Revised Definition of Tolerance

After serving in WWII, my father-in-law, Dan Newton, worked as a finishing carpenter and specialized in staircases. When the construction market slowed, he went to work for a machine shop. His passion for precise measurements that developed in woodworking found greater expression in tool making. The machine work that Dan did require high tolerances to ten to a hundred thousandths of an inch. Heart valves and parts for the Apollo projects tolerated little room for error in their manufacture.

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As I got to know Dan, I grew familiar with this machinery definition for tolerance. Merriam-Webster defines it as the allowable deviation from a standard especially: the range of variation permitted in maintaining a specified dimension in machining a piece.” In a way, this definition sounds similar to the standard one: to put up with. A machinist is only able to put up with a tiny deviation from the standard measurement required.

The meaning of some English words has changed over time. Tolerance is no exception. People have used this word for ordinary topics, but over the past several decades, it has become a powerful cultural buzz word and a significant part of a worldview that has permeated American society.

What Is the Definition of Tolerance?

In addition to the machinery use of the word, tolerance has historically had these following definitions:

Webster’s 1828 Dictionary

“The power of capacity of enduring; or the act of enduring.” In brackets, Webster says this word was little used in his time, but intolerance was in everyday use. Intolerance: “the not enduring at all or not suffering to exist without persecution; as the intolerance of a prince or a church towards a religious sect” (Burke).

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1961)

The first definition listed resembles the 1828 one. The second states: (a) “a permissive or liberal attitude towards beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own;” (b) “the act of allowing something.”

An example of the first definition is a person’s tolerance for a messy room or loud noises. The second definition describes a live-and-let-live attitude, which a pluralistic, civil society needs to function well.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, New College Edition (1969-1976)

By the 1970s, we begin to see a shift in the definition of tolerance. The first one says, “The capacity for or the practice of allowing or respecting the nature, beliefs, or behavior of others.” Next is the machinery definition. The third definition matches the definition used in Webster’s 1828 dictionary.

Contemporary Dictionaries

Dictionaries today offer a broader view of the definition of tolerance.

MerriamWebster: the same of the Third International Dictionary listed above.

Collins English Dictionary: 1. “the state or quality of being tolerant”; 2. “capacity to endure something, esp pain or hardship.”

American Heritage Dictionary: similar to its 1969-1976 edition predecessor listed above.

Dictionary.com (based on Random House Unabridged Dictionary 2019):

  1. a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, beliefs, practices, racial or ethnic origins, etc., differ from one’s own; freedom from bigotry.
  2. a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward opinions, beliefs, and practices that differ from one’s own.
  3. interest in and concern for ideas, opinions, practices, etc., foreign to one’s own; a liberal, undogmatic viewpoint.
  4. the act or capacity of enduring; endurance

The first three dictionaries list the historical definition of tolerance. The last one, however, emphasizes the new, culturally dominate interpretation and lists the original meaning as the last entry. As with all written material, dictionaries reflect the viewpoints of their authors and editors. This last dictionary either may be viewed as more progressive or that Random House simply recognizes the word’s shift in usage. Perhaps both conclusions are correct.

Cultural Definition

Based on the Random House dictionary, the meaning of tolerance has evolved from its ordinary, historical usage to become a term of a worldview: “any liberal, undogmatic viewpoint.” This observation led me to explore what the dictionaries meant by liberal. Merriam-Webster provides the classical definition, whereas Dictionary.com (based on Random House’s dictionary), offers a more progressive one.

When I first heard this cultural use of tolerance, I thought it sounded cruel. Those who used the word in that manner seemed to advocate that people should just “put up” with each other instead of seeking to get along or to find common ground with one another. For me, “putting up” with someone is enduring someone whose company I don’t enjoy. Granted, we all have to do that from time to time. But I believe we should try to go beyond putting up with others.

As time passed, I noticed that the idea of tolerance had become a code word for the progressive worldview (the critical theory, which I recently learned about) and an excuse for leftists to call those who disagree with them, such as conservatives and orthodox Christians, intolerant. In a speech given at Hillsdale College, Roger Kimball, editor and publisher of The New Criterion, pointed out this fact:

“The old idea of tolerance was summed up in such chestnuts as, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ The new dispensation is: ‘I disapprove of what you say, therefore you may not say it.”

Roger Kimball

Thus, when we conservatives express our views in the market of ideas, we must be aware of this change. Tolerance no longer means to endure something such as an annoying person nor does it mean that our fellow Americans will defend our free speech even if they disagree with us. Based on critical theory, tolerance means our ideas must march lock-step with the cultural elites, or we will be attacked as intolerant. Conservative news outlets report many examples of such attacks.

This definition of tolerance silences the voice of dissent, a cherished American value, and divides citizens into different levels of acceptance based on their worldviews. As long as this use of tolerance reigns in our culture, American equality will cease to exist, tribalism will grow, and the republic will fail.

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