In a familiar land not too far away, there were two towns that bordered one another. The town to the north was called Beauty View and was perched atop a mountain plateau. The people of Beauty View worshipped in a building on 1st Street and were members of the political party whose regional headquarters was on 2nd Street. The town to the south was called Sunny Glen and was built along a winding river in the valley beneath the mountain plateau. The people of Sunny Glen didn’t believe in any god at all and were members of the political party whose regional headquarters was on Main Street.
The people of Beauty View and Sunny Glen were enemies. When forced to talk with one another, they quickly got into fights. Beauty View natives said they could not understand why anyone wouldn’t worship their god, vote for their party, or choose to live anywhere other than their mountaintop town with its spectacular views. Citizens of Sunny Glen said they were insulted at the thought of worshiping any god, took personal offense at a vote for another party, and dismissed anyone who chose to live outside their glorious riverside town.
One thing the townspeople of Beauty View and Sunny Glen shared was a mutual disapproval of the only known friendship between two of their residents.
The friends were an artist from Beauty View and a scientist from Sunny Glen. They disagreed on the existence of god yet still sought to understand each other’s beliefs. They were good listeners. When they talked about their political differences, they did so without calling each other names or ridiculing one another’s opinions. Like the other residents of Beauty View, the Artist preferred to live in the mountains and, like the townspeople of Sunny Glen, the Scientist favored life in the valley. Even so, neither of them demeaned the other’s hometown.
The friends treated one another with kindness in the face of disagreement and bonded over a mutual desire to understand one another. What allowed the artist and the scientist to be friends? They were tolerant.
They were the happiest people in the land.
Peace and Diversity
Tolerance is the world’s only hope for peace. Tolerance is what allows us to treat people with love, respect, and equity when they do not share our demographic characteristics, opinions, values, and ways of behaving. Peaceful coexistence in the midst of diversity is the hallmark of tolerance. This world has over 7 billion people with as many opinions. In order to get along with one another, we must be able to tolerate ideas, beliefs, values, and behaviors we find appalling.
Tolerance and Acceptance
It is understandable when people use the terms tolerance and acceptance interchangeably because the behaviors fueled by both look nearly identical. Acts of kindness, courtesy, and respect can be fueled by tolerance or acceptance. They do not mean the same thing, however.
Acceptance is defined as agreement with a belief, idea, opinion, or behavior. Finding a group of people who welcome you because they share your views and values feels wonderful and reminds us that we’re not alone. This inclusion on the basis of similarity is the feature that distinguishes acceptance from tolerance.
Tolerance, by definition, can only be expressed when there is disagreement between people. Consequently, the acts of kindness, courtesy, and respect that emerge from tolerance do not come as easily as those that flow from acceptance. We must train ourselves to be tolerant. Showing tolerance requires us to summon strength from a deep and deliberate love, a love that we extend even to our enemies.
Unfortunately, there are people who have no interest whatsoever in being tolerant and try to force their beliefs on others using violence. People who seek to kill and destroy those who disagree with them are practicing the worst form of bigotry.
Tolerance does not preclude us from protecting ourselves against physical violence. Tolerant societies will go to war against violent enemies and will imprison the barbaric with a clear conscience. Tolerant societies will not revel in violence, however, and will do everything they can to extend grace and show mercy whenever possible.
Persecution and Evasion
When people are not tolerant they will belittle, condemn, or altogether avoid interacting with people who are different from them. Persecution and evasion are bigotry’s other attributes. Bigotry, therefore, is the absence of tolerance and leads people to harass or ignore unfamiliar people with divergent points of view. People fueled by bigotry are some of the most miserable in the world.
Two colleagues and I recently published an article that reviewed Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy (IBCT), a type of therapy designed to help seriously and chronically distressed couples improve their relationships. After careful examination, we concluded that therapists should strongly consider using IBCT with highly distressed couples because research has reliably shown that IBCT helps couples communicate better and increase their relationship satisfaction.
One of the goals of IBCT is to help couples build tolerance, especially when solutions are hard to come by and compromise is not possible. All couples argue. Partners will not always agree. This is why tolerance is so important. IBCT helps partners learn to convey empathy and compassion without blaming or making accusations, even when they are fighting about “unsolvable” problems. Tolerance allows a relationship to be loving and satisfying even when partners strongly disagree. The result of building tolerance through IBCT is that many seriously and chronically distressed couples see their relationship improve.
As a therapist, I find this effect of tolerance to be incredibly exciting and it gives me hope for a better world.