We hear a lot about tolerance these days.
Tolerance is a moral virtue best placed within the moral domain – but unfortunately it is often confounded with prejudice. Much of the psychological research about tolerance generally and about the development of children’s understanding of tolerance of others who are different from them has been examined through research about prejudice – and not through the moral domain. The assumption made is that absence of prejudice by default means a person is tolerant.
Prejudice and tolerance are actually theoretically different concepts – and not the opposite of each other. In fact, they coexist in most of us.
Tolerance is difficult to define, which may have led to limiting the study of tolerance in psychology in favour of studying prejudice. But, unlike prejudice, tolerance can be grounded in the moral domain which offers a positive approach to examining relationships between groups of people who are different from each other.
Based on its Latin origin, tolerance, or toleration as philosophers often refer to it, is most commonly viewed negatively as “putting up with” something we dislike or even hate. If a person is prepared to “put up with” something – along the lines of, I do not like the colour of your skin but I will still serve you not to lose your custom – that person is someone who does not discriminate but remains intolerant in thoughts and beliefs.
Besides, who wants to be tolerated or be “put up with”?
At the same time tolerance cannot be indiscriminate. Indiscriminate acceptance in its most extreme form could lead to recognition of questionable practice and human rights violations – for instance, child marriages and neo-Nazi propaganda.
Tolerance as a moral virtue
An alternative way for us to think of tolerance is to place it within the moral domain and recognise that it is what it is, a moral virtue.
Many recent philosophers have linked tolerance with respect, equality and liberty. Those such as Michael Dusche, John Rawls and Michael Walzer among others, argue that we should regard tolerance as a positive civic and moral duty between individuals, irrespective of colour, creed or culture.
In other words, it is a moral obligation or duty which involves respect for the individual as well as mutual respect and consideration between people. Tolerance between people makes it possible for conflicting claims of beliefs, values and ideas to coexistence as long as they fit within acceptable moral values.
So while different marriage practices fit in within acceptable moral values, sexual abuse of children is immoral and cannot be tolerated. I believe tolerance is an essential component in social unity and a remedy to intolerance and prejudice.
The idea that tolerance is a moral duty had been acknowledged by earlier civil libertarians, such as John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, John Stuart Mill and others. They argue that tolerant people value the individual, his or her independence and freedom of choice.
When tolerance is placed within the moral domain relating to fairness, justice and respect and avoiding causing harm to others, it can only be viewed as a positive moral virtue.
Psychological research supports the idea that tolerance is better placed within the moral domain. My own research with my students shows the best indicators and predictors of tolerance to human diversity are fairness and empathy.
Fairness and empathy are also very closely connected to moral development and reasoning. They are fundamental to any coherent moral philosophy.
Empathy and morality
Psychologists such as Johnathan Haidt believe empathy is the most important motivator for moral behaviour. Others such as Martin Hoffman argue empathy is a motivator of prosocial and altruistic or unselfish behaviour.
Empathic people are sensitive to the thoughts, feelings and experiences of others. They are able to place themselves in someone else’s shoes or understand how it would feel to be treated badly. Placing oneself in someone else’s shoes is the essence of tolerance.
My research shows that people of all ages including children have a strong sense of fairness and empathy towards others different from them in colour, creed or culture. They reject prejudice and intolerance between 70% and 80% of the time affirming tolerance based on fairness and empathy.
Moral values such as fairness, justice, empathy, tolerance and respect are shared, if not universal, values relevant to dealing with human diversity
Tolerance examined as separate concept could have unique implications for education and social policy. Education aimed at promoting a harmonious society could do well to focus more on the relationship between morality and tolerance. Grounding tolerance in theories of morality allows for an alternative educational approach to promote harmonious intergroup relationships.
Part of this education would involve developing a strong sense of fairness and justice and the ability to empathise with the plight of others who are different in racial characteristics, ethnicity or nationality.
This article is part of a series on public morality in 21st-century Australia.
What is Tolerance?
| Hobbes: "How are you doing on your New Year's resolutions?" |
Calvin: "I didn't make any. See, in order to improve oneself, one must have some idea of what's 'good.' That implies certain values. But as we all know, values are relative. Every system of belief is equally valid and we need to tolerate diversity. Virtue isn't 'better' than vice. It's just different."
Hobbes: "I don't know if I can tolerate that much tolerance."
