Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Is Teaching Tolerance the Solution or the Problem?

The only difference between tolerance and intolerance is political correctness.

Donald Trump is absolutely correct that "the big problem this country has is being politically correct." As Ben Carson explained, "Political correctness is ruining our country. It is corrosive because 'many people will not say what they believe because someone will look askance at them, call them a name. Somebody will mess with their job, their family.'" In fact, one of the things many people like most about Trump is his willingness to say what they believe and were afraid to say for the reasons Carson stated.

According to William A. Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar who advised President Bill Clinton, "Driving powerful sentiments underground is not the same as expunging them. What we’re learning from Trump is that a lot of people have been biting their lips, but not changing their minds.”

In other words, the only difference between tolerance and intolerance is political correctness.

In fact, some "argue that growing antipathy to the notion of political correctness has become an all-purpose excuse for the inexcusable. They say it has emboldened too many to express racism, sexism and intolerance, which endure even as the country grows more diverse."

This is entirely consistent with philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti's definition of tolerance, which is as follows:

"You have your beliefs, and another has his; you hold to your particular form of religion and another to his; you are a Christian, another is a Mahomedan, and yet another a Hindu. You have these religious dissensions and distinctions, but yet you talk of brotherly love, tolerance and unity - not that there must be uniformity of thought and ideas. The tolerance of which you speak is merely a clever invention of the mind; this tolerance merely indicates the desire to cling to your own idiosyncrasies, your own limited ideas and prejudices, and allow another to pursue his own. In this tolerance there is no intelligent diversity, but only a kind of superior indifference. There is utter falsity in this tolerance. You say, 'You continue in your own way, and I shall continue in mine; but let us be tolerant, brotherly.' When there is true brotherliness, friendliness, when there is love in your heart, then you will not talk of tolerance. Only when you feel superior in your certainty, in your position, in your knowledge, only then do you talk of tolerance. You are tolerant only when there is distinction. With the cessation of distinction, there will be no talk of tolerance. Then you will not talk of brotherhood, for then in your hearts you are brothers."

For what it's worth, prejudice is defined as "an unfair and unreasonable opinion or feeling formed without enough thought or knowledge."

The following sentence conveys Krishnamurti's view of acceptance: "When there is true brotherliness, friendliness, when there is love in your heart, then you will not talk of tolerance."

According to John Gottman, a world-renowned relationship expert, not all conflicts can be resolved. “Unresolvable ‘perpetual’ problems exist even in the healthiest of relationships due to ‘lasting personality differences between partners.” Gottman has found that “only 31% of couples’ major areas of continuing disagreement were about resolvable issues…. Sixty-nine percent of the time, couples conflicted about perpetual issues in the relationship that never get resolved. What mattered was not solving these problems but the affect around which they were discussed. The goal seemed to be to establish a dialogue with the perpetual problem [even differences in deeply held values] that communicated acceptance of the partner, humor, affection, even amusement, and active coping with the unresolvable problem rather than the condition of ‘gridlock.’”

Notice that Gottman also used the term “acceptance”, rather than “tolerance.” You see, we are capable of disagreeing with someone, while still accepting them and their perspective.

Social science researcher Brene' Brown has never mentioned anything about tolerating others, but she has said the following:

“When it comes to our sense of love, belonging, and worthiness, we are most radically shaped by our families of origin – what we hear, what we are told, and perhaps most importantly, how we observe our parents engaging with the world….

Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. One of the biggest surprises in this research was learning that fitting in and belonging are not the same thing. In fact, fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are….

The important thing to know about worthiness is that it doesn't have prerequisites. Most of us, on the other hand, have a long list of worthiness prerequisites - qualifiers we've inherited, learned and unknowingly picked up along the way. Most of these prerequisites fall in the categories of accomplishments, acquisitions, and external acceptance.... Shame loves prerequisites....

