Beyond Toleration | Day 4 of #12DaysforGood

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-by Jesse Bauman

I’m writing today about tolerance, one of this campaign’s 12 themes. A few days ago, a friend of a friend, who is Muslim and wears hijab, was accosted while volunteering, and physically and verbally abused. My friend was shocked, and unsettled, because as he put it, this was “not your normal Canadian racism.” I cannot imagine how she felt, though when I started to ask others I know who work in the social services, I learned that this was one of many hate crimes perpetrated upon Muslim women this week.

Now, I know that it’s obvious that different people live according to different values and principles in K-W. Some privilege community over individual rights, or the dictates of the New Testament over the freedom to choose. In our community, and other democratic states like it, we (really: the now-dead men that looked like me) decided that toleration was the best way to manage these fundamental differences. I believe in God, and you believe in Science? We’ll tolerate each other, agree to disagree, and get on with it.

But this is a problem, and a relatively impoverished way to live with difference.

Toleration sounds neutral, but like any abstract principle, real people must give it substance, must articulate what it means and explain what will be tolerated, and by whom. Historically, of course, men with certain values—I’m running out of space, so I’ll call them white, Christian values—decided who they would tolerate, and who was beyond the pale.

And so my fear is that when we say a person or a group is different, and so must be tolerated, what we are really saying is that those kind of people are just like that, end of story. Academics call this essentializing culture, and it’s bad because, as anyone who’s made a friend that was different than they, can tell you, it’s wrong.

Toleration creates categories of normal, to-be-tolerated, and intolerable, and then puts up barriers to the difficult and messy work of engaging with, and trying to understand those people, whether they are the God people, or the Science people, or whatever.

It’s not fair to blame toleration entirely for the racism my friend’s friend experienced, but it’s connected. Toleration suggests that the to-be-tolerated are inscrutably different from us, and so should be given space and then left alone; and that different groups or cultures are “just like that.” It is not a humane or a practical way for us to live together in our ever-changing community. It is certainly not the hard work of creating a community where people feel they belong, instead of tolerated.

Follow featured Do Gooder Jesse today, and through his 12 Days for Good on Twitter.

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