Tolerance: a societal contract

We’re all in the same boat now, whether we like it our not, and it’s getting more cramped all the time. The more cramped it gets, the harder it is for us to insulate ourselves from the “them” in “us and them”. People who look and act differently are standing at every bus stop, and shopping in every supermarket. We are faced with the choice between learning to tolerate differences, or living in a state of perpetual fear and misunderstanding. However, this isn’t always an easy task. Xenophobia, the fear of foreign people and things, is pervasive, and pretending that you are too worldly and enlightened to be effected by it won’t make it go away. We have to be inoculated from birth with exposure to other cultures, and also, to an idea, a contract that all modern societies must enter in to if they want to flourish: tolerance. However, despite our very human desire to see the world in black and white, it isn’t an absolute. There are limits to tolerance.

The Roots of Intolerance

When it comes to intolerance (or more generally, xenophobia) there are genetic and environmental influences. From a genetic standpoint, our genes don’t necessarily encode specifically for racism, but they give us strong tendencies that, if left unchecked, lead to it. For example, one consequence of sexual selection is that genes encoding for physical traits tend to go hand in hand with genes encoding for the tendency to prefer those physical traits in others (in the animal kingdom, there is a genetic basis for sexual preference, and humans aren’t exempt from this). This self reinforcing phenomenon is the result of countless generations of mates selecting each other for qualities that they preferred, thereby creating offspring that carried both the quality and the preference. When this phenomenon is coupled with genetic drift – the chance divergences in things like skin tone and facial structure that have occurred since our species last went through a population bottleneck – the result is that we often find people from different areas of the world less attractive, or even ugly. From an environmental standpoint, data shows that circumstantial cues such as shared developmental environment, familiarity and social bonding mediate the expression of altruistic behaviors and the development of bonding between individuals. This all means that we are predisposed to behave more favorably to people with a familiar appearance and disposition. On the flip side, if we happened to have lived our formative years in a community with very little diversity, we are less likely to tolerate it later in life.The stupid ape part of our brains tells us that strange looking people are sub-human, and not deserving of the same respect and dignity that we show ourselves, but by becoming familiar with different looking and acting people, we can nearly override it.


To take us the rest of the way, we have to subscribe to the principle of tolerance: a basic prerequisite for a humane society. It entails a concerted effort to tolerate and understand a wide range of beliefs, values, and life choices, instead of insulating ourselves from them. There are plenty of reasons why one would want to live in a tolerant society. Such a society promotes scientific, artistic, religious, philosophical, and moral freedom. Because it is open to new discoveries and insights from all streams of human experience, it is more conducive to creativity and innovation. It is is more likely to be peaceful, as tolerance engenders mutual trust and cooperation. It encourages openness, pluralism, and democracy, thereby allowing individuals and groups to fully express themselves and learn from each other, and if we are willing to learn from others, we are more able to negotiate and compromise. Thus, a tolerant society is inhospitable to xenophobia, guarding against dogmatism, hatred, and fanaticism.

The Limits of Tolerance

By now we have all had the message of tolerance hammered in to us ad nauseum. However, what we don’t seem to hear much about are the limits of tolerance. These awkward little stipulations – which must be there in order for the contract to work in everyone’s favor – tend to get overlooked. When they do, bad things either happen, or are allowed to happen.

Stipulation 1: Tolerance ends where harm begins.

When someone’s behavior endangers themselves, that is one thing. When someone’s behavior endangers other people, that is another. They have forfeited their right to have their behavior accommodated by society. It is outrageous that parents can use something like religious belief as an excuse to not only endanger their own lives but the lives of others. Take for instance the ability of religious parents to opt out of vaccinating their children. In the United States, all fifty states have legislation requiring students to be vaccinated, and all states except West Virginia and Mississippi have granted special exemptions for people who have religious reservations about vaccination, creating a special class of citizen that is exempt from laws based upon their anti-scientific superstitions. Essentially, a religious parent has the right to endanger the health of their children, thereby putting fellow students and consequently the entire community at risk. I’m all for religious freedom. But freedom of religion also means freedom from religion, and the consequences of religiously motivated actions. The moment that you start acting upon your beliefs, you have entered into a realm where other people can be effected. If your actions infringe upon their freedom, or cause them to suffer in any way, you have gone beyond the reach of tolerance.

Stipulation 2: Tolerance does not mean passivity

Things that are morally neutral deserve to be tolerated. However, just because something doesn’t cause obvious harm doesn’t make it immune from all criticism. In the pursuit of truth, we may criticize ideas that we disagree with on intellectual grounds – the reason being that leaving people alone in an echo chamber of their beliefs is antithetical to progress. If not for skeptical inquiry, science wouldn’t exist, and neither would all of its triumphs. It is impossible to overestimate the degree to which these advancements have enhanced the quality of our lives. If we want human history to move forwards, not backwards, the questioning and critiquing must go on. Demanding evidence for a claim or dismissing a claim as implausible isn’t intolerant, it is a sign of intellectual integrity. You are only being intolerant if:

1. You attack the person’s character instead of the idea.

2. Even after the evidence has been provided, you continue to criticize the other person’s position. That is just cynicism.

Stipulation 3: Some things are just wrong.

There are cultural practices that go far beyond simply being foreign in relation to our own, requiring us to judge them contextually, and cross the line into the abuse of human rights. In what cultural context is marrying off an 8 year old girl to a pedophile five times her age, who on their wedding night rapes her to the point of death from internal injuries, not objectively wrong and disgusting? Since the only intelligible thing to base morality off of is the well being of sentient beings, something is wrong if it actively causes human suffering. End of story. No amount of cultural relativism can ease the pain of people who have been victimized by inherently evil cultural practices.

Stipulation 4: Intolerance is disqualified.

Not everyone is buying the friendly message of tolerance. It may seem like a truism to you and me, but one of its very own assumptions is that people don’t agree on everything. For every opinion or belief, there is often an equally strong opinion or belief that states the exact opposite. In this case, there are ideologies diametrically opposed to tolerance. They bring out the xenophobia in people. They encase their people in an impermeable cultural bubble, fomenting hatred and fear towards everyone and everything on the outside. Many of those on the inside would even like to see you dead, all because you didn’t happen to be born into their particular framework of beliefs. For them, intolerance is a way of life. There are even parts of the world where intolerance is enforced. In Pakistan, blasphemy against the tenets of the Qur’an or the Prophet Mohammed is punishable by either life in prison or execution. Rejecting the official state religion is also criminalized in a number of countries, including Afghanistan, where people have faced the death penalty for converting to Christianity. This is the essence of intolerance itself. Unfortunately, our discourse has become so steeped in political correctness and cultural relativism that it is taboo to criticize even the most volatile and intolerant of ideologies, especially when they are cultural in nature. Stifled by the fear of offending, many of us wouldn’t dream of calling out such ideologies and practices for what they clearly are: poison. In particular, anything under the heading of religion has been getting a free ride. Many religions are intolerant at their very core, teaching that those who don’t believe deserve to die, or even worse, burn eternally in a pit of fire. Still, we the tolerant are expected to stand by and watch as believers infect the minds of their children with hate. Saying nothing or even defending despicable acts like honor killing in the name of tolerance is the easy thing to do, but not the right thing to do. It’s time to stop tolerating intolerance.