Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Tolerance, the Loss of a Concept

Words tend to change their meaning or lose their their distinctiveness over time. This is simply part of the development of language. But it is tragic when it results in the loss of the concept involved. Particularly if the word is being changed to mean something contrary to its original meaning.

One such word is tolerance. Its original meaning, which was a good meaning, was people being able to live together peacefully without using force against each other, even though they disagreed. A good example of this was Catholicism and Protestantism. At the time of the Reformation there was a tendency for both sides to see their view as right and the other view as intolerable. But there were Protestants in Catholic countries and possessions and Catholics in Protestant countries and possessions. This was further complicated by the Church  of England, which tried to walk the middle ground between the two. The result was a series of wars and persecutions, resulting, in the end, with both groups in most places deciding they needed to tolerate each other. They still disagreed, but they decided to carry out their disagreement on a peaceful basis. If anything, our current situation seems even more polarized in principle. The question comes whether we can find a way to tolerate each other or whether we will end up settling it by violence. I sometimes despair of whether tolerance is even possible, if we really can find a basis for living together on a peaceful basis. But if we are to even endeavor to do so, we need tolerance in its original meaning.

It is therefore a real problem that this word has been given a new meaning. It has been used to defend one opinion and to label all who do not hold it as intolerant. And those who hold this opinion use "tolerance" to speak of accepting people they believe to be on their side. But there is no great virtue in tolerating your allies. Often this refers to things that are inappropriate under the original meaning. It is an insult to speak of tolerating people of other races, as if there was something wrong with them we need to tolerate. It is tolerating the people who we disagree with which is the point. Now one can argue there is a point where another view is intolerable and no peaceful coexistence is possible. But if the whole idea of tolerance is distorted and lost, it makes it impossible even to clearly consider this as a possibility.  And the new kind of tolerance can become totally intolerant, because the meaning of the word has been changed. I have come to fear that if there is any way that various factions of our society can reach a point of mutual toleration, it will have to be done the hard way. That only after things come to violence will they be forced to consider another solution. And this would indeed be tragic.

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