Why we need to resurrect an unfashionable virtue

Tolerance is an unfashionable virtue today, especially in parts of American society. Oddly, it’s often associated with weakness, where the opposite in true. To tolerate those who reject, refuse, or actively attack, your deepest beliefs and values takes enormous strength and unshakable faith in what you believe. Show me someone who persecutes those who disagree with their position and I will show you a person whose faith in their beliefs is already shaky.

Few people write about the dark side of our passions: the way they can become so intense they slip from a positive force in our lives into destroying our peace of mind. Fortunately, few of us will ever experience true obsession. Yet there is a little of the dark side of values in everyone. It’s as well to be aware of it and what it can do.

Passion and fear are natural partners. When you feel something as intensely as you feel whatever you are truly passionate about, there is always a sense of uneasiness. What would happen if you lost what is most important to you? How would you cope if it were taken away? Might someone try that?

Behind every strong human desire there is fear. People who become passionate fitting in and being part of the right crowd fear rejection and loneliness. Workaholic achievement freaks fear failure. Loners fear being dependent on anyone who might hurt them, mostly because they’ve been hurt that way before. People like this cling to their viewpoint because any alternative seems likely to be painful and scary. They reject tolerance, not because it would hurt them, but because they fear it might.

The more you cling, the less tolerant you become

The more strongly you cling to what matters most to you, the more fiercely you will respond to any threat, real or imagined, against it. People find it hard to cope calmly with such a slight danger as disagreement with the values they hold. How can someone pose a threat to your beliefs simply by holding different ones? Yet friendships are ended, families disrupted, work teams destroyed, careers derailed, and marriages wrecked by nothing more tangible than a disagreement about what is valued or believed by one of the parties. It makes no sense.

Of course, it does once you understand the fear. By refusing to accept your beliefs and values as mine too, I undermine, just a little, your confidence in what you believe. If I go further and openly oppose or denigrate your point of view, the threat is greater and the emotional response will increase in proportion. This is the paradox. The more strongly people believe in something, the less easy it is for them to cope with others who don’t. That’s why clubs become exclusive. That’s why we’ve had centuries of religious and political persecution.

How workplace tyrants develop

Our places of work are still riddled with “command-and-control” ways of thinking: beliefs about the “right” of those in positions of authority to demand that others do what they say. If it stayed at that, it would be bad enough. But it’s a small step from requiring subordinates to follow orders to demanding that they “hold the right attitudes” (i.e. the boss’s) and “show they’re sound” before they can obtain promotion.

Workplaces are social situations and bosses are sadly human. We all like to work with people with whom we feel at ease. But what a workplace needs most is people who can do the job well, not those who fit some boss’s idiosyncratic template for the kind of person they believe is “sound” or “made of the right stuff.”

Tyranny and discrimination don’t come from managers who are at ease and secure in their own beliefs and views. They can ignore anything that isn’t anti-social, illegal, or prejudicial to a good business environment, and focus purely on a person’s skills and capacity to turn in excellent work. It’s the self-righteous, the insecure, and the fearful who cannot.

Greater tolerance matters

Every day, we must all must face people whose view of the world does not match ours. You may have to work with them, serve them as customers, or answer to them as your boss. If you cannot learn to tolerate different—even uncomfortable—beliefs and viewpoints cheerfully, you’ll cause yourself and others continual pain. The dark side of your passions is always there, waiting to disrupt your life.

Strong values are usually seen as something to be applauded. Maybe. They also increase the danger of bigotry, self-righteousness, discrimination, persecution, and obsession. I’ve studied peoples’ values and beliefs for decades. In that time, I’ve met many cases of good, principled people unaware of how they allow the dark side of their passions and fears to turn them into narrow-minded, cruel tormentors of anyone who disagrees sufficiently with them.

St. Paul wrote that without charity we are nothing. He’s not an authority I’m much given to quoting, but in this case I believe he was pointing to something essential. One of the meanings of charity in Webster’s dictionary is “leniency in judging others, forbearance.” In other words, tolerance. If your values are strong but you do not practice charity and tolerance, the steep slope into bigotry, discrimination, and persecution is already under your feet.

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