Wandering the Path: Exploring Tolerance, Inigo Montoya, & Inclusion
April 19, 2016 § 2 Comments
Inspired by my lovely wife and her observation that I embody the Tolkien quote “Not all who wander are lost,” my goal is for this piece to be continuation of a series highlighting aspects of my thinking, my strengths, and my authentic self as I attempt to connect more deeply with you all.
Tolerance is a word that I am drawn to. It’s something that I have learned in my social and spiritual life as being good, worthy, and righteous. I still believe this based on the contextual definitions I originally encountered. What gives me pause is that I am not so sure our most current uses of the word tolerance — or its inverse of intolerance — are the same as what I first learned.
In the beginning, I was taught that tolerance meant open-minded pursuit of understanding other people, and that through that understanding we could better love, respect, and care for others. I was also taught that intolerance meant passively or actively oppressing others based solely on first impressions and stereotypes. Along the way, it seems my first connotations of tolerance no longer match the current uses of the word.
Today, I hear people use tolerance to mean unquestioning validation of everything. To disagree is to be intolerant. I don’t believe either of those to be true.
But as Inigo Montoya so eloquently put it maybe “that word doesn’t mean what [I] think it means.” At least, not anymore.
Defining & Redefining
Most word nerds — or etymologists, language scholars, linguists, <insert academic title here> — would agree that definitions evolve with the culture that uses them. To hold on too tightly to definitions pushes their words into the archaic and out of popular usage. As a word nerd myself, I am not advocating for stifling the evolution of tolerance, but I wonder if I, and others, are of Vizzini’s ilk when we use it. Does tolerance really mean what we think it means? I don’t know.
What I do know is how it is used by others. For example, it was just a few weeks ago that a well meaning politically charged friend uttered the words “liberals are tolerant as long as you agree with them.” This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard this phrase. My political affiliations aside (Does the Disheartened & Disappointed party have a candidate this year? If so, who do I write in?), my friend isn’t the first to use “tolerance” in a mocking fashion, nor was he the first to align tolerance with agreement. As I reflect on the evolution of the word, I foresee the pairing of tolerance with agreement as the new normal. In other situations, I also have witnessed tolerance being redefined as “putting up with something disagreeable.” I tolerate barking dogs, onions on my pizza, or a colleague’s awkward (not offensive mind you) sense of humor, but I don’t like any of them. Again, this is not the tolerance I was first taught, nor the tolerance I seek socially and culturally. A few of us word nerds might make a push to take the word back, but I’m not sure that re-redefining tolerance would be worth it when we have so many other words in English to choose from.
What’s in a Synonym?
Though I am tempted, I won’t bore you with a thesaurus list of synonyms. Instead, I will share with you my replacement for tolerance: inclusion. Besides the fact I am already verbose by most standards, the reason I skipped the thesaurus is because neither the online nor the printed versions that I consulted listed inclusion as a synonym of tolerance. This got me thinking. Is a synonym limited by its denotation?
If you are a thesaurus, the answer is probably yes. As complex human beings, I think it is fair to reflect on how we use connotations to connect words and meanings. Since tolerance and inclusion don’t intersect in a thesaurus but do intersect in my past experience and usage, does my understanding of either word come into question? Am I more like Vizzini than these two words are like one another? Arguments for both can easily be made, and as a word nerd, I am certain I would enjoy such a discussion. But that’s a discussion for another day.
For today, it doesn’t matter what path lead me from tolerance to inclusion, but that I now find inclusion much more aligned with my values than tolerance. What I need tolerance to mean isn’t commonly understood if it ever was, so I have moved on. I need inclusiveness in my life and the people I choose to let into it. I don’t need or want tolerance if it means bearable or even charity. I like to think that tolerance still aligns with compassion even though that is not what I see most often, but I do know that inclusion, full inclusion, of others requires understanding and compassion in order to do so.