Tolerance Essay

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The history of tolerance as guiding principle for states, governments, and the life of their citizens is linked to the Enlightenment and political liberalism. The philosophers of the Enlightenment proclaimed toleration as the notion that all human beings are essentially the same, independent of their religious beliefs. Political liberalism transformed these ideas into its own paradigm of individual rights and autonomy, value pluralism and private beliefs, and linked it to its ideals of justice and freedom.

Tolerance is a principle invoked in a world of deep pluralism, and in the face of religious and political conflict. In Europe, tolerance emerged as a mechanism of social order as early as in the Middle Ages when cities like Toledo, Granada, and Sarajevo thrived on tolerance between Muslim, Christian, and Jewish citizens in countries under Islamic governments. The Confederation of Warsaw (1573) is the earliest document of religious tolerance guaranteed by the state, followed in 1598 by the Edict of Nantes in France. The USA was the first to guarantee it in its constitution (1787).

Tolerance is best defined as a minimalist concept and in a negative way. Tolerance embodies a sense of disapproval, and is the deliberate choice not to interfere with beliefs, life styles and behaviors, which one disapproves of; as such it is a mechanism of ”regulating aversion” (Brown 2006). Tolerant attitudes and behaviors are situated between a positive and negative extreme; at its positive extreme, tolerance includes respect for others, acceptance and embracement of social diversity and individual difference. At its negative extreme, tolerance is characterized by total neglect, disregard, ignorance and avoidance of those individuals and groups who are different.

Tolerance owes its prominent role in the formation of modern societies to its essential character as non-interference. It is decisive in the cultural change from ”passions to interests” (Hirschmann 1997 [1977]), in the transition from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft (Tonnies), and the formation of weak ties (Granovetter 1973). Tolerance creates links between different social groups, and facilitates the everyday interactions of their members. Tolerance is seen as an indispensable ”underpinning of democracy” and cornerstone of civic culture (Sullivan and Transue 1999).

In particular its roots in liberalism have given rise to critical re-evaluations of tolerance and its role in polity and society. In his essay ”Repressive tolerance” Marcuse (1969 [1965]) was one of the first to point out the asymmetrical nature of tolerance. The majority decides when and how tolerance is appropriate, and grants it to minorities, thereby retaining the right (and power) to define the realm of what and who will be tolerated. In responding to the political, social and cultural challenges to tolerance in contemporary societies, political theory and philosophy have re-configured the concept of tolerance in terms of identity and difference, and redefined its links with liberalism. Traditional notions of political and religious tolerance need to be critically evaluated and broadened in order to account for all aspects of new forms of diversity in contemporary societies, and to relate them to the institutional frameworks of democracy, justice, and human rights.


  1. Brown, W. (2006) Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
  2. Granovetter, M. (1973) The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology 78: 360-80.
  3. Hirschmann, A. O. (1997) [1977] The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before its Triumph. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
  4. Horton, J. & Mendus, S. (eds.) (1999): Toleration, Identity and Difference. Macmillan, London.
  5. Marcuse, H. (1969) [1965] Repressive tolerance. In: Wolff, R. P., Moore, B. Jr., & Marcuse, H. (eds.), A Critique of Pure Tolerance. Beacon Press, Boston, pp. 95-137.
  6. Sullivan, J. L. & Transue, J. E. (1999) The psychological underpinnings of democracy: a selective review of research on political tolerance, interpersonal trust and social capital. Annual Review of Psychology 50: 625-50.

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