The Bigger Picture
Published on June 3rd 2010 in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
I ended last week’s column by saying that the essential truth about why many native citizens blame immigrants for their economic troubles, is because they don’t want to face the truth about their own failure to upgrade their skills in order to remain employable. But there is another equally troubling reason why native citizens seek to blame immigrants for their country’s economic or social ills that I want discuss today. It is their lack of tolerance for others who don’t dress, speak or think like they do.
Unfortunately for our respective national and global societies, the issue of intolerance of others who don’t act, look or worship the same way we do, isn’t confined to native citizens’ who are critical of immigrants from other countries; it applies to all of us! Granted, some of us are much more tolerant than others, but the bottom line is; all of have been intolerant of others at some point in our lives; it is part of the human condition.
Be honest now. Who among us doesn’t like to feel at least a little bit superior to someone else from time to time? I’ll admit that I do. Mind you, I’m not exactly proud to admit it. But if I’m going to be honest, at least with myself, then I have to acknowledge I’m guilty of this from time to time. But because I have admitted that I like feeling this way, and also know this is a character failing, not an attribute, I use my awareness of this flaw to try and make sure that at least my behaviour towards others doesn’t betray such attitudes.
In other words, it is one thing to feel you are smarter or better looking than someone else, but quite another to actually act as if you are. Tolerance and intolerance are models of your behaviour towards others rather than your actual feelings about them. For example, even though I have very strong feelings that I am right about issues like the death penalty, which I strongly oppose, I refuse to morally condemn those who argue in favour of it.
Instead of arguing with them and pointing out why I believe this is an ‘immoral’ type of retribution, I seek to understand why they support the use of this form of punishment by engaging them in a conversation about the reasons why they favour its use. Then, during the course of listening to the reasons why they favour death sentences, I try to focus our conversation on the similarities in our concerns about crime and how to deter it, rather than our differences over what constitutes more or less ‘moral’ forms of punishment for it.
Through this process of constructive engagement, we inevitably discover that we share many more similarities in our concerns about crimes like murder and the need for society to punish and deter it, than our differences over punishing such offenses. By refusing to debate the moral superiority of my position, our discussion about the death penalty can then be focused on evidence about capital punishment’s effectiveness and the fact that innocent people are sometimes convicted of crimes that someone else committed. It has been my experience that this is the only means by which someone might then change their mind or at least acknowledge that maybe my reasons for opposing the death penalty are valid.
Gossip is another example of what I mean when I say all of us are guilty of intolerant behaviour on occasion. Who among us can say we have not engaged in gossip about other people from time to time? When we discuss someone else during our conversations with friends and work colleagues, and say things about them that we wouldn’t say if they were present, we are gossiping. Nor does it matter whether we are actively agreeing with what is being said or merely listening to it; we are still engaging in gossip because by listening and not defending the person being discussed, we are acknowledging the truth about what is said.
Gossiping is our human way of acting out our feelings that we are somehow superior to others in terms of how we would and would not behave or act in certain situations. It is a model of intolerant behaviour that we use to criticize the actions or behaviour of others and is in effect; a polite form of murder through the use of character assassination. I’m not proud of it, but I can admit that I have been guilty of such intolerant behaviour at times. Can you?
By being honest with myself about the fact that I like engaging in gossip, even though I know this isn’t a demonstration of tolerant behaviour, I have been able to use this awareness in a conscious attempt to correct my use of this intolerant behaviour. While I have not always succeeded, more often than not I have been able to do so by either pointing out more positive qualities of the person being discussed, or by changing the topic of the conversation. But when this doesn’t work, I usually excuse myself and walk away from the conversation.
Does this mean I’m now morally superior or somehow better than those who continue to engage in this more polite form of murder? No! It simply means that I am working to become the kind of person I wish to be, by trying not to engage in displays of intolerant behaviour as frequently as I know I have in the past. I’m not morally superior nor will I ever be morally perfect. But that doesn’t prevent me from improving my tolerance of the behaviours or feelings of moral superiority held by those who I disagree with.
How can we expect others that are intolerant of the actions or views of those they disagree with, to somehow become less so if we react in an angry or intolerant manner towards them? I will discuss this in the context of religious intolerance next week.