Fresh Old Ideas

By Arnold Malone

It was a seminal moment. I was in my early 20s and attending Montana State University. I was walking back from class to my apartment. En route I needed to pass by the university’s married housing community. Half a block away I could hear delightful laughter from happy boys at play. The sounds of joy continued non stop. As the boys came into view, I noted that one was a white boy and the other an African American playing in a sand box. 

While I was passing beside these joyful sounds, an adult woman – likely the white boy’s mother – raced from her house, grabbed her boy by the arm and dragged him away while shouting, “I told you not to play with him.”

That disturbing event has been etched in my mind for a lifetime. So much of intolerance is learned. I am reminded of those words from a song in the movie South Pacific: “You’ve got to be carefully taught. To hate all the people your relative’s hate. You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

At one time we humans lived in smaller communities and while intolerance existed then, the world has shrunk and our differences are now more clearly amoung us. Tolerance is needed for living in a modern world. Enhanced mobility has brought the variations of cultures and races in to be our daily mix. 

Tolerance is the objective understanding towards those whose opinions and practices differ from our own. 

It requires a special talent for listening with care. Also, the capacity to resist quick retorts and to allow some thoughtful silent moments for time to work her magic.

It is not just possible but expected that we to try and understand the formation of another’s opinions. Every culture believes it is correct. Participants in the world’s five largest religions mostly believe that they are absolute in their correctness. 

Being tolerant does not mean an abandonment of one’s own beliefs.

So, it is imperative that views that differ from our own need to be understood in the context of the culture from which they arose.

So, a question does arise: do we ever confront another’s opinion? The answer is yes, whenever an opinion or practice is likely to do harm to another person or persons. However, we ought to resist confrontation when we sense a difference that is nothing other than a harmless cultured practice that may seem odd to us. 

We can be tolerant of others without animosity. In fact, the practice of understanding differences is rewarded by our knowing that we have a compassion for a bigger world. 

I worked with someone who was a master of tolerance. When a view was expressed that was counter to his he would softly say, “Are you sure?” That invited further conversation along with additional background. After which he might say, “Are you certain?” This brought about self-examination yet impartiality was retained.

Tolerance and tolerate are not the same. ‘Tolerance’ is understanding without conflict, but to ‘tolerate’ is to begrudgingly ignore.

In this time when communication is near instant and transportation can connect people from anywhere in less than a day, tolerance is a required skill. 

Tolerance requires respect for differences. Being tolerant is a learned behaviour.

When associating with others who are different, the pause before a response is helpful. The blurting out of a knee-jerk response is likely to be harmful. Give some space before a counter view is expressed and thereafter your tone is the key to a greater connection.

There is a special joy that arises from learning about our world as a whole. Compassion is its own trophy. 

Embracing tolerance is a wonderful way to start a new year.