Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Understanding and tolerance....

Tolerance and understanding are hard and, maybe, impossible. We are each rather small packages of our own life experience with limited abilities to get outside and truly see things from another's point of view.

For years I've thought a great deal about understanding vs tolerance, but lately I am simply not so sure it's as "easy" as opening your mind to new ideas and not prejudging. Perhaps I am being really nit-picky about the definition of understanding and tolerance, but I also see how really, really difficult it is in practice, even if it seems possible in theory.

Sometimes I feel we have it really backwards. I think it is much easier to tolerate than to understand. I do not understand a lesbian or gay person's position. It is fathomless to me. I can tolerate and I can treat the person with respect, but I don't understand. I may respect a friend who leaves her faith behind, but I don't understand it. I may see the steps she took, read the books she read, and ask a million questions, but in the end, since I am not making the same decision, I am not truly understanding her or her reasons. I can "tolerate," I can "agree to disagree," I can love, but I cannot understand.

So I guess I'm saying it is possible to understand the process, or someone's position, to better understand a line of reasoning, or the foundation behind actions and life decisions. But I do not think that is the same thing as truly understanding a person or another position.

I also don't know how much tolerance there is when two positions are diametrically opposed to one another. I won't stop fighting to end abortion on demand. I don't care how much I respect or "understand" the reasons people have for being pro-choice, but I think they are wrong and I'll keep trying to change the system if I can't change their minds. That's just one issue. When it goes on and on, I see no way people with truly divergent positions can tolerate each other forever. It's like a law of physics- two objects cannot occupy the same place at the same time. One will have to move before the other gets there. Someone has to give ground because two opposing views cannot occupy the same space at the same time. We can't have abortion on demand and ban abortion. We can't tolerate gay marriages and ban gay marriages. Etc., etc.

So, yes, I can better understand a position other than my own. And I strive to. But I am less sure that understanding leads to tolerance because 1) I don't think true understanding is possible while holding divergent positions and 2) true tolerance isn't possible in the long run.

What I'm getting at is slippery, even to me.

I'll use the example that came up in my life recently: Rollings saying Dumbledore is gay. I was accused of intolerance because I was upset by Rowlings' "revelations." I was told that "Hate the sin, love the sinner" is a hopeless failure because I am hating something integral to a person, their gayness. "How would you feel if people said they liked you but hated Christ, or Christianity? How would you feel if people felt like the should protect their children from you and your ideas?"

Well, huh! That would stink. (But guess what, I think that's happening all over the country, as evidenced by the recent Barna report on how negatively Christianity and Christians are perceived.)

The point I'm trying to make is, I can't be "tolerant" the way these people want me to be. Tolerance means acceptance. Tolerance means I allow them to continue to influence public opinion while I keep mine to myself. And tolerance will always mean that, because tolerance means leaving people alone to live their life they way they want.

I can't do that and neither can they. They aren't tolerant of my beliefs or my right to live my life as I want to, which includes speaking out against placing homosexual relationships on par with heterosexual ones for marriage and child raising.

So the bottom line is, no matter how much we like and respect each other, no matter how much we try to understand, we cannot "tolerate" each other forever. We hold mutually exclusive ideas. To truly tolerate a position you are opposed to, you have to avoid discussing it. You have to avoid it, period. Because real engagement with an idea will mean the differences in opinion will surface, and someone, or everyone, will be labeled "intolerant."



Ampersand said...

Carrie, thanks for making yourself so transparent on these delicate issues of understanding.

I have some thoughts swirling, of course, but I want to sit for a while with both your thoughts and mine, before commenting more.

It may be that I really don't have anything useful to add after letting it sit, and in that case, just know that I have heard, understood (at least from my perspective), and appreciated your words. :-)

julieunplugged said...

Good topic!

Tolerance is not agreement.

Tolerance in a pluralistic society means providing a protected (by law) space for a diversity of viewpoints to seek (pursue) happiness.

Where that becomes tricky (as you so well put it) is when one person's idea of what it means to pursue happiness treads on someone else's. Individual rights versus communitarian values creates the majority of our legislative headaches.

Where understanding helps is in the arena of compassion. So while I'm still pro-life, after spending two years reading the pro-choice position (from the ground up), I came to respect the integrity of the position (stopped seeing the position as "evil," as deliberately nefarious and immoral, as ill-conceived and ignorant). I also discovered through my readings that I don't think I could criminalize abortion (iow, if abortion becomes illegal, I would still not want to put a woman in jail for attempting to have or successfully obtaining one). I might want abortion outlawed, but I don't want to make mothers into outlaws.

I also came to the conclusion that I wouldn't legislate against the right of a woman to choose in the case of rape or the mother's life... I am still pro-life in these cases personally, but it is a shift in my position to allow for difference here. It's an accommodation to an experience I haven't had that I want to respect.

So to me, understanding is not the same as agreement - but it is a means of compassion.

I can see that you and Beth, for instance, became attracted to Catholicism for important, valuable to you reasons, and I can appreciate the whys. I can see the beauty of the journey, the fruits of that belief system, the importance of the Church in both a personal and community sense.

