Toleration is not enough

Gandhi’s life confirms that toleration is an insufficient remedy even when practiced by a very exceptional man.

This is from Theodore Zeldin’s excellent book An Intimate History of Humanity. The chapter it came from points out that despite Ghandi’s incredible charisma, intellect, and patience, his mission was ultimately a failure. He wanted English colonialists and native Indians to live together peacefully — to tolerate each other. The peace did not last.

Zeldin finds that tolerance works when times are good. But as soon as there is a shortage or conflict of interest, those who were tolerated quickly become the bad guys. The finger-pointing begins and the conflict escalates.

What is needed in the long run is respect.

The recent movie Invictus shows how rugby symbolized Nelson Mandela’s deep respect for white citizens and their culture. In one scene, Mandela insists that his team of bodyguards should include an equal ratio of white and black officers. This demonstrates to the country that Mandela respects the white officers so much that he trusts them with his life; in turn, the white officers demonstrate their respect for the president by protecting him. Like Ghandi, Mandela led by example. But Mandela realized that toleration was not enough; respect was necessary for lasting peace.

I find this insight surprisingly applicable to everyday life. It’s easy to fall back on toleration when times are good. I’ve seen this (and have sometimes been guilty) with roommates and coworkers. When interaction is minimal or interests are aligned, things go smoothly. But as soon as opinions differ or hard constraints arise, there is escalating conflict and extreme difficulty at reaching consensus or compromise.

Respect is harder than toleration. It requires understanding and empathy. It requires a willingness to embrace truths that are not your own truths. Humility.

The lesson here is to learn to recognize the difference between tolerance and respect, which can often look similar on the surface.

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