Tolerance Is Not a One-Way Street

By March 4, 2005

After reading David’s recent posts on the “controversy” over Jada Pinkett Smith’s “heteronormative” speech, I simply must put in my two cents. Before you continue reading this post, I urge you first to read what she actually said. One of her comments (“Don’t let anybody define who you are…. Don’t let them put you in a box. Don’t be afraid to break whatever ceiling anybody has put on you.”) is, IMHO, a point that is as important as it is beautiful, and for her speech to be at the center of any controversy is stunning.

I am deeply worried for our society when inspirational, warm and well-intentioned remarks are treated as “offensive” because those remarks were not put in precisely the way the educated elite of higher education would prefer they be put. How on earth could such a myopic way of looking at the world be born of ideas of tolerance and sensitivity? 

Tolerance is not a one-way street. If you recognize that people differ from group to group and individual to individual in their communication styles and norms (which higher education usually claims not only to recognize, but also to celebrate), you shouldn’t be horrified every time people talk in way that doesn’t conform exactly to your ideas of propriety.

I find it fascinating that colleges and students have moved beyond trying to end real discrimination and trying to stop the alienation that people feel simply by being part of a group this is not in the perceived “majority.” Feeling alienated, at times, is part of the human experience. We can’t end human pain and misunderstanding and we seem to be risking turning ourselves into dolts in the process.

As I pointed out in my Daily Journal piece about the Tim Garneau case at UNH, “There is something far more pernicious for our society at work here, however, than a mere legal misunderstanding—something that cannot be fixed just by a careful explanation of the law. [… Tim] is an example of how our increasingly polarized society too often sees the people it disagrees with as not fully human but rather caricatures of societal evil.”

My solution to this problem is, frankly, a little old-fashioned. How about from now on when someone says something we don’t like, we try to understand what he or she actually meant by it? A return to giving others “the benefit of the doubt,” before assuming that the person is hateful, racist, or insensitive, could stop some of the worst abuses FIRE sees before they start. It may seem like a modest proposal, but, I fear, in the modern hyper-polarized, hyper-politicized academy, asking for common sense, actual tolerance, and understanding may be asking too much.

Schools: University of New Hampshire