The Art of Tolerance

You’re at a dinner party and a friend of the host is spouting off on the current political situation. The person is somewhat knowledgeable, but very strident in their opinion – and not everyone at the table is in agreement. Some of the guests are clearly upset and the host is uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation. What do you do?

Speak up
You may try speaking up, but do so in a lower voice, to force them to listen and to prevent conversation from becoming escalated in volume if it heats up. Remember the other person is as entitled to their opinion as you are to yours. On the other hand, healthy discourse is to be promoted, but since this topic is too off-putting to others in the room, your best bet is to put an end to it as soon as possible. You may say something like, “It looks like we’re both sticking to our guns, so we’ll just have to agree to disagree.” Then smile and lift your wine glass for a toast.

Another issue of tolerance may arise when you make a social or cultural faux pas. For instance, you’re vacationing in India and eat your food with both hands. This is considered a dirty practice, since one’s left hand is generally used for unclean things (like bathroom details). But hopefully, someone will quietly clue you in on this without embarrassing you – and at the same time, that person will show tolerance for your lack of knowledge. Or, let’s say you invite a Japanese couple over for dinner and serve soup. They slurp it up noisily and belch afterwards. You could be shocked at what is perceived as bad manners – or (if you are in the know) you could be pleased with their cultural behavior that signals their approval of your meal.

However, these are mild examples of tolerance. Generally, tolerance has to do with social, cultural and religious issues. It can’t be taken lightly, because a lack of tolerance can result in grave injustice. Just look at what happened in Germany in the 1930’s and ’40s. Had there been more tolerance – an understanding that people have a right to be different in their religious beliefs and traditions – millions of lives would have been spared. That same truth can still be applied today, where ethnic wars erupt (in Somalia, Darfur or Yugoslavia, to name just a few hotbeds of civil unrest).

Admit it…
Were you a bit freaked out when you heard the recent news about the man who gave birth (this was a woman who had become a man, but still retained his sex organs)? Yet if you were to meet him and his wife, would you be tolerant of their choice? Does it bother you if someone is gay or different from you ethnically or practices a different religion? Do public displays of affection irritate you, especially when it’s between people who are different from you?

Ask yourself
Is their lifestyle hurting you in any way? Most likely, it’s not. It’s just messing with your preconceived idea of the status quo. Therefore, you must learn to let go of your feelings that they are somehow wrong because they’re different. Learn to be tolerant and realize that just because you may be in the majority, it doesn’t make you right.

Essentially, tolerance boils down to appreciating each other’s differences. It would be great if we could embrace those differences, but if the most you can do is tolerate them, that’s a step in the right direction.

Racist, sexist, and homophobic comments that you hear from others are simply unacceptable. That said, you could (and should) speak up against them, but you must unfortunately also show your tolerance for ignorance. In such cases, the best you can hope for is to educate those who are less aware than you and improve their worldview – in a polite way that can be appreciated. Perhaps this will open their minds, perhaps not. But at least you’ve displayed your tolerance while gently informing. And when you do this, you can breathe easy that you’ve helped to make the world a more peaceful place.

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