On Tolerance

“Tolerance” is a feel-good buzzword in our society, but I fear people have forgotten what it means. Many folks are proud of their “tolerance” for gays, working women, Tibetan monks in cute orange outfits, or blacks sitting at the front of the bus. But what they really mean is that they consider such things to be completely appropriate parts of their society, and are not bothered by them in the slightest. That, however, isn’t “tolerance.”

“Tolerance” is where you tolerate things that actually bother you.

Robin Hanson is correct that few people are truly tolerant but peculiarly for Robin he calls for more true-tolerance anyway.  I'm all for more tolerance but Robin's own examples suggests that social change is not much driven by changes in tolerance. 

As I suspect Robin would acknowledge, gay rights have not advanced because of more tolerance per se, i.e. they have not advanced because more people are willing to accept behavior that bothers them.  Advance has occurred because fewer people are bothered by the behavior.  Note, for example, that if the former were the case we would not see more gays and lesbians on television, as we do today.

When we are required to confront things that bother us we sometimes (often?) reduce
cognitive dissonance by changing our preferences so that we are no longer
bothered.  Thus libertarians and other true-tolerants may play a role in encouraging the intolerable to come forward, thereby forcing the intolerant to reduce cognitive dissonance by accepting what was formerly intolerable.  In this sense, a few more true-tolerants might help to tip society towards acceptance of some variant practices.

But since few people are or ever-will-be truly-tolerant, tolerance by itself probably can't get us very far towards a society of peaceful variation.  Instead, we will have to argue that variant practices are normal, not bothersome or a subject of indifference.  The route to drug legalization, for example, is to encourage more normal people who "smoke pot and like it" to come out of the closet.  Kudos to you, Will Wilkinson!  In the case of marijuana, I think this is possible but for many of the present and future variant practices mentioned by Robin, the limitations of tolerance put a big constraint on those that will ever be "tolerated." 


Alex, excellent post.
Next you should write about how people that have been discriminated against hurt their cause by demanding approval from others and attempting to impose legal obligations to others. Tolerance means neither approval nor obligations.

Considering the actual percentage of gay people in a society, the number of them we are being shown on TV is way exceeding any proportion.

If you are too dumb to keep smoking pot from ruining your life in the absence of criminal enforcement you are too dumb to keep that very criminal enforcement from ruining your life.

That's going to continue working out great for the 90 IQ set.

Leave me alone, daddy. Or nanny.

I think you are giving tolerance short shrift. Do you know any racists or homophobes? If yes, I imagine you only know of them because they have in some way voiced it and done nothing more. Of all of the racists and homophobes I've ever met from several generations, most of them put next to know effort into being racist or homophobic. Would it gross them out if they saw two dudes kissing in public? What if there granddaughter brought home a non-white boyfriend? They wouldn't start lynching, and most wouldn't disown their own. They'd just tolerate it.

Just looked over Robin's post and see he's mainly talking about the ballot box. To combine Robin and Alex's posts, I think public tolerance overtime leads to people no longer being bothered, which leads to the ballot box eventually.

i suspect many people would describe tolerance as a process. people commonly say they are "building up a tolerance for..." in this respect, the non-examples hanson cites really are examples of this process: majorities coming to grips with cultures and groups who bother them. what you describe as entrance into normalcy / changing of preferences is pretty close to the social "tolerance building" that corresponds to how many people use that phrase.

i also think tolerance describes people who remain homophobic or racist but who nonetheless "tolerate" the people who bother them, either because society compels it or because they are genuinely troubled by their feelings and are learning to cope with them. these people might prefer to be less racist or homophobic, but despite their preference they can't change their feelings and are stuck in "tolerant" mode.

i'd say the people stuck in this latter mode are "true tolerants" as well. should they be praised despite their cognitive disabilities? or are they actually intolerant? do they become intolerant once society as a whole accepts the "offensive", and leaves the dissenters quietly behind?

are you describing tolerance only as a willingness to avoid enshrining our preferences into law? consider two examples:

1) many people who are quietly racist would nonetheless avoid, even in their own minds, condoning or supporting racist laws. they might go out of their way to hire minorities in disfavored groups in violation of their own preferences.

2) on the other hand, there are quite a few americans who abhor abortion, and would use all manner of persuasion to end the practice. they might prefer the force of law enshrine this preference. but they pursue/vote for pro-choice policies, due to libertarian principles or other countervailing pro-choice sentiment.

which of these are "true tolerants"? are both? neither?

And btw, Will Wilkinson's first paragraph is another glaring example of how liberals are as useless as teets on a warthog for real civil liberties.

razib is right; there have been large historical changes in true tolerance. Even so Alex is right; recently most change has been in what folks are bothered by. I'd at least like folks to admit they are not more tolerant today than recently.


I am less tolerant than I used to be. I am trying to be less tolerant even than my instincts would tell me to be. I used to be a libertarian. Now, I teach at a >90% minority school and have seen the havoc that the disappearance of noblesse oblige has caused in the society of the underclass. I am trying to do my bit.

I'm surprised to hear Robin calling for more tolerance, which seems obviously like a status game, which Robin usually seems to find wasteful. Case in point:


A transvestie vomits on Susan Sarandon as "performance art", she laughs delightedly. How enlightened she is!

Wilkinson sure seems desperate to create an internet meme of some sort.

Tolerance should extend to
tolerance of unimposing intolerance.
But intolerance that intrudes into others' lives
should be met with our own
intolerance against active intolerance.
These are my first two personal moral axioms.

Yet, I wonder how to classify religious intolerance.
Many religions believe outsiders go to hell (eternal intolerance) and proselytize outsiders.
Do these proselytizing-religions instigate two-faced aggressive intolerance?

tol·er·ance /ˈtÉ’lÉ™rÉ™ns/
1. a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one's own; freedom from bigotry.
2. a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one's own.
3. interest in and concern for ideas, opinions, practices, etc., foreign to one's own; a liberal, undogmatic viewpoint.

