Tolerance, then, involves permitting or allowing a conduct or point of view you think is wrong while respecting the person in the process.
Notice that we can’t tolerate others unless we disagree with them. We don’t “tolerate” people who share our views. Instead tolerance is reserved for those we think are wrong.
This essential element of tolerance--disagreement--has been completely lost in the modern distortion of the concept. Nowadays, if you think someone is wrong, you’re called intolerant.
This presents us with a curious problem. Judging someone as wrong makes one intolerant, yet one must first think another is wrong in order to be tolerant. It’s a catch-22. According to this approach, true tolerance is impossible.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that tolerance could apply to persons, behaviors, or ideas.
The classical definition of tolerance, what might be called “civic tolerance,” can be equated with the word respect. We respect people who hold beliefs different than our own; we treat them courteously and allow their views in the public discourse, even though we may strongly disagree with them and vigorously contend against their ideas in the public square.
Note that respect is accorded to the person here. Whether his or her behaviors should be tolerated, however, is a different issue. This is the second sense of tolerance. Our laws demonstrate that people may believe what they like--and they usually have the liberty to express those beliefs--but they may not behave as they like. Some behavior is immoral and a threat to the common good and so is not tolerated but restricted by law.
Tolerating people should also be distinguished from tolerating ideas. Civic tolerance says that all views should get a courteous hearing, not that all views have equal worth, merit, or truth. The view that no person’s ideas are any better or truer than those of another is irrational and absurd. To argue that some views are false, immoral, or just plain silly does not violate any meaningful standard of tolerance.
These three categories are frequently conflated by muddled thinkers. If we reject another’s idea or behavior, we’re automatically accused of rejecting the person and of being disrespectful. To say we’re intolerant of the person because we disagree with her idea is confused. On this view of tolerance, no idea or behavior can be opposed, regardless of how graciously, without inviting the charge of incivility.
Historically, our culture has usually emphasized tolerance of all persons but not tolerance of all behavior. This is a critical distinction because, in the current rhetoric of relativism, the concept of tolerance is most frequently advocated for behavior--premarital sex, abortion, homosexuality, pornography, and so on.
Ironically, though, there is little tolerance for the expression of contrary ideas on issues of morality and religion. Differing views are soundly censured. The tolerance issue has thus gone topsy-turvy: Tolerate most behavior, but don’t tolerate opposing beliefs about those behaviors. Contrary moral opinions are labeled as “imposing your view on others.”
Instead of hearing, “I respect your view,” those who differ in certain ways are deemed bigoted, narrow-minded, and intolerant.
Most of what passes for tolerance today is not tolerance at all but actually intellectual cowardice. Those who hide behind that word are often afraid of intelligent engagement and don’t engage or even consider contrary opinions. It’s easier to hurl an insult than to confront the idea and either refute it or be changed by it.
Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, “Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air,” pg.149-150