I’m coming to hate that word, “tolerance.” It seems to me to smack of all that is amiss in this age. That sounds extreme, I know, for a word so mild, but that is precisely the problem with it—it is a word for an idea so weak as to be useless.
Let me explain. “To tolerate” is “to put up with.” It suggests the idea of bearing with something disagreeable, or someone. It is part of what we Nigerians mean when we speak of “managing” a situation or a person. And the ability to tolerate is considered a key component of the virtue of patience. Fine. My problem begins with the increasing use of “tolerance” to describe an ideal. It is presented to us, more and more, as the best attitude to hold toward those who differ from us. So the Muslim is urged to bear with the Christian; the Yoruba encouraged to put up with the Hausa; the straight person and the gay challenged to accept each other.
But are we not, I wonder, putting on the idea of tolerance more weight than it can bear? “Putting up with” can hardly represent one’s ideal response to the disagreeable, can it? Toleration seems to me a response of last resort, when one can’t think how else to react. And while one might deal with disagreeable situations, and institutions, by tolerating them, surely people deserve something more? Something, say, like love?
Love has become a pain, though. To love another is, among other things, to pursue their highest good. But “highest good” implies something of a moral code by which to measure “good.” And in a world where truth is increasingly a matter of individual opinion, a moral code is—well, a royal pain. Who, in such a world, has the right to conceive what might be good for another, much less pursue it? Enter tolerance to the rescue, dripping with mildness, and with none of the potential for offence inherent in love—but none of the potential for creative good either.
And this is the problem with the idealisation of tolerance. Because in reality, tolerance achieves nothing: it merely tolerates. It is love that changes. Tolerance demands little, only that you feel nothing, and if you do feel, that you do nothing. Love demands not merely that you do something, but insists that you do everything within your power for good to the other. You may tolerate me without taking me seriously, but you cannot love me without taking me seriously.
And so, as the world around me fragments more and more, and my neighbour looks like me less and less, I have come to take a stand: I will not simply accept him. I will also respect him. I will not merely put up with her, but will go farther and seek more for her. I will take my neighbour seriously.
I refuse to tolerate. I choose to love.