Tolerance is a word often used in 21st century Britain. We are encouraged to be tolerant towards those of different gender, sexuality, nationality, race religion, politics and the myriad other differences that emerge in a society as large and varied as our own. A tolerant society is seen as evidence of a civilised society, with less tolerant groups seen as backwards.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines tolerance as “the ability or willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behaviour that one dislikes or disagrees with”. To put up with it, in other words. The word “tolerance” is usually used these days when referring to the widely accepted idea that even if you’re uncomfortable around those who are different you should accept them and just keep quiet about it.
However this implicit muffling of views that mainstream society finds unacceptable can lead to the proliferation of unpleasant groups like the English Defence League and the BNP. It is a widespread belief that these groups are vile, racist, ignorant and inflammatory. Yet they must appeal to some people as they keep acquiring new members. And if we insist that tolerance is the way forwards, then shouldn’t we tolerate their views too? No matter how disagreeable we may find them?
Of course, this leads to a rather sticky problem. Where do we draw the line? Who decides which views and differences must be tolerated and which are unacceptable? Why is it ok to criticise someone for being racist but not to criticise someone for being tolerant? I don’t have a simple answer to this other than to say that it is the law, and that the majority of people in our society agree that this is right.
However I don’t want my children to grow up tolerating the differences that we all have, whether it’s someone’s religion, sexuality or anything else. I want my children to grow up embracing our differences, exploring them and learning from them. But I also want my children to have the confidence to confront and argue against views and attitudes they find abhorrent.