Parrot within colourful foliage

What does it mean to be tolerant?

What is it, to let another exist in your presence? To not challenge something we find questionable, but let it coexist peaceably alongside our own views, in full acceptance of another’s right to be or think however they choose. This idea of letting multiple realities exist at once and not fighting, not seeking to make our own perspective the only one. Is that what it is to be tolerant? To allow.

It seems to be the root of the word: this sense of not reacting but accepting or enduring something we may not agree with, letting it exist or occur without interference. Almost a stepping back, an allowing of difference and not attacking the other even on the level of thought. It seems quite an incredible notion, even before you factor in all the specific challenges we face in modern times. (Notes One)

How many, in the past, would have had to be as tolerant as we’re expected to be? Within homogenous, closely regulated communities there presumably wasn’t so much “need” for tolerance of contradictory or incompatible ideas, practices and behaviours. Modern societies, though, are so delightfully diverse and free in terms of what we might each choose to believe or act upon in daily life.

Yet if what we think, do and say has impacts for the world we share, how “are” we to tolerate divergent perspectives? Sometimes it seems it can’t be said not to matter – that the ideas we have in mind and paths we’re choosing to walk are perhaps what makes all the difference to the realities we’ll then share, the situations we all have to deal with. What if our choices impinge upon others?

Take, for example, the question of sound sensitivity: if sounds people are making within an environment are causing others inner distress, who’s responsible for resolving the issue? As with anything, there seems a mutuality between cause and effect, and where exactly the line falls between personal freedom, sensitivity and empathy doesn’t always seem so clear. As if the line’s simply a free-floating point we must agree over.

What if one person’s freedom causes another pain? Whatever sensitivity each of us has, might we not be causing one another inadvertent suffering? Whether it’s intellectual, in the realm of ideas; cultural, in terms of beliefs or behaviour; social, in how we relate and treat one another; or personal, on the level of interest or respect – aren’t there countless significant lines we might tread? (Notes Two)

Sometimes the idea of “letting others be” seems an impossible ask. This sense in which the choices we face and freedom we have in our response perhaps carry too much weight. That, left to our own devices, too much pain might be caused and too many irreversible impacts accumulate for us to not “attempt” to shift things in better directions. (Notes Three)

If “how we live” matters, in big and little ways, letting potentially damaging things exist within our environment may be as risky as it is admirable.

Notes and References:

Note 1: Is there any end to the power of thought?
Note 1: Everything culture used to be
Note 1: Giving others space to be
Note 1: Why assume there’s only one set of values?
Note 1: Valuing people more
Note 2: Sensitivity & the place for feeling
Note 2: The incredible responsibility of freedom
Note 2: Treading carefully in the lives of others
Note 2: Mutual awareness and accommodation?
Note 2: Seeing where others are coming from
Note 3: All we’re expected to understand
Note 3: Thoughts of idealism and intolerance
Note 3: All that we carry around with us
Note 3: Situations which ask us to trust
Note 3: How are we supposed to choose?

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