Dr Graham Haydon asks whether tolerance has become an easy option, which allows us to continue with an underlying disapproval of others because they are different

Tolerance is sometimes mentioned as an important British virtue; Britain is said to be a tolerant society. But we also hear of zero-tolerance policies on some matters. What is tolerance, and is it always right? Some of the issues around tolerance are matters of law and politics that might be taken up as part of citizenship, but because tolerance is also a matter of personal attitudes and values it merits attention in PSHE too.

Toleration in the law
Our society is said to be more tolerant of homosexual relationships than it used to be, as shown by the legal recognition of same-sex civil partnerships. We should distinguish questions of law from questions of underlying attitude. So far as the law goes, same-sex partnerships have been tolerated since 1967. That was the year in which the Sexual Offences Act removed homosexual acts between consenting adults in private from the list of offences. Basically, so far as the law goes, something is tolerated if it is not illegal. What happened with the introduction of civil partnerships was not that gay relationships were tolerated for the first time, but that they were given positive recognition in law.

The change in the 1960s followed a social debate over the legitimate reasons for making anything illegal. To some people, if society generally disapproved of something, it should be illegal. But the view that prevailed was one going back to the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century: that the only justification for using the law to restrict people’s freedom is to prevent people doing harm to others. Most of our criminal law now has this basis. There are some measures, including ASBOs, that put restrictions on behaviour without actually making it criminal. These have been controversial partly because behaviour that is a nuisance to others may fall short of actual harm. And ‘zero-tolerance’ policies may be difficult to justify if it can’t be shown that the behaviour in question really is harmful.

An attitude of tolerance
The status of homosexuality in Britain in the 1960s is a good model of what toleration, strictly speaking, means. Many people disapproved of homosexuality, but decided that it should be allowed anyway. In general, you tolerate something if you put up with it even though you disapprove of it. But what we mean by an attitude of tolerance is more complicated.

At the beginning of the 1960s, many people disapproved of men and women living together if they were not married. Some people didn’t just disapprove, but put their disapproval into practice in ways that made life more difficult for co-habiting couples (it could be a problem for a woman in a cohabiting relationship to get contraceptives or to get a teaching job). We can say that society has become more tolerant about unmarried people living together, but that way of putting it overlooks the difference between:

  • people who disapprove, but do nothing to put their disapproval into practice, and
  • people who don’t disapprove at all.

People in the first group are exercising tolerance by accepting the existence of something that they disapprove of. People in the second group are certainly not intolerant. They may be very broad-minded; they don’t much mind what people do, so long as they are not harming others. In some ways this liberal broad-mindedness can be an easy position to take; it avoids thinking seriously about where to draw lines between what should be accepted and what should not. We may call this tolerance, but then we may forget that tolerance can be very difficult.

In a recent BBC series people on opposite sides of the Troubles in Northern Ireland were brought together; almost by definition, these people were not going to approve of each other’s politics. The relatives of people murdered were able to question the murderers about their actions; naturally the relatives were not going to approve of the actions of the murderers. It may be too much to say that mutual respect was achieved. But people were able to overcome the difficulties of the situation; they were able at least to exercise enough tolerance to be able to listen to each other seriously. This is not an easy option; it is the kind of tolerance we can admire people for.

Multicultural tolerance
It is supposed to be part of British multiculturalism that people are tolerant of those who are different – in religion or ethnicity – from themselves. Again, we should be careful not to speak of tolerance too glibly. If the question of tolerance only really arises when you disapprove of something or someone, then talking of tolerance between different groups implies that they disapprove of each other, and are, perhaps rather reluctantly, putting up with each other. But that suggests that we might disapprove of someone just because they are different: they have a different skin colour, or live in different ways, or have different religious beliefs.

Here again there is a lazy kind of tolerance that is the easy option; it allows you to have some kind of underlying attitude of disapproval of other people because they are different, so long as you let them get on with their lives. And that avoids the challenge with which people ought to be faced: why should we disapprove of others just because they are different? If we accepted the differences in the first place, the need to tolerate people for their differences wouldn’t arise. It’s no wonder that people do not like to feel they are merely being tolerated by others. Respecting people for who they are is a far more positive attitude than merely tolerating the fact that they are not the same as yourself.