On tolerance

It’s amazing how experiences can open our eyes to things we thought we already understood.  Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about tolerance, and what tolerance actually looks like.  And this is why.

When you immerse yourself in another culture, it can be tempting to think of your ideas, your norms, your culture as “right.”  Which makes it a lot easier to view norms from another culture as “wrong,” and a lot harder to love or appreciate the people engaging in that norm.  And I think that can result in a certain amount of jadedness.  If we keep boxing ourselves into an attitude of “my ideas are right,” I think it become increasingly more difficult too see something from another perspective, or understand how other people arrived at those perspectives.

When we all met in Philadelphia to leave for Moldova, this was a topic of our orientation that day.  We were encouraged to think outside of “right” and “wrong,” and instead see things as “different.”  (Awhile back, another volunteer posted a link to a blog with some great thoughts on this concept, which I would encourage you to read.)  And I honestly think that concept has been key to my experience here.

My site mate is black.  I think I can pretty confidently say that he is the only black person in our town.  People used to stop us while walking through town to take pictures with him.  Moldova is not very racially diverse, so his presence here does not go unnoticed.  But my host family here at site very seriously told me that he could not marry a Moldovan because he was black.  I could marry a Moldovan, because I am white, they explained, but not my site mate.

At first, I admit, I was a little shocked.  This is completely contrary to the way I personally have been raised, and to the way the majority of Americans (not all, but most) think now.  In fact, there’s probably a large portion of the population that would’ve been outraged at such a statement.  In this moment, I could’ve reacted in a negative way.  I could’ve expressed disgust.  I could’ve started an argument.  And part of me wanted to.  But I felt it would’ve been contradictory.  There I would have been, expressing intolerance for views I believe to be intolerant.  Not that it shouldn’t be addressed, but is that really an effective way to send a message?

The fact is, as Peace Corps volunteers, I think we often find ourselves in situations like that.  Situations where our normal reaction might be indignance.  (I can’t believe they just said/did that!)  And this is where the challenge arises.  This is where I have to ask myself what tolerance really looks like, in practice.

To a certain degree, we all think our beliefs are “right” or we would not put value in those ideas; we would not believe what we believe.  But I think, in an effort to exercise tolerance, we also have a responsibility to respect and acknowledge that we have all been shaped in different ways by our environments.  We have all, somehow, someway, arrived at our beliefs.  And if I feel I can disregard how you arrived at your beliefs, then how can I expect you to try and understand how I arrived at mine?  It’s all in the way we approach it.

In any case, I believe that, at the core of tolerance, there exists the idea that all human beings have intrinsic value.  If I really believe that, then that must include even the people whose verbiage I have less patience for, or whose ideas I disagree with.

I think part of this is focusing on the person expressing the idea, and less on the idea itself.  Remembering that in most cases, anger and indignance only incites more anger and indignance.  Even if I believe something is wrong, I can still be tolerant of the person expressing the idea, and initiate calm discourse that kindly explains how I arrived at my conclusion.

So I’m becoming a student of tolerance.  I’m learning how to practice tolerance, not just in situations of obvious cultural differences, but in all areas of life.  And I’m trying to love the person behind the idea, even if I don’t love the idea itself.

I’m a work in progress.  We all are.

“In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher.” – Dalai Lama

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle