A word which has become so commonplace in western society that if the Oxford English Dictionary were listed in order of ubiquity it would appear near the beginning. It is viewed as something good, worthy, virtuous even – the hallmark of a progressive society. There is an air of self-congratulation about it because we have managed to suppress something we instinctively feel, in order to promote an outer acceptance. Politicians and other leaders announce that we live in a tolerant society as if we have arrived at some kind of cultural ideal.
But is it really this simple? To feel tolerant of something you first have to perceive it as different from you in some shape or form, most often the opinion or behaviour of another individual or group. The term has become synonymous with accepting people from other countries and cultures into the place in which we live and work. But the very act of tolerating keeps us separate from those we wish to integrate with. If you feel the need to tolerate, then you are still experiencing a difference from yourself which you feel some discomfort about. It suggests an element of effort, a ‘putting up with’ for the benefit of the greater good.
Perhaps this doesn’t matter if it enables people to live together in a friendly and cordial manner. However, the wall of tolerance often serves only to restrain the frustration at having to accept that which our instincts tell us to be wary of. Under pressure from external stress such as unemployment or lack of resources, these repressed feelings break forth in the form of blame or anger directed at those we previously accepted. From early humans to modern man instinct has provided a warning to be cautious of strangers and tolerance is merely a sticking plaster covering this innate response and does little to negate it completely.
But overcome it we can, as living alongside those from other parts of the globe becomes the norm and over time differences will cease to both us, there will be no tolerance required, no pre-judgement or labelling as to who is friend and who is foe. Historically migration took centuries, the mixing of cultures happened slowly with integration following initial resistance. My own DNA can be traced back centuries to the North Caucasus region on my maternal side and Germanic roots on my father’s. At the time of testing in 2009 the closest match on record to my genetic profile was that of a Turkish individual and an Iranian. It’s not so much that we will end up in one homogenous melting pot but rather than eyed with suspicion, our differences will be embraced.
Already the 21st century has seen a rapid increase in relocation but our instincts, slow to change their habitual response, have yet to catch up. One day the word ‘tolerant’ maybe obsolete and dropped entirely from the Oxford English Dictionary . . . only then will we live in a truly free society.