Sarah Peterson

Originally published in July 2003, Current Implications added by Heidi Burgess in December, 2019

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When Sarah wrote this essay in 2003, social media existed, but it hadn't yet become popular or widespread.  Facebook and Twitter hadn't started yet (Facebook started in 2004, Twitter in 2006.)  More.... 

What is Tolerance?

Hobbes: "How are you doing on your New Year's resolutions?"

Calvin: "I didn't make any. See, in order to improve oneself, one must have some idea of what's 'good.' That implies certain values. But as we all know, values are relative. Every system of belief is equally valid and we need to tolerate diversity. Virtue isn't 'better' than vice. It's just different."

Hobbes: "I don't know if I can tolerate that much tolerance."

Calvin: "I refuse to be victimized by notions of virtuous behavior."

-- A Bill Watterson cartoon shows Calvin and Hobbes walking through the snow.

Tolerance is the appreciation of diversity and the ability to live and let others live. It is the ability to exercise a fair and objective attitude towards those whose opinions, practices, religion, nationality, and so on differ from one's own.[1] As William Ury notes, "tolerance is not just agreeing with one another or remaining indifferent in the face of injustice, but rather showing respect for the essential humanity in every person."[2]

Intolerance is the failure to appreciate and respect the practices, opinions and beliefs of another group. For instance, there is a high degree of intolerance between Israeli Jews and Palestinians who are at odds over issues of identity, security, self-determination, statehood, the right of return for refugees, the status of Jerusalem and many other issues. The result is continuing intergroup conflict and violence.

Why Does Tolerance Matter?

At a post-9/11 conference on multiculturalism in the United States, participants asked, "How can we be tolerant of those who are intolerant of us?"[3] For many, tolerating intolerance is neither acceptable nor possible.

Though tolerance may seem an impossible exercise in certain situations -- as illustrated by Hobbes in the inset box on the right -- being tolerant, nonetheless, remains key to easing hostile tensions between groups and to helping communities move past intractable conflict. That is because tolerance is integral to different groups relating to one another in a respectful and understanding way. In cases where communities have been deeply entrenched in violent conflict, being tolerant helps the affected groups endure the pain of the past and resolve their differences. In Rwanda, the Hutus and the Tutsis have tolerated a reconciliation process, which has helped them to work through their anger and resentment towards one another.

The Origins of Intolerance

In situations where conditions are economically depressed and politically charged, groups and individuals may find it hard to tolerate those that are different from them or have caused them harm. In such cases, discrimination, dehumanization, repression, and violence may occur. This can be seen in the context of Kosovo, where Kosovar Alabanians, grappling with poverty and unemployment, needed a scapegoat, and supported an aggressive Serbian attack against neighboring Bosnian Muslim and Croatian neighbors.

The Consequences of Intolerance

Intolerance will drive groups apart, creating a sense of permanent separation between them. For example, though the laws of apartheid in South Africa were abolished nine years ago, there still exists a noticeable level of personal separation between black and white South Africans, as evidenced in studies on the levels of perceived social distance between the two groups.[4] This continued racial division perpetuates the problems of intergroup resentment and hostility.

Angela Khaminwa emphasizes the flexibility of meanings of the concept "coexistence."

How is Intolerance Perpetuated?

Between Individuals: In the absence of their own experiences, individuals base their impressions and opinions of one another on assumptions. These assumptions can be influenced by the positive or negative beliefs of those who are either closest or most influential in their lives, including parents or other family members, colleagues, educators, and/or role models. 

In the Media: Individual attitudes are influenced by the images of other groups in the media, and the press. For instance, many Serbian communities believed that the western media portrayed a negative image of the Serbian people during the NATO bombing in Kosovo and Serbia.[5] This de-humanization may have contributed to the West's willingness to bomb Serbia. However, there are studies that suggest media images may not influence individuals in all cases. For example, a study conducted on stereotypes discovered people of specific towns in southeastern Australia did not agree with the negative stereotypes of Muslims presented in the media.[6]

In Education: There exists school curriculum and educational literature that provide biased and/or negative historical accounts of world cultures. Education or schooling based on myths can demonize and dehumanize other cultures rather than promote cultural understanding and a tolerance for diversity and differences.

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What Can Be Done to Deal with Intolerance?

To encourage tolerance, parties to a conflict and third parties must remind themselves and others that tolerating tolerance is preferable to tolerating intolerance. Following are some useful strategies that may be used as tools to promote tolerance.