Empathy and shame are on opposite ends of a continuum. Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging. Shame is how we see ourselves in others' eyes. Shame results in fear, blame (of self or others), and disconnection. Shame tells us that our imperfections make us inadequate. Shame separates and isolates. On the other hand, empathy involves understanding another person's situation from their perspective. As such, you must be able to place yourself in someone else's shoes and feel what they are feeling and without judging them. Empathy moves us to a place of courage and compassion. Through it, we come to realize that our perspective is not the perspective. Empathy is incompatible with shame and judgment. In fact, it is the most powerful antidote to shame."

The reason tolerating others is not in Brown's vocabulary is because we judge those we tolerate.

"Judgment happens to everyone at some point, and it hurts. [Think of] an experience you had when you felt judged [treated differently for who you are] or like people were making assumptions about you; this could be an experience based on your sexual orientation, race, class, sex, etc."

Discrimination is "the treatment of a person or particular group of people differently, in a way that is worse than the way people are usually treated.... Discrimination is also prejudice against people and a refusal to give them their rights."

Yet, "in its polling on a variety of same-sex marriage ballot measures, Lake Research had found that many voters define 'discrimination' as treating someone wrongly, not simply treating them differently." However, the recipient(s) of such treatment feels exactly the same, irrespective of how it's defined or perceived by the giver.

"Discrimination is a rotten experience, being stigmatized is life-changing, and experiencing or witnessing the scalding unfairness and unkindness of prejudice is unforgettable."

Tolerance is part of discrimination, which explains why we have intolerance. Acceptance is the answer, not tolerance.

Meanwhile, rather than encourage us to be accepting of others, we tout the importance of tolerance.

For example, the "Pope urges 'tolerant and inclusive' US society." Never mind that inclusiveness comes with acceptance, not tolerance.

Consider the following quote from an article titled The Rise of Hate Search that was published by the New York Times:

"Another solution might be for leaders to talk about the importance of tolerance and the irrationality of hatred, as President Obama did in his Oval Office speech last Sunday night. He asked Americans to reject discrimination and religious tests for immigration. The reactions to his speech offer an excellent opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t work.

Mostly, we found that Mr. Obama’s well-meaning words fell on deaf ears. Overall, in fact, his speech provoked intolerance. The president said, 'It is the responsibility of all Americans — of every faith — to reject discrimination.' But searches calling Muslims 'terrorists,' 'bad,' 'violent' and 'evil' doubled during and shortly after his speech."

Speaking of President Obama, consider the following quote by the editors of The New Yorker:

"Every Presidential election involves a contest over the idea of America. Obama’s America—one that progresses, however falteringly, toward social justice, tolerance, and equality—represents the future that this country deserves."

We also have the Museum of Tolerance.

And, let's not forget that the Southern Poverty Law Center has a program titled Teaching Tolerance, which is "dedicated to reducing prejudice, improving intergroup relations and supporting equitable school experiences for our nation's children.... [The] project combats prejudice among our nation’s youth while promoting equality, inclusiveness and equitable learning environments in the classroom."

Based upon everything I know, teaching tolerance rather than acceptance is teaching prejudice. The Southern Poverty Law Center seems to be using the name as synonymous with acceptance, which it's not. Words have meaning. I wish they had called the program Teaching Acceptance.

On April 10, 2017, the Law Journal Editorial Board, New Jersey Law Journal published an article titled It's 'Equality,' Not 'Tolerance' which stated in part as follows:

"In response to an apparently coordinated set of bomb threats to 10 Jewish Community Centers around the country, Ivanka Trump Kushner recently tweeted, 'America is a nation built on the principle of religious tolerance.' We are sure that she had good intentions, but her understanding of this country's values is incomplete. America is not built on the principle of religious tolerance. It is built on the principle of religious freedom and equality."

The following is an excerpt from The Prop 8 Report: What Defeat in California Can Teach Us about Winning Future Ballot Measures on Same-Sex Marriage:

"Over the long haul, however, honesty and directness have great power, particularly to help unfairly stigmatized communities lift themselves up. The example of the Civil Rights Movement is instructive, and far more analogous to our situation than ordinary elections. If we win an election but anti-gay prejudice remains undiminished, the victory is at high risk of being reversed in the next election. Our long-term success depends upon the reduction of stigma and greater acceptance of LGBT people as good, decent people.

