Tolerance (plus or minus)


Tolerance. It’s a frequently used term in our society, both as an insult and as a source of pride. We say things like:

  • “You should be more tolerant.”
  • “Why are you so intolerant?”
  • “I consider myself a tolerant person.”

What does any of this mean? Frequently, the heinous charge of intolerance is leveled at someone claiming another person’s actions are immoral or that their beliefs are wrong. After all, “why can’t we all just get along?” Because some things we can tolerate, and some things we can’t because of their consequences. Why couldn’t the Jews just “get along” with Adolph Hitler? Because their view that they should live was incompatible with his view that they should all be killed. The difference in views there preclude any idea of tolerance. That’s an extreme example, but many people today misunderstand what tolerance is, thinking it is to agree with all views (even contradictory ones), and they view it as the supreme virtue. However, to tolerate something inherently means that you do not view it as correct. Nobody merely¬† tolerates views they agree with; rather they believe them, cherish them, etc. For example, we might enjoy a freshly brewed gourmet coffee, but only tolerate a cheap, bitter “cup o’ joe” at a jobsite where it’s below freezing.

As an engineer with some experience writing 2 quality control manuals for a previous company, I think the tolerances we dealt with in fabrication can shed some insight in this area as well. We used to have a saying at that company that “It’s got to be exactly right!” to which some of us would jokingly add “plus or minus 1/8″…” We knew that despite the best intentions of the slogan, nobody gets things exactly right every time, and especially not in a fast paced production environment. But we also understood that some errors won’t affect the usefulness of the final product significantly. Hence, we specify the value we want, and then add tolerances to it to show what range of actual results we’ll accept. For instance, if I design a roof truss to be 120′ long and it gets built 119′-11 7/8″, that generally won’t impair it’s use. If it’s a foot short, it likely won’t fit, but if it’s somehow “made to fit” by an overzealous worker at the jobsite, people’s lives may be in danger from the roof collapsing.

Just like our truss above, ideas have consequences, and so we put limits on what is acceptable. Yet that range of acceptable values doesn’t necessarily mean they are all correct. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter because it’s a pass/fail criteria – it can pass with flying colors or “by the skin of it’s teeth”. Often, however, the target value is the sole correct value, and we can only tolerate the wrong values that are not detrimental. In the case of values that are both wrong and detrimental, we would be negligent to tolerate those. In fact, a good inspector isn’t going to just go along rejecting products that fall outside of the tolerances while never telling the worker that he’s building bad products. He’ll notify the worker that he’s wrong and needs to change what he’s doing to get back into a tolerable range. In fact, if it’s a gradual decrease in quality, the inspector can see the trend developing and notify the worker before it gets out of tolerance and keep him in line with the company standard.

Going back to the truss example, what would happen if the welds on the truss were half the size they were supposed to be, and the inspector saw this, but let it go without calling attention to it? The next winter when a bad snowstorm hits the now-completed building and truss welds fracture, and the roof collapses and kills people, who’s responsible for those deaths? The production workers who made the bad welds? Sure. But what about the inspector? At the very least we might say he was negligent, but if it came out that he had recognized the welds were defective and let them go anyway, we would surely say that he didn’t act ethically, that he had an obligation to flag the error to be corrected.

So can a person be “tolerant” and still believe something is not correct? Absolutely. Likewise, can a Christian be tolerant and loving, but still tell someone when they’ve stepped outside the standard or are in danger of stepping over that line? Yes, actually, they can. Should they? If our inspector was ethically obligated to point out error in the interest of saving lives (even if it hadn’t been his specific job duty), then it seems that someone who has become a Christian, and now knows the end result of the path we’re all traveling without God, is also obligated to warn people of the danger they’re in before it’s too late.