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Are We Becoming a Nation of Intolerance?

I would love to see our society learn to use our critical abilities toward more positive outcomes. If we can see the fault, then surely we can also see a workaround.
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Have you noticed how much criticism we seem to be encountering these days? It almost seems like the whole country has adopted the critic's mentality on just about everything. Even worse, that tendency toward criticism seems to have devolved into a rising level of intolerance.

I know that I have a pretty critical mind myself. Recently, a friend asked me to join him at a car dealership where he was picking up a new car. When I asked him why he wanted me there, he told me that I have the ability to spot flaws that others miss. He wanted me to look over the car before he took delivery to see if anything looked wrong.

I must admit that I have noticed this trait myself. Sometimes, I am definitely more of the cup-is-half-empty kind of guy. Unless, of course, somebody else points out the part of the cup that is empty. Then I am just as likely to point out the part that is half full.

My mentor once told me that I had an interesting ability, one that he called "close tolerance." He described close tolerance as the ability to hold a tight standard and notice when something is inside or outside the standard. That can actually be a useful level of discernment to possess; however, close tolerance can also edge toward intolerance.

As my mentor explained, you want your brain surgeon to have the close tolerance trait. However, you probably don't want your friends to be too close tolerant in their relationships with you. The challenge is that close tolerance can seem like, or even become, intolerance if you're not careful.

From my point of view, we seem to have become increasingly intolerant as a society. Now I fully understand that there are any number of situations and behaviors out there that should not be tolerated.

However, there is a great distinction between tolerating something and being intolerant. Merriam-Webster tells us that to tolerate something means that you are willing to allow something or to put up with something. However, the same dictionary tells us that intolerance means "unwilling to grant equal freedom of expression."

Clearly, there are any number of egregious behaviors out there which we should not tolerate. One need look no further for useful examples as the apparently greed motivated business practices out there that helped us get into the financial pickle in which we find ourselves today.

However, as we work to extricate ourselves from our various predicaments, I would hope that we can find a way to engage in creative debate rather than the debilitating form of intolerance which seems to have become increasingly commonplace.

Whether it is the increasingly vitriolic set of interchanges between politicians or the kinds of spiteful comments that some readers post across HuffPost, it seems as though we have come to accept vilification as a form of discourse.

It seems that no matter the subject, no matter the solution put forward, more and more people are willing to criticize not just the idea but the person putting forward the idea as well. If the criticisms were accompanied by some kind of creative solution, things might be different. However, criticism and cynicism seem to have become surrogates for actual involvement.

What is most bothersome to me these days is the growing lack of human acceptance exhibited in our daily dialogue. Sanctimonious stances abound, whether it is from politicians accusing the other of behaviors they too practice or even religious leaders more than willing to jump all over someone like Tiger Woods. Perhaps some of the Christians amongst the critics missed the part about "love the sinner, not the sin," or better yet, "let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

Billy Payne, the chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, chose to use the television spotlight of the recent Masters Tournament to throw his collection of stones at Woods. Coming from a club with its own checkered history of racism and sexism, it's hard to imagine the moral high ground Mr. Payne seemed to claim. If you didn't know better, you might expect to see the members in white robes rather than green jackets, with halos instead of little emblems embroidered on their pockets.

People make mistakes pretty much daily. People also work to create, to improve, and to resolve problems. Sometimes the two go together. Finding something to criticize is pretty easy, both mistakes as well as attempts at creative problem solving.

Even more troubling is the penchant to criticize the person, not just the mistake or the attempt at creative solutions. Once again, my mentor comes to mind. He reminded me on more than one occasion when my critic's mind was active, "it is easier to criticize than it is to create."

I would love to see our society learn to use our critical abilities toward more positive outcomes. If we can see the fault, then surely we can also see a workaround. If we can see what's missing, surely we can also see what could be added to improve the situation.

Wouldn't it be great if we could advance another rung or two on the ladder of humanity, and abandon the intolerance that seems so widespread these days? Wouldn't it be great if we could learn to use our differences to jointly create new solutions?

Amidst the sea of political complaints regarding the legacy we are leaving our children, I am more concerned about the legacy of intolerance than the legacy of hobbled finances or imperfect health care systems. Finances and systems can be repaired, but only if we have minds and hearts joined together in finding solutions.

Surely, teaching intolerance and fear are hardly the way forward.

I'd love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at)


If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at)