I believe that it is OK to be intolerant. That might be surprising coming from someone who is, by virtue of his atheism, going to be in a religious minority for the rest of his life, and who is, by virtue of his South Asian origin, going to be an ethnic minority as long as he lives in the U.S. But yes, I believe that it is OK to be intolerant.
There are boundaries we can draw around us to define what we tolerate and some of us draw very wide circles , while others draw amoeba-like shapes that only stretch in certain directions, but none of us draws an infinite circle, because we all value certain things and are willing to fight for them. Thus none of us is completely tolerant.
A common thing that you would fight for is health and safety—for yourself and your loved ones. To propose that a truly tolerant person would even be tolerant of threats to his health or safety would be setting up a straw man. Close to health and safety lie related concerns such as your property, your job, your liberties, and your time, which you generally also don’t want to have threatened. That’s intolerance, strictly speaking, but also a straw man.
The tricky questions of tolerance actually relate to values and facts, however. Should we tolerate the teaching of creationism in schools? Should we tolerate school prayer? Are we intolerant if we don’t? The problem here is the word “intolerant.” We don’t want to label ourselves as intolerant, so we refuse to tolerant creationism, for example, but don’t call ourselves “intolerant.” We can play the “I am, you are, he is” game here. (This game originated with Bertrand Russell’s formula: I am firm, you are obstinate, he is pigheaded.) Translating it to tolerance, we have: I am principled, you are dogmatic, he is intolerant. Or: I have standards, you have opinions, she has prejudices.
Clearly, being principled from the internal point of view can and will be construed as being intolerant or prejudiced by an external onlooker. So I believe it’s OK to go ahead and let myself be considered either principled or intolerant, because they’re the same thing viewed through different lenses. I am both principled and intolerant.
I also try to avoid calling another person intolerant, even if that person is a dangerous fatwa-happy ayatollah, because I don’t think the term “intolerant” is useful here. It doesn’t enable a discussion between me and the other person, because it assumes that I don’t understand that it’s the other person’s principles rather than their intolerance that drives their behavior.
Shouldn’t there be another English word that serves the purpose without being messy? I don’t think there can be. But I do think I can become more sanguine about using pairs of words such as “right” and “wrong”, or “true” and “false.” Of course, I need to wield those words carefully but if I am willing to fight for something, it’s because I believe it’s true and right –and not in a relative sense.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.