The Problem With Tolerance

Wendy BrownIf you step back from this for a second, you realize that what they are saying is “we are not for marriage equality, but we are for tolerance.” So, quite literally, what is being suggested is that certain people will be tolerated instead of made equal. And that is the way tolerance has operated for most of its history in the modern West: it is always a kind of substitute for equality, or supplement to equality. Now, again, that is not the worst possibility if the alternative is extinction or persecution or death or exclusion from basic rights. Again, I am not against tolerance, but I do think that our tendency to just get sleepy and happy when we hear the word “tolerance” is a problem.

Wendy Brown
Interview in Philosophy Bites

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Frank Moraes. Bookmark the permalink.

About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “The Problem With Tolerance

  1. "Tolerance" is a fuzzy word. Anyone can use it and have it mean whatever they want it to mean, like "multiculturalism" or "inclusion." W had a very "multicultural" White House team, although they were all truly members of the same neo-conservative culture.

    Yesterday, on the bus to work (which stops at the Mall Of America), two pairs of women were having animated conversations; one pair in French, the other in Somali. A grumpy-looking white man in front of me kept turning to give each pair the stink-eye and muttering.

    Now I enjoy the Tower of Babel effect myself, and I suppose that’s what most liberals mean when they call for "tolerance." AKA, no knee-jerk xenophobia. The grumpy guy presumably doesn’t like "foreigners," even though the French (with their shopping bags) and the Somails (in what looked to be work clothes) were both contributing to the health of the local economy — the opposite of what most who don’t like "foreigners" accuse them of doing. The grumpy man didn’t get that and probably never will.

    Ideally, I imagine, liberals would like to see xenophobia removed from the list of tools demagogues can use to manipulate voters. And it’s a worthwhile dream. Is it an achievable dream? I tend to doubt it. There’s a reason we can use an ancient Greek term to denote "irrational hatred/fear of difference"; it’s been with us forever, and is probably programmed into our DNA.

    So liberals, as usual, are stuck in a bind. (That’s what happens when you try to be rational instead of accepting dogma.) Rather than call xenophobia "ignorance" (which it is, and like all ignorance, easy to overcome if one wishes), we wimped out. Too many people are ignorant in that way, and we didn’t want to scare them off. We adopted the fuzzy word "tolerance," only to find it turned against us. Imprecision can have some very negative consequences.

    I like Brown’s use of "equality" in that quote. It’s not accusatory, and while most of us have different ideas as to what degree of equality we’d hope to see, the word means something much more definite than "inclusion" or "tolerance." I might have to read some of her work . . .

  2. @JMF – See is quite interesting. I haven’t read anything more than the interview in the book, but I think she is quite a start in the philosophy world. By the way, I recommend the whole <i>Philosophy Bites</i> book. It is a surprisingly fun and easy read.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *