14 February 2007

The Paradox of False GoodWill: Intolerable Tolerance

The word 'tolerance' has two meanings [at least].

One meaning that pops up a lot in contemporary discourse is 'willingness to recognize and respect the beliefs or practices of others' - something I think all sensible people regard as positive.

Another definition of tolerance is 'the endurance of the presence or actions of objectionable persons, or of the expression of offensive opinions.' This one is a little more iffy; not quite as universally positive, depending on circumstances. If we're able to tolerate a brief visit from a bratty child, it's the sensible path of least resistance. But if we have no difficulty tolerating openly bigoted statements from ostensible adults, is that tolerance? Or moral cowardice?

Still another meaning, which is often confused with the first - especially if our training in tolerance came at the hands of abusers - is:

'the power possessed or acquired by some persons of bearing doses of medicine [or other substances, such as drugs, alcohol] which in ordinary cases would prove injurious or fatal.'

Learning to rise above small insults and petty meannesses from small souled and malicious persons [and such persons certainly exist] is definitely a good thing. It's impossible to completely eliminate such people from our lives, and it's good to have some degree of imperviousness to them.

But remaining where the insults escalate or the meanness accumulates to the point of creating a toxic overall environment - if the option to leave exists and is realistic - is not such a good thing.

I have known people who have been abused so badly, for so long, that they only perceive it as abuse when someone gives them a black eye or tries to destroy their job or their family. Even then, their first reaction is nearly always to wonder what they did wrong!

It is incredibly important to distinguish the tolerance that allows us to 'rise above' occasional frustration and provocation, from the tolerance that makes these things feel 'just like home'.

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