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The Unabashed Ignorance of Intolerance

We live in a society in which strident assertion of one’s views is proclaimed a value and in which intolerance toward the views, and sometimes the identity, of others has become sacred. The essence of intolerance is the refusal to give respect or validity to what is different from oneself. This includes both personal characteristics and ideas. There is plenty of evidence that intolerance toward people on the basis of their racial, ethnic or religious characteristics is alive and well within the United States. We have only to look at some of the groups that have supported Donald Trump, or the reaction of much of the White populace to the message of Black Lives Matter, or the large (although still a minority) approval of suggestions to ban Muslims from entering the country to see intolerance at work. But I am concerned here with intolerance for ideas and opinions.

American society is a composite of many different groups, often differing widely in values, in the issues important to them, in how they frame their views of the world, and even in how they think about themselves in terms of their primary identification being with their country, their ethnicity, their ancestral heritage, or their religion. From such a kaleidoscope of differences one would expect to find large differences in social and political behaviors and in opinions on different issues. Yet, the tendency for many people is to judge the behaviors and opinions of others by a single standard. Even when a group’s demand is that their own unique circumstances must be taken into account by anyone interacting with them, they often fail to give any credence to the uniqueness of those upon whom they are making this demand.

I’m sure there is a name for the tendency to judge others by one’s own values without regard to the characteristics that make those others different from the person doing the judging. It’s similar to ethnocentrism, but can be related to one’s religion, to one’s race, one’s national origin (if an immigrant), one’s gender identification or sexual orientation, one’s generational cohort, or to one’s political ideology. It’s endemic in our culture and leads to intergroup condemnation and failure to communicate on a wide scale.

Since I’m saying that intolerance is a product of ignorance, then I’m also saying that not taking the time or energy to learn about the diversity within the American culture is a brand of ignorance. Let me give some examples.

Supporters of the Palestinians in their conflicts against Israel include Arabs whose grandparents lived throughout the area that is now Israel as well as the Palestinian territories, who were subjected to rule by the British, pushed by the UN and others toward agreements about partitioning their country, which they had neither authored nor been a party to discussing, were removed from their lands when they did not agree, were made into refugees, and now are subjected to rule by a foreign, hostile force which has robbed them of most of the  rights afforded citizens of modern countries, and which inflicts what nearly everyone in the world agrees are “disproportionate” casualties on them in response to mostly ineffectual missile attacks and horrific and inhumane, but isolated terror attacks on Israeli civilians.

Many Israelis, raised in Israel in the years following World War II, remember the fight for Israeli independence against Arab forces in the late 1940s, conducted by both Zionist settlers and refugees from the holocaust in Europe. They were children, now in their sixties and seventies, and they remember the years when, against UN agreements, they were not allowed to enter the Old City of Jerusalem and when their country was forced to fight the 1967 and 1973 wars against various Arab states that they viewed, with ample cause, as attempts to destroy the existence of their nation. They also remember the years of nearly constant and sometimes massive terror attacks orchestrated by the PLO. Their own children grew up hearing the stories of and experiencing some of these events. A portion of these Israelis of different generations are staunch supporters of Israel maintaining control over formerly Arab portions of Palestine and of Jewish settlements that encroach upon parts of the territory that were agreed at one time to belong to Arabs. Other Israelis disagree with these positions and abhor the treatment of Palestinians by Israel. None of them wants to give up the Jewish State nor cease to defend it.

To tell the story of either the Israeli Jews or Palestinian Arabs in the United States incites vociferous complaints and often violence by partisans on either side of the issues, who refuse to acknowledge the right of the other side to have a voice in any discussion here in the United States. Neither side shows any real understanding of the histories, often personal, that have led to the current positions of either the Israelis or Palestinians. Donald Trump’s assertion that he would attempt to be “neutral” in mediating any negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians over a solution to their conflict brought him condemnation by the Republican Party and conservative independents, who claimed he was, in effect, a “traitor” to the U.S. support of Israel. Trustees at the University of California attempted to label criticism of the state of Israel, including support for the BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement against Israel, as “anti-Semitic” speech and to ban it from their campuses. At the same time, numerous speakers who were thought to support Israel or to criticize the Palestinians have been “disinvited” from speaking on U.S. campuses or shouted down by protesting students before they had a chance to speak. Such speakers included Basseim Eid, a Palestinian human rights activist, who has spent his career identifying human rights violations by both sides of the Palestinian Israeli conflict, but most recently has focused on violations by the Palestinian Authority and has been critical of the BDS movement on American campuses. He founded the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group and was shouted down by protesting students at the University of Chicago this year and had to be escorted from the auditorium “for his own safety.”

