Toleration vs. Acceptance

November 29, 2011

Political Theory


After studying John Locke’s letter concerning toleration, I began thinking a lot about what it means to “tolerate” something, and whether or not toleration is good enough. Toleration, as discussed in lecture, is not about solving disagreements. It’s about learning how to coexist civilly with someone or something that you don’t like. We see toleration in our everyday lives; whether you’re eating at East Quad because North Quad is closed, working on a group project with an annoying classmate, or watching Court TV Stories because nothing else is on, toleration is abundant in the smallest forms. However, it’s still shocking how much toleration exists in situations where things shouldn’t need to be tolerated. When is toleration not good enough? Toleration is simply a step toward acceptance, which is essentially “toleration without the need to tolerate.” Acceptance is the coexistence of two or more units that respect each other, and have no need or want to discriminate or feel superior to one another in the first place.

Coexisting Peacefully

Locke specifically targeted toleration in context with separation of Church and State. Yet today, in a world where Church and State have been separated for decades, there are still issues in which people and things are simply tolerated, rather than accepted. One of the biggest examples of this is homosexuality. Not too long ago, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Act was voted out of law. This act basically granted homosexuals to be tolerated by the military. But is toleration good enough? Why do homosexuals need to be tolerated? Why can’t they just be accepted? Unfortunately, that would be way too simple. The shift from toleration to acceptance takes many, many years. While there really is no reason for people to discriminate against homosexuals, many people still do. This ignorance sometimes surprises me until I remember that African Americans used to be treated this way as well. Imagine a world where black people are simply tolerated. Fine, I guess they can go to the same places, have the same rights, and be treated equally, but that doesn’t mean I have to like them. Would you want to live in a world where you’re treated equal but nobody respects you, nobody likes you? Our parents, our grandparents especially, DID live in that world. And if you think we’re not living in the same mistake, think again. We simply live in a similar world where toleration for blacks has been replaced with toleration for gays.

Locke would accept toleration as an inherent part of interacting with others. He would stand by the idea that not everyone will be happy with everyone or everything, but coexistence is an inevitable necessity and might as well be peaceful. I disagree with this stance, however. I don’t think coexisting peacefully is really coexisting peacefully if there is so much hate in the background. At the same time, however, toleration seems to be a helpful solution when there is no known answer to the issue. While it is much easier to say toleration is not enough in terms of accepting different races, it becomes a trickier topic when discussing different religions. For example, there is an unspoken toleration between all people who either believe in God, or don’t believe in God. While I personally don’t believe in God, and am completely confident in my belief, I am forced to tolerate all of those who do. And vice-versa as well. I have plenty of religious friends who think I’m an idiot for not believing in God; even some who try to “save” me. Toleration comes into play when, as Locke would say, you can’t make someone believe something. Acceptance would come into play for this situation when both atheists and believers realize that there is no true solution, and both parties are equally right, therefore they should respect each other’s beliefs. This is a true peaceful coexistence. However, many might argue that it is impossible to fully “accept” someone or something that you are adamantly against. And those people would be making a perfectly legitimate point. While it may be easy for someone to accept someone of a different race, something they were BORN into, it may be harder to accept someone of a different religion, something they may have been born into but still have the ability to CHANGE. Is toleration enough in these cases? To be honest, I personally don’t think toleration is ever enough: why should it be OK to make someone feel worthless, and only a part of the group because you are forced to let them be a part? Still, I can’t necessarily say acceptance is possible in every case. So, what is a realistic solution? I suppose it’s a bit contradicting, but I think a “respectful toleration” would suffice. Maybe I don’t accept others’ beliefs in God, maybe I can’t even get myself to consider that I could be wrong, that maybe there is a God. With “respectful toleration” however, I can tolerate their right to believe, as opposed to the belief itself. When toleration isn’t enough, yet acceptance isn’t possible, it is “respectful toleration” that we must turn to. At the same time, people must not fall into the trap of assuming “respectful toleration” is okay in every situation. When acceptance is possible, it must be attained.

Moving past mere philosophical beliefs, there are plenty of other instances in which toleration has come into play when acceptance is attainable. Since the September 11th attacks, airport security has become increasingly more strict, due in part to the actions of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). More specifically, Muslims have become a huge target of the TSA when it comes to getting through security checks at the airport. Is toleration of Muslims traveling at airports good enough? Muslims are being discriminated against for their religious affiliation and are being forced to undergo more severe security checks than others. While acceptance seems to be what Muslims deserve, they are not receiving it based on the fact that their full acceptance may compromise national security. Is national security a good enough reason to only allocate toleration? While I believe national security becomes a priority over ensuring full acceptance, I don’t think that argument can be applied to this case. Muslims themselves are not a threat to national security, and paying close attention to Muslims is not going to reduce the risk of terrorists boarding planes. At the same time, there is the issue of whether the TSA’s screenings are even improving national security at all, or simply just promoting the term “security theater,” the idea that the government is investing time/money into extra security measures to calm its citizens without actually improving security. Many TSA measures have actually been criticized for their lack of actually improving security, and also their many security breaches since 9/11.

Is it possible?

Toleration has been, is, and will continue to be a huge part of how humans interact in many different aspects. The idea that national security can shape the way we treat tolerance vs. acceptance is also an important note to make. I think that national security is definitely a priority and may be a justification for deferring from full acceptance. However, at the same time, I believe many “security theatre” measures have dominated TSA actions and the defense that not giving Muslims full acceptance to protect national security has become an insufficient argument. There are many everyday situations to which toleration is acceptable as I mentioned previously; there’s nothing wrong with “tolerating” having to watch a TV show you don’t like because nothing else is on. Still, some serious issues continue to prevail that have me wondering how far we should go to tolerate things, and whether toleration is good enough when complete acceptance is a possibility.

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About danieltarockoff

I am 18 years old and a freshman at the University of Michigan.

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