Calvin: "I refuse to be victimized by notions of virtuous behavior."
-- A Bill Watterson cartoon shows Calvin and Hobbes walking through the snow.
Tolerance is the appreciation of diversity and the ability to live and let others live. It is the ability to exercise a fair and objective attitude towards those whose opinions, practices, religion, nationality and so on differ from one's own. As William Ury notes, "tolerance is not just agreeing with one another or remaining indifferent in the face of injustice, but rather showing respect for the essential humanity in every person."
Intolerance is the failure to appreciate and respect the practices, opinions and beliefs of another group. For instance, there is a high degree of intolerance between Israeli Jews and Palestinians who are at odds over issues of identity, security, self-determination, statehood, the right of return for refugees, the status of Jerusalem and many other issues. The result is continuing inter-group violence.
Why Does Tolerance Matter?
At a post-9/11 conference on multiculturalism in the United States, participants asked, "How can we be tolerant of those who are intolerant of us?" For many, tolerating intolerance is neither acceptable nor possible.
Though tolerance may seem an impossible exercise in certain situations -- as illustrated by Hobbes in the inset box on the right -- being tolerant nonetheless remains key to easing hostile tensions between groups and to helping communities move past intractable conflict. That is because tolerance is integral to different groups relating to one another in a respectful and understanding way. In cases where communities have been deeply entrenched in violent conflict, being tolerant helps the affected groups endure the pain of the past and resolve their differences. In Rwanda, the Hutus and the Tutsis have tolerated a reconciliation process, which has helped them to work through their anger and resentment towards one another.
Angela Khaminwa emphasizes the flexibility of meanings of the concept "coexistence."
The Origins of Intolerance
In situations where conditions are economically depressed and politically charged, groups and individuals may find it hard to tolerate those that are different from them or have caused them harm. In such cases, discrimination, dehumanization, repression, and violence may occur. This can be seen in the context of Kosovo, where Kosovar Alabanians, grappling with poverty and unemployment, needed a scapegoat, and supported an aggressive Serbian attack against neighboring Bosnian Muslim and Croatian neighbors.
The Consequences of Intolerance
Intolerance will drive groups apart, creating a sense of permanent separation between them. For example, though the laws of apartheid in South Africa were abolished nine years ago, there still exists a noticeable level of personal separation between black and white South Africans, as evidenced in studies on the levels of perceived social distance between the two groups. This continued racial division perpetuates the problems of inter-group resentment and hostility.
How is Intolerance Perpetuated?
Between Individuals: In the absence of their own experiences, individuals base their impressions and opinions of one another on assumptions. These assumptions can be influenced by the positive or negative beliefs of those who are either closest or most influential in their lives, including parents or other family members, colleagues, educators, and/or role models.
In the Media: Individual attitudes are influenced by the images of other groups in the media and the press. For instance, many Serbian communities believed that the western media portrayed a negative image of the Serbian people during the NATO bombing in Kosovo and Serbia. This de-humanization may have contributed to the West's willingness to bomb Serbia. However, there are studies that suggest media images may not influence individuals in all cases. For example, a study conducted on stereotypes discovered people of specific towns in southeastern Australia did not agree with the negative stereotypes of Muslims presented in the media.
In Education: There exists school curriculum and educational literature that provide biased and/or negative historical accounts of world cultures. Education or schooling based on myths can demonize and dehumanize other cultures rather than promote cultural understanding and a tolerance for diversity and differences.
What Can Be Done to Deal with Intolerance?
To encourage tolerance, parties to a conflict and third parties must remind themselves and others that tolerating tolerance is preferable to tolerating intolerance. Following are some useful strategies that may be used as tools to promote tolerance.
Inter-Group Contact: There is evidence that casual inter-group contact does not necessarily reduce inter-group tensions, and may in fact exacerbate existing animosities. However, through intimate inter-group contact, groups will base their opinions of one another on personal experiences, which can reduce prejudices. Intimate inter-group contact should be sustained over a week or longer in order for it to be effective.
In Dialogue: To enhance communication between both sides, dialogue mechanisms such as dialogue groups or problem solving workshops provide opportunities for both sides to express their needs and interests. In such cases, actors engaged in the workshops or similar forums feel their concerns have been heard and recognized. Restorative justice programs such as victim-offender mediation provide this kind of opportunity. For instance, through victim-offender mediation, victims can ask for an apology from the offender.