Intergroup Contact: There is evidence that casual intergroup contact does not necessarily reduce intergroup tensions, and may in fact exacerbate existing animosities. However, through intimate intergroup contact, groups will base their opinions of one another on personal experiences, which can reduce prejudices. Intimate intergroup contact should be sustained over a week or longer in order for it to be effective.[7]

In Dialogue: To enhance communication between both sides, dialogue mechanisms such as dialogue groups or problem solving workshops provide opportunities for both sides to express their needs and interests. In such cases, actors engaged in the workshops or similar forums feel their concerns have been heard and recognized. Restorative justice programs such as victim-offender mediation provide this kind of opportunity as well. For instance, through victim-offender mediation, victims can ask for an apology from the offender and the offender can make restitution and ask for forgiveness.[8]

What Individuals Can Do

Individuals should continually focus on being tolerant of others in their daily lives. This involves consciously challenging the stereotypes and assumptions that they typically encounter in making decisions about others and/or working with others either in a social or a professional environment.

What the Media Can Do

The media should use positive images to promote understanding and cultural sensitivity. The more groups and individuals are exposed to positive media messages about other cultures, the less they are likely to find faults with one another -- particularly those communities who have little access to the outside world and are susceptible to what the media tells them. See the section on stereotypes to learn more about how the media perpetuate negative images of different groups.

What the Educational System Can Do

Educators are instrumental in promoting tolerance and peaceful coexistence. For instance, schools that create a tolerant environment help young people respect and understand different cultures. In Israel, an Arab and Israeli community called Neve Shalom or Wahat Al-Salam ("Oasis of Peace") created a school designed to support inter-cultural understanding by providing children between the first and sixth grades the opportunity to learn and grow together in a tolerant environment.[9]

What Other Third Parties Can Do

Conflict transformation NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and other actors in the field of peacebuilding can offer mechanisms such as trainings to help parties to a conflict communicate better with one another. For instance, several organizations have launched a series of projects in Macedonia that aim to reduce tensions between the country's Albanian, Romani and Macedonian populations, including activities that promote democracy, ethnic tolerance, and respect for human rights.[10]

International organizations need to find ways to enshrine the principles of tolerance in policy. For instance, the United Nations has already created The Declaration of Moral Principles on Tolerance, adopted and signed in Paris by UNESCO's 185 member states on Nov. 16, 1995, which qualifies tolerance as a moral, political, and legal requirement for individuals, groups, and states.[11]

Governments also should aim to institutionalize policies of tolerance. For example, in South Africa, the Education Ministry has advocated the integration of a public school tolerance curriculum into the classroom; the curriculum promotes a holistic approach to learning. The United States government has recognized one week a year as international education week, encouraging schools, organizations, institutions, and individuals to engage in projects and exchanges to heighten global awareness of cultural differences.

The Diaspora community can also play an important role in promoting and sustaining tolerance. They can provide resources to ease tensions and affect institutional policies in a positive way. For example, Jewish, Irish, and Islamic communities have contributed to the peacebuilding effort within their places of origin from their places of residence in the United States. [12]

Current Implications

When Sarah wrote this essay in 2003, social media existed, but it hadn't yet become popular or widespread.  Facebook and Twitter hadn't started yet (Facebook started in 2004, Twitter in 2006.) 

In addition, while the conflict between the right and the left and the different races certainly existed in the United States, it was not nearly as escalated or polarized as it is now in 2019.  For those reasons (and others), the original version of this essay didn't discuss political or racial tolerance or intolerance in the United States.  Rather than re-writing the original essay, all of which is still valid, I have chosen to update it with these "Current Implications." 

In 2019, the intolerance between the Left and the Right in the United States has gotten extreme. Neither side is willing to accept the legitimacy of the values, beliefs, or actions of the other side, and they are not willing to tolerate those values, beliefs or actions whatsoever. That means, in essence, that they will not tolerate the people who hold those views, and are doing everything they can to disempower, delegitimize, and in some cases, dehumanize the other side.

Further, while intolerance is not new, efforts to spread and strengthen it have been greatly enhanced with the current day traditional media and social media environments: the proliferation of cable channels that allow narrowcasting to particular audiences, and Facebook and Twitter (among many others) that serve people only information that corresponds to (or even strengthens) their already biased views. The availability of such information channels both helps spread intolerance; it also makes the effects of that intolerance more harmful.

Intolerance and its correlaries (disempowerment, delegitimization, and dehumanization) are perhaps clearest on the right, as the right currently holds the U.S. presidency and controls the statehouses in many states.  This gives them more power to assert their views and disempower, delegitimize and dehumanize the other.  (Consider the growing restrictions on minority voting rights, the delegitimization of transgendered people and supporters, and the dehumanizing treatment of would-be immigrants at the southern border.) 

But the left is doing the same thing when it can.  By accusing the right of being "haters," the left delegitimizes the right's values and beliefs, many of which are not borne of animus, but rather a combination of bad information being spewed by fake news in social and regular media, and natural neurobiological tendencies which cause half of the population to be biologically more fearful, more reluctant to change, and more accepting of (and needing) a strong leader. 

Put together, such attitudes feed upon one another, causing an apparently never-ending escalation and polarization spiral of intolerance.  Efforts to build understanding and tolerance, just as described in the original article, are still much needed today both in the United States and across the world. 

