Tolerance

One of the common words that we hippie-type people like to use is the word tolerance.  We need to be more tolerant.  I said it myself in my last post, but based on a discussion on that post I decided that it was worth investigating this concept of tolerance.  While I think many people derived a theme of being more tolerant towards Muslims, what I really meant to look at is what are better and worse ways of dealing with a difficult situation.  I’ve come to realize that often when I use the word tolerance, the meaning I hold to it is different than others.  And so maybe what I am suggesting is not tolerance at all, but something else.

Ahirhsa refers to non-violence

What I think we can agree on, is that tolerance is definitely not something we should always be doing.  We live in a very PC culture where we are being told constantly to be tolerant, but tolerance can lead to passiveness, and there are some things we should not tolerate or be passive about.  One could say that being intolerant has led to many important social changes.  When laws are unjust being tolerant of them isn’t getting you very far.  Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr are good examples of historical figures who were not very tolerant and accomplished great things for their people in the march towards equality and self-determination.  But then I also thought about the importance of context.  If laws are unjust, if there is oppression, then it is these practices that are intolerant.  And shouldn’t we be intolerant to practices that are intolerant.  For instance, if black people are not allowed to sit in certain restaurants this would be an example of a system which is not tolerant towards different races.  White people would not tolerate a black person sitting next to them while eating.  Did black people owe it to white people to be tolerant of their practices so as to not make them feel uncomfortable?  Of course not.  On the other side we could point to Kim Davis.  She doesn’t agree with a law that allows gay people marry.  The law is just because it gives equal rights to people of different sexual orientation, and doesn’t infringe on anybody’s ability to practice their own religion.  Thus we would ask Kim Davis to be tolerant.  Of course, whether it is people not wanting blacks in their restaurant, or gay people to marry, what we are really saying to those people is “you’re wrong, get used to it”.  We’re saying, your “intolerance, will no longer be tolerated”.  And I believe this is fair and this is right, but there is a little bit of a subtext there that says “You really should change your mind and agree with us, because other ways life is going to be pretty annoying for you”.  And again, I’m not saying this isn’t fair, but to the other person they would easily say that we are the intolerant ones of their views and why do they have to show tolerance and we don’t?  The word “tolerance”, at least to me, is sort of a confusing word when you think about it.

So going back to the issue of “banning the burka”, if I say tolerance is prudent, what does that mean?  First I think it’s important to note that tolerance of an action and condoning that action are different.  But if you are really against something, being tolerant and thus passive can be seen as equal as condoning it.  I think there is some truth to that, but it’s important to remember that not all people would fight a battle in the same way. Some methods of fighting are more effective and/or cause less overall harm. Kim Davis’ beliefs may make her decide that she should not tolerate what she’s sees as an unjust law and she is welcome to fight it.  However there are better and worse ways to do such a thing, and the choice she has made is ultimately ineffective, and denies legal rights to fellow citizens.  The burka or niqab is a troubling practice.  Women have become so oppressed in some countries that many of them are even complicit with that oppression and would feel real spiritual pain by not following what they believe to be true regarding their value compared to men.  Should we tolerate such gender equality?  The answer once again is, of course not.  However should we be tolerant towards women wearing the burka?  Then I would say yes, but I would say that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything about it.  So maybe when we ask for tolerance, what we really mean is patience and careful thought.  Let’s not have knee-jerk reactions that are governed by our fears, but let’s take actions that are based on our love and compassion.  The fight for gender equality is really one about love and compassion.  Telling women that they have equal freedom and value as men in society is just that.  Freedom of religion is also one of love and compassion because it says to people that you are allowed to keep your beliefs and that the law will not dictate what you must believe.   No one else wants their beliefs infringed on so why should we pass laws that infringe on others? Of course that doesn’t mean that you can come into a country and expect that a belief structure that by design causes harm to another group will be easily tolerated, especially when that country has fought long and hard to try and erode the traditions you still hold on to.   At the same time, you may also expect that new laws shouldn’t be passed that specifically target you for doing what you were raised culturally to accept as normal.   I think it’s also important that when we oppose certain cultural practices that we consider immoral, that we don’t reject an entire a culture.  Cultural practices are not homogeneous and thus are not all bad or all good.  At the very least some practices may cause no harm at all and thus we should be tolerant of those.

