Awareness Foundation

Updated: Aug 2, 2019

By Josie Child, PAX Producer


What does it mean to be tolerant?

The willingness to allow the existence of opinions or behaviour that one does not necessarily agree with.

Although the language of tolerance has gained momentum and popularity in the 21st century, tolerance has long been celebrated as a backbone principle of functioning modern societies.

In John Stuart Mill’s 1859 philosophical treatise ‘On Liberty’, Mill articulates the ‘Harm Principle’; he claimed that ‘the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. By the terms of this social contract, I will allow you to live your life as you see fit, if you extend to me the same courtesy. Over others I have no privileges, but over my own mind and body my rights are ‘absolute’.

Mill argued that living according to this principle would allow for the flourishing of a modern and libertarian society, as well as content, independent individuals.

We are quite used to hearing about the benefits of tolerance, particularly in relation to race, religion, sexuality, and other indicators of diversity with a secular society. It is common to hear tolerance taught as a virtue in schools, universities, workplaces, and places of worship.

And it is certainly true that tolerance, when enshrined in law, goes a long way towards ensuring the safety of minority groups and vulnerable individuals who might otherwise be persecuted or oppressed.

However, tolerance has a second, scientific definition:

The capacity to endure continued subjection to something (such as a drug or environmental conditions) as a result of prolonged exposure to it.

For example, we might say that we will no longer tolerate a noisy neighbour. Or a doctor might describe someone as having a high tolerance to pain. In this context, tolerance is used in a negative way to describe something unpleasant or painful. It is a begrudging approval at best.

What this tells us is that tolerance is not the virtue that we think it is. It is the bare minimum that allows different people to live side by side, the very least we must expect from each other in order to co-exist. But human beings are capable of so much more than mere tolerance! We are capable of the highest and purest principle in existence – love.

Tolerance is the first, not the last, step towards building harmonious communities. We need to develop a new understanding of the other which welcomes diversity and celebrates difference, which generously and hospitably extends the hand of friendship to outsiders and brings them in. This is an understanding which is based not on the concept of tolerance, but on real relationships based on understanding and, ultimately, on love.

We are stuck in the rut of tolerance, but there is hope for something greater yet.