The rest is pretty useless semantic discussion. "I fear people have forgotten what it means" is one of those things that reminds me of the Academie Francaise trying to decree a language. The word "Tolerance" doesn't have an intrinsic value that makes the different associated definitions more or less valid. Rubbish.

"As I suspect Robin would acknowledge, gay rights have not advanced because of more tolerance per se, i.e. they have not advanced because more people are willing to accept behavior that bothers them. Advance has occurred because fewer people are bothered by the behavior."

Say rather: for many people, it bothers them less than it used to, or bothers them less than people of their age were bothered a generation ago. That means that there's some large number of people who aren't bothered at all. But it also means that there are people who used to be terrified/ horrified/ disgusted who are now merely bothered. I think in the baby-boomer -and-older generations this is quite common-- people who'll still freely indulge in negative stereotypes about gays and lesbians, who'll certainly say "I wouldn't want my child to be one," who would be disturbed to see two men kissing in public, but who also say "well, if that's who they are, if that's what they want to do, I guess that's their business."

That's not an attitude I much like. Push on its holders, and they'll tell you that they'd rather there weren't any homosexuality, or that they'd rather they didn't know about it, or they'd rather not hear so much about it. But it's an attitude of tolerance. I think it's real and widespread, and politically important-- not least because it decreases the salience of gay-rights issues for people who might otherwise be inclined to vote against gay-rights supporters. Some of them become grudging gay-rights supporters, but a lot of them cease to be active opponents, and that matters.

tol·er·ance /ˈtÉ’lÉ™rÉ™ns/
1. a fair, objective, and permissive attitude

Wishful thinking of yours. That is exactly why it is necessary to remind people the real meaning of words, otherwise some people will mwish to substitute them with a pc bs.

This reminds me of something former Illinois governor, presidential candidate, and US embassador to the UN Adlai Stevenson once said:

"My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular."

I'm also puzzled of how Robin came to decide what "true tolerance" is - in addition to the dictionary definitions already posted, here is

3. The action or practice of tolerating; toleration; the disposition to be patient with or indulgent to the opinions or practices of others; freedom from bigotry or undue severity in judging the conduct of others; forbearance; catholicity of spirit.

I think not being bothered by people who are/think/behave differently is a way of being tolerant - I don't think there is anything more "true" about actually feeling bothered by their behavior/being/thinking.

And of course, tolerance is, by itself, not necessarily a good thing: I think good teachers are rarely tolerant of disruptions in their classroom, for example.

Josh's comment, "Yeah, let's destigmatize everything because elites want to get high. Why should anyone have any social responsibility at all? That's going to continue working out great for the 90 IQ set." seems pretty reasonable.

Legalization probably is a good route to reducing crime. Unfortunately, decriminalization and de-stigmatization of drugs would presumably lead to higher levels of use. Alcohol consumption went up following the repeal of prohibition, for example. A sub-par IQ tends to be associated with making poor decisions. So I imagine they will suffer whatever ill effects there are (addiction etc) disproportionately.

Leave me alone, daddy. Or nanny.

Posted by: anon at Apr 27, 2010 8:18:56 AM

Why should anyone have any social responsibility at all?

Hmmmmm. So we can only have "responsibility" if behavior is coerced?


Some 70 or so years ago I read:

"Tolerance is love sick with sickness of haughtiness."

@ Alex:

As I suspect Robin would acknowledge, gay rights have not advanced because of more tolerance per se, i.e. they have not advanced because more people are willing to accept behavior that bothers them. Advance has occurred because fewer people are bothered by the behavior. Note, for example, that if the former were the case we would not see more gays and lesbians on television, as we do today.

But we are not seeing the "behavior" per se, either;* this is, as it should be, as private between gay couples as between straight couples.

We are seeing only the people, gay and straight, on screen, singing or reading news or talking fashion and politics and cooking and whatnot; as non-shocking a sight as black or Asian or Hispanic talking-heads in a once lily-white Anglo medium, the Future Shock long past.

(* Well, except on Torchwood, sort of.)

Let me side with Josh, albeit in a fashion that is somewhat off-topic. Libertarianism is a high-IQ philosophy. To the dim-witted, good and evil are pretty much synonymous with "what I can and cannot get away with." To the extent that American culture has become more libertarian, accepting rather than condemning open extramarital sex, for example, the quality of life among the unintelligent has declined, as evidenced by the recent explosion in illegitimacy. We're hip deep in bastards, largely the offspring of non-collegiates who get the message that prudish concern for a mere piece of paper is passe, but not the message that marriage must come before children. Do any libertarian thinkers attend to this issue at any depth, as opposed to simply sneering at Josh (and me) for nannyism?


Advance has occurred because fewer people are bothered by the behaviour.The diversity of our society helps people see the essential humanity of people of diverse beliefs, unlike an earlier era where most people ran into people of similar faith almost all of the time.

Not a nanny state. Why is everything about the state with you people? A nanny ruling class. A ruling class that sets an example for the masses that won't lead to ruin even if that means denying themselves certain liberties. Noblesse oblige. Look it up.

"My sense is that your real complaint isn't that the famous people at the top don't try to demonstrate a certain set of values, it's that they aren't demonstrating the right set of values."

That is precisely my complaint. The values they demonstrate are ones that the lower class can't afford. They in no way demonstrate the oblige part of the equation.

Tolerance of evil is no virtue. Intolerance of evil is no vice.

Tolerance is nice...until your kids get AIDS or an incurable strain of gonorrhea.

Socialists bother me, but I don't plan to tolerate them any time soon.

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