The truth about tolerance, Part II


In my last column I addressed how the overuse of the terms such as racism and sexism have rendered them practically meaningless. The pursuit of tolerance supposedly is the method for ending various “isms,” but like these other terms, it has been overused and misused to the point that I don’t think most people even know what it means.

Whether it is racial, religious, or sexual, an ethnocentric view of reality has been our historical tradition. For example, while on a trip to Mexico, a very loving and thoughtful friend of mine asked me sincerely, “Why don’t they have normal names here?” “They eat weird stuff down here,” he also noted.

He had lived all of his 70 years in the South and this trip to Mexico was not only his first trip out of the country, but his first trip out of Georgia. His ethnocentric background made it nearly impossible for him to perceive names like Juan or Rosita or foods like champiquesos as normal and yet names like Billy Bob and foods like grits as quite reasonable.

I think our country, for the most part, has moved beyond this level of intolerance, but where we miss the boat is defining what tolerance really means. The call for tolerance often comes from people who are intolerant. In their minds, tolerance means, “Think like me. If you don’t, you are intolerant, and I can’t tolerate that.” Ironic, eh?

Tolerance doesn’t mean my friend has to name his children Juan or Rosita, and it doesn’t mean he has to enjoy cheese tortillas with mushrooms, but it does mean he should work at seeing those things as equally valid as his own preferences.

There are three terms/ideas that get used interchangeably and create confusion in defining tolerance – pluralism, relativism, and tolerance.

Pluralism calls attention to the fact of multiple realities. What is “real” for you may not be “real” for me. As a mental health worker, I have seen many people over my career who suffered from delusions. Their sensory delusions – hearing voices, for example – convinced them that they heard voices that were not there.

Yet these voices were very real to them. Pluralism doesn’t mean all realities are equal, nor does it mean that all realities actually exist. It simply acknowledges that people perceive reality differently.

I hate chocolate. Most people love it. Both realities exist. My reality is functionally just as “real” as yours if you like chocolate. In the same way, the voices in my delusional patients’ heads are functionally as real for them as the voices I hear from those around me.

Relativism, on the other hand, argues that all realities are equal. This is ridiculous. My delusional patients heard voices because of neural dysfunction, not because those voices actually existed. It would be absurd to pretend they “really” existed, but I could easily recognize that my patients perceived them as real (pluralism).

Consequently, tolerance acknowledges that there are multiple realities (pluralism) and argues that they should be respected. For example, I would never make fun of my delusional patients because they heard voices. The compassion I felt for them was as deep as it was for any other patient.

But unlike relativism, tolerance doesn’t require one to believe that all realities are equal (relativism). This is the rhetorical point where many arguments occur. One side is arguing that we should respect varied realities, but the hearer perceives the argument to be one of relativism.

While there certainly are people who are overtly bigoted regarding race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, etc., I’m certain that most of us, when face-to-face with another human being who thinks differently than we do, are willing to acknowledge that people have inherent value and are worthy of our love, concern and help if needed, despite the fact that they think differently than we do.

But this doesn’t mean we have to embrace their realities any more than they must embrace ours. This is the true meaning of tolerance.

We can easily co-exist with and respect each other if we are willing to recognize these three separate issues. You can’t make me love chocolate, but I can easily respect your belief that chocolate is the greatest food on earth – even though I don’t believe it to be so.

I don’t have to convert you, and you don’t have to convert me.

[Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D., is a college professor, published author, licensed counselor, certified professional counselor supervisor, newspaper columnist and public speaker. He holds an M.A. in Counseling and a Ph.D. in Psychology from Georgia State University and has taught at the college level for over 30 years. His website is]