Is 'Tolerance' a Myth?

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Have we muddled the real meaning of the word "tolerance"?  George Mason economics professor Robin Hanson says though the word "is a feel-good buzzword in our society," many people who consider themselves "tolerant" aren't the real deal:

Many folks are proud of their "tolerance" for gays, working women, Tibetan monks in cute orange outfits, or blacks sitting at the front of the bus.  But what they really mean is that they consider such things to be completely appropriate parts of their society, and are not bothered by them in the slightest.  That, however, isn’t "tolerance." "Tolerance" is where you tolerate things that actually bother you.

His colleague Alex Tabarrok then suggests that most people just aren't "truly tolerant"--though libertarians might be. In fact, Tabarrok suggests that societies' movements towards greater "tolerance" aren't a product of tolerance at all, but of changing demographics and definitions of normal.

As I suspect Robin would acknowledge, gay rights have not advance d because of more tolerance per se, i.e. they have not advanced because more people are willing to accept behavior that bothers them ... since few people are or ever-will-be truly-tolerant, tolerance by itself probably can't get us very far towards a society of peaceful variation.  Instead, we will have to argue that variant practices are normal, not bothersome or a subject of indifference.  The route to drug legalization, for example, is to encourage more normal people who "smoke pot and like it" to come out of the closet. 

When we say that our society is growing more tolerant, do we just mean that certain ways of living are coming to seem more normal? Is that substantively different from true "tolerance"?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.