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How to Tolerate Intolerance

January 9, 2016

Recent events in Oregon and Hawaii have pulled my philosophic mind from the esoteric and forced it toward social justice more than it would like to. But here we are nine days into the New Year and there’s already been a militia takeover and a racist road rage video gone viral. On Maui, HC&S announced the imminent closure of its sugar cane plantation, heralding change and uncertainty for its employees and everyone who loves the island as it is. Yet despite the enormity of these events, it’s the public’s response I find most disturbing.

  • One of the more popular memes to come out of the standoff in Eastern Oregon is #BundyEroticFanFic, in which participants imagine steamy scenes between members of the militia.
  • The man who was caught hurling racial slurs lost his job thanks to social media, resulting in innumerable threads of heated, self-righteous arguments – for and against his boss’s actions.
  • People publicly celebrated the closure of the sugar mill for their own reasons, failing to consider the impact on anyone but themselves.

When something we consider tragic or horrible, or simply incomprehensible, happens, we have a tendency to look for a place to focus our blame. I believe this leads to a subtle dehumanizing of whomever that blame lands on. They are either evil or stupid or both, and therefore not worthy of our consideration. We write them off.

There’s a popular cliché among the liberal community, which is to say I tolerate everything except intolerance. The problem is, this stance is in itself intolerant and therefore self-negating. If you can’t accept that some people can’t accept other people, you are ignoring a basic reality about the nature of humanity. The real question is, how can we live with intolerance without becoming intolerant ourselves?

The answer is empathy. However hard it might be – and this should give you a clue about the work left to do – we must treat racists and bigots and people with different agendas as humans and equals. I’m not saying we should try to understand their beliefs, but we have to put ourselves in their shoes: what would it be like to be publicly shamed for them? Would you be more likely to change those beliefs or grow defensive and protect them against all costs?

What if we treated racism and bigotry as mental disorders and provided their victims with appropriate care? I suspect in many cases education would suffice.

We need to realize that shaming doesn’t work except to drive us further apart.

And please, don’t celebrate gains when good people are suffering because of them.

 

 

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