I don’t like tolerance.

I don’t mean I don’t like the word tolerance. The word is a nice snack-cookie of a word: the wafer crunch of the [t], the nice liquids in the middle, the marshmallow [n] and a final chocolatey coating [s]. It’s a nice word to say. You can feel good saying it. And that’s part of the problem.

Tolerance is an intrinsically opprobrious thing.

Consider four levels of response to another person’s presence: welcome, acceptance, tolerance, and rejection.

Welcome is greeting with open arms, a ready smile, a hug or warm handshake. It may even be going out and eagerly pulling the person in.

Acceptance is not necessarily as enthusiastic, but it’s at least a polite, easy handshake.

Tolerance is a little sigh and a roll of the eyes as you sit down. A resigned look. Tolerance is rejection that allows the rejecter to pretend to himself or herself that he or she is being a nice person. It’s not the acid-splash of overt rejection. It’s a steady little drip, drip, drip of acid on you as you sit at the table. If you don’t get the hint – and if the tolerance never improves at least to acceptance – you can sometimes end up more damaged than if you had just been openly rejected to begin with.

As you might guess, I have strong feelings about this because it’s personal for me. I might seem to have a pretty good social life, and that’s because I do… now. But for my childhood, adolescence, and younger adulthood, I was generally tolerated, often rejected, seldom welcomed.

Oh, it’s not because I was a member of some visible minority, or had some perceptible disability, or anything like that. It was just because I was a weird kid who told strange, incomprehensible jokes, could be kind of condescending, and didn’t know how to shut up. I know I wasn’t blameless in the matter. But let me explain.

I’m not an extravert. Some people think I am, but it’s just because I like attention. That’s not the same thing. I’m very comfortable in front of an audience of whatever size (as long as I’m prepared). But put me into the middle of a large social gathering and I’m wallpaper. On the other hand, if I can find some person or small set of people I know, I will happily chat with them. Maybe even too happily. Because I’m not such a hard-core introvert that I draw all my strength from within. I need social contact; I just have an upper limit. I value my friends and my social contacts very highly.

It’s that need for social contact that was really a root of my problems. I grew up out in the country. My social contact was mostly limited to school time, and that’s not really the same. So when I was in any sort of real social context with peers, it was like an intoxicant for me. I was very enthusiastic about it. Too enthusiastic. This manifested in an excessive talkativeness and boisterousness. On top of my basic weirdness.

So every time I came to a new social circle, at first I would usually be welcomed. Which made me very happy. Which made me very expressive. So my full weirdness came out, the incomprehensible jokes and the excessive talkativity and so on. And soon enough I had become the weird kid. The dork. I moved from being welcomed to being tolerated and avoided. I had blown it again. This happened over and over again. Of course, that hurt, so I developed the aforementioned condescension (even arrogance) as self-protection. But that didn’t make me any less needy. Just even less acceptable. And it was a vicious circle. The rejection and tolerance made me desperate, which led me to do things that made it worse.

I think of one time when I went to a party with my brother. They were his friends, but I was invited along. I had a lot of fun; I was intoxicated by the social welcome. They had some dry ice keeping beverages cool, and I discovered that inhaling the fog from it produced a pleasurable hypoxemic giddiness which induced in me gales of laughter and a frank garrulousness, especially since I was enjoying being at a party so much.

Some weeks later, my brother was heading out to some unspecified thing, and no one would tell me what, which obviously annoyed me. Finally one of my parents told me that he was going to a party with the same friends and I wasn’t invited. And they didn’t want to hurt my feelings, so they had been trying not to tell me.

Well, of course, I understood why I wasn’t invited, and I said so. I didn’t hold it against the hosts. I knew it was my own fault. I had blown it again. For the umpteenth time, and not the last time either. I didn’t blame the hosts. I just felt awful because I had blown it again, as I always did. But I also knew I would rather not be there than be tolerated, be the inappropriate person that no one wants around but no one will tell directly.

Which is what I was most of the time anyway. It took me a long time to be able to contain myself enough in social situations that I could manage, at least some of the time, not to be just tolerated. I still blow it sometimes, and I can never manage to notice it when I’m doing it.

