Tolerance is a Great Virtue | Feb16, 2011
Tolerance is a great virtue but it can never be a one-way street. If we want others to respect the ideas we espouse, then that means that
we must also respect their ideas. Respecting the ideas of others does not mean that we accept their ideas as correct; rather, that we allow them to believe what they wish to believe, even if we do not support the validity of these very ideas.
Tolerance for differing opinions carries some caveats and the caveats are part and parcel of the practice of tolerance.
One is that in pursuing the ideas that I hold, and which I expect others to respect, these ideas should not do harm to others. The harm can be in the form of physical harm to these others; or disregard for the right of these others to live according to the ideas that they believe in. Let us take an example to make this clearer. If someone believes very strongly that the world is flat, in spite of the evidence to the contrary, that person is entitled to continue believing it, and living his life in accordance with this belief. I might find him goofy, but hey, it takes all kinds. I might decide that I do not want to keep this person as a friend; that’s okay so long as I am not unkind to him and I continue to give him space to hold on to that belief. Because I am convinced that the world is not flat and that people who think so are definitely wrong does not mean that I have the right to stop them from their “pursuit of happiness”.
A second caveat is that a tolerance for an idea that differs from an idea held by the group I belong to is not an affirmation of the validity of that differing idea.
Tolerance is not a game of “You’re right, I’m wrong” or vice-versa. Ultimately one idea will be established as valid or true, and the other as invalid or wrong. But validity is beside the point where tolerance is concerned. This second caveat is particularly applicable to religious beliefs.
In every religion there are those who belong to the fringe… the very radical, those who are convinced they alone hold the truth, and that everyone else is misguided. Even for these people, and perhaps especially for these people, the second caveat is critical. On the other hand, the first caveat is of singular importance – go and believe what you want to believe but do no harm to those who do not believe as you do.
There have been various theories to explain the actions of Muslim jihadists. Political reasons, economic reasons, religious reasons. In this last we can include the abhorrence of extremist Muslims of the style of living of certain non-Muslim societies and even for Muslims who are of a different sect. This we understand. Nevertheless, it is precisely why we need the virtue of tolerance to live in peace with those who live lifestyles different from our own. And it is under these circumstances that the first caveat should be carefully considered, and reflected on.
I believe that people who are genuine believers in a supreme being, in a God who loves mankind, are people who are tolerant of those who do not believe as they do. It is very sad that it is the extreme fringe in every religion who somehow get to be seen as the representative group of that religion.