What we are really after, therefore, is a way in which we can present a group of people who have morally unsound practices with a better way of living.  In the case of the severe oppression of women in some Islamic countries, a proactive way of doing this is to empower women.  Self-determination goes a much longer way in affecting change than oppressive laws.  And while it would be nice to have men on the same side, many will resist due to the fact that they will be losing a position of privilege in their society, but ultimately just as the fight for equality here in the U.S. has required the support of men, so will it need to be the case in Islam.  One possible way in which we can appeal to the rational in both men and women would be to offer education into the development of children.  This article was shared with me by Victoria over at VictoriaNeuronotes and discusses the important of babies being able to see facial expression in their mother.  From the article:

Teacher Maryam Khan, says: “Working with young children, so much is read just from facial expressions, you don’t have to speak to a child.

“If they can’t see your face, they don’t know what you’re thinking – a glare, a smile.”

Psychologists agree. “It’s particularly true for children under five because their communication is non-verbal, they’re much better at reading it than adults,” says Dr. Lewis. “If they’re denied these signals they become quite confused.”

If, when in public, the mother’s face is always covered, this has an adverse impact on a baby’s mood and reactions to situations.  The YouTube video below demonstrates this impact clearly.  And there may be other things that we can discuss with them such as the importance of sunlight to pregnant mothers and babies for Vitamin D.  Given that a love of children is cross-cultural and people generally want the best for children, this seems like a proactive way to change minds by connecting with men and women emotionally through the love they have their children, while presenting also a rational argument for the value of not covering your face.  What’s best is that is also reveals the best about us.  We aren’t trying to persecute anyone, we are showing another culture, our value of education, our shared love of children and wanting the best for them, and that what we want is a conversation and an exchange of ideas, not forcing a behavior through a punitive law.  It also shows another culture that we have humility.  That we too had practices that were not always beneficial and through the act of investigation and learning we have grown to become more loving and compassionate.

As I ponder more about the word tolerance, the more it seems like a word that isn’t overly descriptive.  Because within the idea of tolerance is an implication that one isn’t happy or supportive of a particular behavior and that in some cases, when a particular behavior is harmful we would rather do something about that behavior.  What it does not imply is a hasty reaction.  We can be patient and thoughtful, and act in away that is inclusive and not exclusive.  We can act in a way that is proactive and not adversarial.  In the end, I believe, such tactics are more successful.

What Makes A Good Human?: Vigilance

I start out my journey with something I have specifically blogged about: Vigilance. I sort of attempted this project about a year and half ago, but at that time I hadn’t really formed a list clearly in my mind.  So if some of this looks familiar you may have read some of it before, but I wanted to arrange my argument a little differently and have also added some other things here that I think are relevant.  I also want to note here that I have decided to highlight text where qualities are mentioned that I also think are important but fall under the umbrella of vigilance

One of my favorite quotes from a person of history is this quote by Gandhi, “Nearly everything you do is of no importance, but it is important that you do it.”  At first such a quote might seem kind of depressing, but I do not think Gandhi intended it that way.  Instead I think the quote refers to the importance of vigilance.  For most of us life is full of mundane tasks that must be done, not all of them are joyful, nor are they painful, they are just chores that need to be done, often daily; things like brushing your teeth, washing dishes, taking out the garbage, etc.  And it’s not to say that these things might not be joyful for some people too.  There is something nice about the feeling of clean teeth, or a clean kitchen, but even if there isn’t, it is important that these things be done.  Stop doing them for a length of time and you will see how difficult and/or unhealthy.  So I think Gandhi recognized this aspect of our lives and that by practicing vigilance we are learning that not everything we do has an immediate impact and that we are learning that life takes perseverance. Gandhi himself spent most of his adult life trying to free Britain from independent rule and uniting his people.  Affecting change, even small change, is usually a slow process that takes a lot of work.  The importance of perseverance also turns out to be a central tenet of many religions although it is often ignored for the more magical aspects of the religion that concern the divine and the supernatural.  But you can find passages in most religious texts that speak to the importance of doing good deeds over the entire course of one’s lifetime as the best way to get closer to God and ensure yourself the best possible future after you die.  Whether that be in some heavenly plane or through a positive reincarnation.  And while I don’t subscribe to these ideas of divine rewards, the fact remains that no religion claims that it easy to get to paradise.  It’s hard work and it takes time.

