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“Tolerance isn’t about not having beliefs. It’s about how your beliefs lead you to treat people who disagree with you.”

– Pastor and theologian Timothy Keller

Faith WoodThere is much focus on teaching tolerance and respect these days, but what’s this doing to society?

Perhaps it’s best to start with what we mean by the terms ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect.’

A lot of people (or at least those who apparently inhabit the Internet with far too much time on their hands) seem to think that the words are interchangeable.

However, the two, while not mutually exclusive, have different meanings. This can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings.

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, tolerance is “willingness to accept behaviour and beliefs that are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them.” Respect is “admiration felt or shown for someone or something that you believe has good ideas or qualities.” To the definition of respect, adds: “due regard for the feelings, wishes or rights of others.”

In real-life terms, tolerance means accepting that something different has a right to exist, whether or not you agree with it, while respect means a high regard for that something.

Imagine that you believe the Earth is flat. All good and well and I may tolerate your belief, even though I may believe you’re an idiot. My tolerance is not costing me a thing and I don’t have to stress over trying to get you to change your mind – you have the perfect right to believe anything you wish. I do not, however, respect you. This is an important distinction: I don’t have to respect you in order to respect your right to hold your idiotic belief.

However, when you demand that I respect you and your beliefs, the problems begin ­– and this seems to be an issue today. People who demand respect for their opinions, beliefs or practices – regardless of whether those opinions, beliefs or practices have any merit, do no harm to others or are based on fact – don’t know and appreciate the difference between tolerance and respect. They are therefore demanding something to which they have not earned the right. (A quick caveat: Tolerance does not and should not apply to anything criminal, harmful or morally reprehensible.)

So how does this affect society?

All you have to do is glance at a news story or browse the Internet to notice that the term tolerance is often used in conjunction with respect. Headlines blaze about the lack of tolerance or respect, at home and around the globe, but there doesn’t seem to be as much space given to the idea that while tolerance can be a good thing, and can ultimately (hopefully) lead to greater understanding and a more peaceful existence, respect needs to be earned.

Another misunderstanding is that any type of criticism or questioning of a belief or opinion constitutes intolerance (and/or disrespect). Criticism (not the type that simply says something negative for the sake of saying something negative just to get a rise out of people) is a necessary part of a strong society. We need to be able to discuss and question, to openly air our opinions without fear of retribution (although we may have to put up with being laughed at). That, ultimately, is what tolerance should mean. Respect will – could, should – follow.

In today’s society, with so much emphasis on the importance of tolerance and respect, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to wish people would make the effort to understand their language better and use it properly to communicate.

Perhaps the best thing we can do is to take it upon ourselves to use the terms correctly and question the arguments of those who demand tolerance and respect – and ultimately to agree with those arguments that stand up to criticism (the flat-Earthers shouldn’t hold their breath).

Troy Media columnist Faith Wood is a novelist and professional speaker who focuses on helping groups and individuals navigate conflict, shift perceptions and improve communications. 

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