Elevate Difference

Tolerant Oppression: Why Promoting Tolerance Undermines Our Quest for Equality and What We Should Do Instead

On the surface, tolerance seems like an innocuous concept. We’ve heard it before in relation to diversity, acceptance, and other key words that denote something positive. However, a deeper look into the idea reveals a mess of conflicting messages and confusion. For those who have never considered the concept of tolerance from this perspective before, Dr. Scott Hampton provides a handbook of sorts that critically assesses tolerance. Each of the 110 mini-chapters works to debunk the idea that tolerance is enough in order to achieve harmony.

Hampton uses quotes from respected leaders and a variety of exercises to illustrate and demonstrate his points, making this a light and quick read. In fact, its format makes it a useful teaching tool for those looking to challenge their own or others’ views on tolerance. The point is driven home all throughout, but the exercises allow for readers to reach their own conclusions as well.

To explain how tolerance simply isn’t enough, Hampton draws on a variety of controversial and hot button issues such as sexism, suicide, human trafficking, and more. The moral and ethical arguments surrounding these issues serve to support his points and give him an opportunity to present ideas such as, “Tolerance is politically correct hatred.” He suggests alternatives to tolerance like acceptance, understanding, and respect, because these words are less likely to be confused and more accurately describe what a person typically means when they say tolerance.

Many who are part of traditionally oppressed groups will see the logic to Hampton’s claims. Being tolerated isn’t enough, and it only serves to further enforce differences. Tolerance perpetuates the idea that one group or person is superior to another rather than challenging that very idea. On one hand, this might seem like a simple case of bad word choice, but given the fact that many people and organizations hold tolerance up as the goal or hoped-for end result, it is worthwhile to take a moment to identify what we truly want (justice, equality, etc.) and how we might better achieve it.

Written by: Shana Mattson, January 29th 2011

I'm so glad someone is addressing this - I've felt for years that the word "tolerance" basically means "I'll put up with you" rather than "I will embrace you as my equal." Good review.

As a white heterosexual male, my intolerance of the word "tolerance" has more often than not over the past several years been met by confusion. When I vocalize my disdain for the term and the concept, I must immediately clarify my statements to avoid being pegged as some sort of Libertarian racist nut-job. So I am inclined to give this book a try.

That being said—and while it would appear that I largely agree with Dr. Hampton—I tend to feel that offering up alternative words for "tolerance" still feels like we are handing bigots a vocabulary list for disguising their hatred. As much as “tolerance” might be “politically correct hatred,” words such as “acceptance,” “understanding,” and “respect” all indicate that a decision must be made as to whether a member of one group will decide to view another group in a positive or negative light based solely on superficiality. In the vastness of language, I believe a word that indicates the ability of one group—particularly the majority group—to refrain from oppressing another is neither needed nor wanted. It seems that should simply be our default position.

It's not as though we are talking about rival species fighting for dominance and survival. We all have the same scientific classification and the genetic difference between races is only .01 percent at best. Not only is this not statistically significant, it’s indicative of the archaic nature of our racial classifications. Yet we insist on taking things one step further and categorize each other on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and other socialized gender roles. These misguided attempts to place humans into smaller and smaller groups only serve to illustrate that what some may perceive to be the fundamental human differences are in fact merely social constructs.

As for the characteristics that some argue necessitate these racial classifications, many of these certainly deserve attention, such as culture, religion, and biology; however, these are not race-specific but merely variations of the human experience, along with the aforementioned sexual orientation and gender identity. This means that focusing our energy on classifying individual humans based on something like phenotype is an illogical waste of time.

If we wish to acknowledge human differences, and in turn learn to understand and incorporate these differences, it takes more than checking the box that best describes the color of someone’s skin or viewing sexuality from a heteronormative perspective. In reality, it requires that our minds be so open that we don't even consciously acknowledge these superficial differences. As easy as it may be to see our subtle variations as inescapable differences, it would be more beneficial to realize that for every small difference observed an uncanny amount of genetic similarity goes unseen.

Thanks for another great review, Shana.

This book came up recently in my WS class. While the book is ostensibly about tolerance (and other concepts that undermine equality), it's really about the abuse of power. I could see using it as a collection of talking points to challenge systems of oppression with regard to reproductive autonomy, marriage equality, drug use, prostitution, etc. As a class assignment, we did the exercise (there are 30 of them in the book) on resolving the abortion debate -- that led to an intense and thought provoking discussion.

Tolerance is fine unless you are the one being tolerated. Have you ever heard an oppressed person say that all they want is the dominant culture to be more tolerant of them?

A question in the book: "Why did the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. never promote tolerance?" is answered by a quotation from the author's study on tolerance and oppression -- "Tolerance, are you kidding? It's an insult. It's how white people feel better about themselves while continuing to hate Blacks." I assume that's the same experience for other groups who have been oppressed. Good review Shana. Thanks.