Vigilance also speaks to consistency.  Children for instance need consistency in behavior from their parents.  Relationships require trust and that demands a certain constancy of character so that you feel you can trust and rely on each other.  Good health and long life requires a lifetime of good choices about hygiene, nutrition, and exercise.  I have often told people that getting a Ph.D. is not as much about how smart you are, but your ability to persevere through a lot of work, hoops, and bureaucracy (I don’t necessarily mean this disparagingly, because for me it was worth it, for others I know it was not).  I think it is true that sometimes we even seek this constancy in things that we don’t like.  The saying “Sometimes the enemy you know, is better than the enemy you don’t”, speaks to situations where people are willing to put up with something or somebody that is unpleasant simply because they have become used to it and at least know how to deal with it.

I think it is easy for vigilance to get caught up in the idea of routine, and maybe it sometimes is, but even that is not necessarily a bad thing.  Those with autism depend on routine as a way of making sense of their world, and I don’t think we are all that different.  Most of us need some sense of routine, because our lives are always in conflict between change which brings uncertainty and those things that we can count on which makes us feel safe.  Routine can sometimes be very helpful when facing adverse moments in life.  Having something to focus on, something that you feel you need to do, however mundane the task, can help us from falling into depression and give us purpose.   I can’t speak for all people, but I have observed this being helpful for others and certainly for me when I was facing adversity.

Western Rim of the Grand Canyon

Recently I was in New Orleans for a conference and the keynote speaker for the conference was talking about how her spirituality has helped her and that she feels like God works through her because when she looks at the things she has done, she doesn’t know how she has been able to do it.  She feels like she herself is not capable.  I think it is easy to understand why many people feel that way.  For most things we do, we are used to seeing the immediate result of a particular action, but the quality of being vigilant is one that accumulates those experiences and over time builds wisdom.  In science, the field of geology teaches us excellent lessons about vigilance.  I liken the speaker’s revelation about what she accomplished to a river that erodes to make a canyon.  If you could talk to the river at any one moment in its life, if it was aware at all of the difference it was making each day, it would tell you only that it was eroding  miniscule fragments of mud and rock.  However, if we could then ask this river a couple hundred thousand years later to look around and see what it has made, I think the river would be surprised at the deep canyon it was in, since each day it had perceived little to no change.  The speaker dedicated her life to social change.  Should she really be surprised at all she has accomplished?  And this is an important point about life is that we often focus on the end result instead of paying attention to the journey.  We might idolize celebrities for their achievements and want to be like them, but few of us ever think about the enormous amount of work that goes into those accomplishments.  We see a star sports player but do not see all the training, practice and exercise they do.  We revere an excellent actor but do not see all the rehearsing and studying that goes into what they do.  No matter how naturally talented that person may be their achievements are the result of vigilance.  Thus vigilance also helps remind us about the process by which something happens and not just the end result.  There is no Grand Canyon without the daily process of erosion.

I think it’s important to remember that cause and effect occur over various timescales.  Rewards of our labors and actions may often take years to come to fruition.  The most important lesson from vigilance is that it gives us a better sense of time.  Thus vigilance also teaches us about patience.  Even waiting is a form of vigilance. Keeping this in mind helps me find more value in the mundane, and gives me the courage to push through when life seems difficult.

If there is a dark side to vigilance it is the quality of stubbornness.  Our energy in this life is finite and we have to also recognize those moments that what we are doing isn’t working at all and make adjustments.  Sometimes to achieve a certain goal we have to rethink the process.  How to avoid the pitfalls of stubbornness and refusing to change will hopefully become clearer as move down my list of important qualities.  Those qualities also require vigilance which is why I felt that vigilance was the best place to start.