n. A fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one’s own.

History: The first use of the word “tolerance” dates back to 1412, and it originally meant “endurance” or “fortitude.” Thus, to “tolerate” something (the verb form became an acceptable variation in 1531) was originally to survive or remain unaffected by an unpleasant or unwanted phenomenon. By 1539, however, “tolerance” was likewise associated with permissiveness, particularly on the part of government officials or others in authority, and by 1868, the word came to mean “an allowance of variation.” Note that in all three cases “tolerance” did not suggest an acceptance of that which was being tolerated. On the contrary, if one was “permissive” or “allowing,” it was always in spite of how one actually felt (usually negatively) about what was being permitted or allowed. This held true all the way through the end of the 19th century, when “tolerance” was first used to describe an acquired physical resistance to poisons, viruses, or other potentially harmful toxins. Indeed, it wasn’t until the late 1950s that users of the term started to insist that it also implied the supporting of ideas, values, and practices that differed from one’s own.

Etymology: “Tolerance” is derived from the Latin tolerantia, which means “putting up with something that is undesirable.” Consequently, inherent in its origins is the notion that the tolerant individual believes that his beliefs, practices, and behaviors are superior to those that he tolerates—that he has graciously refrained from deporting, imprisoning, executing, or otherwise humiliating those whose beliefs, practices, and behaviors are inferior to his own. It’s not surprising, then, that with the emergence of moral relativism in the early 20th century—and, later, the American political radicalism of the 1960s—came an intolerance of tolerance as it was originally defined. In other words, the idea that some people were merely tolerating the beliefs and actions of others was unacceptable in light of the “fact” that all beliefs and actions were equally legitimate. To remedy this situation, tolerance itself was reconceived as a rejection of moral absolutes in favor of an ethical framework that respected all viewpoints, no matter how ludicrous. Of course, the one viewpoint excluded from this scheme was that which opposed its central premise.

Effect: While it is definitely true that the U.S. was in part established as a haven of tolerance, it is also true that the type of tolerance that it has historically implemented is the “endurance” variety. That is, America has always tended to put up with a broad assortment of religions, lifestyles, and perspectives, allowing for their expression without threat of punishment, but it has also typically protected those who object to such diversity, and it certainly hasn’t insisted that all opinions are equally valid. Unfortunately, this situation has changed. By conflating the concept of equal rights—a foundational American premise that, admittedly, has not always been put into practice—with a relativistic stance toward truth, culturally liberal activists have managed to make sheer disapproval, whether public or private, anathema, if not criminal. These days, it is no longer acceptable to just live and let live; one must also internally suppress any form of moral opprobrium toward so-called alternative ways of life or else stand accused of bigotry and hatred. •

From Salvo 10 (Autumn 2009)
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This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #10, Fall 2009 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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