Just a few more days before the 2016 presidential election, a few more agonizing, soul-sucking days. At this point, I’ve quit counting the number of times I’ve heard people say, “I’m so over this election. I’m just sick of it.” You’ve probably heard something similar. I mean, who hasn’t heard something like that?
But when you press people on why they find the election season so dispiriting, you often hear something like: “Our country is divided. Everybody’s so jaded and partisan.” Thanksgiving dinner with uncle Earl should be extra fun this year, as everyone does their own post-election autopsy on what went wrong, why we’re so angry with one another.
It’s not just partisan politics either. Think about Black Lives Matter. An African American man is shot, yet again, by police. A loud cry erupts from people who grieve to think not only about the life lost, but also about the social fallout from another round of fighting between those convinced black men are systematically targeted by a racist system and those convinced that if a police officer fires a weapon, it’s probably justified.
Or what about Muslims, or Syrian refugees, or undocumented workers? How much energy gets expended in the debate over how hospitable the United States ought to be to groups of people easily identified as “other?”
What’s often the diagnosis, especially if you happen to be a progressive?
Intolerance. An unwillingness to accept people who are different from us.
Exactly. If we can just get everyone to agree to live and let live, everything will turn out all right.
But see, while urging tolerance seems to be the reflexive answer among those who typically understand themselves to be tolerant, it’s ultimately an unsatisfying answer to the problem of social discord.
Because tolerance in these macro social situations seems too often to be the prerogative of those with power and privilege. Tolerance is the reluctant permission granted to those without apparent claim to participate in arenas controlled by someone else. It’s a ticket bestowed by the owners to a game you’d otherwise be prevented from playing in.
For years, for instance, many men fought against extending the franchise to women, as well as against women working outside the home. But when men saw they couldn’t hold back the tide, women came to be reluctantly tolerated as participants in the voting booth and the workplace.
Full participation by African Americans in the American dream was for years an impossibility because white folks deemed them unfit to enjoy even their own freedom. After they finally gained that freedom, African Americans were considered unqualified to vote, to intermarry with white people, to live outside redlined districts, to eat at the same lunch counter and drink from the same water fountain as white folks. In the wake of Civil Rights victories, though, African American access to the system that had oppressed them has been, in many cases, grudgingly tolerated.
A significant, if not entirely representative, slice of Christian people have historically regarded their own privileged status as a self-evident feature of American existence, only unenthusiastically tolerating the presence of other religions.
LGBTQ people, as long as they stayed in the closet, were left alone. Because, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. And more recently, as long as they didn’t presume to take part in the institution of marriage—which traditionally conferred a series of legal and social privileges on straight folks—LGBTQ people were allowed to have their “civil ceremonies.” But the Supreme Court decision giving them equal access to marriage has made LGBTQ people a threat to certain constituencies, causing many people to attempt to reverse the narrative by saying that now, anyone who opposes marriage equality is a victim of intolerance—usually religious intolerance.
The point is, of course, that tolerance is too often a sop thrown by the folks in charge to those who’ve too often had to sit in the back of the bus, but for whatever reason now have access to the prime seats up front.
Slavoj Žižek, philosopher and cultural critic, however, has challenged the idea of tolerance, asking:
“Why are so many problems today perceived as problems of intolerance, rather than as problems of inequality, exploitation, or injustice? Why is the proposed remedy tolerance, rather than emancipation, political struggle, or even armed struggle?” (Living in the End Times, 5).
Why indeed? Žižek asks exactly the right question for a divided country.
Shouldn’t those who enjoy privilege, by virtue of that privilege, take upon themselves the responsibility not to settle for a tolerant society but for a just society?
Shouldn’t those who’ve had the power to oppress others finally use that power to seek “emancipation” for people who’ve too often found themselves merely tolerated?
Someone might reasonably ask, “Why should those with privilege and power want to give that up so others can enjoy equality and justice?”
It’s an important question. Why should people feel compelled to sacrifice their own advantage for others? Historically, that question has been answered by appealing to a common set of religious and moral assumptions associated with living in a commonwealth. But we can no longer assume any such common account of religion or morality.
If we can’t appeal to a shared set of assumptions about how people ought to act, then why should anybody regard what I’m saying with anything more than polite indifference? I think the answer to that question has to do with the limits of our imagination. Put more simply, what kind of world do we want to live in?
Do we really want a world in which the powerful tolerate the powerless?
Do we really want to underwrite the kind of selfishness that teaches our children that they should maintain their own advantages, even sometimes with deadly earnestness, until they no longer have any choice—then offer the weak the concession of tolerance? Or do we want to foster the kind of community in which our desire for justice sometimes asks us to cultivate empathy, to think of the interests and well-being of others even before our own interests?
Do we dream of a world where tolerance is wrested from our hands only with hesitation, or a world where—setting down the privilege our power buys us—fellow feeling prompts us to seek equity for everyone?
Regardless of who wins this election, it seems clear that the country will remain angrily divided. But the question is, will we continue to tolerate those with whom we disagree, or will we pursue a world where inequality no longer defines our relationship to one another, where exploitation is universally sanctioned, and where injustice no longer drives a wedge between us?
Short Summary: Tolerance too often seems to be the prerogative of those with power and privilege.
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