What Does Tolerance Mean?

In addition to Banned Books Week 2010 rearing its head in your local library, it’s also election season. Politics often brings bold claims and idealistic messages. Right now, the media is rife with stories about things that push people’s buttons so they react to these statements — including some authors, I might add. As an advocate for tolerance, I wanted to open a dialog about what this word means in today’s culture. You see, I think that many words (like tolerance or racism or patriotism) mean different things to different people.

To me, tolerance is very simple. You treat other people with respect — regardless of who they are, what they look like or where they come from. Sometimes, that means you respect a foreign culture by adapting to it while you’re in their country. (When in Rome…) Tolerance also means you interact with an individual and don’t make sweeping generalizations about every other person that shares a similar strait.

For example, if someone is acting like a jerk, a tolerant person would say that person is being a jerk. That does not mean that if the person was Italian, every other Italian is automatically a jerk. To think that, means that you assume people are either genetically hard-wired to be jerks or they magically turn into jerks because they wear similar clothing or live in the same place. To me, that is the opposite of tolerance. Note: I won’t bring religion into this, because I believe faith is a very personal thing, but there are extremists in every belief system that’s out there. Religious or not.

Preventing tolerance involves education, patience and excellent listening skills. No one wakes up and is automatically tolerant — including me. Tolerance, like many behaviors, are learned. Either someone has to teach it to you, or you have to learn it for yourself. When I don’t understand something, like a religion or a culture, I ask questions about it. Then? I either talk to people or read about it from different sources to put aside my prejudices. (Hint: I’m an avid reader.) If I make a charged statement that people disagree with, I talk about it. Maybe I was being intolerant and said something I didn’t mean. No one’s perfect and, especially on the web, semantics can complicate matters.

In my mind, your personal efforts to be tolerant are only one side of the equation. What happens when the other person isn’t being tolerant? If you’ve gone as far as you can go, then you walk away. Just like it’s your decision whether or not you’re going to be tolerant, it’s theirs, too. If someone is intolerant, pissing them off will make matters worse, not better.

Of course, tolerance sounds great in a vacuum. However, people are people and it’s a miracle we agree on anything – especially when you have over six billion people on the planet and counting. Phew! BIG number. Right? Can you tell me how many of those speak English? Have slanted eyes? Are broke? Don’t need to use a calculator? Live in caves? Like the color blue? It’s statistically and logistically impossible to think that everyone associated with one identifying trait believes, thinks and acts the same way at the same time. Just like you have your own thoughts and can’t agree on everything with your husband/best friend/cat/dog/priest/lover/whoever, there’s no way that anyone else does either. Here’s a frightening example: How many conversations have you had about what to eat or where to go for dinner?

Yes, people can have tendencies if they’re in a particular group because of the company they keep, but a tendency is not the same thing as a guarantee. Any person can always choose to act according to what is going on in their own mind. That, in my mind, is where many people lose sight of tolerance. Doesn’t it always comes down to the choices we make and the consequences that occur as a result?

As I mentioned earlier, I wanted to open the discussion to hear your thoughts. Since this is a very heated topic for many people, I will screen out comments that use profanity or spout racial epithets. My goal here, is to encourage tolerance by listening to your thoughts and hearing what others have to say.

What do you think tolerance means?

3 Responses to What Does Tolerance Mean?

Monica Valentinelli is an author, artist, and narrative designer who writes about magic, mystery, and mayhem. Her portfolio includes stories, games, comics, essays, and pop culture books.

In addition to her own worlds, she has worked on a number of different properties including Vampire: the Masquerade, Shadowrun, Hunter: the Vigil, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, and Robert E. Howard’s Conan.

Looking for Monica’s books and games that are still in print? Visit Monica Valentinelli on Amazon’s Author Central or a bookstore near you.

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