The problem with “tolerance”

The first session I attended at the Mensa AG in Boston was given by Suzanna Denuta Walters. Dr. Walters is a professor at Northeastern University in Boston, and she is a very engaging speaker with impeccable command of her subject matter.

She has written a book on the topic of tolerance in the struggle of LGBTQ people to enjoy full citizenship, and she questions the notion of seeking tolerance as a goal. I think Dr. Walters is absolutely right that the connotations associated with tolerance are largely negative, and that the term is rife with issues.

Here are some definitions of tolerance from Merriam-Webster:

  • capacity to endure pain or hardship
  • sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own
  • the act of allowing something
  • the allowable deviation from a standard; especially :  the range of variation permitted in maintaining a specified dimension in machining a piece
  • the capacity of the body to endure or become less responsive to a substance (as a drug) or a physiological insult especially with repeated use or exposure <developed a tolerance to painkillers>
  • the maximum amount of a pesticide residue that may lawfully remain on or in food
Sorry, but none of those captures how I want other people to view any of us in the GLBTQ community.
One of the presentations I have given is entitled, “Embracing Difference: Constructing Positive Gifted-GLBTQ Identities.” Far from lauding or seeking tolerance, my goal is to open people’s minds to looking on difference as Audre Lorde did. She said we must move beyond “the mere tolerance of difference” to viewing Difference as “a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.”
That’s a pretty powerful idea. It relegates tolerance to the lab and encourages human beings to value the things that make us different from–and, in my opinion, most interesting to–one another. When we can stop trying to “fix” or “tolerate” each other for being different, then we can start making progress toward full citizenship for people who bring all kinds of different to the table.
I’d like to hear what you think.
If you are interested in the book by Dr. Walters, it is The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality, published by New York University Press. I’m getting into it now–perhaps we can compare notes!

Comments are closed