This is particularly true in the situation confronting us today with same-sex marriage. Our opposition depicts us in a highly unflattering way in every election. We give them the power to define us when only they talk about us. We therefore have to talk about ourselves or we functionally forfeit the election. Honestly acknowledging that the ballot measure is about us may or may not lead us to victory; but failing to honestly acknowledge this basic truth puts us at a terrible disadvantage and has consistently led to defeat.

Honesty is therefore not only the idealistic option; it is also our only realistic option. The alternative is hoping that voters will figure out the truth about us when we give them no information to help them, knowing they will be exposed to anti-gay propaganda and likely grew up exposed to anti-gay prejudice. The latter perspective is the epitome of unrealistic wishful thinking….

Honesty and directness do not guarantee success; they merely give us our best chance. Fortunately, honesty affects both those who are already with us and those who start out against us. The rightness of our cause inspires our supporters to stand up and fight; and our humanity persuades some fair-minded non-supporters to reconsider their prejudice against us.

We will surely feel uncomfortable at times relying on honesty. All of us have had experiences in life when honesty let us down, perhaps when we came out to someone who then rejected us. But if we can’t live with discomfort and take calculated risks, we will be at the mercy of our opposition and they are not merciful. For the same reason that we often find greater acceptance when we come out of the closet than we expected before we take the leap, we will over the long haul do better when our campaigns are out of the closet as well."

Following the passage of Proposition 8, the Los Angeles LGBT Center's Leadership LAB (Learn Act Build) discovered an incredibly effective way of combating prejudice and fostering acceptance, which it calls Deep Persuasion Canvassing, also known as empathy conversations. The journal Science published a landmark study about the Leadership LAB's work and this extraordinary new tool in the battle against prejudice. I've written about such conversations in Bridging Our National Divide Demands Empathy and Compassion and Protests and Force Don't Change People's Hearts and Minds.

Dave Fleischer, who runs the Leadership LAB at the Los Angeles LGBT Center gave a TED Talk on the subject titled How We Can Reduce Prejudice with a Conversation. The Los Angeles LGBT Center also posted a video online titled Watch A Voter Change Their Mind About Transgender Discrimination.

In her article The Difference Between Tolerance And Acceptance, Brynn Tannehill said the following:

"There's a world of difference between tolerance and acceptance. Living someplace that is merely tolerant without acceptance is like an existence within a sensory deprivation chamber.

It won’t directly kill you, but it exacts a toll....

Mere tolerance is a wraith with no past and no future, an existence out of phase with its reality. And by no future, I mean that this tolerant existence precludes the opportunity to build fully realized relationships. There is no starting point to discover commonalities, to build, to connect.

Or to love. To be loved. To be needed and wanted and have the full range of the human experience available to you."

If we were interested in changing hearts and minds rather than teaching tolerance, we wouldn't experience the intolerance lurking beneath the veil of political correctness.

Until then, let's keep in mind that none of us can control what people can and can't believe. We have the right to Freedom of Speech guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. We can, therefore, express our beliefs. We can remind people that with rights come responsibilities and that it is irresponsible to say and do things merely because you have the right to say and do them, particularly when you completely disregard the harm it causes. However, let's not lose sight of the fact that one of the things many people like most about Trump is his willingness to say what they believe and were afraid to say. As such, they aren't saying things merely because they have the right to say them; rather, they are saying that which they believe.

If our goal is to reduce prejudice, then we need to challenge the "unfair and unreasonable opinions or feelings formed without enough thought or knowledge."

Teaching tolerance, whereby people mask their prejudicial intolerance with political correctness, hasn't worked and never will work. Fortunately, empathy conversations have proven to be an extraordinary tool in the battle against prejudice.

More from Mark B. Baer, Esq.
More from Psychology Today