In our culture we hear frequent references to “tolerance”. The word has been particularly evident lately with the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. last Saturday. I want to ponder this word and consider the aspiration to tolerance.
We might begin with where the word came from. It goes back to a Latin verb tolerare, to endure, to bear something unpleasant. Looking at etymology for meaning, however, is a kind of logical fallacy, albeit a common one. The meaning of a word is not what the roots of the word meant many years ago, but what we use it to mean now. So how do we use this word?
From the online Merriam-Webster there are two definitions. The first is generally positive, while the second has negative connotations: (1) “willingness to accept feelings, habits, or beliefs that are different from your own,” (2) “the ability to accept, experience, or survive something harmful or unpleasant”.
On the website Dictionary.com, there are three definitions that seem generally positive to a liberal like myself (acceptance, broadmindedness, and so on), but the fourth definition is “the act or capacity of enduring; endurance”. My ancient American Heritage Dictionary (printed on “paper”—google the word if you aren’t sure what that is) also has some positive definitions, but like the two dictionaries above it includes “The capacity to endure hardship or pain”.
Perhaps we are changing the definition of “tolerance”, but for now it continues to have a possible meaning of putting up with something that you don’t actually like. Haven’t you heard or used sentences like “I can’t tolerate people who do that” or “I have to tolerate so much at work”?
The negative meanings of “tolerance” are common enough that I want to say, I wish in fact to declare, that the ideal of Tolerance that we promote so assiduously is not even close to good enough. I recognize that tolerance is a thousand times better than intolerance. If I show tolerance toward people who look different from me, who dress differently from me, who eat unusual food (i.e., weird stuff I wouldn’t eat), at least I am leaving them alone.
Instead of attacking one another, instead of scowling, snarling slurs, and putting up “Whites Only” signs, it is obviously better to show tolerance, to endure what we don’t like, and leave each other alone. But perhaps we leave people alone begrudgingly, occasionally gritting our teeth as we do so. Tolerance is aiming mighty damn low.
Because I’m an optimist, I believe our society really is capable of better, and I want to advocate that we not be limited by sloppy, lazy language. Words have an influence, after all. So goddamnit, let’s aim higher than tolerance. Embrace other people and cultures. Wear an embroidered Mexican shirt, invite black gospel choirs to your church, hang embroidered Hmong cloths on the wall, eat an incredibly delicious Thai mango salad, learn to order a beer and enchiladas in Spanish, take a gift to your friend’s gay wedding.
Let us aspire to a world where we are no longer afraid, but revel in the richness of humanity and reveal the richness of ourselves. And let us take our language with us. Do not tolerate, but celebrate.