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Tolerance is a good buzz word—but what does it really mean?


Tolerance is a good buzz word—but what does it really mean?

By Erin Entrada Kelly

When you’re a progressive thinker, you often find yourself belittled by your own values. People delight in accusing you of hypocrisy by being “intolerant” of those who disagree with you.

We hear this word often: Tolerance.


But what does it mean to be tolerant? When we disagree with those who don’t fall in line with our values, are we being hypocritical and intolerant? Do we demand tolerance only for ourselves but deny it to others?

Sometimes, yes. It’s easy to paint everyone with a broad brush, which is something we feminists and activists fight against, even while we do it ourselves. But disagreement does not equate intolerance.


In its simplest form, tolerance means to be free from bigotry. That doesn’t mean you must accept opposing viewpoints with a smile and a shrug. To be tolerant means being—or aspiring to be—free from bias and prejudice, striving for and celebrating the equal rights of all people, and celebrating progression toward equality.

Tolerance is not:

  • Accepting every opinion on an issue, especially those that work against equality, which is what tolerance is all about.
  • Accepting ideals designed to oppress you politically, socially, or economically.
  • Remaining silent and polite while others speak against the equal rights of all people.


Do not allow others to throw tolerance in your face as a weapon. Tolerance is not like putty. It’s not something to toss around because it makes a good buzz word. Tolerance is a three-dimensional belief that has its own weight. Don’t be afraid to speak up for what you believe in—if you disagree with something, voice your concerns. As long as you don’t actively deny the equality or participation of others, you haven’t compromised your tolerance.

James Baldwin said it best: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”



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