Sunday’s Wisdom #251: The Meaning of Tolerance

“This was a side of Grayson he’d never imagined, and he was ashamed. He’d condemned their parochialism and congratulated himself on his cosmopolitan tolerance, yet his view of them had been as two-dimensional as their view of him.”
– from Honor of the Queen, by David Weber

I am officially hooked on the Honor Harrington series, and you may expect a review once I’ve devoured the first several books. 🙂

One thing I’m enjoying is how it deals with very complex, intricate issues which are tied into various cultures and, indeed, with human nature itself. It is exceptionally well done, I must say.

In this particular scene, two men, both wise and experienced within their own cultures, are coming to terms with the clash of cultural differences between them. They are sitting down together in a casual setting, enjoying good food and drink and honest, civil conversation. Even more, they are approaching the experience with an attitude of humility, being frank and open, and letting go of their judgments. They are acknowledging that what each has found intolerable in the other is nothing more than the result of their respective histories. Most especially, they are admitting that they have only seen the surface of each others’ worlds, and are open to the fact that there are depths they have not yet seen.

Now, one of these men has shared the perspective of the audience, in meeting these people with very different customs for the first time. The audience has also probably shared the moral high ground this man has set himself on. But now he learns, and teaches the audience, a lesson in what it means to truly be tolerant.

The virtue of tolerance is generally good to have, of course. Yet, the act of praising oneself for one’s own tolerance, in comparison to another person’s perceived intolerance is, in fact, the opposite of tolerance. It is intolerance, and it is pride.

Tolerance is an aspect of humility, which accepts that no one is above or below another, not really.

That holds true even, and most especially, in such a case where we might be tempted think ourselves, and our very culture, superior to another for some moral reason. “We are so good,” we say to ourselves, “Perhaps not perfect, but so much better than them.”

And therein lies the danger, the trap of pride, which slowly corrodes our ability to see the other side as humans, as people, with the same rights as us, including the right to live however we like… so long as we do not prohibit others of the same. And when we come in all high and mighty, noses turned up, because we see the sins of another culture while dismissing our own… well, that is a form of such prohibition, and it never ends well.

Interestingly, the clear distinction between the heroes and villains in this novel is pretty obvious: one side is willing to accept the existence of other cultures, no matter how they might clash and argue and be forced to address the flaws within their own culture… and the other side wants to wipe out what is different from them.

How poetic is that?

And how appropriate is it, for our day and age?

I see people fighting over our differences every day. I have seen an alarming surge in the attitude that those who are different, those who disagree and do not conform, are somehow undeserving of life. And I see that the people who do this claim that it is so because of some moral superiority.

People… and we are all people… we need to stop thinking like that.

We have to stop using “tolerance” as an excuse for our intolerance.

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