“Being more tolerant” is one of the most advocated for attitudes and solutions when it comes to dealing with people whose opinions, behaviors, or even fixed traits are different from those of a perceived or confirmed majority.
Does a person have religious views that are different from yours? Learn to be more tolerant.
Does a person have a different sexual orientation? Learn to be more tolerant.
Does a person look significantly different than you do? Learn to be more tolerant.
Now, that sounds great in theory, but I think that if we look closer at the meaning and practice of tolerance we will soon realize that this highly praised and aimed-for skill and attitude is not the end of a social journey, but just a step – even though it is undeniably a significant one.
I’ll explain what I mean by that.
You see, tolerance, by definition, can either be considered a “willingness to accept behaviour and beliefs that are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them” (1) or “the ability to deal with something unpleasant or annoying, or to continue existing despite bad or difficult conditions” (2)(Online Cambridge Dictionary, general meanings).
The first sense refers to the person reacting to the individuals or groups with views different than his or hers. The second one refers to the individuals or groups pertaining to a minority that display an ability to overcome difficult contexts and maintain those traits that made them part of the specific group, despite opposing forces.
Tolerance advocates mean the first sense. They suggest that the majority should learn to exercise a “willingness to accept beliefs different than [their] own, although [they] might not agree with or approve of them”.
I can see several issues with that:
- “Willingness”, in this context, sends me aggressive vibes. The majority must be “willing” to accept the minority. But according to my assertiveness-centered views, people already have the right to think freely, act in whichever way they see fit as long as they do not deliberately harm others, and, most of all, can be whoever they want to be without seeking or needing any sort of external validation or permission.
I don’t want people to want to accept that I am non-religious, for example.
People who identify with a sexual minority should not be dependent on whether I and others are willing to accept that that is their orientation or preference.
People with a physical disability or with physical traits that are less common should be able to have their needs met and be able to live their lives peacefully without being dependent on a majority’s willingness to accept their specific needs and contexts.
- Since “willingness” is intrinsically motivated and regulated, tolerance is an individual subject, not a social one. To develop said willingness when one does not naturally entertain it would take intentional effort and, just like with every other subject of personal development, when the process is not intrinsically-motivated and therefore, meaningful to the person going through it, the results are either nonexistent or lack authenticity. Also, it is highly likely that they will not render the desired, long-term directions.
Waiting for large numbers of people to arrive at this result at the same time in order to build enough momentum for significant social change is, to me, a rather unrealistic expectation.
You cannot force people into truly wanting something. You would deal with aggressiveness in an aggressive manner. Chances are very slim to trigger social cohesion in that manner.
I actually think this process could possibly lead to bottled-up frustration that could generate conflict later on.
- Even if all people within a society would “learn to be more tolerant” or would naturally be tolerant toward opposing beliefs, behaviors, and fixed traits, we would not achieve a social whole. If all we would do would be to simply “accept” different views and stances and nothing else, the best result we would achieve would be to have people “allowing” those different from them to mind their own business, while they themselves do the same within their own original group. We would have criterion-specific minorities, isolated from whatever it is that we’d consider the majority based on the same criterion. We would still see those different from us as separated social entities. So much for social unity.
However, I have to note that this result, even if it’s a partial one, is still more than the social hostility we now witness and have to deal with globally. It is also a required step. Without that level of acceptance, natural or learned, we cannot move forward.
If Tolerance is not the solution, what is?
Funny enough, my interest in reflecting and writing on this topic in this manner came as a result of my own interaction with a person whose views on life are significantly different from mine. Views on the afterlife, to be more specific.
In February I wrote the first SKEPTIC’s REVIEW, an article that critically analyzed the website of psychic medium John Edward in search of messages that might be misleading or even abusive toward the audience. My conclusion, contrasting with that of many other skeptics, was that there was no sign of any of that. He is simply stating his beliefs and whoever shares them or is interested in learning more about the subject, can reach out to him and participate in his events and online community. In my opinion, everything that happens on his website is assertiveness-driven – freedom of thought and freedom of expression, on one side (John Edward), and freedom of choice (his audience). Freedom to practice one’s beliefs as long as the behaviors do not intentionally harm others is what both Edward and his audience decided to exercise. All good from my part, even though I do not share their views on the afterlife and the connection one could achieve with the dead.
This could’ve stopped there, but it didn’t. Instead, an incredibly constructive context emerged from it all.
I need to mention here that I was also surprised by my own conclusion. The article itself is filled with eye-rolling emojis, sarcastic remarks, and notes generated by the critical analysis of the source-text. All seemed normal to me until I started compiling my findings. The conclusion favoring John Edward emerged logically from the data I had and the humanistic principles that I usually try to consider in such contexts. I’ve repeatedly read the analysis and the conclusion making sure that I am indeed endorsing the article that was going to go live on my website. It was what it was. “Well, this is going to be fun”, I said to myself and hit Publish.
