Acceptance vs Tolerance

Acceptance v Tolerance

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

13 February 2011 © Rev Fred L Hammond


There was a long pause on the phone.  Then, “What did you call me?” I was flabbergasted, I had to think; did I say something derogatory and not realize it? “I called you Sir.”   He sputtered, “No one has ever called me sir.  I am not a sir.  I am called lots of things but Sir is not one of them.”  “Well,” I replied, “I just did and therefore you must also be, a Sir.”

Keith was many things in the eyes of the world.  He was a convict, a violent criminal, an addict, a street bum, a con artist, abusive to his girlfriend, and infected with HIV/AIDS. All of these labels were met with fear by most everyone he encountered. This is the person parents warn their children about. Good people do not associate with the likes of him. He was the other to everyone he met.  At best he would be tolerated by the social service workers who would help with food stamps, clothing vouchers, rental assistance.  Rarely would he be accepted for his essential self, a fellow human trying to find his way through this maze called life.

The definition of tolerance has broadened over the centuries but its earliest meaning had to do with enduring, endurance as in something painful or abhorrent.  A newer connotation of the word is to offer a permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, culture, race; sexual orientation is different to ones own.  But the underlying denotation of enduring or forbearing something abhorrent remains.

Accept is the root word of acceptance and it has many definitions as well, including “to receive or admit formally, as to a college or club; and to regard as normal, suitable, or usual.” So the matter of acceptance means to welcome in as one of us or to consider as typically everyday normal.

The difference between tolerance and acceptance reveals a strong contrast:  endure something painful or welcome as one of us.

There is in our society lots of conversation about tolerating our diversity.  We are asked to be tolerant of gays, lesbians, and transgender folk.  We are asked to be tolerant of our religious differences.  We have heard specifically to be tolerant of Muslims in our country.  So given the definition of the word what are we really asking when we ask for tolerance of those who are different from us.  Are we asking to simply put up, endure people that we do not like, whose very presence might be painful, offensive to our set of morals or cultural mores?

It could be said that in the 20th century Euro-Americans were tolerant of African Americans as long as African Americans remained in their scripted place of being at the back of the bus.  As long as African Americans remained in their prescribed societal role of a second class citizen, then Euro-Americans could tolerate them.  Tolerate them with total indifference. This was not acceptance of African Americans, but it was tolerance. When African Americans refused to remain at the back of the bus, tolerance of African Americans went out the window and the south went up in flames, quite literally.  African Americans wanted acceptance as equals.  They no longer would stand for the tolerance of indifference which on a good day is what they received. We all know what happened on the bad days.

Martin Buber, 20th century philosopher, wrote a ground breaking text called I and Thou.   He describes the person who declares I as having two basic word forms, I-It and I-You or I-Thou.  We experience it. What ever that something is, it is experienced by the I.  He writes, “I perceive something.  I feel something. I imagine something. I think something. …The world as experience belongs to the basic word I-It.”

We do not experience You, instead I-You is in the realm of relationship. There are no boundaries, no borders to the I-You basic word form.  There is a border with the I-It experience.  The I-It has shape, it has definition, and it may also have a past tense.    However, the I in the I-You dyad impacts upon the You only in the present, in the here and now, likewise the You impacts on the I.  The I-You relationship must be dealt with; the relationship cannot be ignored or placed into the background like an I-It experience.

In the movie Avatar there is within the Na’vi culture this notion of seeing the other.  The Na‘vi do not experience their world in the I-It sense but rather in the I-You relationship.  They see their world in the full essence of life unfolding. Their world embodies an entity of being.  They do not experience their world they are in relationship with the world.  In the movie it is stated that the skypeople, the humans, cannot see.  When Jack Sully finally embraces the culture of the Na’vi he and his Na’vi mentor say to each other, “I see you.”  They are finally in an I-You relationship.  Buber suggests that in these moments the I-You relationship is also addressing the eternal You.  I see you.

The skypeople, the humans, are not in relation with the world Pandora.  To them the world is an It.  They experience the world.  They know what the world can offer them in resources and in potential experiences.  But the world is an It and all the beings living on the world are an It, as well.  Pandora to the skypeople is of no consequence to them. They therefore are blind and do not see Pandora.

