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Tolerating Intolerance

September 24th, 2021 by dk

You probably think of yourself as a tolerant person. I know I do. Most of us believe we are enlightened, modern beings — embracing differences, celebrating diversity. If anything, we worry (others certainly do worry) that we’ve become too tolerant and may be guilty of enabling antisocial behaviors. We believe tolerance is always better than intolerance.

In belated praise for last weekend’s downpour, I’m going to rain on that parade.

Tolerance has a different meaning to engineers. A car door doesn’t requiring slamming if it is designed, manufactured, and maintained to specified tolerances. If the hinges weaken or the body gets bent, the door may sag and not fit so neatly into the space. The car could have been designed to accommodate more tolerance, but then it would leak water or noise and we can’t have that.

That’s when the slamming begins, and nobody likes slamming. Slamming follows increased tolerances.

Speaking of slamming doors behind you, I remember the day I decided I was going to like school. We were given a cookie and a tiny carton of milk. Our teacher had to demonstrate how to open the carton, pulling a fold apart from beneath with two thumbs, then pressing the carton together at the seam to produce a perfectly designed spout. “Wow,” I thought, “I just learned something useful. This is cool.”

Milk cartons are still designed the same way, but now they have plastic screw caps embedded in the waxed cardboard container. Do you know why? Spreading the glue to close the carton required too much precision. Too much glue and folding wouldn’t neatly open it. Too little glue and it might not stay sealed during transit. It was cheaper to add the plastic cap. Customers no longer tolerate clumsily unfolded origami spouts, genius of design notwithstanding.

Efficiency and economy are fundamentally intolerant.

Ah, but that involves things. We treat people differently. It’s not so easy to keep a distinction between the two. We love low prices, but they almost always come at a human cost. Supply-chain efficiency reduces redundancies, producing higher profits, lower prices but also shortages if any link in that supply chain is disrupted.

Unless all your purchases are with Saturday Market vendors, you will inevitably be rewarding a low bidder who does not tolerate human self-expression.

Amazon built its juggernaut by enforcing tighter and tighter standards, by becoming more and more intolerant of any diversity. We love the convenience of nearly instant delivery. That efficiency flows from a steady stream of intolerances. 

Suppliers must adhere to strict deadlines and procedures. Sorters cannot take unscheduled bathroom breaks. Even Amazon’s branded delivery drivers are surveilled for any driving diversions. People are logistical variables. They are sometimes unevenly glued.

I’ve never lived among people who consider themselves so tolerant. I’ve also never encountered more people who are lactose intolerant or gluten intolerant. It’s as if the body will tolerate only so much tolerance before some sort of somatic symmetry expresses itself.

Tolerating intolerance is tricky business. Modernity is enveloped in its efficiencies. Unfolding that carton takes great care. It won’t always be tidy.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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