I could not see these before. I did not find Catholicism to be those for me. I am not interested in converting. But when I am with Beth, for instance, and we attend church or I read her blog or hear how her faith sustains her, I step out of my own beliefs and enter hers and see the world through those eyes and find the beauty that she finds. I can set aside my perspective about Catholicism to see through someone else's.

This is easier with a disposition or perspective than with issues that require laws to be written. I agree you: tolerance doesn't always mean legislative agreement. The issues we face as a society continue to create differences that are deeply held when it comes to determining laws. And ironing those out creates all kinds of emotional splits in our culture.

It's at that point that what I hope happens is that all sides will take the time and consideration to imagine the world from the alien perspective (not to agree or disagree - but to say, "If I had this set of presuppositions, how would it feel to be that person?"). I do think this makes a difference and leads to far more creative legislation than moral imperatives for everyone determined by one group for another.

The idea of a liberal democracy (that just means a democracy guided by a constitution) is that each group will want its own rights to be protected and so will want to protect the rights of each other as turn about fair play. That's the goal. How it works out? Well, in America: Red and blue states.

carrie said...

Thanks for adding to my thoughts, Julie. I agree tolerance is not agreement. Tolerance is agreeing to disagree with a healthy dose of respect thrown in there. ;-)

My thoughts here were basically two freewrites thrown together. I wasn't trying to exhaustively cover understanding and tolerance. I am more trying to interact with the failures of both in my own life. I want "understanding" and "Tolerance" to produce harmony and peace, yet seeking both/either doesn't completely cure the problems.

I value both in my life and in others' lives. I hope I am continuing to strive to understand, open my mind, see the other side, stretch, and grow. It's just depressing at times when you feel like you're making progress, and then you realize that, inevitably, you'll still cause or encounter strife and hurt feelings.

This freewrite is my attempt to understand the limits of understanding. ;-)

carrie said...

Wanted to add:

I like your discussion of living in a liberal democracy and what trying to understand can lead to.

It's at that point that what I hope happens is that all sides will take the time and consideration to imagine the world from the alien perspective (not to agree or disagree - but to say, "If I had this set of presuppositions, how would it feel to be that person?"). I do think this makes a difference and leads to far more creative legislation than moral imperatives for everyone determined by one group for another.

julieunplugged said...

That makes sense Carrie! I agree that the limits of understanding are frustrating and I know that even when we say we want understanding, we often mean agreement. Thanks for stimulating some more thought on this topic.

Ampersand said...

Sorry for such a looooong comment! But I'm feeling passionate and wordy today. :-)

I’m glad I let my comments simmer a bit, because, truthfully, and at first read, I was a bit frustrated, thinking that you were just affirming what I had already said in some of my posts. That whereas others could leave room for differing views, and even understand and appreciate them, that you cannot. I certainly know that is a blanket statement that does not apply to you on each and every issue, but it does get to the heart of my frustration when people with absolute beliefs and morals interact with people whose beliefs are relative, fuzzy, and allowing for many, many possibilities.

After fermenting a bit, I am seeing the good in your perspective, in the tenacity to which you hold your positions and beliefs. After all, their sacredness to you, and the sacredness of the God that ordains them, requires that. I’m also seeing that I’ve been a bit double-minded on the issue of understanding, on the one hand appreciating Christians for all that I just said, and on the other lamenting the impact that those moral imperatives have on your ability to understand me at least with the kind of understanding that I am wishing for.

I see that I can keep on giving understanding, and appreciation for your positions, even without the same in return, because it is inherent to my world view to do so…because I get why abortion is heinous to you, and I get why gay marriage is a challenge, and something to be wary of. I really, really do. And I never want you to have to change your mind on those things, or be bullied about your right to your beliefs. And I’m even willing to consider the possibility that you are right and that there is a God in Heaven who is interested in the maintenance of the moral absolutes and our adherence to them.

What I wish is that the valve could run both ways. But now more than ever, I get that it can’t. To truly understand me, on these particular issues, and not all issues, of course, would be to consider the possibility of my position. Your faith does not allow for that. ‘Tis cool with me. I won’t make that a good/bad issue any more, just a difference. That feels so much better to me to see it that way.

So, instead, I will happily accept tolerance, and hopefully respect, in return. And I also hope that tolerance might someday allow Christians to consider the validity of the legislative agenda of the secular portions of our pluralistic society, to bring this in line with some of the points that Julie made.

Carrie, I really want to thank you for making yourself clearer on this…and processing your thinking here, and so honestly. It really did help me to better get in your shoes.

carrie said...

I'm glad you decided to come back and post your thoughts. I'm glad I could help you see into my psyche a bit, and I appreciate your honesty.

What popped into my head after reading through all the comments again is that I'm never going to cease disappointing people who care about me. My position on certain subjects is going to disappoint you, not because you think I should hold your opinions, but because you care about me and it's sad to disagree over important matters with someone you care about.

On the good side is that I know you and Julie (and others) care, and that makes it worth working through the rough spots when understanding and tolerance break down.