If you Google “limits of tolerance,” you find some interesting things. There’s a 2009 “The Ethicist” column from the “New York Times,” an Amazon link to a book on Indian secularism, an interview with Salman Rushdie.
There are also a lot of links to scientific sites: The Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council, for instance, has a page explaining the statistical meaning of “tolerance limits” (“Tolerance limits define the range of data that fall within a specified percentage with a specified level of confidence”); there’s a Wikipedia entry on tolerance limits in engineering; and there’s an entry from an online medical dictionary.
In light of this past weekend’s events in Charlottesville, I find myself thinking about the limits of tolerance. And these scientific definitions are helpful for offering additional perspective.
At root, the limit of tolerance seems to be, as the words suggest, the point at which a system can no longer contain—tolerate—the load it is being asked to bear. That applies to a bridge, a body, an ecosystem. It also applies to a relationship, a community, and a society. We can’t tolerate something anymore when the energy it demands of us—the physical, emotional, or psychological energy—is more than we can give.
In general, we want to create systems that have high capacities for tolerance. We want our bodies to be healthy, and able to tolerate many different conditions. We want our minds to be broad, able to function in a wide range of ideas and fields of information. We want our hearts to be large, able to tolerate joy and sorrow, achievement and loss.
With large hearts, broad minds, and healthy bodies, we also want our relationships to have high tolerance levels. Healthy relationships are able to contain tension and disagreement, and ultimately resolve them into energy that fuels our capacity for the inevitable tensions and disagreements down the road. In the words of the Talmud: “A love without rebuke is not real love.”
So we strive to cultivate the capacities of broad-mindedness and large-heartedness—capacities like patience, listening, reflecting, being comfortable with silence, and delivering words of disagreement with honesty, integrity, and respect. The more we do these things, the better we will be, the better our relationships will be, the better society will be.
But it takes two to tango. And one of the things that we know from those definitions of tolerance limits is that systems cannot tolerate active efforts to undermine them, to cause them pain, or to destroy them. These are the indicators of bad faith, the active corrosion of trust. And when they are taken in malicious efforts to sow fear, do harm, and eliminate “undesirables,” they are evil.
Those of us in the dialogue business know that listening empathetically is not the tool for every problem. When Nazis march with torches, beat pedestrians in a parking lot, and murder citizens at a rally, that is not a time for dialogue, because it is outside the limits of tolerance. It is sad to have to say it, but say it we must: non-violence is a precondition for talking and listening. Those who engage in violence and intimidation cannot expect the rest of us to tolerate them.
Yes, we must listen to each other. Yes, we must cultivate open hearts and minds. Our society will get nowhere without them, and will go far on their strength. But thugs and terrorists are beyond our tolerance limit. When they’ve taken responsibility for their actions, when they’ve reformed their behavior, when they’ve learned how to live within the limits that human relationships and communities can tolerate, we can have a conversation.
Until then, they’re past the limits of tolerance.