Extrapolate this not seeing the other as a You to the United States stance and quest for oil in the Middle East or our stance on immigration and undocumented citizens.  Or our long embattled history with the indigenous people of this land. All of these are I-It experiences.  This is not simply a political analysis this is as spiritual as it gets.


There is a Hindi word that also expresses this I-You relationship, Namasté.  It has been translated in many ways from the simple “The god in me recognizes the god in you.” To “I honor the place in you in which the entire Universe dwells, I honor the place in you which is of Love, of Integrity, of Wisdom and of Peace. When you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, we are One.”  Saying Namasté, the person is acknowledging the I-You relationship.

In the last 18 days we have seen something remarkable happen in Egypt.  We saw a people rise up, realize that they are people of worth and dignity and peacefully remove a dictator who saw them only as his objects. They claimed an I-You stance in this revolution and demanded that their government see them for who they are.

In the 1950’s, when Rosa Parks sat down in the bus, when the college students sat down at the lunch counter, when Ms. Lucy walked into the University of Alabama, they were declaring an I-You stance and demanded to be seen as the same as any other person.  They were to be known as the I-You and no longer as an I-It.  There is a lot of courage and fortitude to insist to be in relationship with another who does not see you but only tolerates you as a piece of landscape in the background.  Tolerance as experienced in America is an I-It paradigm.

There is a video that has been making the rounds on Face Book. It is sponsored by a bible church in Arkansas. It opens with a young man in a hurry to work and he is complaining about every inconvenience, the kid next door on his skateboard that isn’t paying attention to cars, the traffic, the car that cuts him off, and the long lines in the coffee shop.  He is handed a pair of glasses and as he puts them on he suddenly sees the problems that is weighing down on each person. One person is fighting addictions; another just had a blow up fight with their spouse, the single mom working two jobs to make ends meet, the man who just lost his job and trying to save face with his kids.  Suddenly these people are no longer in the I-It experience.  No longer are they barriers to his getting to where ever he is rushing to but I-You individuals that if he so chooses might serve as a difference in their lives.

Does acceptance mean embracing the opposing behaviors, values, and beliefs to our own?  Contrary to popular argument, no.   I can accept the person before me as one with dignity and worth and still not like their behaviors or belief system.  Acceptance is not carte blanche.  Parents can accept their children universally but this does not automatically mean they accept their children’s behaviors that are disrespectful or harmful to themselves or others.

What it does mean is that we are seeing the whole person as a person of worth and dignity. Before us stands a person who deserves to live their life as fully and as abundantly as possible. We are in relationship with them instead of simply tolerating their presence.   This is spiritual work.  When all the forces around us insist on making others I-Its in our landscape, it takes a disciplined soul to see the other as I-You.   And when the person is oppressed by society, it takes even more fortitude to insist on being recognized as part of I-You.

Unitarian Universalist Zach Wahls, whose testimony before the Iowa state legislator on the zero impact of his parents being a lesbian couple on the development of his character was an I-You testimony.  He declared that his family is not so different from any other family in Iowa.  Their sense of worth as a family is not derived by the state declaring his parents married. “Sense of family comes from commitment to each other, it comes from the love that binds us,” Zach told the chambers.  Acceptance of his family as equal partners in contributing to the positive development of Iowan society is far different than tolerance of his family.  Zach told the council that not one person in his 19 years of life ever independently deduced that he was raised by two women instead of a heterosexual couple.  He was passionately arguing that his parents were not I-It but were worthy of being I-You because he could declare, I see you to his parents.  He was asking the council to join him in seeing, truly seeing his family as any other family in Iowa that receive the fair and equal treatment from their government.

Remember Keith, the hardened street criminal I called sir?  He died many years ago just before Thanksgiving.  At his funeral, his older brother told me that I was able to reach Keith in a way that no one in the family could.  He thanked me for seeing Keith for who he was at his core being.  He suggested that this made the difference in how Keith chose to live his final days surrounded by family, welcomed and accepted home.

Live with an attitude of acceptance, of welcoming in people where they are instead of an attitude of tolerance, of putting up and enduring the pain of life’s diversity.  By so doing you may enter into the realm of I-You and even encounter the eternal You in the process.  Namasté.