One of the most difficult things to do in this life is to see ourselves and others for who we are and who we can become. It can be tough to break through all the clutter of class, circumstance, race, gender, and sexual orientation we get from a confused and turbulent society and catch an honest glimpse of who we and others are.
We beg and sometimes demand for room to be ourselves, even though we ourselves are sometimes too vain and foolish to learn about our true potential. And with others we are worse, oftentimes finding ourselves rankled and impatient, ever ready to create all kinds of charts and diagrams to show others their faults and imperfections. But because we never, even in our best moments of clarity, see the complete picture of ourselves and fail miserably at mapping out the soul of others, it is required of us to always hold back full judgment. In this way life is conservative, since we rarely get to see our and other’s lives from the beginning to the end we have to restrain from full judgment of other people. However, this does not mean that we suspend judgment concerning the right and wrong of certain situations and behaviors because life is all about decision-making which requires judgment.
This act of holding back full judgment and giving people room to figure out in thought and action who they are is the essence of tolerance. We are required to give each other room to be mistaken, wrong, weak, stupid, out of sorts, foul, base and annoying. We are required to let each other play out our special part in the ongoing parade of folly and fallibility that characterizes human affairs. Tolerance should be seen as a means to end, as a way to give space to each person to work out their relationship to themselves, to man and to God. We are all at some point of maturing, but we never just “are”, but we are always in a state of becoming. Folks need room to learn how to self-govern and strive for a level of moral excellence or goodness that leads to happiness and peace in our lives as well as their loved ones. There is no doubt tolerance is needed for a civilized and robust society, hence the wisdom of our Founding Fathers when they included free speech and freedom of religion or conscience as the first of the enumerated bill of rights.
Despite having an important place in civilized society, tolerance like temperance or modesty, is the first step, a minor virtue, to higher virtues like mutual respect, honesty, faith, hope, brotherhood, peace and the mother of all virtues, unconditional or unfeigned love.
Like any other minor virtue, there are limits to it. As Russell M. Nelson once remarked:
“An erroneous assumption could be made that if a little of something is good, a lot must be better. Overdoses of need medication can be toxic. Boundless mercy could oppose justice. So tolerance, without limit, could lead to spineless permissiveness.”
A tolerance that eclipses major virtues and leads to more envy, more divisiveness, more misery and more hate and seeks to suppress speech and opinion is a tolerance that is disingenuous and dangerous. Tolerance as an end itself, tolerance as the one and only virtue, seems to take on a more sinister color than the classic concept of virtue. The new, progressive tolerance demands that curious suspension of all honest judgment and conclusions about right and wrong and requires us ignore the collective consequences of unbounded selfish behaviors where eventually even true love waxes cold. This type of tolerance is just as E.M. Forester once described:
“Tolerance is just a makeshift, suitable for an overcrowded and overheated planet. It carries on when love gives out.”
Despite the need for tolerance and the fact that tolerance as a minor virtue requires so little of us, historically, tolerance has been in rare supply. And the more there is at stake the less tolerant we seem to be of each other. A secure person or a secure nation can afford to be tolerant, whereas an insecure person or an insecure nation is more apt to be intolerant. And today’s modern tolerance is an insecure one that oftentimes dispenses a shallow justice that vengefully, with the swiftness of a witch hunt, makes sure there are winners and more importantly losers.
But to be fair it is more often than not human nature to try to silence those whose opinions differ widely from our own, forgetting that all human reason is fallible even our own reasoning. It easier and more natural to be mutually intolerant than to be mutually respectful of our differing worldviews. Intolerance and insecurity stem from a lack of respect for the dignity of an individual person, a weak and puny appreciation for the worth of a human individual. It is morally wrong for anyone or any group to deny another their inalienable dignity or deny them the opportunity to discover their value as an individual and work that out.
A person’s right to dignity stems from the belief that we are all created in the image and likeness of a transcendent God. No matter how wrong a person’s ideas of behavior, we are all of infinite value. All persons are brothers and sisters under God and we are supposed to do good to one another. We must respect the God-given dignity in every human being, even our enemies. For the goal of all human relations–whether they are religious, social, political or economic-ought to be cooperation and mutual respect. We must follow after things that make for peace (Romans 14:9). We must live peaceable with all men (Romans 12:8). Our highest priorities in life are to love God and to love our neighbors, God’s creations.
Though we love our own the best, loving those we know can still be a tall order full of heartbreak and pain along the way. But loving strangers from distant lands, with different cultures and differing views is an extraordinary task, a divine obligation, for the naturally warring spirits we seem to be, but it all starts with a little tolerance, the least of all the virtues required of us.