Equity & Diversity Opinion

‘Tolerance’...What Does That Mean?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 29, 2013 4 min read
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What do the words ‘troops’, ‘bully’, or ‘tolerance’ mean to you? These are just three words that have come to be part of our daily language. They are three words in our ever-enlarging vocabulary in which we may not have shared understanding. The irony is, these three words are not even new words entering the English language, rather, they are old words, used in new ways.

Words are our main vehicle for communication. If you sometimes feel as if you can no longer communicate effectively, maybe it’s because words themselves are increasing so rapidly or because they take on new meaning. We don’t often think about the number of words in our language nor the impact of that. We certainly have enough else to consume our thoughts. But, the proliferation of words invented in the past century has delivered a new challenge. The Language Monitor reports,

The number of words in the English language is: 1,019,729.6. This is the estimate by the Global Language Monitor for January 1, 2012. The English Language passed the Million Word threshold on June 10, 2009 at 10:22 a.m. (GMT). The Millionth Word was the controversial ‘Web 2.0′. Currently, there is a new word created every 98 minutes or about 14.7 words per day.

The challenge for us is to keep abreast of a rapidly evolving language (both new words and new meanings) and to be sure the people with whom we are communicating have arrived at the same understanding. Additionally, it is curious to think about how words are chosen to describe things. Are they meant to lessen the blow, to sharpen the spear, to create a boundary, or to open one?

Soldiers vs Troops
The United States became involved in an increasing number of conflicts and wars around the world. At the same time, advancing technology allowed the media to acquire the capability of reporting the actions of our military almost as they happened. As a result, we became more intimately connected with the reality of the danger and losses our military incurs. As our brave young men and women were killed in action, the numbers of the losses were reported nightly. However, somewhere in this process the words used to describe the loss changed. Instead of saying that six ‘soldiers’ were killed, we hear six ‘troops’ were killed. Does the term ‘troops’ seems less personal or gender neutral? Losing lives of men and women in the uniform of this nation is significant regardless of the number. But, what has happened to desensitize us, that makes this a daily occurrence and less catastrophic? Is it language or access to the images or an interaction of both?

One Who Bullies vs A Bully
The website StopBullying.Gov defines bullying as:

... unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.

What if we were to remove the words ‘school aged children’? The definition looks strangely similar to the one for harassment of any kind. And since we don’t necessarily refer to those who harass as ‘harassers’ it is curious that we have labeled children who harass as ‘bullies’. Calling someone a name, labeling him or her with the term ‘bully’ rather than describing his or her behavior, sends a different message. Even in good old days, there were ‘school yard bullies’. Does that term increase our collective understanding of the behaviors that we need to stop or give some undercurrent of familiarity that is defeating to our goal?

Valuing Diversity vs Tolerance
‘Tolerance’ has, for some, come to mean accepting opinions or behaviors of others that do not necessarily sync with their own. However, our familiarity with the term ‘tolerance’ has some different roots. Tolerating another’s behavior is not a comfortable experience. Tolerance is not the same as welcoming. Tolerance for alcohol or a container’s tolerance for a specific amount of pressure indicates a threshold. A measure of how much can be tolerated is not what we mean when we are speaking of diversity. What do we truly mean when we say we are ‘teaching tolerance’?

If we could teach tolerance to those within our political arena, would we avoid government shutdowns? Probably not, because we don’t have differing perspectives, we have win and lose sides. To make space for a perspective unlike our own requires willingness, and ultimately, an ability to open our minds, ever so slightly.

We aspire to more than tolerance. We argue for valuing diversity so much that when we all begin to look alike, think alike, sound alike, we reach out to include someone new and different. Rather than struggle to learn from the other side, we keep looking for the view, large enough to include us all. Of course, it requires the belief that common ground is feasible. Perhaps, there are new words coming that will describe the era in which we lost our ability to respect and value those who do not perceive the world the way we do. Isn’t it time for those among us who are skilled at inclusive thinking to shine a light out for us to follow? And, then, would we?

You can always connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.