Respect Over Tolerance

For those of you who may not have noticed, the current state of the world is apt to make even the stanch optimist keenly depressed.  With seemingly continuous war, inflated xenophobia, a deflating economy, and a troubling lack of communication both at the personal level and at large being just a paucity of the issues we face at the tip of the cynical iceberg, it’s hard to imagine a future in which the remaining few of the species is not picking up the pieces from a global nuclear conflict (if any pieces even remain).  A disturbing lack of prescience for our collective fate is certainly part of the cause.  It seems the majority of citizens, for example, are unaware of the pressing need to invest in the development of alternative energy sources, as the reserves of fossil fuels are projected to be depleted as early as 2050.  I’ll be sixty-two.

I am not a political scientist.  Therefore, I will leave you with those thoughts and quickly revert back to my original purpose, which is to say: we are not doomed.  Yes, I offered you a few spoonfuls of pessimism, but I am a realist at heart.  The major problem our society faces in the wake of these troubles is not intolerance; rather, it is a lack of respect.  Now, I have always been an advocate of tolerance–of other races, religions, sexual orientations, etc.  However, just prior to hopping on the computer to share my two cents, I began reading (yes, began–I was so moved to spread the word that I did not even finish) an article in the November 2012 issue of The Sun (I’m a bit behind in my reading), entitled “If Only We Would Listen.”  Writer Alicia von Stamwitz interviews author and activist Parker J. Palmer regarding, amongst other things, his motivations for writing his latest book, Healing the Heart of Democracy.  This is the quote from Palmer that struck me:

I’m committed to educational goals more ambitious than getting kids to pass tests, and to political goals a lot bigger than getting people to “tolerate” each other.  Teaching a kid to pass a test is a piece of cake compared to educating a child.  And tolerating people is a long way from understanding how  profoundly interdependent we are…[T]he civility we need in politics will not come from watching our tongues but from valuing our differences.  Somehow my heart doesn’t beat faster when someone says they’re willing to “tolerate” me!

As a self-proclaimed academic, I have much to say about children’s education, but I’ll leave that one alone for another day.

Palmer, of course, makes the point better than I could reiterate, but I will reiterate: our culture stresses so much the need for tolerance–not love, appreciation, or respect.  Tolerance should be the minimal quality that humans adhere to.  We should be able to tolerate the presence of other people on this shared planet who are intrinsically different from us as a given, seeing as we are all facing the same existential reality.  But what we should strive for is not tolerance, but genuine respect.

Because the main focus as we are growing up and learning the rules of the world when it comes to say, race, is racism, our schemas develop to believe it is prejudicial to point out differences in skin color or cultural ethnicity.  We develop this nagging little guilt when in the presence of others who look or were reared differently from us.  To avoid sounding offensive, dialogue closes.  When dialogue closes, we negate the possibility of becoming educated, and so fall back on the stereotypes we were taught as children, therefore perpetuating, rather than surmounting, racism.

I live and work in a city that is historically an immigrant city–beginning with the Irish, French, Polish, and Italians of the early twentieth century, and most recently home to an influx of various Hispanic cultures.  (As an aside, I say Hispanic, but if there is a more preferred term, please correct me.  The stipulations of what is “politically” right and wrong are so nebulous, and I’ve found that what white Americans believe to be the “preferred” term is actually often in opposition to what the members of the race/culture/ethnicity use in reference to themselves.  For example, I once had a “Native American” professor who believed “Native American” was the prejudicial cop-out, and indeed preferred “American Indian.”)  Many of my friends and coworkers are of Hispanic/Latino/Spanish/whatever descent.  Those I work closely with feel comfortable joking with me (and I with them) about our ethnic discrepancies, which opens up a conversation for more serious discussion as well.  When I ask about why they or their families do/say/eat/wear certain things, I am not being rude or ignorant.  I am sincerely curious, and feel all the more educated from posing such inquiries, rather than pretending those discrepancies do not exist.

I find joy in the colorful pastiche of cultures that exist throughout the world, and only wish there was not this underlying fear of sounding racist for expressing interest and wanting to learn about others.  It is this fear of such an abstract concept that proliferates xenophobia and the misunderstandings that so often perpetuate wars and hatred towards other cultures we clearly know nothing about.  Rather than expending energy chastising others for calling someone “black” rather than “African American,” we should spend time celebrating all cultures and educating our children from an early age so that they feel comfortable in continuing a dialectic that will eventually erase feelings of guilt and fear, and free people of all colors and styles to express who they are, who their family is, and where they come from.


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