At the Root of Intolerance


In our society we can find many examples of intolerance in relation to lifestyle, religion, sexuality and the like.  Often the things which we find intolerable are harmless to ourselves and to others, and yet we react to them as though they are highly detrimental.  We may site various reasons for our intolerance, all of which can be easily argued against.  But we fail to see the root of the problem, which lies not in what others are doing, but within ourselves.

If you speak to someone who is intolerant they will rarely, if at all, use the word “intolerant” to describe their experience.  Instead they will generally express their intolerance with the word “uncomfortable”.  This is important to notice, because the root of the issue lies in one’s discomfort.

There are many things in life which seem to cause us emotional discomfort.  But we have to ask ourselves who is really responsible?  We also have to ask what is really causing the discomfort?

Let’s look at the example of homophobia.  There have been many scientific studies conducted which all seem to replicate the same results.  In these studies a group of men are asked to fill out a questionnaire asking them how comfortable they would be in certain situations regarding homosexuals.  Depending upon how they score, they are then divided into two groups; those who are homophobic and those who are not.  All of the men are then placed individually in private rooms where they are wired to equipment that measures their arousal.  They are then shown a series of pornographic imagery, beginning with heterosexual content.  In every study most of the men in both groups found the material equally arousing.  But when shown homosexual content, the homophobic men showed a significantly higher degree of arousal that the non-homophobic men.

What this suggests is that homophobia stems from latent homosexual tendencies.  This doesn’t mean that they are necessarily exclusively homosexual.  The studies seem to indicate that they are usually aroused by both hetro and homosexual imagery.  But the point is that the very thing which makes them feel uncomfortable is not the behavior of others, but is actually their own repressed desires.

Mental and emotional discomfort is ultimately our own personal responsibility.  The real truth of the matter is that nothing in our external experience can cause us internal discomfort.  Our discomfort is our own internal reaction to external experiences, but is not directly connected.  This is very difficult for many people to comprehend, but as soon as we begin to grasp this, even at the intellectual level, we will begin to notice that we are far less affected by our external experiences, and we will find that we have a greater degree of control when it comes to our emotional state.


The great problem in our world is that many people do not understand this.  Most of us have little or no self-control in regard to our mental and emotional state.  We are highly reactive, rather than reflective.  We are easily triggered by our external experiences.  And rather than recognizing that we are reacting to those experiences, we mistake those experiences to be the cause of our internal state.

If we are emotionally uncomfortable we project that discomfort onto the world outside of ourselves, and generally onto other people.  After all, it is very convenient to blame others for our emotional suffering.  But the problem is that, as long as we refuse to take responsibility for it, it continues to go unresolved.  We are always in suffering.  And conveniently, as long as we blame everyone else, we don’t really have to change anything about ourselves.  We can just be a victim of circumstance.

But if you truly want to overcome this internal suffering, you must come to realize that no one is responsible for it other than yourself.  And you must look deeply into it in order to find the root and pluck it out.

So when we find ourselves intolerant of another’s lifestyle, religion, or whatever it may be, we really have to ask ourselves, “What is this triggering in me?”  Often, if we are brave enough to look, what we find is that their way of life is not so much in conflict with our own.  Rather it has simply touched upon an internal conflict which already exists solely within us.

To give another example, let us suppose that we are uncomfortable with someone who is in a non-monogamous relationship.  Now unless that person is making advances toward us, there is really no reason to feel uncomfortable.  We might feel very strongly that monogamy is best suited for us, and it may well be that it is.  But how others choose to express their love and sexuality is really no one else’s business, unless it infringes upon the freedom of others.

So if that person is minding their own business and not bothering you, then why does it bother you so deeply?  I would suggest that perhaps it bothers you because deep within there is some internal conflict between what you desire and what you believe.  It may be that you feel strongly that people should be monogamous, and you hold to that belief for any number of reasons.  But if you are harboring even the slightest inclination to behave in a way that is not in alignment with that belief then there is a conflict of issues.  So when you are in the company of someone who is non-monogamous, it is not their way of life which causes you to feel uncomfortable.  What is uncomfortable is that their lifestyle shines a light upon your internal conflict.