The good news is that many such efforts exist.  The Bridge Alliance, for instance, is an organization of almost 100 member organizations which are working to bridge the right-left divide in the U.S.  While the Bridge Alliance doesn't use the term "tolerance" or "coexistence" in its framing "Four Principles," they do call for U.S. leaders and the population to "work together" to meet our challenges.  "Working together" requires not only "tolerance for " and "coexistence with" the other side; it also requires respect for other people's views. That is something that many of the member organizations are trying to establish with red-blue dialogues, public fora, and other bridge-building activities.  We need much, much more of that now in 2019 if we are to be able to strengthen tolerance against the current intolerance onslaught.

One other thing we'd like to mention that was touched upon in the original article, but not explored much, is what can and should be done when the views or actions taken by the other side are so abhorent that they cannot and should not be tolerated? A subset of that question is one Sarah did pose above '"How can we be tolerant of those who are intolerant of us?"[3] For many, tolerating intolerance is neither acceptable nor possible." Sarah answers that by arguing that tolerance is beneficial--by implication, even in those situations. 

What she doesn't explicitly consider, however, is the context of the intolerance.  If one is considering the beliefs or behavior of another that doesn't affect anyone else--a personal decision to live in a particular way (such as following a particular religion for example), we would agree that tolerance is almost always beneficial, as it is more likely to lead to interpersonal trust and further understanding. 

However, if one is considering beliefs or actions of another that does affect other people--particularly actions that affect large numbers of people, then that is a different situation.  We do not tolerate policies that allow the widespread dissemination of fake news and allow foreign governments to manipulate our minds such that they can manipulate our elections.  That, in our minds is intolerable.  So too are actions that destroy the rule of law in this country; actions that threaten our democratic system.

But that doesn't mean that we should respond to intolerance in kind.  Rather, we would argue, one should respond to intolerance with respectful dissent--explaining why the intolerance is unfairly stereotyping an entire group of people; explaining why such stereotyping is both untrue and harmful; why a particular action is unacceptable because it threatens the integrity of our democratic system, explaining alternative ways of getting one's needs met. 

This can be done without attacking the people who are guilty of intolerance with direct personal attacks--calling them "haters," or shaming them for having voted a particular way.  That just hardens the other sides' intolerance. 

Still, reason-based arguments probably won't be accepted right away.  Much neuroscience research explains that emotions trump facts and that people won't change their minds when presented with alternative facts--they will just reject those facts.  But if people are presented with facts in the form of respectful discussion instead of personal attacks, that is both a factual and an emotional approach that can help de-escalate tensions and eventually allow for the development of tolerance.  Personal attacks on the intolerant will not do that.  So when Sarah asked whether one should tolerate intolerance, I would say "no, one should not." But that doesn't mean that you have to treat the intolerant person disrespectfully or "intolerantly."  Rather, model good, respectful behavior.  Model the behavior you would like them to adopt.  And use that to try to fight the intolerance, rather than simply "tolerating it." 

-- Heidi and Guy Burgess. December, 2019.

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[1] The American Heritage Dictionary (New York: Dell Publishing, 1994).

[2] William Ury, Getting To Peace (New York: The Penguin Group, 1999), 127.

[3] As identified by Serge Schmemann, a New York Times columnist noted in his piece of Dec. 29, 2002, in The New York Times entitled "The Burden of Tolerance in a World of Division" that tolerance is a burden rather than a blessing in today's society.

[4] Jannie Malan, "From Exclusive Aversion to Inclusive Coexistence," Short Paper, African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD), Conference on Coexistence Community Consultations, Durban, South Africa, January 2003, 6.

[5] As noted by Susan Sachs, a New York Times columnist in her piece of Dec. 16, 2001, in The New York Times entitled "In One Muslim Land, an Effort to Enforce Lessons of Tolerance."

[6] Amber Hague, "Attitudes of high school students and teachers towards Muslims and Islam in a southeaster Australian community," Intercultural Education 2 (2001): 185-196.

[7] Yehuda Amir, "Contact Hypothesis in Ethnic Relations," in Weiner, Eugene, eds. The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence (New York: The Continuing Publishing Company, 2000), 162-181.

[8] The Ukrainian Centre for Common Ground has launched a successful restorative justice project. Information available on-line at

[9] Neve Shalom homepage [on-line]; available at; Internet.

[10] Lessons in Tolerance after Conflict.

[11] "A Global Quest for Tolerance" [article on-line] (UNESCO, 1995, accessed 11 February 2003); available at; Internet.

[12] Louis Kriesberg, "Coexistence and the Reconciliation of Communal Conflicts." In Weiner, Eugene, eds. The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence (New York: The Continuing Publishing Company, 2000), 182-198.

Use the following to cite this article:
Peterson, Sarah. "Tolerance." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <>.

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