Toleration

by Kevin Currie-Knight

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Suppose that you live next door to someone and think something about the way they live – their religion, their domestic arrangements, their politics, even their race – is wrong or objectionable. If you are a particularly grousy or dogmatic neighbor, you might take every occasion to let them know how wrong you think they and this thing about them are. This, of course, is not tolerance, at least in the sense that means leaving a person be.

The gentler course is to tolerate them, to let them live as they please and refrain from trying to change their ways if doing so will interfere with their ability to live the way they prefer. Maybe you see them next door and instead of trying to get them seeing the errors in their ways, you smile and wave, or at very least say nothing.

There are several reasons you might tolerate them in this way.

[1] You could tolerate them from a sort of skepticism about whether you really know the way they should live. I believe strongly that their way is the wrong way, but they are not me, so who am I to say that I’m not missing something? I could be wrong too.

[2] You could tolerate them from apathy or prudence. It’s just not worth the energy and time I’d have to expend to explain to that person the errors of their ways. The knucklehead probably wouldn’t change their mind anyway. I’ll just let it be.

[3] You could tolerate out of politeness. I know they’re wrong, but I also know that they are my neighbor and I think it’d be rude – and maybe not like me – to confront them. I’ll just say nice things to them, avoid them when I can, and continue thinking ill of them in private.

[4] You could tolerate them because you believe in the importance of autonomy. As wrong as I am convinced they are, I am more convinced that they have every right to live the way they choose, even if they are dead wrong in their judgment.

[5] You could tolerate them out of malice. Ha. I’m glad they are living the wrong way. They’ll find out the hard way, and I can’t wait for that moment of truth!

[6] You could tolerate them because you’ve taken it upon yourself to realize that you were wrong, that the way they are living is legitimate after all. Your tolerance has become something between acceptance and embrace of them and their difference.

The way many colleges of education – certainly mine – handle issues of teaching amidst diversity is to get teachers shooting straight for [6]. And while there are things to be said for [5] that I’ll get to shortly, the overriding problem with [6] (and for that matter [1]), is that it’s a lot of work. It demands changing a person’s mind and, to use religious terminology, working on their soul.

Some of us – I count myself one – are really invigorated by diversity of many kinds, or at least see no problem with a wide scope of diversity. Other people, for a variety of reasons from temperament to religion, will be a harder sell. If a person’s religious convictions tell them that homosexuality is a mistake or confusion on the part of the declared homosexual person, it will take a lot of work to convince them otherwise. Behavior is much easier to change than belief, and the deeper seated the belief, the more a part of a person’s felt identity it is, the harder it will be to hinge their ability to tolerate to a change in their belief.

Given all of this, would it be a better strategy to tell teachers that the goal should be something more like [2] through [4]? “You have every right to think your students and their families are living in literal or figurative sin. But you have a job to do, and that job will be made easier and better if you just avoid making a stink about it.”

[2] through [4] have a lot in their favor. First, if we are talking about the person who believes very strongly that certain types of diversity aren’t legitimate, [2] through [4] set a much lower bar. They don’t involve the arduous and thankless task of changing the beliefs of others. And because of this, [2] through [4] respect the freedom of conscience, a value that at best is in conflict at times with the value of toleration. Second, in many cases, the person who wants toleration probably doesn’t care that much about the reasons for which they are being tolerated. They may, of course, want others to accept them as they are, but they probably care more that folks aren’t interfering with their ability to live and be happy. Last, a counter-intuitive point: because changing people’s deeply felt convictions is so difficult, it might be the worse course to pursue, because it puts already-marginalized people’s ability to live good lives entirely up to whether others choose to accept them.

Yet [2] through [4] have downsides, especially in school settings. First, the reason tolerance is what John Gray rightly calls “the unfashionable virtue” is that from the jump, it has a negative connotation. We tolerate house flies even though we’d love to swat them. We tolerate things about our job that we’d love to get rid of but know we have no control over. Tolerance is something we do toward things we have a problem with. And even though the often-marginalized person may be glad they are tolerated, like all of us, they’d prefer to be accepted or affirmed. Toleration is generally the second-best option.

There is, though, another reason why teacher education programs often aspire less to get teachers tolerating diversity and more toward affirming, embracing, and valuing diversity. It has to do with the unique circumstances of school as opposed to other areas of life. If we picture the situation with the neighbor, you and that neighbor have every opportunity not to interact with each other. In most situations, including this one, there is some element of choice to the encounter. We may not want neighbors of different political tribes to interact with each other – and stores even to sell to people the owners and workers think are problematic – but people can generally choose where they shop, and store owners generally prefer more sales to choosiness about who their clients are.

As nice as school is, it is a deep sea of force and coercion. Students almost never have a say in whether to go to school or what teachers they will or won’t tolerate. And unless parents have the means to choose how education will be provided to their kids, their kids are going to the school their children are zoned for. Unlike the situation with your neighbor, when a teacher finds out a student is (or the student’s parents are) gay and wants to tell them that the Bible says this is sinful, neither party has the option to bow out of the classroom, so as to avoid one another.

