Virtues for Civil Society: Tolerance

I have initiated a blog series on the virtues for civil society. In my first entry, I proposed the virtue of “civility” which I noted is what keeps us from barbarousness. Emphasizing that it’s a virtue, I added that it is marked more by a sense of proportionality or mutuality of respect than by fixed rules of politeness that often can exclude others. I added that this sense of proportionality was publicly, not privately estimated, at least inasmuch as we are talking about civil, public discourse.

As I turn to the second virtue, I acknowledge that I don’t think that virtues automatically conform with one another. In fact, I think that virtues can conflict, just as virtuous persons can conflict. So I try to take one virtue at a time as I offer the different ones that I think we need for contemporary civil discourse. But I will come back to that “conflict” later when I turn to prudence.  More on that later…

Now I turn to tolerance noting that I might need to overcome some bias that some people today might have who think of tolerance as somehow connoting arrogance, condescension, or something else, not worthy of it being a virtue.

Tolerance, historically, has had a very positive meaning. To be tolerant is to be open to understanding, to be willing to listen and learn, to allow other opinions, and more than that, to try to understand them. A tolerant person welcomes diversity, appreciates pluralism, believes that differences help us to promote a better society. Tolerant persons are more inclined to heterogeneity than homogeneity: they believe that different approaches bring us in sum better solutions.

Culture wars are known for their intolerance and lack of civility! They are dismissive, they fail to engage; they draw lines and markers anticipating where people should be placed before we even hear them speak. Theses wars place opponents in these camps precisely as if they are already prisoners of war who need not, and should not be heard. Culture wars have pejorative titles that highlight their lack of tolerance. From their repertoire they shut out opinions that they stamp as working class biases or politically correct ones, dull conservatives or flaming liberals. 

Certainly tolerance toward a position does not equal approval of that other point of view, but it is the verb that allows, in fact, encourages that other point of view to be expressed. Some of those commenting on civility, might find then in tolerance what was missing in civility. Civility does not in itself exist to promote diversity, but tolerance exists precisely so that diversity might have its day.

James F. Keenan, SJ, is Canisius Professor at Boston College. His most recent book is University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics (Rowman and Littlefield).

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