Tol·er·ance – noun

[tol-er-uhns]

Common Language

  1. A fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one’s own; freedom from bigotry.
  2. A fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one’s own.
  3. Interest in and concern for ideas, opinions, practices, etc., foreign to one’s own; a liberal, undogmatic viewpoint.
  4. The act or capacity of enduring; endurance: My tolerance of noise is limited.

Medicine/Medical, Immunology.

  1. The power of enduring or resisting the action of a drug, poison, etc.: a tolerance to antibiotics.
  2. The lack of or low levels of immune response to transplanted tissue or other foreign substance that is normally immunogenic.

Benjamin Franklin
“…it is thus compromise on the basis of tolerance for others’ opinions that lead us to good solutions….” – benjamin franklin

It is amazing, that such a small word can reflect so much of what all of us are actually wrestling with today! During the recent debates and congressional committee meetings working on ObamaCare, the “Us” vs “Them” attitude that was displayed kept bringing me back to this simple word and the realization that, for a country founded on tolerance, we had seemingly lost our way.
In an attempt to reinforce what I thought were the lessons drilled into me by my father as to the meaning of tolerance and our fundamental obligation to extend tolerance so we can get such in return; I went to reading. Reading things like the writings of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and others of our founding fathers. I wanted to see if the teaching of my father, and my often flawed memory or interpretation of them, were in fact accurate. Lo and behold, and seemingly for once in my life, they were.
But Houston we have a problem! If these are accurate understandings of the meaning, and if my father was correct that the act of tolerance is likely the single most important ingredient of our counrty’s success and our main obligation as a people, then what the heck happened? How have we moved to the point where the only thing we tolerate today is intolerance? How have we gotten to the point that anything that could possibly offend anyone else is something that becomes prohibited. This is in fact the textbook definition of intolerance! For one to tolerate something, one must not like it in the first place.
Mark Twain 1
mark twain

For you to exercise tolerance, you must object to the action of another – morally, ethically, religiously, what have you – and still allow the other party, or parties, to continue their expression or action. As I have studied this more over the past few months, I began reading the recently released Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, from the University of California Press. In this excellent read, I found an interesting observation from Mr. Twain, dictated to his scribe January 24, 1906, in a section called, The Character of Man.

“All the talk about tolerance, in anything or anywhere, is plainly a gentle lie. It does not exist. It is in no man’s heart; but unconsciously and by moss-grown inherited habit, drivels and slobbers from all men’s lips. Intolerance is everything for one’s own self, and nothing for the other person.
The main-spring of man’s nature is just that – selfishness. Let us skip the other lies, for brevity’s sake. to consider them would prove nothing, except that man is what he is – loving, towards his own, – his family, his friends, – and otherwise the buzzing, busy, trivial, enemy of his race – who tarries his little day, does his little dirt, commends himself to God, and then goes out into the darkness, to return no more, and send no messages back – selfish even in death.”

Now I am not sure who is correct… Clearly, from reading the words of our founding fathers they felt it was very important for America to be successful both in succession from England and as a future nation. We needed to become one people, not a nation of singularities – not singularities of religions, or singularities of cultures, or singularities of language or behaviors. We had to all become Americans and develop an American identity – first and foremost. Thomas Paine was one of the people who was enlisted to help establish this identity. But by 1906, a relative drop in the bucket of time, Mark Twain was already observing, to his own dismay, that man had again reverted.
So where are we today, really? We face may issues and problems of historic proportions – in American terms and timescale. Can we defeat the current obstacles, most of our own creation, if we don’t again become a nation united as one? I am not advocating an abandonment of cultural, racial, or religions identity! I am just asking, can we get where we need to go, if we don’t again find tolerance?
I would submit, the problem we have in all of our governmental bodies today – federal, state and local – is that we have lost our tolerance. Benjamin Franklin said, “…it is thus compromise on the basis of tolerance for others’ opinions that lead us to good solutions….” Perhaps we need to revisit this concept – and soon!

7 Responses

  1. Hi Thomas,
    I want to thank you for this post. It is principled and aware and it helps to trace the arc of interwoven tensions that we struggle to untangle, to get from intolerance to tolerance, from brutish inconsequence to useful collaboration, from tyranny to democracy. I think we will be a better, stronger, more fulfilled people, when we come to the common understanding that abject, reflexive intolerance is submission to the tyranny of unreasoned lashings (lashing out, backlash, whiplash, self-flagellation), a servitude of the mind to what is lowest in us.
    Thank you for standing for what makes democracy strong, for the informed and consequential civics that keeps the revolution of 1776 alive and breathing in the spirit of people who are decided to come together and to build a future in which humanity prospers, thanks to a vigorous, and open-minded defense of universal rights.
    J.E.

    1. Thanks for the comment J.E. I agree and feel if we don’t make this fundamental shift in ourselves soon, America, like so many other cultures before it, may be lost to history as a great ideal that failed. Fortunatly, the solutions are simple in concept. Sadly, the effort to initiate the actions requires the same character traits we seem to be losing daily in ourselves.

  2. I agree with your On Tolerance | The History and Evolution of Health Care in America, fantastic post.

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