Monday, January 25, 2010

Tolerance: Connotation and Denotation

The word tolerance has a beautiful message that great thinkers have written about and lived their life in accordance with such as Gandhi and Voltaire. The idea of respecting others and their beliefs while being secure that they will do the same with regard to ourselves and our beliefs is the very basis of The Golden Rule, an ethical idea that one has the right to be treated fairly and has the responsibility to ensure justice for others. And yet, the word tolerance has developed a connotation beyond this message that is much more negative in tone and practice. Does the connotation, in turn, effect our adherence to the denotation of tolerance?

As defined, tolerance is the ability to recognize and respect the beliefs and practices of others. This comes into effect in all facets of life. Law makers must decide what is legal and what is illegal. What can we, as a society, tolerate? Do we permit murder? Do we bear with mayhem? At what point do we draw the line and declare what is tolerable and what isn't? We vote or the courts come to law-altering decisions on such topics as abortion and gay marriage. Obviously our acceptance has limits, not only our individual acceptance but our communal ability to condone certain behaviors. We must define as a whole what is right and wrong absolutely and then come to terms with what is left in between the two (which is the majority of it). And how do those who have decided to live a tolerant lifestyle react to those who have decided otherwise? John Rawls, an American philosopher, argued that in order to remain true to the message of tolerance, one must tolerate the intolerant. Those who refuse to accept or understand others and their views must themselves be accepted and understood in order to maintain the creed of embracing those who are different from ourselves. There is no room for hypocrisy and special pleading in that society.

But the term seems to have gathered a more implied definition that sometimes overpowers it's actual definition. The underlying tone behind tolerance implies dealing with a trait one doesn't necessarily condone. In some ways, even being permissive of actions one only expresses patience for and lacks understanding or acceptance of. If asked to adjust to something, one might say, "I can tolerate it." and the tone implied leads us to believe that, although this person is condescending to be lenient, that they are not enthused with the idea or the situation. They are not celebrating or encouraging it but merely tolerating the situation. Therein lies the peril of connotation. When referring to campaigns for cultural tolerance, I find I cringe at the word usage. I dislike the possible interpretation that tolerating is simply enduring something that is not necessarily wanted.

"It is the duty of every cultured man or woman to read sympathetically the scriptures of the world. If we are to respect others' religions as we would have them respect our own, a friendly study of the world's religions is a sacred duty." Mohandas Gandhi

Tolerating others religion, culture, beliefs or just their whole being is not simply about coping with their existence. It means to embrace, to accept willingly and to celebrate. One does not need to fully understand or comprehend another's beliefs to be supportive but the act of trying is far more encouraging than simply being permissive to their right to believe what they do. After looking further into the connotation and denotation of tolerance I feel it is better to live a defined life rather then an inferred one.

"The price of the democratic way of life is a growing appreciation of people's differences, not merely as tolerable, but as the essence of a rich and rewarding human experience." Jerome Nathanson

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