On Tolerance and Civility

There’s an appallingly common mindset which presumes that if someone holds this view, then they must hold that also. So if you drive a truck or work for the FBI, you’re probably a right-wing Christian fundamentalist; if you make a living as a teacher or writer, why, you must lean hard to the left.

This is, of course, bullshit.

That’s not to say that the above don’t occur, and may even be common: but to pigeonhole everyone is both preposterous and simplistic. Real life isn’t like that; hell, even fiction—at least the better sort of fiction—isn’t like that. The best villains, like the hero, are nuanced and complex.

Yet we’re encouraged to think in binaries and cleave to polar opposites. Stereotyping people who hold views contrary to our own makes it so much easier to dislike and ridicule them. That makes us and our gang feel good. Unfortunately, it’s a slippery slope, and what begins as simple disrespect and derision can end up in the dehumanization of others that leads, in its most extreme form, to genocides. Hitler and the Jews, anyone? Mao and the Chinese intelligentsia? Serbs and Muslims? Hutsi and Tutus?

I was brought up in a Jewish/Italian partisan family right after WWII, which might explain why anything that smells of conformity, lockstep thinking, brainwashing—from the far Right’s white supremacy to the far Left’s political correctness, from rabid, angry atheism to sinister, apocalyptic cultism and Scientology—makes me see red. I’m fine with anyone believing whatever they want to believe in religion or politics, but I despise intolerance, incivility, and character assassination. I’ll stand up for anyone who is attacked for sincere and honestly-held beliefs, even when I don’t agree with them. Where I draw the line is when they seek to impose their will and belief system on me.

There’s a real simple rule here, and it’s do as you would be done by. Maybe it’s time to start thinking for ourselves and start seeing people as individuals rather than as clones, well-meaning individuals who love their families and think they’re doing right rather than mean fools who are out to get us. Like the famous Christmas incidents in the trenches of WWI, maybe we’ll discover that the guys in the enemy uniform are just like us.

Ah, we say, but they started it! Well, maybe they did. Or maybe we watch too much TV or listen to too much talk radio, left or right, and—like those old folks who see the world only through the media and live in fear of everything—have  cut ourselves off from reality.

My personal beliefs are highly heterodox. I follow no party or school of thought. Accordingly, I’ve always had friendships across the political and religious spectrum (that seems unusual in the US, but is not uncommon elsewhere). We can have raging and wide-ranging discussions and arguments yet still remain good friends; sometimes, we learn from one another. At the least, we respect one another and know each other for good people.

I tend to the atheist side of agnostic, but in my 23 years here, two of my closest friends have been Christian fundamentalists, and these are two of the finest people I’ve ever met. Because we respect one another, we can agree to disagree, even though I think they’re deluded and they worry I’ll burn in hell. We laugh. We build on commonalties rather than differences. We enjoy the friendship and like being respectfully challenged now and then by someone who respects us. These are seeds that spread.

If one proceeds on the premise that even those who disagree with us mean well, there’s no need for enmity… but it’s so much easier to demonize people we disagree with than to deal with them, and isn’t that what the media and our environment wants us to do?

Look in the mirror. Whom do you demonize and ridicule?

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “On Tolerance and Civility

  1. Pingback: Why We CAN’T All Get Along | Dario Ciriello

  2. Great post. There are so many confusions that lead to intolerance–just because I may not agree with what someone believes or with how someone behaves does not imply I hate the individual personally–hell, I disagree with my own actions half the time but I don’t (at least at the moment) hate myself. Politics deals with contingent matters about which people legitimately disagree. Religion deals with fundamental world views and is thus a source of hot disagreement since religious (and sometimes irreligious) people find their identities in their religious or non-religious beliefs. I do not hide that I am a conservative Anglican of the high church variety–I believe that Christianity is true, objectively true, but I am willing to discuss my beliefs with those who disagree (and often have in an academic setting). I enjoy such discussions–it’s a shame so many people think that politics is the personal and reject a person instead of a person’s ideas.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Michael–and thank you for nicely defining and pointing up the difference between Politics and Religion. The best and most enjoyable discussions I’ve had on religion have been with priests, in particular one Jesuit… many ordinary people are rather too insecure or defensive for a free-ranging discussion and exploration of belief issues. Although such discussion may not change our beliefs, openness to another’s beliefs will often introduce shading and nuance into our own views, making us more tolerant along the way. and God knows we need that. 🙂

  3. I am reminded of a web-comic I saw once, where a man is at a car dealership which has a sign reading “No Reasonable Offer Refused!” He says to the dealer, “How ’bout this, we spend Christmas at my wife’s family’s house and New Years at my parents?” The dealer says “Sounds reasonable and hands him the keys to a new car.

    Like that, your point is entirely reasonable. I wish I had a car I could give you. But thank you for giving us this. It’s this kind of thinking that gives me hope for humanity.

    • Heh heh. I hadn’t heard that one! Thanks, Clint. I’m far from perfect, but I do try and I at least give people the benefit of the doubt. I learn all the time, and occasionally–in what is sure to soon become a pop idiom–‘my thinking evolves’. LOL. I think we have the most to learn from the people who challenge us, and of course it’s mutual… but only if both parties are prepared to behave civilly and rationally. Unfortunately, that’s not the way the media and teh politicians like to do things, or the models they offer. People who don’t have rigid positions and understand complexity, ambiguity, and paradox, are marginalized and painted as weak and waffling. It’s awful.

  4. Lack of civility is a horrendous problem. I’m presently a teacher in small community college in Moses Lake, WA, and many of my fellow teachers are definitely left-leaning (especially those on the academic side) while those of us in Professional/Technical side lean to the right, some even “hard right” and yet the “precepts of Rodney King” — “Can’t we just all get along?” are strong in this fairly conservative community.

    One of the things I try to emphasize in my classes is that everyone needs to be treated with respect, even if they don’t deserve it. After all, if we all got what we “deserved”, we’d probably be dead or in jail.

    Take care, Dario, and keep up the good fight.

    • Thank you so much, Jerry. It’s funny, I was thinking of Rodney King’s words and quoting him in a related discussion the other day. Those are such powerful words. I’m glad there are people like you out there addressing these principles in classrooms. The voices of reason and moderation end to get drowned out, but I think we have to make a stand. You take care, too–I’m going to come up and visit one day 🙂

  5. Charles Lominec

    What a great post! You have eloquently stated what I have tried to encourage in people I know. You can have different points of views without being enemies.

    • Charles, thanks so much. I agree, and we have to start somewhere, each one of us. I think one needs humour also, don’t you? When we take ourselves too seriously is when we become rigid and unable to see beyond ourselves.

  6. What an excellent post! Living in rural Texas, I am confronted with extremism all the time. While mostly a liberal Democrat, I also have sympathies with certain conservative issues, but any discussion in which I express sympathy for the “other side” is taken as an admission that my entire perspective is wrong, and that clearly I should “switch over.” Surely, life is richer than the palette of black and white to which some would confine us all.

    • Thanks, Gerald. Man, I sympathize. The climate in this country, especially in an election year, is so toxic. Complexity is something people seem to have trouble dealing with… It’s so much easier to dismiss someone as wrong, stupid, or mean than to engage. Most times we can’t change people, but even recognizing one another’s humanity and essential goodness is a beginning. Do yoiu have friendships across the spectrum?

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