How “(in)tolerant” are we?

“We think and let think.” –John Wesley

We all come from somewhere. And our experience and perception of the world will necessarily be determined by a complex and unique combination of biological, personal, familial, social, economic, religious (or nonreligious) and national influences. This inescapable fact of human diversity led the drafters of the core international human rights instruments to recognize freedom of thought, conscience and religion as nonderogable, and the closely-linked freedom of opinion as without exceptions or restrictions. Because of their intimate link to human personhood, these rights are considered fundamental and their violation an affront to human dignity. When they are undermined not only by the state, but through everyday practices of intolerance, deep nation-threatening divisions remain.

Unsurprisingly, responsible states have sought to protect these rights by promoting the virtues of inclusive societies that are tolerant and diverse. But with “tolerance” meaning different things to different people, it, along with “diversity,” has been elastic enough to be both practiced superficially and weaponized. In the contentious public square, tolerance has too often become an ideology that threatens the very freedoms it is designed to protect.

I. (In)Tolerance and the trouble it breeds

Defined as “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own,” tolerance is at its heart about acknowledging and accepting that people are different. Disagreeing with or criticizing another’s views or practices is not intolerant, but refusing to acknowledge them is. To acknowledge those views and practices is to neither endorse nor support them but rather to accept them for what they are—the views and practices of others. No more, no less.

The definitional distinctions may be clear enough but the practice of tolerance is inherently delicate and uncomfortable. It not only requires that we put up with something we would rather not but that we also exercise some humility, the kind that makes us entertain the slightest possibility that not only might there be different and perhaps equally valid ways to view things but we could be wrong. Practicing tolerance is especially challenging when the views we must tolerate threaten our interests. In those cases, tolerance requires not just forbearance but courage. As Clement Rogers observed, “it is easy to be tolerant when you do not care.”

These difficulties explain why some of the most vocal proponents of tolerance are also often its most egregious abusers. Why else would the most influential cultural and educational centers increasingly accept a narrow band of ideas, prevent the exploration of reasonable contrary views, and exclude those who challenge prevailing orthodoxies from important nation-shaping conversations? Such practices not only chill and suppress freedom of opinion, they are also a coercive form of persuasion that makes these institutions what one writer called “enforcers of uniformity” rather than advocates of diversity.

Intolerance has far-reaching effects. By delegitimating the thoughts and experiences of others, it fosters feelings of rejection that lead to division. After all, if you don’t care what I think, how could you care about me? And because humans, by nature, seek belonging, the excluded will seek spaces of acceptance where they can express themselves. These spaces become their own ecosystem, developing quite apart from “the mainstream.” The longer they remain separate, the more they become to that mainstream more than just incubators of competing ideas. They become wholly other, and their contributors become “those people”—objects of contempt and derision.

This contempt, which runs both ways, is most evident in the coarsening of the national discourse as people no longer exercise restraint in communicating differences, and expressions of disagreement are personalized. Terms like “anti-intellectual” or “closed-minded” are interpreted by those to whom they are directed as euphemisms for “stupid.” The stupid, in turn, brand the intellectually “sophisticated” as “fools” who confuse sophistication with wisdom. The uncontroversial becomes controversial as disagreements cease to be about issues and ideas but about sticking it to the other side and injuring those we believe reject and despise us. In the process, “those people” may indeed become radicalized.

In this volatile climate, it may not be long before one side views the other as sub-human and possibly worthy of elimination. Without effective interventions, it may be only a matter of time before the right circumstances call for it.

II. Masterclass in tolerance: Jesus and the Samaritans

The story of the enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans began around 721 BC when ancient Israel’s northern kingdom was captured by the Assyrians. The resulting intermarriages between the Jews and the Assyrian Gentiles produced ethnically-mixed descendants who were thoroughly despised by the Jews of the southern kingdom.

By the time Jesus came onto the scene many centuries later, the Samaritan community had evolved. It had developed its own distinct ethno-religious identity and practices of worship, many of which were shaped by and in response to their rejection by the Jews. The hostility between the two communities had calcified, with prejudices running deep on both sides, but geographical realities made it impossible for them to completely avoid each other. The New Testament records three stories in which Jesus, who was Jewish, both defined and modeled tolerance in his interactions with the Samaritans. Divided societies may find it worthy of emulation.

Christ’s model of tolerance

First, in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman he encountered at a well (Jn. 4:4-42), Jesus showed how tolerance is not indifferent; it respects, listens to and hears the other. Clearly bothered by Jesus’s Jewishness and unable to see him apart from it, the woman began to relay the religious differences between their communities. He listened. Although he disagreed with her views and firmly presented his own, he was neither contemptuous nor dismissive towards hers. As they sparred over rightful places of worship, he never ceased to see and treat her first as a person. In fact, he cared enough to tell her difficult truths about her life. By the time the conversation was over, he had won her over not only through the substance of his words, but also through respect and gentle persuasion.

Second, in his story about the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:30-37), Jesus taught how tolerance, which never ceases to see the good in the other, is marked by love and kindness. His Jewish audience was surprised that he would commend a Samaritan above a priest and Levite for his good deeds, but such is the nature of intolerance: it stops us from seeing the good in those with whom we disagree and is content with a caricature that allows us to hold onto our prejudices. Those prejudices then prevent us from treating them with kindness. Jesus shattered the idea that kindness was to be shown only to those with whom we agree.

Third, when his request for hospitality was rejected by the Samaritans, Jesus showed how tolerance does not harm the opposition (Lk. 9:51-56). His angry disciples, however, wanted to destroy the offending village. Recognizing that their intense reaction was likely inspired by wounded pride and their own national prejudices, Jesus swiftly rebuked them before they headed off to another village. In that response, he taught that zeal for one’s beliefs or good causes never justifies the destruction of those who do not share it. If one’s offer of friendship is rejected, the proper response is to move on yet remain open to making or receiving another some other time.

In the preamble to the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of Intolerance, the U.N. General Assembly wrote of how “[the] disregard and infringement of … the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or whatever belief, have brought, directly or indirectly, wars and great suffering to mankind.” The story of the Jews and the Samaritans is a warning to nations that the divisions intolerance births do not just disappear—they only grow and, under the right conditions, explode.

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