Why ‘tolerance’ shouldn’t be tolerated in schools

The British Values policy says students should have ‘tolerance’ of others with different beliefs – but this kind of language doesn’t model positive attitudes to diversity, says Megan Mansworth
27th November 2020, 12:00am
Why ‘tolerance’ Shouldn’t Be Tolerated In Schools
Megan Mansworth


Why ‘tolerance’ shouldn’t be tolerated in schools


"Mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith."

So reads one of the four core British Values strands, which all schools are expected to promote. The intention of this aspect of the British Values framework is positive: it is designed to ensure that all schools introduce students to a range of different beliefs besides their own, and incorporate opportunities for this learning across the curriculum.

Yet the statement contains one problematic word, which perhaps we don't analyse enough. An abstract noun with benign intentions but troubling connotations. A word that is commonplace across the media and in society, and one that is used frequently to refer to the attitude that we should have towards others who are different from ourselves. That word is, of course, "tolerance": a word that is central to the British Values mandate, and one that many of us use frequently without a great deal of critical reflection.

But vocabulary is crucial, and therefore, as teachers, we need to be continually conscious of our lexical choices. The language we use reflects how we see the world, and also how others view and experience it.

Not only this, but research in the field of linguistic relativity suggests that the language we use may even shape the way we think, even on a base, conceptual level. For instance, a study by cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky and linguistics researcher Alice Gaby found that the people of the Pormpuraaw Aboriginal community in Queensland, Australia, conceptualise the passing of time differently from speakers of European languages.

The Pormpuraaw language represents time as going from east to west, whereas most other languages tend to envision and represent the passing of time in terms of forwards movement, or movement from left to right.

Meanwhile, a study of the language of the Himba people of Namibia, conducted by psychology professor Deborah Roberson, found that, because of the way the Himba language categorises colour, its speakers find it more difficult to see the differences between shades of blue and easier to discern between shades of green.

If language can affect the way we think to such a dramatic extent as influencing the way we interpret universal human experiences, such as seeing colour and experiencing time, it is surely worth taking some time to reflect critically on the vocabulary we use in our schools. This is especially true when it refers to something as crucial as the attitude we want students to have towards diversity. If a word is going to be embedded in our curriculum, it is absolutely reasonable to deconstruct our use of that word. Or, indeed, to consider whether we should be using it at all to frame discussions around attitudes to different cultures and beliefs.

So, could using the word "tolerance", when teaching children about different cultures, faiths and beliefs, be counterproductive? And does the existence of this word in itself tell us something disconcerting about the way our society views difference?

We can start to see the problem with "tolerance" if we look at some of its definitions. These suggest that it is, overall, not a positive feeling, action or experience. The Cambridge Dictionary defines "tolerance" primarily as a "willingness to accept behaviour and beliefs that are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them". Its secondary definition is "the ability to deal with something unpleasant or annoying".

"To tolerate", in the verb form, meanwhile, is to "allow the existence, occurrence or practice of (something that one dislikes or disagrees with) without interference", or to "accept or endure with forbearance".

Every single one of these definitions implies - to differing degrees - that tolerance involves a form of endurance of something unlikeable or unpleasant in some way. What an incredibly pessimistic way, then, of framing the way we speak about difference. Should we be teaching our young people that they must begrudgingly "allow" the existence of others? That they might begin from a position of disapproving of them or their beliefs but will need to suppress this disapproval? Is it fair to imply that they may be enduring something they dislike or disagree with simply by coming into contact with people with different faiths and beliefs?

The reason why the widespread use of the word "tolerance" is accepted without question might be that it suggests the opposite of "intolerance". It is better, of course, to teach our students to be tolerant than intolerant. However, even if the intention is benevolent, the language we use communicates a certain ideology. When we teach our young people that difference should be tolerated, we imply that coming into contact with a diverse range of faiths and beliefs means having to restrain, in some way, our inner negative feelings, while giving an outward impression of forbearance. It suggests starting from a point of disagreement, rather than from common beliefs or an opportunity to learn.

Ultimately, this is an example of othering - a process of building a "conceptual framework around a notion of Us-versus-Them", according to Edward Said, a pioneer of postcolonial studies. This process of othering tends to be unspoken, implicit.

Even though the use of the word "tolerance" has become ubiquitous, if we change it to its verb form - "tolerate" - it is immediately obvious how unpleasant and negative this lexical choice is. Imagine saying to a friend, "I tolerate the colour of your skin," or, "I tolerate the fact that you are gay." How about, "You're a Muslim, but I can tolerate it," or, "I tolerate women in positions of authority"?

I could go on, but I expect that even reading those sentences made you wince, as they are so evidently offensive. "To tolerate" evokes the idea that societal and cultural differences have to be borne, rather than embraced. It is, therefore, insulting to those who find themselves the subject of such tolerance.

According to the linguistic concept of pragmatics, the context in which words are communicated and experienced is central to their meaning. We could argue that, from a context-driven perspective, racism and prejudice are so potent, and are such significant and damaging elements of many people's lives, that we need powerfully positive words to oppose them. It is not enough to teach our children "tolerance" when they might previously have come across ideas that communicate not mere intolerance of different cultures and beliefs, but also hatred, prejudice and dislike.

We need to frame discussions in much more positive terms, in order to counterbalance the negative experiences of intolerance - and to communicate the message that differences in belief are not just to be endured but appreciated. There is a multitude of alternative words that we could use, in order to model the way we want children to think about diversity and equality. For example, we could encourage children to "enjoy" or "celebrate" different cultures and beliefs, or to "appreciate", "learn from" or "understand" them. These are all words that have far more aspirational and optimistic subtexts than "tolerance".

If a term is going to be concretised and used in a curriculum document, communicated in hundreds of schools across the country and reproduced on thousands of school websites and mission statements, then it must be able to analysed, critiqued and justified. And the term "tolerance" simply does not bear scrutiny. We need to aim higher than this, and these high aspirations should start with the wording of the curriculum.

The concept of British values has been criticised by varied academics for its "racialised, nostalgia-filled stereotypical conception of what it means to be British" (S Elton-Chalcraft et al, 2017) or for creating a divisive "them and us" type of narrative in schools (A Hodkinson, 2000). Notwithstanding these arguments, if we are going to continue framing moral education in this way in schools, the Department for Education should at least think carefully about reviewing the language of the British Values mandate, and consider replacing "tolerance" with a word with warmer, more positive connotations, such as those outlined above - a word that suggests a positive commitment to understanding and learning about other faiths, rather than having to suffer through it.

However, until the government takes the time to do this, we can challenge the concept in our own classrooms by using positive language when we talk about attitudes towards those who have different beliefs to ourselves. If language shapes thought, we have a golden opportunity, as educators, to help our young people to frame the way they think about diversity in a positive way. We must ensure that our students see the joy and benefits of diversity, rather than viewing difference negatively. Thinking critically about the language we use ourselves is a great place to start.

Megan Mansworth is an English teacher and a PhD student in linguistics. She tweets @meganmansworth

This article originally appeared in the 27 November 2020 issue under the headline "Any talk of 'tolerance' shouldn't be tolerated"

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