Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Is Tolerance Possible?

The Wind and the Sun

The WIND and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveler coming down the road, and the Sun said: “I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveler to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger, You begin.” So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveler. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveler wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveler, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on.
          Kindness affects more than severity. 

This lesson, which we were all taught as children, doesn't appear to stay learned when we become adults.   The contest between the Wind and the Sun gets played over and over again, now largely via social media.  Particularly notable to me are the comments on opinion pieces I peruse in the New York Times, Inside Higher Ed, and elsewhere.  Those readers who disagree are quick to abandon reasoned argument and instead write with cynicism and hyperbole.  The authors of such comments appear to be very angry.  I don't keep a scorecard, but if I did I'd guess that the Wind is winning and the contest is not very close at present. 

In our national politics it now appears a given that the populace is angry, very much so.  It is near impossible to reason with an angry person.  The person must calm down first.  If the person is also intolerant it is far from clear whether even when calm the person would change his or her mind and embrace people who are unlike himself or herself.  What would it take to change somebody's point of view in this case?  We should be asking that question.  

There is also the logical conundrum of how people who consider themselves tolerant react to those who are apparently not.  Does outrageous behavior by the intolerant warrant a tit for tat response?  If it does, it explains why the Wind is winning.  

That a tit for tat response is the immediate visceral reaction to the outrageous behavior goes without saying.  The outrage is intended to provoke just such a response.  What would a more disciplined and reasoned response look like?  Would it be silence?  Or a thoughtful argument?  Does anyone have the patience to follow along with a well reasoned argument anymore?  Is there a way for silence to distinguish itself from capitulation?  I wish I had answers to these questions that I could rely on.

There is still a further complication to consider as the question offered up in the post title plays out on college campuses.  Freedom of speech is a value, one that can be at odds with tolerance.  Let us recognize that in this case people will disagree as to which is the higher value.  Yesterday I became aware of Inclusive Illinois and their Diversity Statement, an articulation of the goal that tolerance on campus be the primary value and that there are certain processes which need to be embraced to achieve that goal.  

For those who think that freedom of speech should be the primary value, will there nonetheless be respect for this Diversity Statement?  Or will they treat it as little more than rubbish, because it tramples on the First Amendment?  I don't want to presume the answer to that question, but if it does cause the latter reaction doesn't it then follow that the statement itself will do little to nothing to move us from the status quo?

On a personal level, I feel I can make some progress on these matters when in a one-on-one conversation and possibly in a small group setting (five or fewer).  In the discussion people have to support the positions they hold and as a result of that imperative we can negotiate our way to something sensible.  At least that has been my experience most of the time.   In other settings, it is far easier for people to maintain their previously held views, because they don't need to listen to views that disagree with their own.

It is not that hard to envision a world where tolerance is the norm and where free speech operates within the confines of tolerance.  However, I'm finding it increasingly difficult to understand how we might get from here to there.   At present, we seem to be standing still or maybe moving in the opposite direction.

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