The Concept of Tolerance

10 december 2012 | In academia Hate Crime politics | Comments?

We pride ourselves of our tolerance and we chide others for their lack of it. Surveys of attitudes towards the foreign and policies addressing those attitudes often use the term ”tolerance”. The concept and its use has come under some scrutiny lately, and some of those with interests tied to the issues it is intended to cover have started to move away from it. The driving idea behind this resistance is that ”tolerance” is held to somehow imply dislike. Being very tolerant, then, would seem to require a great deal of dislike, and that’s certainly not a healthy measurement of attitudes. We’re not aiming for stoicism, surely.

The implication is held to be conceptual, but conceptual analysis is a tricky thing. If the implication you draw is one that is at odds with common usage, it’s possible that you’re using it wrong. Some concepts may be such that there are clear criteria for how they should be used  independent of context or of current actual usage. But it is also quite clear that ”tolerance” is not such a concept.

”Tolerance” may not imply dislike. In medicine, tolerance seems rather to involve not having an adverse reaction to the introduction of something unknown or foreign to the system. ”I’m lactose tolerant, but I also happen to love milk.” There’s no conceptual tension in that statement. In fact, a lactose intolerant person (I know several) may love milk too, so in this sense, there’s no conceptual implication from tolerance to the attitudes of like or dislike.

Surveys operationalize concepts. ”Tolerance” in a survey of tolerance is nothing over and above a summary of the items in the survey. When science cover vague concepts (and they’re all vague concepts, dear) it relies on stipulation and on an argument that the stipulation is at least consistent with common usage, even if it does not exhaust it.

So it’s quite possible, even likely, that the tolerance we pride ourselves of and chide ourselves and others for lacking is not a concept that implies dislike. It’s more likely to imply a lack of adverse reaction to the introduction of something unknown or foreign to the system. Usually with the add-on that the thing in question is not malign. But that’s actually not my point. My point is rather this: Don’t let too much of your argument depend on the implications from your interpretation of a loosely defined concept.

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