people who say of an action that is challenged, “It’s not illegal.” There are widespread conventions that urge against things that are not illegal but that are, nevertheless, said to be wrong. No one argues that we should be tolerant of those things although, considering direction only, there is no reason we should.

tolerate 3For a society, the question worth asking is “What will happen to society if we tolerate this?” And one possible answer is that it will lose its ability to function. Societies are ongoing propositions. They need to be affirmed and supported and criticized every day and when any of those things fails, the future of that society begins to dim. It is that perspective that Aristotle has in mind in the quote I am showing here. When people withdraw from society as if it will run itself, the society begins to come apart.

This brings us to the belt metaphor one last time. A society can be too tolerant if it tries to carry things too heavy for it and collapses. We will say it is too tolerant if it tolerates the wrong things. We will be wrong, but you get the idea. A society can be too intolerant when it does not carry differences it ought to carry. People will leave such a society if they can or subvert it by opposition either overt or hidden. That society isn’t going to make it either.

I think we would all be better off if the question of how much we can afford to tolerate were brought to the front. People who are already committed to the intolerance of something or other (race, sexual identification, dangling modifiers) will not want to be asked just how much is too much. And, as a matter of fact, there will not be a certain answer to the question.

But I am quite sure we would all be better off if we asked it.

[1] Literally, to be “carried,” from the Latin verb tollere, “to lift up.” Ordinarily, we say things can be borne (or not) and I think the archaic form (bear instead of carry) masks what it costs to carry it. If I said, “How long do I have to carry it?” it would tie back to the cliffs of Moher instantly.
[2] Or any organization within a society. A church might, for instance, decide that they should be more tolerant or less tolerant.
[3] Trying to remember. On the other hand, I’ve had this question in mind for less than 15 minutes.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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