As Muslim chaplain for Harvard University, I’m always amazed at how the word tolerance divides the ranks on all sides. You’ll find some who deem tolerance as an outdated term in need of a very specific reinterpretation, while others argue that entertaining anything more than tolerance begins to diminish one’s own core beliefs. I don’t believe tolerance extends deep enough.
Tolerance simply stated, is the absence of physical violence against someone else. But it doesn’t guarantee that laws and edicts won’t be issued that undermine the spirit of coexistence. Remember, the Nuremburg Laws were at first a ‘tolerance’ of Jews. Look where that brand of tolerance led. The Black Codes and Jim Crow were kinds of tolerance that were nothing more than hatred in its most cunning incarnation.
The danger of stopping at tolerance is that it could very well set the stage for visceral institutional bigotry. It alone without other key components that lead to an authentic coexistence is condescending. It says, “You’re lucky we don’t kill you. You should be happy to have any seat on the bus, period.”
Tolerance is a good start but then there must be acceptance. And even with acceptance there are some nuances that should be understood. We can accept a dog as a beloved family member but that doesn’t mean we see the dog as our equal. We recognize that a dog needs to eat but we don’t feed it what we eat, we feed it dog food.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the effort of civil rights leaders attempting to move African Americans through the door of tolerance and into acceptance. However acceptance alone, without deference has created a toxic environment where the grandsons of those civil rights leaders are regularly gunned down in the street by the very people who’ve been commissioned to protect and serve. That’s because emancipation is one thing; respect is another.
When you stop at acceptance, women earn the same degree and reach the same competency level as men, yet produce far less income because they’ve been accepted into the workforce without respect. When we stop at acceptance, neighborhoods are partitioned so that streams of government funding go to certain populations to the exclusion of others. Acceptance is a euphemism for indifference.
In fact, indifference squats between tolerance and acceptance and leads to systematic micro-aggressions against marginalized groups. Acceptance is only a Jedi mind-trick; not quite discrimination, yet not completely just.
After acceptance there must be education; diversity education to be specific. Learning about the unique scope and sequence of someone else is the pinnacle of humanity. Diversity education is unlike other forms of education in that it occurs on God’s syllabus, not ours. And that’s why in universities across the country it’s occurring both academically but perhaps more importantly through experience.
I along with my colleagues at Harvard; rabbis, priests, pastors and ministers are trying to learn from one another so that we can actualize the empathy in our respective faith-traditions rather than preach a hollow, isolated Word without engagement and fellowship. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, but it’s authentic and it’s healthy. Unfortunately the world’s problems won’t be solved on a college campus.
Nevertheless pockets of people all over the country are realizing that tolerance and acceptance without education is a cop-out; a way to sterilize the human instinct to understand and empathize.
With displaced Muslim families in the millions due to genocide and war, many Muslims now understand why they should educate themselves about the horrors of the Holocaust, because it contains lessons for all of us. Likewise Jewish groups like HIAS are refusing to be indifferent about the current refugee crisis and are calling for immediate Syrian relief.
As Americans, if we call ourselves responsible then we must look deeply into the circumstances of every marginalized group with the hope of enlightening ourselves through their plight with the intention to assist where we can.
When we become informed about another’s experience we’ll develop the final step towards coexistence, empathy. Empathy is not what causes a mother to protect her child. That’s called love. Empathy is what causes a mother to protect someone else’s child. Because she not only understands the intrinsic value of any child but also the unconditional love that its mother has for it and to allow it to be injured is to compromise her own humanity. When we reach this level of deep understanding then we’re ready to coexist.
Coexistence doesn’t diminish one’s religion, political lean or lifestyle at all. In fact it strengthens them. It’s merely the ability to hold on to your core beliefs and rituals while acknowledging difference in a real-world situation. As a result you not only tolerate, but you make accommodations so that those who are different than you are able to retain their human dignity and comfort-level at all times. Anything short of that is uncivilized.
Tim McCarthy, Harvard professor of history and public policy said in a recent lecture:
When you don’t subject yourself to a sense of entitlement yes, you may give up a tiny slice of privilege but you do that in order to be an ally to someone who perhaps is not in the room.
Nothing changes through one person or group alone. Coexisting is to be a collaborator that lends strength to toppling a wall. As a result, a white woman wears a button to work that reads Black Lives Matter, a Christian makes space for a Muslim to pray, and a Muslim teaches about the Armenian Genocide. Each of us standing on our square, linked together on the continuum of coexistence knowing that stopping at tolerance won’t be enough.