The last two articles on being happy or being good and the communication market explaining why we speak honestly, lie, or not at all has led to a couple different conversations on the difference between acceptance and tolerance. If you’ve read much of my writing, you have probably noticed a thread that circles around acceptance being highly important, but I haven’t said as much on tolerance.
We should be unconditionally accepting of other people. It strengthens social connections and affirms others as thinking, feeling humans who are embodied and live within sociocultural contexts. It also makes forgiveness possible and dissipates anger for one and the same reason - it necessitates seeing people as valid products of their environments who couldn’t act in any other way.
Acceptance is really about doing away with the illusion of free will and that people are acting with the intention of harm toward others. It recognizes that, like us, they are doing everything they can to be happy and live with a sense of well-being, satisfaction, and as little pain and suffering as possible.
On the other hand, tolerance is much less a belief about others as it is our actions toward them. If we allow the existence of a behavior or endure it with forbearance, we are acting tolerantly. It is not necessary to also be accepting of another person in order to be tolerant.
As individuals, we can be both tolerant and accepting, tolerant but not accepting, neither tolerant nor accepting, or accepting but not tolerant. Our acceptance depends on our inner beliefs about others and our tolerance depends on our actions regarding them.
Some examples can make this easier to understand. If I think that religion is divisive and always harmful, I may view it as an unacceptable belief to hold, but still tolerate others who practice some variety of religion. In the same vein, I could be very hateful and disdainful towards LGBT community members, but still tolerate their participation in society without actually accepting them as people of worth and value. This tolerance may even be socially enforced due to laws with consequences that keep my hatred from turning into violence.
On the other hand, I could be hateful and intolerant. For instance, I might be hateful of people with disabilities and see them as “less than” and also not wish to tolerate them in my presence by excluding them from my clubs, workplace, or leisure spaces. The opposite case, in which I am both tolerant and accepting, is easy to imagine. I could see the worth, value, and validity of people that are different from me (i.e. be accepting) and also demonstrate tolerance of their differences of thought and action without imposing restrictions or oppression.
Tolerable and Intolerable Harm
The last category, acceptance without tolerance, is the most tricky for people to understand. This is the state of being that seems to go against many of our initial predispositions and habits of thinking, but marks a significant level of mature coping and understanding of the world we live in.
There are people in our world who need to be separated from the rest of society. These include a huge variety of people, not limited to murderers, rapists, terrorists, and psychopaths that display little empathy for others and take actions to only benefit themselves, such as many of the bankers involved in the destruction of both the housing market and thousands of pensions during the 2008 economic crisis. This is harm that cannot be tolerated by a society that hopes to be cohesive, inclusive, and stable in the long-run.
The above examples demonstrate harm that should not be tolerated. That does not mean we can’t accept the people who commit harmful acts as humans with understandable motives; we can explain their behaviors as attempts to be happy while simply suffering from ignorance, insanity, confusion, or some kind of biochemical neurological disorder. They may have acted harmfully, but that doesn’t make them innately bad or inhuman.
Even truly sadistic, psychopathic individuals are often suffering from some genetic, developmental, cognitive, or environmental issue that left them with limited or no ability for rational thought. They are not choosing to commit crimes or harm others. I recognize that understanding this may be difficult for people with conservative, individualistic, and religious beliefs, but we do not make our own choices. We do not have free will and we are the product of a system, not lone actors.
Three Categories of Intolerable Harm
Since I’ve written so much on unintentional actions causing harm and that life is essentially suffering, it begs the question: Which harm should we tolerate and which harm should we not? I think it’s simpler to consider harm we shouldn’t tolerate because that is the much shorter list of categories.
Physical harm. We should not tolerate any physical harm to another that is intentional and foreseeable. This includes actions such as murder, rape, torture, domestic violence, road rage, bar fights, etc. It does not include instances in which we have no choice but to harm someone to prevent them from harming others. This happens all the time in war and police work. Obviously, a ban on all physical harm, even for military and police, would have left the world at the mercy of Hitler’s Third Reich and other despots throughout history.
Intentional acts of malice. This goes beyond physical harm and includes actions aimed at emotionally, reputationally, or financially wounding others in ways that are foreseeable and avoidable. Examples include school bullying wherein the perpetrator never actually harms the victim physically, but does shame or embarrass them for no reason other than the schadenfreude derived from the activity. Typically, gossip and spreading rumors would take place in cases like this. This would also include acts of revenge over previously real or perceived injury.
Active participation in oppressive behavior, institutions, and systems. This is the most abstract and possibly the most difficult to avoid. Systems such as capitalism, nation-state governments, and the like could be argued quite fairly as being oppressive, but are extremely difficult to extricate ourselves from. However, other systems are more easily avoided, such as human trafficking and prostitution. These systems exploit and profit from human oppression and we should not be actively participating in them.
Why Deciding What Is Tolerable and Intolerable Harm Is So Hard
The aim is to be unconditionally accepting of all people. There is no reason to see others as objects that can be dismissed as less than the humans they are, deserving of both respect and dignity. This does not mean that we must tolerate everyone’s actions and beliefs, which form the premise from which our actions take shape.
If someone is not foreseeably and intentionally causing physical harm, acting maliciously, or participating in systems or institutions of oppression, then we should largely leave them alone to do as they please. This is living in a state of both acceptance and tolerance, even if some differences in choice do upset our feelings or clash with our beliefs.
This conclusion also makes it much easier to see why issues like free trade of capital goods and climate change are so difficult to manage ethically. Typically, consumers in developed countries like America are not actively choosing to harm people in any of the three ways described above. Of course, American consumerism does in fact cause physical harm to people, business owners do take advantage of workers, and the entire system is oppressive in nature to many of the actors involved.
This unintentional harm from consumerism is also the leading cause of climate change, which has the potential to kill millions of people in the coming decades and result in what Naomi Klein has described as a “genocide through apathy”. It’s not that we want present and future people to die as a result of climate change, it’s just that we aren’t willing to change our current lifestyle to prevent them from doing so.
But what is the alternative? Consciously deciding about every purchase we make? Even that gets us only so far when our governments, largely beyond our individual control, enter into trade agreements with foreign countries involved in extracting oil from the ground at gunpoint. Deciding not to buy oil or goods is simply a sacrifice beyond what most of us are willing or able to make.
I don’t necessarily see this as meaning we are evil people. We should attempt to avoid the intentional physical harm, acts of malice, and active participation in behaviors, institutions, or systems of oppression elucidated above. Being able to do even that much on an individual, person-to-person basis is a great accomplishment. We can’t expect all of our happiness to be overturned tomorrow in order to help others all around the world. It is yet another aspect of life we will have to accept while doing what we can to change it.
Rather than be overwhelmed, do your best to “be good and enjoy”.