Add to this that ideally, the teacher-student relationship is supposed to be of a deeper kind than a casual neighbor-to-neighbor or clerk-to-customer relationship. Clerks and customers, or neighbors, can have deep relationships that go beyond mere tolerance, but for that to happen, they have to respect one another enough that they’ve moved “above” tolerance. It may be possible for a gay person can be friends with someone deeply convinced that homosexuality is wrong – or a pacifist to be friends with a war veteran whose killed three in the line of duty – but in general, these relationships will be stronger the more they move beyond “mere” tolerance of difference. To put it more starkly, if you are a teacher ideologically convinced of black people’s intellectual inferiority, you will have a hard time when you have a class with black people in it.

Where does that leave me? What do I think is the best way to produce teachers comfortable teaching in the face of diversity and difference? I had a student come to my office at one point who was concerned about a conflict between his convictions and the possible demands of a teaching job. The student was of a religious denomination that believed any deviation from heterosexuality (and, though the term didn’t come up, cisgender) was a sin and a sign that the person needed encouragement choosing the right path. He was uncomfortable with the idea that he might have to teach gay, lesbian, or trans students and might have to forego sending even the subtlest of signals to them about his disapproval of their lifestyle. This, he took care to note, is a demand he would not have in the wider world, where he’d generally be free to evangelize to or avoid people whose lives he did not approve of.

I told that student that I cannot likely change his mind regarding those convictions. And, yes, those convictions might ultimately not fit with the demands of teaching, at least when GLTBQ students show up. I told him that while I would love it if his mind were changed and he got either to acceptance of these people [6] or skepticism about your ability to know what their sexuality or gender should be [1], that would be a tall order that I cannot realistically expect. I told the student to shoot either for tolerance based on indifference [2]; politeness and professionalism [3]; or belief in their autonomy [4]; and I should say that this would be a tall order given that he was to teach middle-school aged students). And if you don’t think trading your right to evangelize in return for a teaching job is right for you, it will be best for all involved if you consider another line of work.

8 comments

  1. I liked Kevin’s examination of the ideas of toleration/tolerance, which I have often found myself pondering in recent years. Acknowledging that his six variations of the concept of “toleration” represent the current options in education, I found that none of them fully conformed with what I guess is now an “old-school” view. That view seemed to turn upon a slight shift in meaning between “tolerating” others, and practicing “tolerance.” In that latter sense, “tolerance” conveyed an attitude that passed over difference or disagreement in favor of a sense of a shared humanity, often accompanied by an appreciation of the freedoms that allowed for a benevolent co-existence.

    That is admittedly something of a “Norman Rockawell” conception of tolerance from a time in which many beliefs seem to have been held more lightly. It’s certainly inconsistent with the current zeitgeist, under which we are expected to be ashamed of being Americans, and instead to anchor our identities in the identitarian niches of the various civic, ethnic, or confessional subsets that assert their existence by emphasizing the respective sets of rigid differences they prescribe from one another.

    Of course, as with many of my views, this one will relegate me to the status of “slippered pantaloon.”

  2. What I miss a bit here is an analysis of tolerance *in relation to the subject of a course*.

    Let me explain. My wife teaches mathematics at a catholic school. The unwritten rules are:

    – as a teacher, you keep your opinions about religion, politics, sexual orientation etc. to yourself;
    – students bullying other students because they are trans, gay, religious (or not), obese etc. is *not* tolerated.

    It’s not perfect, but it works fairly well. As it’s a catholic school, there is some obligatory catholic education, but it’s perfectly acceptable for students to claim catholic doctrine is nonsense on some points. The idea is not to convert these students, the idea is that they are intellectually capable of understanding catholicism, even if they don’t agree with it.

    However, in the last few years there were a number of students who, because of their evangelical background, were young earth creationists. They didn’t believe in evolution either.

    This created problems in the science lessons. When these subjects were discussed, these students became very disruptive. Trying to convince them with scientific arguments turned out to be impossibly time-consuming. On exams, they refused to answers questions about geology or evolution (or wrote down some pseudo-scientific nonsense).

    What’s your opinion about tolerance in these circumstances?

    (In my wife’s school these students were told they are old enough to be responsible for their own choices. Wrong answer, no answer = you fail).

  3. Tell that student not to worry; once the Alito SCOTUS overturns Obergefell v. Hodges, ‘red’ states will resurrect anti-sodomy laws, and if he gets a job in one, he can not only proselytize to his gay students or ban them from class, he can probably have them arrested.

    Think about it – same sex couples married in New York will be liable for arrest if they happen to travel through Mississippi.

    The real question is whether a Trumpist dominated Congress outlaws homosexuality nationally. Death camps for gays? Probably not. Enforced “Conversion Therapy” camps more likely.

    (One of the tragic ironies of the SJW- Trans-activist- identitarian left is that the triumphalism they’re enjoying because of pressure they can bring to bear in the Academy, has effectively blinded them to the real dangers they face beyond the ivied walls in the current political environment. They need to seek alliance with sympathetic moderates; they prefer to bully and then brag. As they say in the Twitter-verse, “sad.”)

    At any rate, the point is that the rise of the right in the main-stream, which involves considerable divisiveness and insistent, aggressive intolerance, make many of the well-thought-out, valid, and important points raised here seem, frankly, a little quaint. Reminiscent not only of a different era, but a different universe. I miss it. “This used to be a helluva good country. I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.” – Easy Rider, 1969.

    1. I think SCOTUS rulings on marriage and bedroom issues rest on way more firm and sound ground than Roe. Not that I don’t expect the Christian Nationalists to keep circling at the scent of blood. Do you really claim that yesteryear was a time of greater halcyon tolerance, or only that everyone more or less knew their place?

      1. “I think SCOTUS rulings on marriage and bedroom issues rest on way more firm and sound ground than Roe.” No, actually not. The fundamental question remains whether the Bill of Rights together with the 14th Amendment necessarily construct a ‘right to privacy’ for the individual in opposition to state laws. I suggest reviewing the dissents in Obergefell, especially from Roberts whom many centrists and liberals are expecting to pull Alito’s chestnuts out of the public fire. Nope.

        “Do you really claim that yesteryear was a time of greater halcyon tolerance” – there was a time, and perhaps it was only a passing moment, when The Crazy was considered so marginal that those who engaged in reasonable discourse in the center could simply ignore it. Now The Crazy is the center. The Christian student Kevin addresses in his final anecdote here will undoubtedly find space at the center of some school, or Board of Education, or government agency, it is Kevin who is being edged into the margin. Sadly.

        As broader remark, I only repeat what I’ve noted before: we are in a cold civil war that only one side knows it’s fighting. This is the new normal. The assumption on the part of many liberals that ‘we’ll get through this, the American people won’t let this happen, it’s just an aberration’ is blind and delusional. The Democrats don’t even know what game is being played, and seem unable to make any winning move. This will not end well, for anyone.

        1. Well, thanks for spoiling my day, EJ. I perused through the Wikipedia entry on Obergefell and see that the legal pundits and politicos on the telly didn’t bother, or are extremely naive or overly optimistic that same sex marriage is in an inviolable lock box. Since these complex social and legal machinations seem to be no better decided than a jump ball in the moral/political basketball court of the Supremes, (ironically that which Roberts chided the proponents of doing), I fear that your prediction is a valid concern. So, even if Roberts does surreptitiously change his way of thinking by paying heed to the social and cultural milieu, as I suspect he did when considering Obamacare, he no longer counts as a swing vote. Regardless of the pure legalities and interpretations, the question is, dare they strip the rights of millions of Americans and destroy countless families asunder into legal limbo and political chaos? No doubt there will be those hankering to do so.

          Thanks for clarifying about the “crazy” middle. I know exactly what you mean and where you are coming from. I admit I’m one of those who have faith in the safeguards, and resiliency of our system. I see the woke knuckleheads on the Left and the power by any means on the Right. Enough leaks come out of the inner power players of the GOP that they know they are dealing with a Frankenstein of their own making but feel they can control and ride the beast of incipient authoritarianism and proto-fascism by its short hairs. And their ideological villagers are leading the parade with their torches and pitchforks against the Leftist elites instead of turning on the insidious monster from behind.

          Democracy is a messy business. The crazy Left is a predictable culmination of what has preceded it and will eventually run its course from internal cannibalism and maturity and outwardly from push back. The crazy Right is by far more dangerous since the stakes are much higher. Historically, the mother of authoritarian states have always been democracies that have slowly morphed from internal, slow decay.

  4. Perhaps because of my limited scope I don’t understand why this is even a thing. You go into the classroom and teach to the test and follow the curriculum. Why on earth someone called to the noble profession of teaching and pedagogy would choose to work in a pluralistic secular setting, all the while knowing they were possessed with a missionaries zeal that would insure quick termination of employment seems far fetched and highly impertinent and offensive.

    I think the next door neighbor is the better illustration. To that I would add [7], simple preservation of good relations. Once you offer an unsolicited critique of the others self, appearance, behavior etc., you’ve literally let the cat out of the bag as to your true feeling about the other’s person hood. This cannot bode well for future relationships assuming the door hasn’t already been shut in your face.

  5. I think reason #1 [adopt skepticism that one really knows how to live] is a little more easier to apply than Mr. Currie-Knight seems to suggest. Even someone as convinced as the soon-to-be-teacher might be encouraged to consider adopting a “I cannot see the purpose of all things or the final end at which others will arrive.” Would it work? Maybe and maybe not, but many traditions, and I suspect this student’s faith tradition is among them, place a certain value on humility.

    There are limits to my suggestion, of course. And it’s always iffy to try to point out to another person what their own faith tradition might require if the one doing the pointing out doesn’t share that tradition. But I think there’s a little more room for skepticism.

    That, too, applies to those who are seeking toleration and acceptance, in my opinion, though I assume if they’re part of a marginalized group, they’ve probably already been through the “maybe I’m actually wrong about how I’m living” wringer much more than the person asked to do the tolerating.

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