Tolerance is the Language of Oppression

I just received an announcement for an upcoming event in Dallas. Here it is in part.

“If you support tolerance, you should be part of this event. Period. It is isn’t about being Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Atheist, etc – it is about being unified under the concept that everyone has a right to exist, to practice their religion as they see fit, and the fact, the small miracle, that different groups with different beliefs, can work and live together in this great country.”

It is hard to imagine anyone being against such an event. And I’m all for it. But one word really has me worried. Tolerance. Tolerance isn’t good enough. I refuse to be unified with anybody around this concept.

Because underlying the concept of tolerance is the idea that I and my community are complete in themselves, but that we recognize that we are not alone in this world. Thus we are willing to tolerate others who are different for the sake of keeping peace and even working together. And note, this is all the event mentioned above promises: A right to exist, a right to practice religion, and working together. This isn’t good enough.

The United States wasn’t founded on the idea of tolerance. It was founded on the idea that every citizen was a critical partner in the creating of the society as a whole. That is why it was never good enough that women were tolerated, or that African Americans were tolerated, or that Catholics would be tolerated, or Mormons, or Jews.

Every citizen should demand that he or she be a full partner in the shaping of a democratic society. Not just a chance chance to work with others (meaning work for others). That isn’t good enough. To be a full partner, to have an equal vote, and to have an equal chance to be elected to any office. No one should be satisfied with being tolerated, including the Muslim organizers of this event.

If I am suspicious of the language of tolerance, it is because throughout history it has been the language of oppression. When Christians “tolerated” Jews (not often) it meant that they marginalized them while allowing them “A right to exist, a right to practice religion, and working together.” When modern Muslim thinkers in Egypt, or Iran, or Malaysia, or Pakistan speak the language of tolerance they simply mean marginalizing all non-Mulimss while allowing them “A right to exist, a right to practice religion, and working together.” That was the tolerance of North Ireland Protestants for Catholics, and the tolerance of Austrian Catholics for Protestants. Find any political or religious system, including our own, speaking the language of tolerance and you’ll find marginalization and oppression.

But tolerance remains the language of most of the world’s major religions simply because they have not accepted that they are not complete without people and ideas from outside themselves. All the major religions have believed that a plurality of other religions is in fact the situation in which they live. And to some degree in some times and places all have been tolerant. But they haven’t accepted that those outside themselves are actually necessary for their own completeness. They/We tolerate and even out of hospitality invite, but we don’t ask others to complete us, to make us as humans whole, because we think we already possess that wholeness without others.

And this is why our secular democracy, founded by “we the people” is actually a step forward from the traditional teaching of any religion. It recognizes that we actually do need each other to be complete, to form a whole society, to enjoy the blessings of God.

I would argue, and will, that in fact the US constitution is a better representation of the teaching of Christ and his apostles than the teaching found in most churches. (Which is not the same as arguing that it is a Christian document. It isn’t.) And I know Muslims who would argue that it is likewise a truer representation of the Qur’an than most Islamic teaching. And there are also Jews who would say this. But our religious reflex is to merely tolerate, and thus to marginalize. Not good enough.

  • Mirche

    To tolerate (from lat. “to endure” e.g. pain) is to accept or endure (someone or something unpleasant or disliked) with forbearance without interference or adverse reaction and in some sense is ALMOST biblical I think. Because it is written “love endures all”. But biblically to endure all, it means not only, not to obstruct, but sometimes also to interfere, and to take part or intervene in an activity without invitation or necessity. The love of God during it endures all, it believes and hopes all from God, whereas tolerance would hardly remain cheerful in the face of adversity. Therefore it can be not only the language of opression but the result of deliberately holding back from action or response that are duty and work of self-sacrificial love. And this endurance called tolerance means e.g. not to obey what Christ has commanded and therefore we have to get over this tolerance business. Period!

  • kalim

    What is death?

    I want to share this sentences From Risalei Nur collection by Said Nursi

    Death is not destruction, or nothingness, or annihilation; it is not cessation, or extinction; it is not eternal separation, or non-existence, or a chance event; it is not authorless obliteration. Rather, it is being discharged by the Author Who is All-Wise and All-Compassionate; it is a change of abode. It is being despatched to eternal bliss, to your true home. It is the door of union to the Intermediate Realm, which is where you will meet with ninety-nine per cent of your friends.”

  • gary d. Stensland

    I tolerate an annoying coworker because I need the job, I tolerate a noisey neighbor to keep a peaceful neighborhood. Tolerance is putting up with something that has a degree of unpleasentness for the greater good. I embrace the differring faiths of my friends, learning enough so not to give offence by my ignorence. Learning a few Hebrew prayers, Islamic customs, or Budhist chants doesn’t change my Christianity. My diverse friends have taught me much and helped my faith grow not weaken. We need to be friends and partners with other faiths, to respect others beliefs. Tolerance just isn’t possitive enough for me.

    • eleanor stoneham

      Gary yes indeed – respect is the essential point. Whatever the differences between us relating to spirituality, religion and faith, we simply do not have time to iron them all
      out. We need to put them to one side and curb our bickering. Instead all religions should be celebrating what we have in common, understanding and respecting our differences, and seeking ways to work together as human beings, with all our individual
      frailties, for the mutual benefit of the one beautiful and finite planet earth we all have to share.

    • Karamat ali

      I agree with the comments of gary d. Stensland and eleanor wstoneham. We can not go forth without tolerance. Even if this is matrimonial relationship we need to tolerate idiosyncarcies of each other. If we are neighbours we need to have mutual respect for ourselves. If we live in a different region we need to respect and tolerate the habits and rituals of other regions. Tolerance is something that can win hearts of other one day. Islam also teaches us tolerance and never preaches to disrespect any one even if he non Muslim. Religion is selected by individuals according to their own will. But respect is such a motto which is worshipped by every nation of the world. Best regards Karamat Ali

  • Scott Hampton

    Thank you Robert for your article. I too have been bothered by the condescending nature of tolerance for many years in my work in the anti-violence movement. I was curious how other people viewed tolerance, so I conducted a study in which I asked respondents to compare tolerance with acceptance, respect, and other supposedly synonymous concepts. The results made it clear that tolerance was not only inconsistent with acceptance, but actually an integral part of hatred. Tolerance,it seems, is what hateful people do when they don’t feel able to lash out against those of whom they disapprove. They become intolerant when they can no longer “put up with” their targets. If you’re interested in more of what I found I published a book on the
    topic in 2010. “Tolerant oppression: Why promoting tolerance undermines our quest for equality and what we should do instead.”