Friday, July 16, 2010


(News-Herald, July 15) I’m not a big fan of tolerance. Mind you, intolerance stinks. I am inclined to expect the best of people, and I take a certain pride in Venangoland—I think that there is much to love and appreciate about life here. So I find it jarring and embarrassing to hear about someone yelling out a nasty racial slur in one of our neighborhoods. If you call someone the N word or the F word, you are simply dead wrong.
But tolerance is not much of an improvement. Tolerance too often comes with a pricetag. When people say “I’ll tolerate you” that’s shorthand for “I’ll stop giving you the message that you are wrong and bad if you agree to keep delivering that message to yourself” or “I’ll treat you as if you’re good enough as long as you show me you understand that you aren’t.” People who wouldn’t play by these rules are called, historically, “uppity.”
Unraveling the mechanics of intolerance can be tricky, because so many people handle their relationships with other people backwards.
We like to think that we look at someone, weigh his various qualities, and conclude whether we like and respect him or not. But more often, we jump to that conclusion, and then we weigh his qualities based on that. If we like him, we make excuses for all his supposed faults. If we dislike him, we look for particular qualities we can criticize him for.
So I call Pat, a person I really like, “free-spirited and fun.” But Chris, a person who annoys the heck out of me, is “irresponsible and immature.”
You can see this pattern in action in schools. On their way to call Chris a “four-eyed geek,” kids will walk right past six other kids wearing glasses without saying a word. They aren’t picking on Chris because he wears glasses. They’re picking on him because they don’t like him. “Four-eyed geek” is just the particular tool they’ve picked up to smack him with.
The school can create a special program to make students more sensitive to those who wear glasses. It can make rules against using the term “four-eyed geek.” But at the end of the day, that won’t help Chris. They will just pick out something new to insult him with.
All of us believe, to some degree, that there are some people who deserve to be the victims of intolerance. Even champions of tolerance can be vocal about not tolerating intolerant people. It’s not unusual for us to get lectures about not painting all gay or black folk with the same brush, and to get these lectures from people who talk as if all small-town folks are the same (ignorant redneck hicks).
It’s hard to address the roots of intolerance because we often don’t honestly know ourselves. One of the lines drawn in the Great Gay Cultural Debate is the argument that being gay is just not normal and shouldn’t be treated as such. Except that there have been gay people around through all of recorded human history, which means that from a purely historical perspective, gay folks are more “normal” than democracy, fast food, or pants.
One root of intolerance is… intolerance. If you watch school students, you’ll notice that one of the main reasons I decide I don’t like you is that I perceive that you don’t like me. We’ve seen a steady stream of groups claiming to be “under attack,” because, hey, if I’m just defending myself, I’m not being an intolerant bully.
In small towns, we don’t get the full bombarding of cultural messages about which groups we’re supposed to be accepting this week. But we do have the advantage of actually knowing most of the people we deal with. We know Chris—we don’t have to call him “one of Those.” We can do better than reducing folks to imaginary stereotypes. (Well, except for people who didn’t grow up in Venangoland—you know what those people are like.)
Perhaps part of the solution is to be more specific and accurate in our displeasure. Don’t call Chris a four-eyed geek; just say “You annoy the heck out of me.” We can understand Chris as the individual that he is instead of reacting to the characteristics we assume automatically go with his glasses. Things would go better for all of us if we took others as the whole human beings they actually are, rather than merely tolerating them as the people we imagine them to be.

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