We need to talk about tolerance

All throughout Dr. Peterson’s extended temper tantrum his defenders characterized his critics as “The Intolerant Left.” Not only does this reduce his critics to a monolithic, unified entity, but it misapprehends the implications of what tolerance is to begin with.

The first snare here is to address the “argument by definition” problem. It’s a weak strategy because if a word has many meanings (as tolerance does), then it leaves a theoretical opponent an opening to dismiss it out of hand by pointing out the alternate uses of said word. I have done this myself. If an argument is easy to make, it’s typically easy to refute. Despite the temptation to set a definition from which to argue, I am reluctant to engage in the tactic at all. So I figure that my solution is actually to go on the offence: Rather than dispute that The Left™ is intolerant, I am going to accept that premise and argue how intolerance is an entirely ordinary consequence of being alive. After all, if The Right were perfectly tolerant, there would be no disagreement between them and The Left.

We’re all intolerant of something, the question is merely what those “somethings” are.

Ever walk past a homeless man despite having disposable income that month? You tolerated homelessness.

Ever watch a guy meticulously plan his entire stay at the bar getting a woman loaded on alcohol, and did nothing about it? You tolerated sexual predation.

Ever watch yet another video of a black person being assaulted by police, then carried on to do nothing about it? You tolerated anti-black police brutality.

Now pointing this out doesn’t really net someone a lot of friends. I do not mean to guilt trip anyone into feeling bad because they have finite spoons. We all have finite spoons. It’s in our nature to tolerate stuff because we cannot possibly fix everything. We tolerate broken shower heads or smelly apartments or limping cars or noisy roommates. Simply because there is more to fix than can possibly be fixed in 24 hours, we must out of necessity pick and choose things to tolerate. That’s why we might let things slide even when they’re arguably important.

Now I have a lot of complex thoughts about the nature of human apathy but I think it’s safe to say that it is universal regardless of our origin or beliefs. To accuse someone of therefore being occasionally intolerant of something is a bit like accusing someone of having skin. The probability that someone well and truly cares about nothing is so staggeringly low that surely a vast majority of humanity is intolerant at least some of the time about some of the things.

Maybe we can recognize that this is yet another rhetorical pool noodle designed to detract from, rather than contribute to, a discussion. Maybe we can instead concern ourselves with what someone doesn’t tolerate instead of filling the air with vacuous bullshit.



  1. says

    Tolerance can also mean “suffering something without breaking”, which is German conservatives’ preferred meaning. Because it casts them as the Christ-like victims who have to suffer the open existence of gay people or women wearing a hijab. In that context it decisively does NOT mean “not actively trying to make their lives harder”. It’s a wonderful version of tolerance in which you can be an asshole to people while simultaneously claiming to be a) tolerant b) the real victim here.
    It’s why they balk at the word “acceptance” because that means “shut up and get over it”.

    Frankly, there’s a lot of stuff I don’t tolerate. “You gotta be tolerant” is some version of the “golden mean fallacy”. If somebody thinks that group A should not enjoy human rights while I think that’s bollocks then I’m not going to tolerate the person working actively for the subjugation of humans.