How Do We Tolerate the Intolerant?

What do tolerant people do with the intolerant?

We tolerate them. We ignore them. We insult them.

We try to change them:

       By explaining.

       By demonstrating.

       By oppressing.

We rationalize their existence: People disinterested in interfaith dialogue are ignorant, uncultured, or disengaged. ISIS is not really Islamic because they do not exhibit values of justice and mercy. 

We pass on the responsibility to someone else: extremists won’t do dialogue so I can’t reach them—but if they are violent they must be stopped.…

We wait until crisis.


We can revisit our own positions and consider that we may not be totally right: the presence of difference affirms many possibilities. We face the intolerant: we rehumanize them by listening cooly to their arguments and allowing for the possibility of coherence in what they say. We study various cognitive styles and moral foundations theory. We summon enough security to withstand the feeling of discombobulation that comes with agreeing with some teeny tiny fragment of what a fundamentalist, a Republican, a white supremacist, a racist says. (This happened to me when I talked to a Log Cabin Republican and was alarmed to agree with his argument for fiscal conservatism. It happened again when I watched American History X and found myself agreeing rationally with positions morally repulsive to me.  I think such moments of identity loss and recalibration serve many constructive purposes.)

We can allow the norm-violators to invent or affirm our own norms; they remain a reference point for who we are not. The sociologist Emile Durkheim argued in Rules of a Sociological Method that crime is both normal and necessary to social life: deviants, by violating social norms, demonstrate the boundaries of acceptable behavior and the consequences of transgressing them. Knowing exactly which in-group we are in requires some knowledge of those in the out-group, and what separates us. Only so much variability and diversity can be tolerated before the in-group begins to lose its identity and coherence. Thus the community of the tolerant-minded is reinforced by the very existence of the intolerant. They need each other in order to be who they are, in order to articulate their defining characteristics. Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. Intolerant and tolerant define each other; they need each other in order to be distinct.

We can attempt coherence in our tolerance, making friends with diversity even at its most vexing polarities. The tolerant and the intolerant need each other in the sense that there is some moral virtue or gradation of benefit that each faction brings to its sphere of influence—and together, they comprise a holistic picture of human needs and dreams. The Spectrums Project at Boston University has corralled research that demonstrates the cognitive styles of liberals and conservatives. Broadly construed, liberals are concerned about protecting individuals and promoting their inherent dignity, while conservatives value institutions and collective stability, and invest in ways to sustain systemic momentum and status quo. The world needs both these efforts, and must depend on the diverse investments of different parties. Form and emptiness—they comprise the whole, interdependently.

We can become more comfortable with our discomfort. We may start to see the toleration of discomfort as a methodology for coexistence in diversity. We achieve a nuance in our thinking about diversity and see it as a fact—not a bountiful metaphor for abundant natural ecology, and not a threat to civilizations. Diversity is rather an unavoidable fact of life. It may make us uncomfortable but we can learn, with our brains and our bodies, that this discomfort is tolerable, instructive, or affirming. Diversity may inspire us to recommit to our original positions, or perhaps undergo the discombobulation of loosening these attachments and opening up to other ways of knowing and being. While the tolerant among us try to force the idea that diversity is a beautiful opportunity, the actual presence of a truly uncomfortable, vexing moral difference demands only that diversity be acknowledge and the discomfort it generates be tolerated. The process of tolerating discomfort, of developing endurance or “sea legs” in a storm of unfamiliar confrontations, is achieved over time, with experience. It is a muscle.

We can glimpse our own dark sides. Perhaps we notice ourselves doing unto others as we would not want others to do unto us: namely to reject difference, to proselytize for the rightness of our position and the imperative that the world adopt it. Thus the presence of difference may draw out complicities and aggressions within ourselves that the homogenous environment has left undisturbed. Our aggressions and unconscious moral habits, though sometimes painful to expose, are better examined and embraced. They should be investigated if only to diffuse them, to diffuse a faulty, self-preserving moral righteousness and sense of ultimate justification that encases these positions in rigidity and intolerance. Cultivating enough security and humility to realize that your position might be incoherent, parroted from somebody else, traceable to your upbringing, morally relativistic, or inconsistent with your behavior can help us be a little less harsh on people different from us. I think viewing the intolerant as another group of humans muddling along under so many layers of karmic imprisonment and systemic entrenchment—just as many as we surely are—might be the first step to countering mutual alienation. Reinhold Niebuhr said, “Transformation cannot begin until we stop pretending to a goodness which we do not possess.” Get over the idea that your idea is the best idea. Stop infusing your morality with superiority. It has its social and psychological lineage just as every other position does. If you really believe in tolerance, stop saying ISIS isn’t Islam and listen more carefully to why they think it is. Otherwise you give them what they want: you at the other side of a polarity, accepting the title of enemy and opposite. What would it look like to kill them with kindness—to smother them with tolerance—to refuse to be an enemy? Radical.

We can sharpen and define our bottom lines whilst allowing for complexity. Violence, murder, rape, robbery, destruction of property cannot be tolerated. Is there a huge, bottomless grey tangle when we ask what, exactly, constitutes violence? Yes. Where do hurtful words, systemic injustices, economic imbalances, bad attitudes, and repulsive moral positions stand in this equation? I don’t know. It depends.

What would it mean for you to actually be tolerant?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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2 thoughts on “How Do We Tolerate the Intolerant?

  1. There are many shades of tolerance e.g., a person who is tolerant towards other religions may not be as tolerant towards sects within their creed.

    To Niebuhr’s point, transformation need not be mutual. But even in this case one should listen but one should not have expectations to be heard.

  2. Thank you Muhammad! I think you actually managed to put in two beautifully concise, clear sentences what I fumbled around in 1000 words to say.

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