So I thank all the people who had the nerve to tell me what I was doing that I shouldn’t be doing, because that’s the first step to welcome: it lets me know what I need to change, even if I don’t seem able to change it quickly. I may be smart, but that doesn’t mean I can figure out absolutely everything on my own.

I don’t thank those who tolerated me. I’m sure they thought they were being nice. Mainly they were letting themselves off the hook while being scarcely less cruel. Yes, everyone has their problems. I can’t expect them all to put out extra energy for someone who doesn’t know how to be a normal person. I don’t think they’re especially bad people for being tolerant. But I don’t thank them for it.

And this helps explain why I can seem cold or aloof at times. I don’t want to be where I’m not welcome. If I’m in a social gathering, I don’t want to horn in on a conversation and simply be a tolerated presence. I’d rather not be there at all. I wait to be invited to join people. If I’m not asked, I don’t invite myself unless I’m sure I’d be welcome. Because when I was younger, if I hadn’t been invited to join a group of people but I asked to and was allowed to, I would typically at best be tolerated. The tag-along nuisance. And I knew it, every acid drip drip drip of it. But I still wanted that contact.

Now I have friends and real social contact. I have a lovely, sweet wife, so I really never feel lonely, though of course I still need friends too. I’m better adjusted… somewhat. And so now I would rather be alone than be tolerated. There are few things that make me feel more awful than knowing, or even just suspecting, that people would rather I not be there.

Not so long ago, it was common for people to plead for tolerance: religious tolerance, tolerance of alternative lifestyles, et cetera. I really came to dislike that. It meant that you were still viewing the group as inferior and treating them with disdain, but you were doing it at closer range. Oh, you… people… sigh, eye roll… yes, OK, fine, you can sit there if you must… Now we talk of acceptance. I think we should talk about welcoming. And if we find we can’t welcome some particular group, we should have an honest discussion about why. Tolerance avoids that honest discussion.

The Latin source of tolerance and tolerate is tolerare, verb, ‘endure, bear, suffer’. The first use of tolerance in English referred to enduring pain or hardship. It hasn’t really moved very far from that. In forestry, it means the ability of a tree to exist in shade rather than sunlight. In biology, it means the ability to survive and thrive when you have a parasite or other infection. In medicine, it means being able to take increasing doses of something without responding. In mechanics, it means the amount of deviation you can get away with from the exactly desired dimensions – just how much not-quite-right can be endured. And socially, it means enduring someone (or some set of people) who is… well, not quite right. A shadow on the occasion. A bit too much, but you can ignore them. A parasite. Or who at least seems so to you.

So no, I don’t like tolerance.

13 responses to “tolerance

  1. You are my newest hero. I would invite you to any party that I wasn’t ashamed to throw. I love reading your columns about Words. This is the first time, I think, that you made it PERSONAL. But I’m often wrong, and I don’t get invited to all the same parties that many of my friends all do. Still, I get invited to enough parties to know that I’m “tolerated” when somebody else cancels on, for example, a paid for theatre ticket. Popular is good, but “tolerated” is OK, too.

  2. Thanks for this post. Thanks for opening yourself up to us. It is very powerful.

    If you’re ever on the West Coast, I hope you’ll look me up, so we can have a chat, and we can both do our best to avoid being condescending, or arrogant, or socially awkward.

  3. What a well written and thought-provoking post. And thanks for expressing some of the emotions of my own precocious, embarrassing youth. This piece called to mind a passage from ‘Be Ready with Bells and Drums’ by Elizabeth Kata, a book I read many, many years ago (it was later made into a film called ‘A Patch of Blue’). The novel would now be regarded as dated, even as promoting racial stereotypes, but in 1961 when it was published, things were different. Selina, a blind white girl, hates the word ‘tolerate’ but it’s Gordon’s favourite word. Gordon is black but Selina doesn’t know this when he befriends her. I haven’t read the book since I was a child (I suspect it may not have lasted the distance) but the debate about the word ‘tolerate’ has stayed with me, all this time.

