The Downside of Tolerance

“The liberal idea of tolerance is more and more a kind of intolerance. What it means is ’Leave me alone; don’t harass me; I’m intolerant towards your over-proximity.”
― Slavoj Žižek

Tolerance is a modern day virtue, with presidents and popes and a million others lauding it. To be considered intolerant these days is to become a social pariah. It could even cost you a job. Most people would agree that tolerating others is good – no one is for intolerance, right? But can there be a downside to tolerance?

UC-Berkeley Professor Wendy Brown believes that in certain ways, tolerance can get in the way of equality. In her book Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire, she takes a more critical look at how the concept is invoked in political life. For Brown, tolerance implies an aversion to something. To say you’ll “tolerate” gay marriage essentially means that while you don’t approve of it, you’ll begrudgingly agree to live with it. Her criticism is more than mere semantics — Brown believes that tolerance, when applied to racial or sexual minorities, communicates the message that those groups are fundamentally different. In other words, tolerance reinforces minorities as the “other.”

One way to take the temperature [of tolerance] is to ask people how they feel about being tolerated…Do they feel like they’re equals? Do they feel included? Do they feel like they get to decide the terms in which life is lived. Or do they feel licensed to be included so long as they behave in a certain way?

Brown isn’t alone in her skepticism. The famed Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek similarly points out that Martin Luther King Jr. infrequently used the term word in his speeches. Žižek says King knew that tolerance was different than full equality. In many ways, a quote widely attributed to Dr. King addresses this difference: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension. It’s the presence of justice.”

So, is tolerance becoming a substitute for equality? Brown says merely accepting those who are different from you does nothing to address the historical injustices and power imbalances that led to those inequalities in the first place. She says tackling racism and sexism, today, is going to take a more proactive stance than merely being “tolerant.”

The Limits of Tolerance

Political science professor Wendy Brown believes tolerance should never be considered a substitute for equality, and says doing so could mask historical injustices.

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