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What Does It Take To Be Tolerant?

Wolfgang A. Haas

yoga pose at beach during sunrise

Our world today is becoming more and more polarized, with increasingly irreconcilable differences of opinions, and this is precisely why understanding tolerance is more urgent than ever in our society. Tolerance can be defined as the ability to accept or respect other opinions, beliefs, lifestyles, or behaviors that differ from one's own. It is often considered a positive quality that contributes to peaceful coexistence, cultural diversity, and an open society. But what does it take to be tolerant? And is tolerance always good?


According to an article posted in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ), one of the preeminent German news sources known for its high-quality journalism for over 240 years, “Tolerance is not only an attitude, but also an art that requires wisdom, courage and compassion.” This is a powerful statement that suggests that tolerance is more than just a passive mindset or a simple acceptance of differences. Instead, it highlights that tolerance is a complex and active practice that involves several key elements. It involves being open-minded and willing to accept and respect the views, beliefs, and lifestyles of others, even when they differ from our own. Having the right attitude is the foundation of tolerance. It is a skill that can be cultivated and refined over time. However, it is not a blind acceptance of what other people say or do, but a discerning and thoughtful approach. It involves understanding the reasons behind different viewpoints and recognizing the value of diversity while making informed judgments. It also involves the ability to empathize with others and show kindness and empathy, even when disagreements or differences exist. Tolerance goes beyond mere coexistence; it involves caring for the well-being of others and seeking to create a more harmonious and equitable world.


Tolerance of others is the ability to respect and appreciate people who are different from us. This may refer to their ethnicity, religion, political views, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, or other characteristics. Tolerance of others is good because it helps us avoid prejudice, discrimination, hatred, and violence. It also promotes understanding, empathy, and cooperation among different groups in society.

However, tolerance towards other people cannot be limitless. There are situations in which we have the right or the duty to criticize, correct, or oppose other people when they violate our values, our rights, or our safety. For example, we should not be tolerant of racists, terrorists, or child molesters. Nor should we be tolerant of people who abuse, harass, or harm us or others. So, we should practice a critical tolerance that distinguishes between respect for the person and disapproval of their actions.


Tolerance of oneself is the ability to accept and love oneself as one is. This can refer to our appearance, our abilities, our feelings, or our faults. Tolerance of oneself is good because it helps us to develop a healthy self-esteem, a positive attitude, and an inner peace. It also protects us from self-criticism, self-doubt and self-hatred.

However, tolerance towards oneself should not be complacent. There are situations where we need to challenge, improve, or change ourselves if we want to develop our potential, achieve our goals or increase our well-being. For example, we should not be tolerant of our bad habits, our weaknesses, or our mistakes. We should also not be tolerant of our negative thoughts, our irrational fears, or our destructive impulses. So, we should practice constructive tolerance, which distinguishes between accepting our identity and making an effort for our growth.


Tolerance of evil is the ability to endure the presence or possibility of something bad, wrong, or harmful in the world. This may refer to natural disasters, human suffering, moral wrongdoing, or social injustice.

Tolerance of evil is good because it helps us to acknowledge, understand, and cope with reality. It also prevents us from despair, embitterment, or cynicism.

However, tolerance of evil cannot be passive or indifferent. There are situations in which we must fight, prevent, or eliminate evil if we are to promote, defend, or bring about good. For example, we should not be tolerant of wars, famines or epidemics. Nor should we be tolerant of corruption, oppression or exploitation.

So, we should practice an active tolerance that distinguishes between serenity before the inevitable and responsibility for what can be changed.


"Tolerance does not mean approval. I can only tolerate what I reject but am willing to tolerate." As I understand it, this requires a process of self-reflection, which should begin with the realization that one is not faultless oneself.

This statement also points to a personal process: "Tolerance should be followed by acceptance, appreciation and respect." How am I supposed to find acceptance or even respect for something I reject? From my own experience, I can say that this can be extremely challenging. And often based on a misunderstanding of what acceptance means in this context. For me, it means fully accepting that something is the way it is (even if I don't agree with it). And further, that I take full responsibility for my reactions to it, as well as my thoughts and feelings. That is, I take care to free myself from it, perhaps one could also say, to cleanse. Only after that I can freely determine how I want to act in a corresponding situation.


Another great quote from the NZZ states, "Those who tolerate know better. Or at least believe they know better." This is a great point! I know this from myself more than well enough. So, what can I do to avoid falling into this arrogance? I can explore myself, where I am not tolerant, towards myself and also towards others. And learn not to take myself so seriously. Then I may succeed in showing more humility. But above all, I can learn to treat myself and others basically with good will.

I often find it beneficial to enhance my understanding of a concept by examining synonyms. To illustrate, I have extracted various meanings of the word "tolerance" from a multilingual dictionary, specifically Woxikon, which yielded the following results: respect, forgiveness, openness, latitude, altruism, permissiveness, patience, self-assertion, consideration, serenity, sparing, generosity, magnanimity, lack of prejudice, forbearance, nobleness, long-suffering, and perseverance. Clearly, the concept of tolerance is multi-faceted and complex, but does not include arrogance.

Therefore, in response to the question, what does it take to be tolerant, it is evident that we must practice a critical, constructive, and active tolerance that respects and promotes human dignity, freedom of conscience and the justice of society. Tolerance, then, is not only an attitude but also an art that requires wisdom, courage and compassion. However, even though tolerance is good, it cannot be absolute or unconditional.

headshot of Wolfgang Haas

Wolfgang A. Haas

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