Tolerance is unpopular with some people. We hear institutions bragging that they have “zero tolerance” policies, which means that they punish even the most trivial infractions with full force. People say you shouldn’t “tolerate the intolerant.” (Then should you tolerate people who are intolerant of intolerance?) Threats of violence seem to have become common currency on the Internet.

A lot of people measure their own tolerance by how civil they are to people whom others don’t like, but this misses the point. The measure of your tolerance is how you treat people you don’t like. If you say you’re tolerant of people whose skin color is different from yours, that’s a pretty poor thing. It says you aren’t really happy with their appearance, but you’re willing to put up with it. If you’ve grown up in a culture where it’s a reflex to dislike people who look different, you might have to go through a period of tolerating differences before you’re comfortable with them, but it’s better still to get past the dislike and reach the point where mere tolerance isn’t necessary.

Poster for D. W. Griffith's movie 'Intolerance'When a friend went trans almost two decades ago, it made me feel uncomfortable. I didn’t think the worse of her/him for it, but I had to work my way through understanding it. You might say I had to be tolerant of what he was going through (not of him). I was able to work past the discomfort, so it no longer makes sense to say I “tolerate” trans people. On the other hand, Mike Huckabee’s remarks about wanting to pretend to be transgender to get into girls’ locker rooms really sicken me, so I have to exercise tolerance if the occasion arises; I shouldn’t tear up his campaign signs (not even inexpensive ones) or spit on his campaign volunteers. It’s better to ask pointed questions, such as whether he thinks that people who falsely call in sick invalidate concern for people who are actually ill.

Being tolerant doesn’t mean being uncritical. If people hold views that you think are wrong, tolerance says you shouldn’t abuse or intimidate them. It doesn’t say you shouldn’t point out that they’re wrong, even in forceful terms, provided your criticism is reasoned and based on the facts.

The value of tolerance is that it lets people with different views live together in peace. It doesn’t mean that they have to compromise with ideas that they consider seriously wrong, but that they should favor debate over denunciation and intimidation.

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