Don't Be Satisfied with Tolerance

A string of recent crimes in southern California appear to be united by the theme of anti-Semitism. I say that they "appear" this way because only one of the incidents was a clear-cut case of anti-Semitism. A young Jewish man was savagely attacked in a public park in Orange County by thugs who made anti-Semitic remarks to him and painted a swastika on the sidewalk near the scene.

Two of the incidents (here and here) involved strange attacks on Jewish religious facilities. It is not clear that there was an overtly anti-Semitic motive in either case. In two others, high schools were vandalized with swastikas and other graffiti. At one of the high schools, the vandals painted the words "white power" along with the swastikas, but no explicitly anti-Semitic comments were reported. In the other incident, which took place in the upscale community of Calabasas on the Saturday before Easter, the school was covered with swastikas and slogans, both racist and anti-Semitic. In that case, however, the perpetrators convinced sheriff's investigators last week that they were retaliating, in the most offensive way they could think of, for perceived "mistreatment" from specific teachers and students.

A poignant aspect of this flurry of crimes is the hope for "tolerance" repeated over and over like a mantra by public officials. In response to the vandalism case in Calabasas, sheriff's deputies have been mobilized to "educate students on the dangers of hate and intolerance." Whether the deputies' warnings will sink in better than the ones students receive about drugs and unprotected sex is a good question. But it's the incessant invocation of "tolerance" that merits closer inspection. In the face of the seemingly ineradicable evil of Nazi-like anti-Semitism and racism, tolerance is a terribly inadequate word.

To begin with, nothing about being Jewish (or a member of a non-Caucasian race) is properly a matter for tolerance per se. Tolerance is a fine quality: an attitude of openness, patience, and a willingness to delay or suspend judgment. It has many valuable uses. But when we consent to leave unmolested our fellow men of other races or religions, we are not exercising tolerance; we are obeying an irreducible moral imperative. Tolerance is something we give at our discretion as a gift, whereas accepting the equal moral standing of other humans is a binding obligation. We cannot congratulate ourselves on meeting it. We must rather be ashamed if we do not.

As a society, we teach fewer and fewer things in the terms of rights, wrongs, obligations, and moral accountability. Instead of establishing a basis for conscience to govern us, we encourage the adoption of ill-defined, all-purpose attitudes, and issue warnings about "dangers," apparently in the hope that the fear of those dangers will induce us to make "positive" choices.

Ironically, this is not a prescription for tolerance at all. One of the key features of true tolerance is its basis not in fear but in security. Tolerance is something we have because we do not fear its consequences. We cannot be driven to it by the fear of intolerance. Nor is tolerance a foundation or cause of character. Tolerance is a result of character, and of a categorical belief in certain elements of character.

Our efforts to inculcate those elements of character are weakening today. I would say, for example, that the indispensable precondition of tolerance is humility. And if there is one character trait we humans can have only if we sincerely believe in it, it's humility. Humility will never, like the fabled butterfly of happiness, come sit on our shoulder when we least expect it. Humility has to be consciously pursued and practiced—and, like forgiveness, it must often be entered into against every natural feeling we have.

It takes big doses of humility to accept the discipline of patience, another crucial element of the strong character that yields tolerance. Many, many Christians will attest that the only way to develop patience is to have to be patient. Love for our fellows is another important element—and in this regard, it is no accident that we are told "perfect love drives out fear" (1 Jn. 4:18). Tolerance cannot do that job; it relies on love to perform it.