Questioning Tolerance

“Tolerance” is often the word invoked when people talk about attitudes toward others who might not share their background or attitudes. Tolerance is a minimum requirement, if it at least means not attacking the other, but it is a poor substitute for more constructive relationship building based on mutual respect.

Over at Religion Dispatches, Baptist minister Cody J. Sanders muses on the meaning of “tolerance” in the context of attitudes toward gay and lesbian individuals. Although he is specifically thinking about “toleration” in relation to issues of sexuality, I think his observations are valid for other forms of relationships across perceived boundaries of religion, race, and culture. He writes:

What exactly does it mean to be tolerated? Those who were once persecuted are later tolerated. Those who were once treated with violence are now allowed to exist in an atmosphere of “beneficent” tolerance. Tolerance says, “You shouldn’t be here, but I’ll allow you to exist.” We commit ourselves to overlooking the offense, the annoyance, the violation to our senses caused by the things and people we merely tolerate. Indeed, toleration is no gift to the tolerated.

– – –

Above all, the trouble with tolerance is that it presumes an acquiescence to, even an acceptance of, an oppressive status quo. There is no prophetic imagination or dream of justice embodied in a resolve to tolerate. If our goal is to practice tolerance, then we have given up on a quest for a more radical acceptance and embrace of difference and Otherness. Tolerance assumes that the hierarchical theological constructions we hold are “natural” and that the binary ways that we construct the group we call “us” and the groups we call “them” have some basis in reality. Tolerance allows our unearned privilege (whether racial privilege, class privilege, heterosexist privilege, etc.) to go unquestioned and unchallenged.

You can read more at Religion Dispatches.

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