BY: T. Franklin Murphy | June 2, 2020
Toleration suggests refraining from acting on objectionable differences. We can do better.
A few weeks ago, I set aside a research report for study. As I created a crude draft utilizing the findings of the study, the killing of George Floyd hit the news. Amidst a worldwide pandemic, his death brought us back to reality—much of our old problems remain. Anger, fear, and chaos still haunt American streets. From the aftermath of Floyd’s killing, we saw the frightening thin line between democracy and chaotic anarchy. Perhaps, the tolerance we proclaim is a farce. With the slightest provocation, deeply etched feelings are unearthed, lines are drawn, and battles ensue, both on the street and in words. Tolerance, while necessary, is a time bomb, waiting for a timely spark to explode. Tolerance protects freedoms but fails to address the underlying attitudes. Tolerance is not the goal. We must view tolerance as only a temporary waypoint while working towards something greater—acceptance.
We self-righteously congratulate our goodness for being tolerant, ignoring the view of superiority. Tolerance implies that those tolerating are only permitting that which they find objectionable. When the in-group majority tolerate the differences of a minority “out-group,” the minority out-group’s security teeters on the benevolence of others that object to their existence. This precarious position creates anxiety.
“Tolerance shares with discrimination a negative attitude, but prevents this attitude from becoming negative action, and therefore acts as a barrier against discrimination” (Verkuyten, Yogeeswaran, & Adelman, 2020, p. 546).
"Tolerance implies that those tolerating are only permitting that which they find objectionable."
So, while toleration has positive implications, it may be offensive and hurtful. Toleration is an inadequate substitute for appreciation and respect. Gordon Allport wrote in his timeless book The Nature of Prejudice “When we say that we tolerate a headache, or our shabby apartment, or a neighbor, we certainly do not mean we like them, but merely that in spite of our dislike we shall endure them” (1958, p. 425).
While it is morally laudable to refrain from acting on objectionable judgements, those judgments are not moral and must be examined. Toleration is patronizing, given as a great gift but suggesting only partial inclusion. “We put up with you. Ain’t that nice of us?”
Our faulty claims of equality soothingly disguise underlying biases. Inequality stemming from bias continues to exist in voter suppression, allocation of national and local resources, and prevailing attitudes in our institutions. The civil rights movement of the sixties began a journey of tolerance but failed to bridge the division still living strong in our culture.
Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald explain that we make constant unconscious judgements during interactions with others. “Using whatever they can eke out from even the most trivial information, people make assessments within a few seconds or fractions of a second, and without any visible discomfort at having to do so” (2016, p. 16) When we assess an individual belonging to a merely tolerated group, our objectionable view of the group influences the personal evaluation. We are exposed to culturally dominated ideas that taint judgements. “Whether we want them to or not, the attitudes of the culture at large infiltrate us. Our minds pick up a lot of what’s out there, and it seems nearly impossible to resist the pull toward culturally rooted stereotypes” (p. 68).
More worrisome is that toleration can quickly turn. The German’s tolerated their Jewish citizens until it was politically acceptable to discriminate, then they exterminated.
Banaji and Greenwald suggest there are two types of bias. “What may be the lesser type consists of biases that are recognized and espoused by their possessors but deliberately suppressed from public expression, plausibly in response to the pressures of political correctness and impression management” (2016 p. 186). The second bias, “in our view, the stronger portion of the hidden undercurrent of biases consists of those that remain outwardly unexpressed for the simple reason that their possessors are unaware of possessing them” (p. 188).
We see horror stories of those that instigate race wars—Banaji and Greenwald’s lessor type of bias. When hate can be expressed under the protection anonymity, the ruthless cowards act.
More common, but also destructive, is hidden biases. People act in ignorant self-righteousness, hiding an unconscious agenda of maintaining superiority. Those blind to their biases make positive gestures, suggesting they accept the others but quickly recoil in judgement, blaming “those people” for many of the complex issues in our nation. The underlying motive of a gift is often suspected by the receiver because the historic pattern of niceness in toleration. Research has shown that positive behaviors can be “attributionally ambiguous” and are often (rightfully) received with suspicion” (Verkuyten, Yogeeswaran, & Adelman, 2020, p. 548). We give, using small tokens of niceness to excuse larger attitudes that support inequality.
We can do better. We must back away from self-righteousness before we can gain clarity. We must acknowledge our susceptibility to culturally transmitted attitudes. Wrongful judgements persist, infecting our institutions, beliefs, and actions. We need more than toleration; we must accept and appreciate. Only through acceptance do we create an atmosphere of belonging. This difficult work starts in our hearts and extends outward. We must enter difficult discourse with our ears, not hiding behind cleaver words or seeking justifying causes for biased judgements. We can expand on toleration, adding more complexity to our judgements. We can refute unwholesome biases and move towards something better.
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Allport, G. W. (1958) The Nature of Prejudice. Doubleday Anchor Books; Copyright 1958 edition.
Banaji, M. R., Greenwald, A. G. (2016) Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. Bantam; Reprint edition.
Verkuyten, M., Yogeeswaran, K., & Adelman, L. (2020). The Negative Implications of Being Tolerated: Tolerance From the Target’s Perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15(3), 544-561.