On Tolerance and Toleration

Different colored pumpkins jumbled together.Thinking ’bout the South


My address says CA, but all I see from my writing desk these days are my old familiars, the mountains of NC. Given a continent’s remove from those parts, I speak of them on paper, but seldom in company.

That changed last week over hot chocolate with Waights Taylor. He’s a fellow writer. Hails from regions southeastern as do I, but he’s an AL boy. (He’d say “boy” of himself just as I’d say “girl,” in spite of the the fact that both of us can remember a time before TV, a time when mobile communications meant putting on some shoes and walking oneself to wherever one was going…)

Out on this other coast, Waights and I sound like cousins. Of course we’re not. Waights comes out of Plantation South while my provenance is Appalachia. And even Appalachia, Lord knows, is as oddly silo’ed into nano-cultures as any other neighborhood within these united states. Nevertheless, to CA ears, there’s a twang to our talk. And a pace. A slowing in conversation as we search for the right words, the ones that balloon up with lots of vowels and syllables and mouthiness. Words like “tolerance.”

We were chatting about America’s avowed aspiration of tolerance. It made us laugh. When that word “tolerate” came up in my family–and you can bet it did on many an occasion–it was never good. “I will not tolerate horseplay at my table.” That was my mother. Or, “What in toleration were you thinking?” My mother again.

No, tolerating was something you did not do. It never communicated happy acceptance of whatever was to follow. So we’d never dream of recommending tolerance of others. In fact, the very word implied a passive resignation to things or company deemed to be intolerable, but to be “put up with” nonetheless. Well, nobody wants to be put up with.

In my family, the code was respect. Respect actively given and received. It was transactional, mutual (see my earlier post of mine on civility). It was offered to everyone encountered regardless of class or background, regardless even of superficial manners or moral failings (“His buddy’s Jack Daniels,” or “Haven’t seen her in church since that Easter hat last spring…”). It was offered regardless of all things save one: lack of reciprocity. Woe betide the ignorant or arrogant or sense-impaired individual who did not comport him- or herself respectfully in my family’s presence. Then there was “no toleration.” Which meant, of course, that there was only “toleration.” We were to continue–always!–to treat such persons with respect. But now that transaction was meant to be instructive. And, until such time as said fool embraced (or recovered) the language of respect, she or he was “tolerated,” the modifier “barely” being implied.

Establishing a common ground of parity upon which to meet all respectful folk: now, that’s an aspiration, a restoration I can get behind in our jumbled up, crossroads of a world.

Waights Taylor is the author of “Our Southern Home,” a work of literary non-fiction that literally brings home–to his own doorstep–the history of the Scottsboro trial.

© i.e. ideas expressed 2011

About Amanda McTigue

Author. Director. Teacher. My debut novel, GOING TO SOLACE was named one of four "Best Reads of 2012" by public radio's KRCB "Word by Word." A collection of short stories, "Convergence," is due out in 2015. A second novel, "Monkey Bottom," will follow.
This entry was posted in Going to Solace, LIFE, PAGE, Small Towns, The Little Things, The South, Uncategorized, Writers and Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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