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Tolerance vs. Acceptance

19 September 2013, 10:09

Tolerance is probably one of the values that enjoy the most universal eminence and popularity, even more so than kindness. We are taught this in schools, churches, PR campaigns, psychologists’, offices, sporting events and almost any other public institution we can think of. We South-Africans are especially familiar with this term and are likely to be who have the most experience with it too, though reasonable doubt may be cast as to whether we are the best at it. We can say the same for acceptance only this time the doubt seems to be much less, if not absent. This article casts some light on these two values.  

The first question I ask myself is ‘is there a difference between tolerance and acceptance?’ They seem similar in most respects and may even have peculiar consequences if they aren’t synonymous. My intuition tells me are they aren’t. Consider the statements: ‘I accept tolerance’ and ‘I tolerate acceptance’. They seem to conjure very different ideas.

Tolerance for me, as in most disciplines in the natural sciences such as medicine and engineering, regards that which is tolerated as some kind of threat to the integrity of the host or structure respectively; or at least as an outside force which is somehow different. Even in the social sciences, specifically politics and sociology, that which is tolerated is assumed to be different in fundamental respects from the one who is tolerating.

Let’s take an example. When a person - with regards to his values in relation to an outside action - is nonchalant about it, then the he or she is not tolerant but indifferent. When a person - with regards to his values in relation to an outside action - approves of it, then he or she is also not tolerant but accepting. I argue here that both indifference and acceptance do not mean tolerance, since they do not exact the difference or ‘outsiderness’ needed for it to occur.

As mentioned, acceptance seems at first glance synonymous with tolerance. Proponents defending this statement argue that differences or ‘outsiderness’ is not necessarily involved in tolerance; i.e. there needn’t be any incompatibility despite the awareness some kind of foreignness in relation to the tolerant and those actions they are tolerating. Therefore, according to these proponents, the different but accepted action neither warrants resentment nor some kind of suppression of resentment.

I argue however that what is absent from acceptance is what’s part and parcel of tolerance; exactly the attempt at suppressing resentment. Without such an attempt the widespread advocation for the value of tolerance would seem much less pressing, if not pointless. Therefore a sharp distinction between acceptance and tolerance is required in order to explain the reasons for tolerance’s advocation.

By highlighting what tolerance is not, a number of other problems come to the fore. If tolerating individuals are always in an outsider relation with those actions perceived to warrant tolerance, then it seems to follow that we should allow for people who are tolerant racists. These people resent the actions of other races, but in public they endure those actions by suppressing any averse reaction; for fear of being accused of hate speech/crime. This seems to be ok with people advocating tolerance instead of acceptance.

More importantly this problematic example illustrates how the value of tolerance may not serve as a solution to intolerance, but possibly as a political strategy to force intolerance to the private. On the other hand acceptance also doesn’t seem to be the solution, since we cannot expect everyone to accept the action of those into their own. Is there a middle ground here?

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