Tolerance Redefined

Be egalitarian about people; Be elitist about ideas – Peter Kreeft, Boston College

In a world that increasingly judges others through sound bites and  by what each person in the conversation perceives to be the tolerance or intolerance expressed on the subject at hand, it becomes confusing to think about what the word ‘tolerance‘ means. More and more I have experienced the working definition of tolerance to mean I have to accept every idea presented and every belief that is expressed. If I don’t accept these ideas and beliefs, I am quickly labeled intolerant. This of course is nonsense, but being someone who likes people, and wants people to like her, I fall into this trap more times than I care to count.  Every person is valuable – Every idea is not.

In my reading I have found that a ‘classical’ view of tolerance is a view quite different from the conventional or popular view.  “Classic tolerance requires that every person be free to express his ideas without fear of abuse or reprisal, not that all views have equal validity, merit, or truth” Greg Koukl in The Irony of Intolerance from A Faith and Culture devotional. Greg Koukl goes on to say that popular tolerance has “turned the classical formula on its head:  Be egalitarian regarding ideas, Be elitist regarding persons”. 

This classic view has freed me to learn to respectfully express my opinions and beliefs when they differ from others, even when I am in the minority (which is often the case). It has also freed me to challenge others and their ideas as well as be challenged. One of my examples of  this classic view is one of my closest friends at work. She and I differ significantly when it comes to many areas that are considered controversial, but she is willing to hear my views, seeing them as valid expressions of my deeper beliefs and not blocking conversation through labeling me as ‘intolerant’.  As a result, we have grown in mutual respect and enjoyment of each other’s company.

Synonyms to tolerance include some interesting words: forbearance, compassion, charity, permission, grace, mercy. These are generous words and get at the heart of respecting the person voicing the ideas, seeing them as worthwhile and important, while respectfully disagreeing with their ideas. Greg Koukl encourages the reader to always ask for a definition if or when I am charged with intolerance. “If tolerance means neutrality, then no one is ever tolerant because no one is ever neutral about his own opinions. This kind of tolerance is a myth”  This is a helpful and hopeful challenge for a people-pleaser easily turned around by tolerance.

Finally I love these words of Peter Kreeft. They capture where I want both my heart and my head to land: “Have a soft heart but a hard head. We should be ‘wise as serpents and harmless as doves,’ sharp as a fox in thought but loyal as a dog in will and deed. Soft-heartedness does not excuse soft-headedness, and hard-headedness does not excuse hard-heartedness. In our hearts we should be ‘bleeding-heart liberals’ and in our heads ‘stuck-in-the-mud conservatives.’

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect – 1 Peter 15b 

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