Tolerance: not so easy

Tolerance is a marvelous concept. But, like a lot of concepts, it’s easier to promote than to put into practice. In practice, tolerance is often buffered by a downy cushion of exceptions.

Which isn’t tolerance at all but something else entirely.

While most people profess to care about the poor, few people will tolerate spending time with them. If they did, urban public schools would flourish, the city might be rich, and the suburbs wouldn’t extend to Kansas.

Liberals are famous for preaching tolerance, as long as they don’t have to spend time with people nursing divergent opinions.

Which makes them more like conservatives than they ever imagined.

From time to time, open-minded individuals try to bridge gaps and befriend folks whose views vary greatly from their own. But it isn’t easy.

Through no fault of your own, you might be friends with someone whose politics are diametrically opposed to your own, or adores what you can’t abide (say, monarchies, science fiction or monogrammed handbags, canvas or Vuitton), or has even paid full price to see “Cats” eight or nine times.

You might wake up one morning to find that the person you’ve long adored and believed you knew well holds the Eagles, the band, that is, in the highest regard, while you’ve never thought to buy a single one of its recordings, not even “Hotel California.”

But love is crazy like that.

The true question is how far will that tolerance go?

In college, I roomed with not one but two business-school students, conservative Republicans and charming women both, who went on to reap absurd quantities of money while I, genius that I am, went into journalism, flooded as it is now with opportunity and optimism.

Our political discussions disintegrated into tatters in no time flat, and socioeconomic issues were subject to verbal smack-downs as I was outnumbered 2-1. It wasn’t easy but I was enlightened, learning more than I would have being cosseted by companions who offered a constant chorus of agreement on most matters.

Which would describe how most of us go about our daily lives. Why? Because, it’s easier, and easy has its place.

Most of us have a few companions, possibly more, who don’t fit with the rest. It’s like that Sesame Street song: They’re the ones who are not like the others.

For a couple of years, I was friendly with a woman whose values were as different from mine as I could imagine, but we made each other laugh and offered mutual support and were happy to be in each other’s company.

One day, she made an ugly generalization pertaining to a mere 880 million people. And then she made another one, thinking it was funny though it was not, believing I would tolerate such comments, which I did not.

I told her to please stop, at least with me, and in my home. And so she did. And we continued on for a while.

Subsequently, though, there were other comments, and more derision about other people, and beliefs uttered that I couldn’t stomach. The differences between us became more pronounced, a chasm, at least to me.

And so we drifted apart, civilly because we’re like that, nice manners even in the face of ugly comments but, all the same, we’re no longer friends. We’re ghosts to each other.

In the long run, we didn’t stand a chance. Because she’s like that and I’m like this, and tolerance, as mentioned before, is a marvelous concept but even tolerance has its limits.

Karen Heller

Knight Ridder Newspapers