By definition, tolerance is not always a virtue

Saturday, October 18, 1997

Strange as it may seem, “tolerance” is now a fighting
word in some school districts. Why has this widely accepted virtue — being
tolerant of others — become a flashpoint in America's school wars?

For an answer, consider the conflict in a California school district
over a new policy promoting “tolerance, diversity, and respect.”

The aim appears straightforward: Protect students from discrimination
and harassment based on “race, religion, ethnic background
or national origin, language, gender, sexual orientation, economic
status, physical or mental disabilities or other special needs.”
Sounds fair enough. So why the fight?

The concern of critics is not the policy itself, but the way
“toleration” might be enforced. Everyone wants a safe
school environment for all kids. But will parents with strong
religious views be labeled “intolerant” if they raise
objections to the way sex education is being taught? Will teachers
present all cultures uncritically because they are afraid of offending
someone? What happens when students with deep religious convictions
express an unpopular view about gender roles, abortion or human
sexuality? Will their beliefs be dismissed as intolerant? The
fear among some religious parents is that a “tolerance policy”
might be used to keep dissenting voices out of the debate.

Much hinges on what the school district means by “tolerance.”
False toleration, the kind feared by critics, ignores differences
that are deep and abiding. For instance, it is disturbing to many
religious people when (well-meaning) schools celebrate diversity
by pretending that all cultures and religions are somehow the
same. For adherents of many faiths, differences matter-not just
in this life, but for all eternity. Genuine toleration acknowledges
that we are different, often profoundly so, and promotes the importance
of debating our differences with civility and respect.

More alarming still to some religious people is the confusion
of toleration with acceptance. This is false toleration in another
guise. Students shouldn't be asked to accept the religions, cultures
or lifestyles of other students. To do so would require many students
to deny their religious convictions. Students should, of course,
respect the rights of others, even those with whom they disagree.
And schools should do everything possible to prevent violence
and discourage hate.

To end the fight, the California district must be clear about the meaning and practice of tolerance. False tolerance shuts people
out of the discussion. Genuine tolerance protects the right of
all students and parents to disagree about important religious,
social or political questions. The role of the school is to provide
a laboratory for democracy.

A final note of caution: There is another meaning to the word
“toleration” that can be oppressive, especially when
government is involved. As George Washington told the Hebrew Congregation
in Rhode Island in 1790: “It is now no more that toleration
is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people
that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent rights. For
happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry
no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that
they who live under its protection should [conduct] themselves
as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual

School officials must keep in mind that, under the Constitution,
the United States moves beyond toleration to guarantee full freedom
of religion for people of all faiths and none.