We hear a lot of talk about “tolerance” and “intolerance” of those who are different from some of us, most recently brown-skinned Muslims from the Middle East. But by allowing these two words to define the debate, we have limited our thinking. We do not talk about “understanding” different people or “accepting” them.
As George Orwell noted in his once-famous and now famous again “1984,” by manipulating the language itself, the government altered the public’s way of thinking. The goal, he wrote, was to so limit language as to make different thinking impossible because people will lack the words to conceptualize it.
So it is with tolerance and intolerance. Tolerance, in this context, means I don’t like you, I’m suspicious of you, I’m watching you, but I’ll let you live and work here. Tolerance, for Americans about Muslims is for many an attitude of superiority, one in which the superior being deigns to permit the other to exist in the former’s universe. It is the same with LGBT Americans, African Americans, many American Hispanics, etc. Basically, you may do weird things in the bedroom or worship in a strange way from a strange holy book or speak another language a lot, but as long as you don’t flaunt it in front of me, I’ll go along with you working with me, although not too closely.
This comes with the tacit implication that those other people — LGBT, Muslim, whatever — can only live their lives with my permission, i.e. at the whim of white Christian Americans. They’re not merely the “other,” but in fact second-class guests (not even necessarily citizens) who can be ejected and rejected at a moment’s notice.
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Inevitably, though, tolerance of this sort becomes intolerance for some, followed by conflict, sometimes violent.
The discussion should not be about tolerance or intolerance. It should be about acceptance and understanding.
As psychologist Jefferson M. Fish once wrote, it is a sign of tolerance when you say/feel “I can live with X behavior religion race, culture, etc.,” but acceptance goes beyond that toward the saying and feeling that “X is OK.” If you accept people for who or what they are or believe or how they talk, you have the possibility of actually getting along.
Understanding requires actually learning why the other person thinks acts or believes differently from you, so that you can know where she or he is coming from, sometimes literally. To use a colloquial expression, you “get them.” Once one appreciates where the other person is coming from, you can accept her or him for what they are and move on to the business of life and living without conflict.
My grandson went to a pre-school in the Bethesda, Maryland, area. To say that the children he played with came from different backgrounds is a gross understatement. It was like a little United Nations of children. He could tell a child was a different color or had “different” features from himself or your average white American, or had parents who seemed to speak differently from his parents. But it never struck this little boy that there was anything to do other than accept them for who they were: other little children. No one has to tell him to tolerate them because their parents had an accent from a different country or because the child “looked different.” There certainly is something to admire in the openness children have toward each other, until they’re taught otherwise.
My grandson is too young to actually understand “understanding” — he’s only 6 — but most Americans don’t have that excuse. He’s got a chance to grow up understanding the different people around him. I think America does, too.
Attorney Sanford L. ‘Sandy’ Bohrer is a partner with Holland & Knight.