An Intolerant Mind: Why Tolerance Threatens Coexistence

When we coexist with wolves, we create an empathic relation in which the other’s needs are valued as our own. We see that through trophic cascade, wolves make healthy ecosystems and cleaner rivers and purer air for our children.

When we tolerate wolves, on the other hand, we see our needs uncomfortably subjugated to a perceived special interest. We see wolves benefitting from our tolerance at a cost to ourselves, when we create forced and false tolerance, rather than coexistence.

As children, our prize possession is that which is “mine.” As adults, property becomes like lines in the sandbox. The idea is that we all “get along” as long as we play nicely and leave each other’s stuff alone. But does tolerance create good neighbors, or strangers?

In the poem “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost’s narrator recounts his neighbor’s mantra: “good fences make good neighbors.” Mending the wall that separates their properties, one of pine and one of apples, the narrator wonders what he is “walling in and walling out.” Certainly fences can be necessary, keeping cattle out of wilderness, and wildlife out of cattle pens. The irony, Frost’s poem shows, is that fences don’t always make good neighbors and “something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.”

It is the unfenced mind that coexists.

Tolerance is a display made by the powerful. “I allow you to be different,” tolerance says. “I have decided to tolerate you.” Meanwhile, oppressed people cannot tolerate, because they can’t choose not to (without violent revolt and uprising). But tolerance is also an indicator of fear, of pretending not to see difference–racial blindness for example–of seeing others as threats in ways that alters our encounters with the others, or in deep inarticulable guilt and embarrassment over differences, particularly economic inequality.


The sun does not tolerate the weed – the weed adapts to the sun. To imagine nature needs our tolerance is to undermine the more serious need for coexistence, compassion and empathy. So what are our ideas about tolerance and difference doing to our sense of self, our relationship with others, our political relations with other nations? And is the difference between tolerance and coexistence really that important?

Mount Shasta and rock wall, by Cynthia Singleton

The difference comes down to power. If I coexist with nature, I understand I am part of it and it is part of me. I leave a light footprint on the planet. If I tolerate nature, on the other hand, I believe nature is to be dominated. I divert waterways, see forests as economic resources, and wilderness as track for road and sport. I see predators as a nuisance. I frack, I plunder, I mine, I pump, I leave a heavy-footed print upon the Earth. I am blind to ecosystems, or our essential interconnection, even if I appreciate nature’s beauty.

We take for granted that tolerance is the best way of being in the world. But emphasizing tolerance stunts the very diversity it purports to protect. Tolerance damages our ability to empathize and grow, and to see our interconnections. And it is that — our fear of change, our fear of growing — that is at the heart of hatred, prejudice, cruelty and real intolerance.

Coyote in a field

Removing boundaries means coming face to face with change — changing oneself, one’s culture, one’s systems of normalcy. One either encounters difference and meets it from above, saying “I will or will not tolerate you,” or one meets it from below, saying “I hope you tolerate me,” or one meets difference head on, saying “let’s coexist.” Coexisting, by thriving in a universe of radical difference is a virtue and it helps us feel our connections.

When you feel another’s pain, you feel your own pain more. Jeff Mogil’s study, referenced in the TED radio episode “Press Play,” shows being around strangers creates stress. Stress makes it hard to feel empathy. And not feeling empathy is why tolerance is an inadequate marker of social harmony. In his study, Mogil’s subjects plunged their arms into buckets of ice water and rated their pain. When they did so with a stranger, and were asked to rate their perception of the stranger’s pain, the rating was low. Repeating the same test with a friend, their perception of a friend’s pain was higher, as was their own pain. This is empathy. And it makes us wonder — do fences create good neighbors, or strangers?

A funny thing happens with empathy — when you see others as friends and neighbors, rather than as strangers — you stop wanting to kill them. You stop seeing them as immigrants, refugees, or nuisance. Harmony in a civil society cannot come without empathy and tolerance may actually get in the way.

Wolf, running like the wind in Idaho

When we tolerate others, we see ourselves as allowing the other to have the privilege of being tolerated by us. I will tolerate you IF you behave to my liking, if you stay off my lawn and out of my schools, if you don’t get too big for your britches, if you stay out of the West Bank and have no real political autonomy or independence, if you don’t make me budge, change, grow, or engage with empathy. As long as the wild doesn’t in any way impact my life. This is not really what we want from tolerance. It does not allow us to coexist.

When we coexist we see our Earth as shared, not something we can take or give. When we coexist  we are humbled by the recognition of the vastness of this mysterious universe.







Published by JM

I am a writer, a wildlife conservationist, a teacher, an activist and a mama.

8 thoughts on “An Intolerant Mind: Why Tolerance Threatens Coexistence

  1. Beautiful intermixed issues. People who says walls make good neighbors must never had read the poem. Was it Alice Walker who said tolerance really means ” I will put up with you while continuing to try to make you like me.” ?


    1. Yes Heather absolutely – in a world dominated by social media and memes, where people read snippets of quotes and not the poems or essays in their entirety, so much is lost – to the point people eschew lines from passages they don’t even understand. Poor Robert Frost’s poems and sentiments are particularly misunderstood – including “good fences make good neighbors” but also “and so I took the one less traveled by.”

      BOTH these lines are used today to mean the exact opposite that he originally intended. The first, not getting the irony that his lines implied that good fences DON’T make good neighbors, and the second, not getting the point that whether you take the common road or the less traveled road, you end up in the same place.

      For Pete’s sake, can we possibly set the bar any lower for comprehension of complex thoughts?

      I don’t think so.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I often wonder how many people roll in their graves because of how they’ve been twisted into the opposite of what they meant? Like Darwin survival of of the fittest. Most ” fitting in to ” their ecosystem, i.e. cooperating in the what is, not dominating another human! Social Darwinism is awful but I could reclaim it: the human cultures that fit into their bioregion cooperating with what is, they survive… 🙂


  2. Reblogged this on heather awen archives and commented:
    A beautiful piece about the option of being connected or being less compassionate strangers- and the real point of the population that says “walls make good neighbors” (I don’t think have read the poem as it’s point is that they DON’T.


  3. This is a wonderful post. You’ve taken “tolerance” to a completely new perspective. Until now, tolerance for me was the ability to handle changes in the environmental conditions. You’ve added a “living” dimension to it by talking about tolerance between organisms; more specifically humans and others.

    The negative connotation with the latter “tolerance” is extremely interesting, and makes a lot of sense.

    But isn’t this the same as resistance to change? Because it’s not just humans that “tolerate” other organisms. A tiger would also be said to “tolerate” the influence of another tiger with the same home range. While they continue to coexist, the won’t necessarily like it.

    What word, in your opinion, should replace tolerance in ecological literature now that you feel it brings a lot of negativity in natural interactions?


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