Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Most-Misused Word in the Dictionary

My friends, I present to you today not another Great-Big Vocabulary Word, but the Most-Misused Word, without question, in the dictionary today. What is this word? It is tolerance.

Some organization keeps sending me stickers in the mail that say "Teach Tolerance." Neither the folks who send them, nor the vast majority of those who receive them, even bother to think twice about what that actually means. You can't teach something until you understand it yourself. And given the way the word is so frequently misapplied, I have grave doubts that one American in ten understands it.

Now please don't jump to the conclusion that I am intolerant, or that I have something against tolerance. I fully support tolerance -- or at least, the genuine kind. I simply UNDERSTAND WHAT THE WORD REALLY MEANS, which makes me impatient when I hear it garbled by others. Again, you can't teach anything you don't understand yourself.

"Tolerance" means the acceptance -- however grudging and hostile -- of something or someone you find hateful. When you "tolerate" them, you simply refrain from jailing or killing them. You TOLERATE their continued and unfettered existence on the same planet, much the same way you would tolerate the threat of natural disaster, or of some genetic illness no one knew how to cure.

Why are we being led to believe this is a virtue? It is no virtue to learn that you must deal with other people -- it's a natural and inevitable part of growing up. When you truly tolerate someone or something, that doesn't mean you have to LIKE the existence of him, her or it, it merely means you must accept the fact of it, and not try to eliminate it from the face of the earth.

What many are trying to CHANGE the word "tolerance" to mean is "full acceptance" -- meaning that you HAVE, indeed, come to like it. But when you look at the opposite of this word, "intolerance," you learn the truth. Both tolerance and intolerance deal with things we do not like; the only difference is that "tolerable" people and things are those with which we've learned to live, whereas "intolerable" ones are those with which we feel we canNOT live.

Now, conservatives hate the very word "tolerance." They don't want to tolerate much of anything outside their narrow little sphere of comfort. So the word makes them angry no matter how it is used, whether rightly or wrongly. Liberals, on the other hand, have no clue what the word actually means, so they mangle the language to make it mean what they want it to mean. Only libertarians both (A) understand what the word means and (B) think that the concept is worth practicing.

Truth be told, we can't make other people like us. None of us can. We're either going to live in a society in which we practice a philosphy of mutual "live and let live" -- meaning that we TOLERATE others, whether we like them or not -- or else we're going to have one in which we regard anybody different from ourselves as intolerable. The former is civilization, the latter barbarism.

I have to tolerate all sort of folks I just don't like, practically every day of my life. I wonder how many of the pompous jackasses who bloviate, in my presence, about how kind they are to be "tolerant" of me realize how much luckier they are that I tolerate THEM. Aren't they just so SPECIAL that everyone else should thank them for the benevolence of being tolerated? Indeed, they heard it from Mommy back when they were three, and they've never found any need to question it since.

It is no easier, for example, for gays and lesbians to tolerate straight people than it is for the heteros to tolerate them. The difference is that there are far more of the latter than there are of the former. There is considerable strength in numbers, therefore those who are more numerous have the power to tyrannize others. Tyranny is the cradle of all human baseness: cowardice, selfishness, ignorance, cruelty, and just about every other little gremlin in Pandora's Box. Tyranny is the gateway to barbarism; it is the first big shove down the slippery slope back down into the primordial muck.

Some societies are basically incompatible with others, which is why, to repeat a maxim quoted earlier on this Blog, "Good fences make good neighbors." Americans have no more business running Middle Eastern Muslim countries than Middle Eastern Muslims do coming over here and running ours. Bigoted rednecks who hate gays have no business moving to progressive, cosmopolitan cities (like Phoenix) and trying to run gays out of it. If gays and lesbians want to move to some podunky little town out in the sticks and make it gay-friendly, they may find the natives understandably hostile. Sometimes it's actually better to put a comfortable distance between ourselves and those with whom we share a mutual dislike.

Tolerance is, as a matter of fact, the key to peace. The practice of tolerance requires that we respect even those we do not like, and that we give each other enough room to peacefully coexist. It is not so much a virtue as it is a necessity. If we do not remember how to practice tolerance very soon, we will end up destroying the world.

Liberals want everybody to live together, and everybody to get along. Sorry, but human nature being what it is, this simply isn't going to happen. The problem is that so pathetically few in our society see this Left-Wing fairy tale for the dangerous delusion it really is.

If we truly do want tolerance, not only must we understand what it really is (and isn't), but we must also be willing to do what we can to help it survive and thrive.


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