You see it’s very easy to repress things when there are no reminders.  You can take your internal conflicts and bury them deep within a dark corner of your subconscious.  But when you are exposed to something which reflects that conflict, that conflict is exposed.  This is actually a great opportunity to examine your internal conflicts and to resolve them.  But most of us just get stuck at the level of discomfort without venturing any deeper.  We observe that our discomfort seems to be related to some external situation, and we become fixated upon the situation rather than the discomfort.  This fixation becomes blame.  In other words, we blame our external circumstances for our internal reactions.  But if we are wise, we will turn our focus on the discomfort itself and try to understand what is actually at the root of it.

In order to be accepting of others we must first be accepting of ourselves.  And accepting something doesn’t necessarily mean that we engage in it.  We might feel, for example, that everyone has a right to express their spirituality through any variety of religious traditions, and yet we may choose to express our own spirituality through only one particular tradition, or no tradition at all.  But if we are uncomfortable with someone else’s choice of spiritual expression, we need to re-examine our own beliefs.  It may be that their beliefs challenge our own.   And this is only an issue if our own beliefs are fragile, meaning that we harbor some doubts or uncertainty.  If we are truly confident in what we believe, then it doesn’t make any difference to us what others believe, unless their beliefs cause them to behave in a way that endangers others, in which case it is not their religion that we find intolerable, but rather their behavior.

Now the question arises, how should we tolerate intolerance?  Well, that depends on how a person’s intolerance is expressed.  Certainly everyone is entitled to their feelings and opinions.  It only becomes a problem when someone transgresses upon or inhibits the freedom of another.  If a person is firm in their opinion, it is unlikely that you can reason with them, and arguing is often a waste of time and energy.  If that person is not causing any harm to anyone then I generally won’t engage them in conversation about the thing to which they are intolerant.  However, simply being outspoken in one’s intolerance can be problematic.

To give an example, let’s suppose that a person is uncomfortable with women wearing pants.  Although their discomfort may be completely irrational, they are still entitled to their opinion, along with the feelings which arise from that opinion.  In essence, it isn’t pants, or women wearing pants, which is the cause their discomfort.  It is their own internal issues that cause them distress.  Now it seems obvious that if this person is campaigning to make it illegal for women to wear pants then they are infringing upon others’ rights.  In that case, one should certainly oppose their actions, simply because it is an affront to individual freedom.  But in most cases, people with such opinions do not take such drastic measures.  A person who is uncomfortable with women wearing pants may not go much further than simply expressing their discomfort verbally, and certainly they have a right to express this.  But the problem is that their discomfort often triggers discomfort in others.  That is to say that women who like to wear pants, as well as anyone who feels that wearing pants is not related to gender, is likely going to feel uncomfortable around a person who is intolerant of women wearing pants.

If being in the company of an intolerant person causes you to feel uncomfortable, I would encourage you to examine your own discomfort, and to take full responsibility for it.  We should learn to respect a person’s right to feel uncomfortable without having to share in the discomfort.  But to do this we must recognize that everyone’s discomfort is their own personal responsibility.  If you are making someone else responsible for your emotional discomfort, then you are essentially agreeing that you are responsible for theirs as well.  As soon as you realize that you are not responsible for their discomfort, your own sense of discomfort begins to dwindle.  It doesn’t matter to you that they don’t like you wearing pants because you’re a woman.  That’s their problem, not yours.  You just don’t take it personally.  You understand that it really has nothing at all to do with you.

And when you come to understand that their discomfort is rooted in their own internal issues, you can have compassion for that person.  You don’t have to agree with them, or even pretend to agree.  You don’t have to try to appease them.  You can simply acknowledge that they are suffering from an internal conflict, and respond with love and kindness.

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