In a television interview on Friday Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek addressed the question of tolerance. I found his answer insightful:
"I think tolerance is one of those notions that I call 'notions of disorientation' -- of course it points toward a true problem; of course, the way we use this term in the West, it also mystifies things. For example, I made the simple test: When Martin Luther King, half a century ago, was fighting against racism -- for the rights of the blacks -- he practically never used the term 'tolerance.' We use it today. Why? Because we live in what I call a post-political society: The main problems we have are perceived as cultural problems and so on, and so everything becomes a matter of tolerance.
[But] if you look closely at it, tolerance is a very suspicious notion. It means, yes, 'let's tolerate each other,' but it also means, 'don't harass me,' which means 'remain at a proper distance from me.' If you scratch the surface you will also discover that the 'other' that more liberal multi-culturalists are ready to tolerate are (what I ironically refer to as) the 'decaffeinated other.'
You know, we have products deprived of their poisonous substance; decaf coffee, beer without alcohol, fat-free chocolate and so on -- and it seems to me that people also want 'decaffeinated other'; this mythic, holistic 'good other' and so on and so on. So tolerance is for me a very confused, disorienting term. I don't like it so much. I don't want tolerance, I want military spirit; struggle -- but for a good cause.... The only way to light is courageously confronting darkness."
To my mind it is the nature of that confrontation that is a key question, but I certainly agree that a bland and confused notion of 'tolerance' is not strong enough to sustain a society that can deal equitably and compassionately with today's problems.
(Interview by Riz Khan on Aljazeera, 12 Nov 2010, quoting from 8:35)