I think some of the most rewarding experiences of my life have come from my time at college. I have met such a wide array of people who have so many different life experiences that I have learned how to cautiously step around the multitude of different feelings on a variety of different issues. I have learned about people’s experiences with gender, race/ethnicity, culture, class, religion. I have learned their trials, their hopes, their pains. I like to think that I understand a lot more now than I did when I went into college. I am thankful for this, as it has helped to make me a more tolerant person.
I have also seen people get angry at someone for making statements that are interpreted as hateful, when the statements are made simply in ignorance and even sometimes just taken the wrong way. I have seen people be ostracized and hated for such statements, even though they do not understand what they have said or what they have done to deserve such hatred. Very often this is done by people who preach tolerance and acceptance as if it were their gospel. Yet when such people are confronted by the appearance of an idea that they might disagree with, said speaker is shunned.
That is not tolerance, by any stretch of the imagination.
Tolerance, in its essence, is about respect. It is about acknowledging different viewpoints and different life experiences as legitimate. Tolerance is the tool which enables us to come together on a level playing field, despite our different backgrounds, and learn from one another. Without tolerance and without respect, we hate. And when we hate people, when we keep them out of our lives, we deny them our experiences, from which they could learn.
If it is not already obvious, I have experienced such ostracism in my life because of things I have said based on assumptions that were incorrect. Also, often I want the same end as someone — usually equality of some sort — yet I do not agree on the path and this causes animosity. We find yet again that among conservatives and liberals alike, there are those who believe that there is only one path to the Right or one path to Truth. I have written on my personal frustrations with this in the past when I have been labeled racist, or homophobic.
These claims [of racism or homophobia] are also “cheap” because they take so little thought to assert. I could claim with one utterance and a chip on my shoulder that someone is hateful and BAM the damage is done. It’s also wildly irresponsible, especially when said claims are public. For one thing, just because a person says or does one hateful thing doesn’t mean that that person has a doctrine against those who are different. It has been my experience that a lot of those sorts of things are said simply because of an honest mistakes or lack of thinking. How much more time and effort does it take to give the benefit of the doubt and help someone correct their wrong? I admit, quite a bit more effort, but it does everyone good.
If the person is inadvertently hateful, you may open their eyes. If they just made an honest mistake, they can be more careful in the future. If they’re consciously hateful, perhaps you could help to change their mind. If you simply call them hateful, it doesn’t help anyone. So why not take some time and help the world out a bit? And, if they ask, do you not have an obligation to explain your hurtful claim?
This is part of what bothered me personally about these accusations. Calling me racist and homophobic seemed to be themselves hateful claims. Did they just want to make me feel bad? What else can I conclude if these people are so unwilling to help me? Are they afraid of being wrong? I understand. But, I guess I feel like if race and gender/sexuality issues are important enough to them that they get riled enough to call me hateful, then shouldn’t those issues also be important enough to help me not be that way, especially when I ask for their help? Or are these issues just important enough that you can make a cheap shot and nothing else?
I understand, at least to a certain extent, the fear and anger that many oppressed peoples have when they feel that they are confronted with someone whose beliefs seem to suggest hate towards them. I am sure for a lot of people, they are met with fear and hatred more often than not, as well as skepticism and many other things that are hurtful. They have to hide who they are from their families for fear of that sort of rejection, hatred, etc. It has to be hard. However, tolerance demands that we all try and understand each other, and I think that includes trying to understand why someone is phobic of you. In attempting to understand them, both parties learn from each other. I think much of the fear and confusion on the part of many oppressed groups simply comes from lack of knowledge. I may not know how an oppressed person feels largely because no one of that group has thought to explain their experiences to me. As such, I may make comments that are hurtful, simply because I don’t know any better.
Tolerance, in my mind, is also tolerating ignorance or lack of knowledge, and respecting that not everyone has the same life experiences that you do and thus don’t approach situations with the same knowledge that you do. Tolerance, I think, demands an attempt to help people understand. Again, the same metaphor applies of coming to a table on which both parties are equal and sharing knowledge. It hurts me, saddens me, and in some ways makes me angry that those who demand tolerance for themselves do not want to show tolerance for other people. To be sure, there are always going to be truly hateful people. But to misinterpret confusion, not-understanding, curiosity, or lack of knowledge as hatred leads to a much larger group of people who “hate” than there actually are.
To continually have to explain yourself is hard. We do not yet live in a world where people have exposure to a wide variety of life experiences from birth. But tolerance is not easy. Tolerance is not passive. Tolerance is not just “live and let live,” though that is part of it. Tolerance is also something much more important. The key to tolerance, the essence, the part of tolerance from which we as a people benefit the most, is that part which requires us to actively share our life experiences with — especially with — people whose experiences are different from ours. Tolerance is active learning and teaching, giving and taking.
Tolerance is an activity, not a state.