What Individuals Can Do
Individuals should continually focus on being tolerant of others in their daily lives. This involves consciously challenging the stereotypes and assumptions that they typically encounter in making decisions about others and/or working with others either in a social or a professional environment.
What the Media Can Do
The media should use positive images to promote understanding and cultural sensitivity. The more groups and individuals are exposed to positive media messages about other cultures, the less they are likely to find faults with one another -- particularly those communities who have little access to the outside world and are susceptible to what the media tells them. See the section on stereotypes in this volume to learn more about how the media perpetuate negative images of different groups.
What the Educational System Can Do
Educators are instrumental in promoting tolerance and peaceful coexistence. For instance, schools that create a tolerant environment help young people respect and understand different cultures. In Israel, an Arab and Israeli community called Neve Shalom or Wahat Al-Salam ("Oasis of Peace") created a school designed to support inter-cultural understanding by providing children between the first and sixth grades the opportunity to learn and grow together in a tolerant environment.
What Other Third Parties Can Do
Conflict transformation NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and other actors in the field of peacebuilding can offer mechanisms such as trainings to help parties to a conflict communicate with one another. For instance, several organizations have launched a series of projects in Macedonia that aim to reduce tensions between the country's Albanian, Romani and Macedonian populations, including activities that promote democracy, ethnic tolerance, and respect for human rights.
International organizations need to find ways to enshrine the principles of tolerance in policy. For instance, the United Nations has already created The Declaration of Moral Principles on Tolerance, adopted and signed in Paris by UNESCO's 185 member states on Nov. 16, 1995, which qualifies tolerance as a moral, political, and legal requirement for individuals, groups, and states.
Governments also should aim to institutionalize policies of tolerance. For example, in South Africa, the Education Ministry has advocated the integration of a public school tolerance curriculum into the classroom; the curriculum promotes a holistic approach to learning. The United States government has recognized one week a year as international education week, encouraging schools, organizations, institutions, and individuals to engage in projects and exchanges to heighten global awareness of cultural differences.
The Diaspora community can also play an important role in promoting and sustaining tolerance. They can provide resources to ease tensions and affect institutional policies in a positive way. For example, Jewish, Irish, and Islamic communities have contributed to the peacebuilding effort within their places of origin from their places of residence in the United States. 
 The American Heritage Dictionary (New York: Dell Publishing, 1994).
 William Ury, Getting To Peace (New York: The Penguin Group, 1999), 127.
 As identified by Serge Schmemann, a New York Times columnist noted in his piece of Dec. 29, 2002, in The New York Times entitled "The Burden of Tolerance in a World of Division" that tolerance is a burden rather than a blessing in today's society.
 Jannie Malan, "From Exclusive Aversion to Inclusive Coexistence," Short Paper, African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD), Conference on Coexistence Community Consultations, Durban, South Africa, January 2003, 6.
 As noted by Susan Sachs, a New York Times columnist in her piece of Dec. 16, 2001, in The New York Times entitled "In One Muslim Land, an Effort to Enforce Lessons of Tolerance."
 Amber Hague, "Attitudes of high school students and teachers towards Muslims and Islam in a southeaster Australian community," Intercultural Education 2 (2001): 185-196.
 Yehuda Amir, "Contact Hypothesis in Ethnic Relations," in Weiner, Eugene, eds. The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence (New York: The Continuing Publishing Company, 2000), 162-181.
 The Ukrainian Centre for Common Ground has launched a successful restorative justice project. Information available on-line at www.sfcg.org.
 Neve Shalom homepage [on-line]; available at www.nswas.com; Internet.
 Lessons in Tolerance after Conflict. http://www.beyondintractability.org/library/external-resource?biblio=9997
 "A Global Quest for Tolerance" [article on-line] (UNESCO, 1995, accessed 11 February 2003); available at http://www.unesco.org/new/en/social-and-human-sciences/themes/fight-against-discrimination/promoting-tolerance/; Internet.
 Louis Kriesberg, "Coexistence and the Reconciliation of Communal Conflicts." In Weiner, Eugene, eds. The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence (New York: The Continuing Publishing Company, 2000), 182-198.
Use the following to cite this article:
Peterson, Sarah. "Tolerance." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/tolerance>.