Just how tolerant should I try to be?

tolerantThe British live in a curiously tolerant country – one which allows a range of values, views about life, and philosophical and political beliefs. But one thing for which people are not tolerant is intolerance! The public see anyone as discriminatory, moralistic and rejecting who shows intolerance of diversity.


And so to criticise the sex industry runs the risk of condemning prostitutes. People might accuse you of racism if you were to complain about levels of immigration. Or they might see you as homophobic for arguing against the introduction of gay marriage.

Judgmental attitude

In one sense this idea of being tolerant is not new. His compatriots saw Jesus Christ as too tolerant a person when he spent time with those whose lifestyles were outside the accepted morality of his day, the tax collectors, and so on. His tolerant conduct illustrates the idea of accepting others for what they are rather than acting with social prejudice.

‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged.’ (Matt 7:1)

But ‘turning the other cheek’ and treating people who offend our values and susceptibilities with forbearance and indulgence sometimes feels a step too far. For example the value of peace and quiet in one’s neighbourhood may suit some but others may prefer a livelier scene with loud music blaring from the local pub or party goers having a good time in the street.

Limits to being tolerant

Are there no limits to being tolerant? When we stop and reflect then of course we realise there must be limits if society is to hold together. If the police in a neighbourhood tolerated robbery and violence without any attempt to arrest criminals, then chaos would ensue. Any political authority tolerating such a state of affairs would stand accused of a complete lack of compassion for the plight of innocent victims.

However there are numerous occasions when no law is broken yet those with views about what is right and wrong feel that being tolerant can merge into permissiveness or naivety. They want to stand up for what they feel is right but others might accuse them of intolerance when they do so.

How tolerant should we be of unsolicited telephone calls from call centres trying to sell unwanted things, of cyclists riding on busy pavements endangering parents with small children, of intimidating groups of youths hanging around street corners, of a sports crowd using foul language in the presence of children, or of an old driver slowly driving along a single lane road holding up a long line of traffic.

Voicing criticism

Those who voice criticism in a socially skilled manner stand up for what they believe.  Knowing how to differentiate between the behaviour one wants to complain about and the person who is giving offence is part of the answer. It is a real challenge is to try to recognize one’s unsympathetic and over-critical mindset and learn to tolerate people who anger you by disliking what they do rather than the people themselves.

When someone gets on their high horse their criticism sounds like they are putting down the other person. This is the mark of an intolerant attitude. Some of us are better than others in voicing criticism using wit and good humour without appearing to dominate.

Charitable attitude

I believe the core of intolerance is an uncharitable attitude. You might recognise this as a narrow mind and unsympathetic feeling. Does it not show itself when we jump to conclusions about someone because of our desire to find fault? Or not bothering to look for mitigating circumstances that could partly excuse someone’s actions? In other words, I suggest we look for the good in someone who at first sight behaves in an undesirable way.

There probably is not much more likely to cause intolerant anger than matters of religious belief. Witness the hatred and violence of two branches of Christianity in 17th century England. I visited Monmouthshire recently where I saw a beautiful small Moravian chapel near Tintern Abbey. The notice board showed the following delightful lines :

“In things essential – unity,
In non-essentials – liberty
In all things — charity”

It is charitable to remember that what appears to be right to you may be seen differently by others. And that by allowing others to do things of which you disapprove doesn’t mean you are saying they are acting in line with what you want and think is right.

I would like to say a charitable attitude is no use if exercised unwisely. What behaviour in others to tolerate depends on one’s good sense as well as one’s charitable attitude. If this is true then don’t give a drunk money to spend on booze. Don’t tolerate abusive behaviour from a family member. Don’t allow the children to manipulate you.

Copyright 2012 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

If you like this, you may also like:

Unconditional love – Can it exist and if so is it desirable?

Judging people – Why so hard to stop?






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