To give another example, many White Americans, particularly middle-age and older, have countered the Black Lives Matter slogan with an “All Lives Matter,” reply. These same White Americans are appalled by protests that stop traffic in the streets, disrupt speakers and rallies and seem to want to place the voice of Black people above everyone else’s in the discussion of what needs to change in America. Black activists, including those who support the Black Lives Matter movement are quick to identify such Americans as racist, as ignorant of the realities of Black life in America, as supportive of police brutality and racism and as much a part of the problem of discrimination and violence against Black people in America as are the police officers who shoot, or kill by other means, innocent, unarmed Black people on the streets. For one group, the utterance of the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is enough to end any chance of conversation and for the other group, the reply “All Lives Matter,” similarly signals a need for criticism, rather than dialogue.

To say that Whites who say “All Lives Matter” are naïve about the realities of life for many Black people in America, is no doubt true. Not only are arrest, homicide and incarceration rates of Blacks higher than Whites, but for Black America, their life expectancy is shorter (than for any other racial/ethnic group), their infant mortality higher, their educational level lower and their economic situation more dire, including rates of employment and salaries for the employed. In many cases, race is a better marker for disparities on these variables than is social class. This is not, and has not been for decades, if ever, the focus of attention of the U.S. media or the U.S. public. Probably no one but activists and academics are aware of the extent of racial disparities in the U.S. and how they fall along Black vs. everyone else, lines. Certainly almost no one is urging the country to do anything about it. Instead, politicians are discussing the “plight of the middle class,” and wage stagnation among people who have what, in the past were considered, well-earning, substantial jobs. To understand racial issues, most of America needs to be educated.

Very few Black activists have approached the Black Lives Matter issue as an educational one. The real issue could be rephrased, “Black Lives Matter Too,” because most of the results of discrimination against Black people in the U.S. have either never been appreciated or understood or have been forgotten by the majority of the population. Much of the progress that Americans make during times of plenty, has not been felt by the Black community. The shootings and deaths that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement have been going on for years, but no one in the media or among the general public noticed or seemed to care. This would not have been the case if the victims had been White. This is what is meant by “Black Lives Matter.” It’s a plea, or perhaps a demand, for people to pay attention to what is going on. But instead of attempting to educate, many, if not most Black activists spend their energy making accusations and criticizing or protesting against even White liberals, perhaps the group who would be most open to listening. When they hear “All Lives Matter,” it does not signal to them a need for teaching, but a need for criticism and attack. Even attempts by Whites to understand the issues, perhaps by framing them in ways that conform to their own backgrounds and ways of thinking, are attacked for continued use of  “Whitesplaining” or unconscious commitment of “microaggressions,” and their attempt to understand is not corrected, but dismissed in anger and contempt.

Neither side in the Black Lives Matter controversy respects those who don’t agree with them enough to try to understand what they are saying or what they know or don’t know and both sides are quick to dismiss the other as not worth the time or energy to deserve any understanding. This is not a recipe for solving anything.

Intolerance derives from oversimplifications, from resistance to acknowledging the complexity of issues and, even more, from resistance or outright rejection of the premise that the complexity of humans and their backgrounds requires knowledge and understanding in order for people to converse with each other. Without some understanding, conversation is impossible. And without the ability to carry on a conversation, changing minds is impossible. People just shout at each other.

We used to think of America as a melting pot, in which people from all sorts of backgrounds and geographical locations came together to share a common vision and, over time, became alike. Only if one were a White Christian American of European ancestry would this have ever been true. It certainly was not true for African-Americans or Native Americans, not from the very beginning of our nation. It certainly is not true now. Americans’ experiences are widely divergent. The environments, both physical and social, to which they are exposed, vary enormously. The frameworks within which they interpret their experiences are markedly different. The assumptions they make about each other and the world in which they live are derived from these experiences and the frames of mind they engender. But all of us are prone to gloss over these differences when we formulate our opinions and make judgments about the opinions of others. This is something we can’t afford to do if we want to make progress as a country on issues that are important for all of us. The present atmosphere of self-righteous intolerance for views opposite our own insures that we will continue to split apart as a nation and fail to be able to use the tools afforded to us as a democracy to solve our problems.


Reader Comments (1)

Thank you for addressing this issue. It's been at the forefront of my mind lately, and I've been hoping to create some change around the way people discuss issues in activism forums, on Facebook, etc. These issues are important issues, and if people are belittled for asking questions they'll eventually stop asking them.

May 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea Culy

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