I then shared it with my website subscribers and also on Twitter, where I made sure to notify Edward, via tagging, not only about the published article but, most importantly, about the atypical character of its conclusion, without actually mentioning that it favored him. I had no idea whether he took any interest in these things but I was sure he was more than familiar with the debunking of his craft by many skeptics and the negative comments and attacks that so easily reach a person on social media. In fact, prior to tagging him, I noticed that one of the methods he employs when dealing with negativity is to block the users who attack him (fair). This is why I wanted to make sure that if by any chance he sees my post, he will not automatically hit the Block button when reading “Skeptic” in the title.
And he didn’t. This opened the door for what I consider to be a valid social method to build authentically-connected communities.
Not only did John not block any of my accounts, but he actually liked the post and replied. This is our first interaction:
Thank you. Although we come at the same subject from different perspectives…. your non attacking respectful approach is appreciated. 😊🙏 https://t.co/InXpwIWhdn
— JOHN EDWARD 🔦 (@psychicmediumje) February 9, 2019
I was just writing to you as well. ☺ Your reaction was elegant, John. I appreciate it. Have a great weekend and a tour that restores comfort for those who need you. Glad we connected and found common ground. https://t.co/J6TFtjisEb
— Lucia Grosaru (@LuciaGrosaru) February 9, 2019
Things once again could have stopped there. A civil reaction and response. We respectfully agreed to disagree. As most of the skeptic-believer history of interactions shows, we should’ve both moved away from the interaction at this point and, if the context of a new connection ever presented itself, we should’ve kept to cordially shaking hands, nodding hello’s, and, following the known route, politely debate controversial topics, where once again, we would agree to disagree. Meanwhile, the skeptic and the psychic medium would be expected to continue doing their own thing without really entering the other one’s environment. Tolerance.
It took John and me less than an hour to move away from that paradigm. The sense of humor, our stances on various social topics – especially human rights, human connectedness, emotional healing, and even the promotion of health-related scientific views, brought us together more than the one-view-that-we-did-not-share could make us drift apart. We even joked about the perspective we did not share. We’re “Twitter buddies” now (his term, I subscribe).
All of that stemmed from the moment when we moved away from tolerance alone and engaged with each other, thus building a shared reality based on things that we both find meaningful, and we both believe in.
And this, once again, was not the end of a journey. Since many of the members of the Evolve community – created and moderated by John – witnessed our interactions, they too joined us in changing tolerance into connections with common goals. The potential is there and we could all see it: we can build together, no matter how different our core beliefs are.
This is so much more than simply ‘allowing’ each other to play in our own (non)belief-specific corners.
The skeptic community did a lot when it comes to critically assessing various sensational practices and promoting the scientific principles that explain each of the claims that come with them, but I think that there is a critical flaw (pun intended) in the way it handled the relationships with the people who found themselves on the other side of a belief (pun, again, intended).
Prominent figures from both groups – skeptics and believers, went with tolerance first and mainly collaborated with each other when they found themselves debating for money on the same stage (Someone had to say it!). They had to agree to debate each other in order to cash in. I’d call that biased, but that’s another topic.
They also engaged in personal attacks, thus creating an even bigger divide. My own online experience with Deepak Chopra (read more here) was one in which he quickly jumped to ad-hominem tactics, some of which even prompted the reaction of his own followers who considered his behavior not exactly spiritual leader material. Richard Dawkins, whom I otherwise highly admire, also engaged in various attacks, and once again, his own followers reacted.
It takes more than declared tolerance to make communities come together when they entertain polarized views.
This is the journey I decided to embark on. I want to help find the methods that would not only make us tolerate one another, but which would also help us grow together, both as individuals and as a society.
I strongly believe that our ultimate meeting point is beyond tolerance, the possible key being to find specific common goals and starting to work our way toward achieving them together, enjoying and taking pride in the results at each of the stages.
I am confident that once we will be able to look back and see the history we built together, our differences will no longer dictate our future.
Expect to read more on this topic on Psychology Corner.
P.S. I wish I could say that members of the skeptic community responded positively to my new take. Some of them did express support in non-public environments, but there was no official public stance from any of those following me here or on social media. Some quietly unsubscribed or stopped following me shortly after I posted the SKEPTIC’s REVIEW or after my online interactions with John and Evolve members became more frequent and friendlier. Honestly, it would be a shame if the community that prides itself with open-mindedness and willingness to consider things rationally would be the one that maintains the walls. It would be a belief-based decision with a negative social impact… and I thought we didn’t do that.