  4. Pam Hewitt mentioned the one word that goes a long way in explaining your childhood peer relations: “precocious”. The average group has a natural dislike for anyone who is too smart. By contrast, I suspect you were enthusiastically welcomed by your teachers, often the teacher’s favorite pupil.
    Some of my teachers did more than “welcome” me. My 9th grade algebra teacher placed my desk against the rear wall of the classroom, placed an empty desk facing it, and told the class that whenever that other desk was empty, anyone could go sit in it and get private instruction. My 11th grade English teacher exempted me from all exams in return for my grading the exams of everyone else in that class.
    My 11th grade Chemistry teacher, an enormous woman named Dorothy but referred to by her students as “Big Dot”, performed a fearsome ritual: at the end of each 6-week grading period: she announced each student’s name and grade. For the 6-week period ending in the Spring, I somehow managed to get a B. When my grade was announced, the class went wild: “COHEN got a B! COHEN got a B!” Big Dot stared down the class and said: “Cohen knows as much chemistry as anyone in this room. I’m changing that to an A right now.” And she did. Somehow I survived these experiences.

  5. Excellent post. I keep coming back to it. Thanks.

  6. Awesome post. I have despised the “virtues” of tolerance (and acceptance) since I was in high school, when they became buzzwords. At the time, what I hated about “tolerance” was that I felt pressured to tolerate, even accept, my friends’ unsafe behaviors. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate your point as well–I love your new classification of “welcoming.” (A former professor contrasted tolerating differences with celebrating differences–I like that as well.) In short, tolerance toward (unsafe) behavior gags us about issues that matter, and tolerance toward people holds us back from being human and valuing humanity. I’ve come to the belief that there is no good use for the word, except to keep one from blowing one’s top at minor annoyances. It’s certainly not a virtue. Anyway, thanks for the opportunity to sound off.

  7. I’d really like to make at least a weak pitch for the ideal of tolerance. I disagree with your definition of it as “a steady little drip, drip, drip of acid on you as you sit at the table.” I see it more as benign forgetfulness or even a kind ignoring of another’s existence. It’s the lack of desire to have anything to do with another, whether to accept or to reject, and that can absolutely be a virtue.
    You share some awful experiences in your post, things you’ve lived through that have formed you into the person you are. Many people have had defining moments in their lives. I remember my first day at a new school when I was in the 5th grade. I walked into class and immediately a chant began, “Nerd, nerd, nerd. . . .” The nasty woman who was to be my teacher that year did absolutely nothing. Sadly, the same thing happened the next year in choir class, as I stepped forward to speak to the teacher about something, and it was a person who I actually liked who I heard leading the chant. How might I be different now if those awful children had been a bit more tolerant? Would I be more trusting of people, more willing to create friendships? Nobody has to like me, and neither did those kids, but they didn’t have to attack me like that, either.
    This is a notion that can easily be taken to the level of society. I’m happy to say that my country has houses of worship of every kind, churches of every denomination, and mosques and synagogues, and all kinds of other places of worship, and for the most part, there is no animosity between the various religious groups. This is not because one group necessarily accepts the others, but it’s because our society is so very steeped in the notion of tolerance. I am personally atheist and do not react kindly when a religious person tries to “convert” me, but as long as they leave me alone, I’m more than inclined to leave them alone and let them believe whatever they wish without my interference.
    Really, I think that is the heart of tolerance. It can be summed up best as “live and let live.” It’s really something to support, when outright love and acceptance isn’t possible.

  8. I just wanted to say (again) what an interesting essay. But also to add that the level of intelligence and sensitivity expressed by the various commenters here is exquisite. This ain’t no YouTube video with idiots trying to be “first!” or saying nasty things just because they are anonymous. It’s nice to know that smart people use the Interwebs, too.

  9. I really enjoy this; it’s very true. I’ve never looked at ‘tolerance’ in this way, but I think there’s a valuable lesson in it. You’re writing is beautiful, too.

  10. Bravo, doc. Yet another peek into the complexities of the human condition through a word-tasting touchingly amplified by personal story. Thanks for being you and doing what you do.

  11. Pingback: A New Definition for Tolerance | Cave Caenum

  12. ashtarbalynestry

    I am definitely in love with you, James Harbeck.
    I must say that your childhood experiences are very similar to mine: a misunderstood freethinker, a friendly Asperger’s misidentified as an extrovert. Although there were brief moments, my social life was next to nonexistent. I’ve been welcomed into new groups often, but then my weirdness shows and I’m tolerated at best. I’ve wanted for the last few years to talk to someone who would understand my situation.

    Fernando Martínez, a concerned septendenarian

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