I mentioned in the previous post my beef with the faux tolerance on college campuses. (I generalize without demeaning examples of real tolerance.) Desiring to think a bit more closely about what tolerance actually is, I hied myself to the trusty Oxford English Dictionary.
For the verb “tolerate,” this part of the definition comes closest: “To bear without repugnance; to allow intellectually, or in taste, sentiment, or principle; to put up with.” The first infinitive caught my attention.
What does it mean “to bear” something? Well, it means “to carry” it, which suggests that you have to come into close contact with it. Tolerating something, tolerating a person, assumes close contact and interaction. It also assumes some degree of discomfort with the bearing.
A college campus – even a small one – is a big place. We can go about our business largely without having to interact seriously with ideological differences. We thus need not tolerate one another even when we’re in close proximity. We don’t have “to bear” anybody’s outrageous ideas because we don’t take the time seriously to engage them.
Remember higher education’s stated mission and the problem comes into plain view. It is to help young people prepare intellectually and ethically for the (“adult”) world of ambiguities, difficulties, tragedies and hard choices. I worry that we largely fail on this aim. Why? Precisely because we do not sustain activities that challenge students to grapple courageously and sensitively with anything very troubling.
Time for an example: as part of our 9/11 remembrances at the university where I work, we had a number of lectures, panel discussions and ceremonies. As chaplain, I participated on a panel dealing with religious diversity and the need to live with one another in peace. I believe deeply in the truth and goodness of this theme. As I studied this gathering, though we were somewhat ethnically and religiously diverse, we were, for all I could tell, ideologically the same.
I speculate, of course, because I did not poll everyone in the room, but I did pay attention. Questions, comments and the general “vibe” in the room signaled virtual consensus on what the problems are and what we need to do to fix them. Thus, when fellow panel members said, in a couple of different ways, that religions all essentially work for the same ends, nobody questioned that claim (except me) and numerous heads nodded assent.
When another panel member said that the reason for religion-related violence is ignorance and that we just “need to educate people,” again the general tenor of the room exhibited agreement.
Except for me. I challenged the empty platitudes. I’m not painting myself as the hero. I was just trying to do what I think panel discussants are supposed to do. We are different. Let’s talk about our differences in a peaceful, even loving, way.
No, we didn’t do that. Thus, we had no need for tolerance.
I am talking about a very common problem on college campuses. We talk much about tolerance. We actually demonstrate it very little. We have events, we “engage” in “dialogue” and we all go home feeling good that we “tackled” some difficult topic. But there was no real debate. If anyone in the room disagrees, he/she/they stay silent. Only the boldest of contrarians speak their minds.
This happens within the (college) environment that prides itself on upholding intellectual engagement, on being open and tolerant and courageously tackling the major issues of the day. We still need real tolerance.