Tolerance and understanding are hard and, maybe, impossible. We are each rather small packages of our own life experience with limited abilities to get outside and truly see things from another's point of view.
For years I've thought a great deal about understanding vs tolerance, but lately I am simply not so sure it's as "easy" as opening your mind to new ideas and not prejudging. Perhaps I am being really nit-picky about the definition of understanding and tolerance, but I also see how really, really difficult it is in practice, even if it seems possible in theory.
Sometimes I feel we have it really backwards. I think it is much easier to tolerate than to understand. I do not understand a lesbian or gay person's position. It is fathomless to me. I can tolerate and I can treat the person with respect, but I don't understand. I may respect a friend who leaves her faith behind, but I don't understand it. I may see the steps she took, read the books she read, and ask a million questions, but in the end, since I am not making the same decision, I am not truly understanding her or her reasons. I can "tolerate," I can "agree to disagree," I can love, but I cannot understand.
So I guess I'm saying it is possible to understand the process, or someone's position, to better understand a line of reasoning, or the foundation behind actions and life decisions. But I do not think that is the same thing as truly understanding a person or another position.
I also don't know how much tolerance there is when two positions are diametrically opposed to one another. I won't stop fighting to end abortion on demand. I don't care how much I respect or "understand" the reasons people have for being pro-choice, but I think they are wrong and I'll keep trying to change the system if I can't change their minds. That's just one issue. When it goes on and on, I see no way people with truly divergent positions can tolerate each other forever. It's like a law of physics- two objects cannot occupy the same place at the same time. One will have to move before the other gets there. Someone has to give ground because two opposing views cannot occupy the same space at the same time. We can't have abortion on demand and ban abortion. We can't tolerate gay marriages and ban gay marriages. Etc., etc.
So, yes, I can better understand a position other than my own. And I strive to. But I am less sure that understanding leads to tolerance because 1) I don't think true understanding is possible while holding divergent positions and 2) true tolerance isn't possible in the long run.
What I'm getting at is slippery, even to me.
I'll use the example that came up in my life recently: Rollings saying Dumbledore is gay. I was accused of intolerance because I was upset by Rowlings' "revelations." I was told that "Hate the sin, love the sinner" is a hopeless failure because I am hating something integral to a person, their gayness. "How would you feel if people said they liked you but hated Christ, or Christianity? How would you feel if people felt like the should protect their children from you and your ideas?"
Well, huh! That would stink. (But guess what, I think that's happening all over the country, as evidenced by the recent Barna report on how negatively Christianity and Christians are perceived.)
The point I'm trying to make is, I can't be "tolerant" the way these people want me to be. Tolerance means acceptance. Tolerance means I allow them to continue to influence public opinion while I keep mine to myself. And tolerance will always mean that, because tolerance means leaving people alone to live their life they way they want.
I can't do that and neither can they. They aren't tolerant of my beliefs or my right to live my life as I want to, which includes speaking out against placing homosexual relationships on par with heterosexual ones for marriage and child raising.
So the bottom line is, no matter how much we like and respect each other, no matter how much we try to understand, we cannot "tolerate" each other forever. We hold mutually exclusive ideas. To truly tolerate a position you are opposed to, you have to avoid discussing it. You have to avoid it, period. Because real engagement with an idea will mean the differences in opinion will surface, and someone, or everyone, will be labeled "intolerant."