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Reframing "Tolerance"

In the mid-90’s I was teaching at a public school in which I was expected to distribute to the staff a monthly publication titled, Teaching Tolerance. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something about that publication made me uncomfortable. Being a new teacher, I faithfully fulfilled my commission. I feared that my insubordination to that request would not be tolerated (!).

We are raising children in a society that demands (and tries to teach) tolerance while simultaneously passionately promulgating ideologies (sometimes venomously) on multiple issues. And let’s face it, two sides warring on any culturally relevant issue today can get pretty ugly sometimes (much of the time).

How do we raise children to be tolerant in a culture that looks anything but tolerant?

And what exactly are we to be tolerating? Behaviors? Others’ opinions? Cultural backgrounds? Political views? Political leaders? Lifestyles? Preferred pronouns? Religious beliefs? Vaccines? Laws? Our neighbors?

Are we modeling “tolerance” in the home? What does that look like? Are we to simply “tolerate” family members? (That sounds like promoting “begrudging” to me, which is not an attitude I want to hold or model.)

Who or what is modeling tolerance for us in our culture? Are we to merely “put up with” people and groups we don’t agree with?

What does tolerance even mean?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines tolerance as a “willingness to accept behavior and beliefs that are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them.”

What does it mean to accept behaviors and beliefs that we disagree with, and how can this possibly be modeled in the home, much less in our country? If we all accepted (tolerated) the beliefs of one political party, we would not have a democracy. If we all accepted (tolerated) cultural “norms” we wouldn’t have legends like Rosa Parks. If we accepted (tolerated) every ideology, how would that promote growth and innovation or end injustice?

If everyone was tolerant, wouldn’t that mean the voices of the oppressed would not be any more relevant than the voices of those who were oppressing? Is tolerance only applicable to certain groups of people? To certain situations? Who decides how and when the need for tolerance/acceptance is applicable?

Tolerance by its very nature implies a judgment or disagreement followed by an acceptance of that very thing with which one disagrees.

I don’t want to teach my children or my students to be merely tolerant. Living in a state of begrudged acceptance towards others is not the message I want to give them. It sounds miserable actually.

I propose we do away with the word “tolerance.” There is a MUCH better word that we can use in which we are not forced to sacrifice our values and beliefs. It doesn’t imply that we need to just “tolerate” others. It doesn’t imply that we have to accept every other value and belief that does not match our own.

The word is “love.”

I can completely, vehemently disagree with someone and still love them. Whether you hold Christian beliefs or not, consider these Bible verses from 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Regardless of others’ behaviors, opinions, cultural backgrounds, political views, religion,

lifestyles, pronouns, beliefs about vaccines, etc, I can love. Love is more profound than simply “putting up with,” and it does not require me to abandon my own beliefs, because love supersedes all those things.

Love is the root of respect.

Love elicits courage in the face of injustice and oppression.

We can teach and model love in our homes. We can teach and model love in our society. We can disagree on issues while possessing all the qualities in those verses from 1 Corinthians 13.

During the 2020 presidential election, I had my students watch the debates and discuss their thoughts the next day at school about the candidates and their platforms. Although my students came from diverse backgrounds and had varying political opinions, they did not engage in verbal combat. They did more than simply “tolerate” each other. They heard and respected one another’s opinions, freely shared their own, and knew that they’d continue being friends regardless of where they stood on any of the issues. If our “tolerant” culture could display the maturity these tween and teen students demonstrated, we’d exist in a much healthier society, mentally and emotionally.

My husband and I co-led a community youth group for teenagers for about 5 years. The last two years we packed “blessing bags” to distribute to the homeless in our community. It didn’t matter what led to their homelessness. It mattered that they were people. We told the teens in our group that we weren’t giving anyone dignity by providing the bags and engaging them with a kind word. Rather, we were affirming their dignity.

I now understand what made me uncomfortable about distributing the Teaching Tolerance magazine. Really, it’s not about merely tolerating people. It’s about loving them. It’s about loving people on any side of any issue. It’s about loving people with any lifestyle, any background, and any belief. Whether I agree with them or not, all people are worthy of respect, honor, and dignity.

Sometimes love looks like intolerance (not accepting). Rosa Parks was intolerant of societal norms and mandates because she loved and respected herself and other people of color. Love people enough to not tolerate injustices, and love all people enough to do it respectfully.

Let’s create a new movement in this polar and volatile culture, perhaps with a magazine title in mind that replaces Teaching Tolerance with Modeling Love.

Let’s start it in our homes.

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1 Comment

Clio Bushland
Clio Bushland
Nov 10, 2022

Yes!! I really like replacing tolerance with love.

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