Tolerance has often been thought of as a positive attribute to society and a necessary constituent for the promotion of civil rights. However, if equality and the improvement of civil rights is the end goal, the function of tolerance in society does not achieve such results. Though tolerance is indeed a preferred end to intolerance, it does not bring about equality or justice to a society; in fact, it highlights the vulnerabilities of a a group of people to another and perpetuates societal oppression. For policies to solve the full spectrum of modern social injustice, a firm initiative must be taken in place of tolerance, against injustice and inequality.  

Perhaps one of the reasons society is inclined to look at tolerance as a solution to hatred and bigotry is because we often have seen harsh examples of intolerance, usually through infamous events or political regimes. Nazi Germany in World War II, the present day totalitarian Republic of North Korea and the recent surge of racist, homophobic and religious hate crimes in the United States are all examples. These are indeed heinous examples, but it does not imply that tolerance promotes a more equal and harmonious society. Tolerance, in fact, allows for society to be more divided and implies that minority groups who are oppressed should simply be left alone and “tolerated.” Social problems today demand a firm course of action confronting the root issues of injustice.

For many years in the United States a variety of religions have coexisted. Religious freedom has been a powerful force since the founding of the country. Though a majority consists of a variety of Christian groups, Judaism and Islam are a close second. Has the reason for the coexistence of religions been the result of tolerance? Have the Christians merely tolerated the Muslims, and vice versa? Today in this country, witnessed to multiple and rising existing tensions between the two religions. Usually, these tensions originated through radical extremists on both sides and politicians stirring up fear and bigotry. To practice the exercise of tolerance now would imply a silent hatred that has not yet been acted on. For religious groups to coexist yet not acknowledge the building tensions between the groups exasperates the animosity. In place of a silent tolerance, each group should propose to support each other in light of a common goal of a free and accepting society. By no means does this hint that the different beliefs should merge, but instead, that they should recognize one another with respect for those beliefs and not be silent in their support.

Racism has exhibited an even greater display of how tolerance alone has created divisions and mistrust. Perhaps this a more obvious example. To say that people of other ethnic groups and races are only tolerated would have a serious negative connotation. Again, practicing community with one another is a part of the resistance. However, community and acceptance also means that unless there is a decided action to involve ourselves in the fight against the marginalization of racial minority groups, there is a complicit obstruction of justice. Tolerance, in this case, is complacency and refusing to engage for a just and unified society.

The LGBTQ community can relate to what tolerance means for them in a very personal way. The stares of bystanders when a same-sex couple hold hands or the distancing of friends in silent disagreement display ways that tolerance is used. The mistrust that is created by this silent disapproval divides society as well as creating distance between sexual orientations.

Whether it is racism or religious discrimination or homophobia, intolerance is how we often have labeled the obstacle of equality and justice for all in society. The question is not whether tolerance is better in comparison to intolerance, but rather, does tolerance promote justice? Clearly, tolerance without action is just as guilty in its part of creating a divided society. Each community needs to know that they are not simply tolerated by the majority, but rather that their uniqueness adds an irreplaceable quality to society. It is essential that their marginalization leads to protest and resistance from the society they are a part of, and the justice due to them is sought by those in power.  

Lena Dreves can be reached at ldreves@umich.edu

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