The Origin of Intolerance: Fear of Different Individuals, Groups or Nations
It is usually normal for an organization, religion or government to be united in its purposes and ideals. However, uniformity (rather than unity) can be psychologically unhealthy, even dangerous, because it breeds intolerance, even fear, of those who are different. For example, in Germany during World War II, the Nazis demanded uniformity in their concept of German nationalism, racial superiority and political policies of extermination of inferior races. In other words, the Nazis did not tolerate dissent and opposition from Jewish and Polish people, even from Germans themselves.
In the Foreword of one of Viktor Frankl’s books, Swanee Hunt, formerly the United States Ambassador to Austria, said that the Nazi concentration camps were “created to annihilate those who were different.”1 Frankl suffered in the concentration camps, because he was different. His father, mother, brother and wife died, because they, too, were different.
False Tolerance: To Tolerate the Intolerable
There are true and false kinds of tolerance. First, the false kind is the simplistic notion of “anything goes.” That idea is wrong, because, for example, even in a pluralistic nation, such as the United States, people have a right to believe, say and live the way they want within the limits of reason. There are, in fact, many behaviors which a rational person should not tolerate. For instance, a sensible or reasonable person must not tolerate murder, pedophilia, rape, physical abuse and child abuse.
Not all ideas are tolerable, even in a pluralistic society. For example, “I am going to kill you;” “Abortion doctors should die;” “I am going to kill myself” and “Death to America” are intolerable statements and ideas. A person with common sense (which is becoming increasingly uncommon) will resist such statements by refuting or arguing against them. If that is not enough, then a person can call the appropriate legal authorities to intervene against threats to others, national security and oneself.
True Tolerance: To Tolerate the Tolerable
Second, true tolerance tolerates tolerable ideas and behavior. Frankl rightly observes,
“Tolerance does not mean that one accepts the belief of the other; but it does mean that one respects him as a human being, with the right and freedom of choosing his own way of believing and living.”2
That is to say, tolerance does not mean all ideas are equally true. Nor does it mean a person is wrong for believing that he or she is right. For example, in being tolerant of another person’s idea, that does not mean I give up my understanding of the truth. It only means that I cannot force others to accept what I believe to be true. Nor can I make others live the way I do, even if I understand that they are morally wrong.
Frankl teaches that the religious person, above all others, should actually be tolerant, because he or she believes that God created human beings with free-will, which involves “the possibility of saying no, for instance, by deliberately refusing to accept any religious … [world view].”3
A religious person, for instance, cannot always agree with the religious beliefs of others. Nevertheless, it is wrong for that person to attack verbally or physically those who differ from him or her. A religious person, then, believing that he or she is right and others are wrong, must allow them to have their own views.
Tolerance Presupposes Respect for the Dignity of the Human Person
Tolerance is really about respect for the dignity of the human person, that is, his or her autonomy and self-determination. In other words, a person should be able to direct his or her own life, which is autonomy, and choose his or her own way of thinking and living, which is self-determination. In tolerance, then, one person gives another the “space” to be herself or herself, to think his or her own way and live his or her own life.
Therefore, tolerance is not an absolute moral value. In other words, there are limits to tolerance. It is, of course, a virtue. However, a person who tolerates every idea and behavior has a weakness of spirit, failing to resist what is false or wrong or both.
1. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning (New York, N.Y.: Insight Books/ Plenum Press, 1997), p. 10.
2. ———-, Psychotherapy and Existentialism: Selected Papers on Logotherapy (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1967), p. 85, footnote 13.
3. ———-, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning, op. cit., p. 62.