Opinion

Tolerance is not a euphemism for multiculturalism

The headline of Maddy Jasper’s opinion piece last week makes the correct assessment that “Social tolerance translates to political intolerance.” I wonder, however, to what extent it matters that that this relationship exists. I don’t find it particularly pressing to unconditionally tolerate a political idea that generates harmful political strategies that put social freedom in jeopardy. That said, while I don’t think it’s necessary to tolerate ideas, I think that the mode that people across experiences discuss opposing ideas can be unproductively combative. A person will be closed off to feedback about harmful nature of her ideas if she is attacked, which is what I think is going on in Maddy’s piece.

Her class sounds like it may have been conducted inappropriately, and I certainly don’t want to discount her reaction to that. However, I think Maddy’s opinion that triggered this “attack” was hurtful, and it deserved attention, not her identity. To be intolerant of her because of her ideas is unproductive and unkind, especially in an environment like Macalester where we ought to support and learn from one another. But, to then “agree to disagree,” as Maddy seems to have already done, to not acknowledge or reflect on the very real trigger in her argument and to then hide behind what she labels “political intolerance” bothers me because it discounts the fact that ideas have real live impacts on people. Because I think Maddy raises an issue largely about how we approach others whose ideas we disagree with, I’d like to model that by writing in the second person.

Maddy, before I address your argument, I have to object to the term “minority” you use in reference to yourself. I think you ought to consider clarifying yourself as a political minority in the context of Macalester in the future if that’s what you intended to convey. Minority status has to do with the need to seek out your representation on a day-to-day basis because your representation at large is absent or scarce. As a white Christian, your representation is abundant. Not feeling that you fit in as a Christian or a conservative on this campus is not in any way equal to the systematic racism and oppression that work against marginalized peoples sometimes broadly labeled as “minorities.” Your feeling of isolation is legitimate, but your use of this word is inappropriate.That aside, you mention as if it was a burden that your beliefs are “consistently challenged” here, when in fact, that’s how we grow. To inventory and reconsider your values is not a sign of weakness or insecurity, but one of reflection and intention. You centralize yourself in your argument, that Macalester’s liberal students don’t like their ideas being challenged by your opinions, as opposed to the other way around, but I encourage you to inhabit the roles of challenger and challenged. Take it as an opportunity to assess your values – not because they’re necessarily wrong, but because they deserve to be assessed. Our ideas and beliefs are meaningless if we don’t put them into question. Kathleen Murray’s “You’re here to learn” speech lays this expectation out for every incoming class on opening convocation.

Your choice to write about the term “tolerance” surprised me. That word is nowhere in the college’s mission. You vaguely refer to the college’s pillar of multiculturalism by claiming that the college wants to “[represent] the minority and [ensure] their voices be heard within their community.” But, multiculturalism puts forth that all experiences matter, and the argument you raised in your class threatened that philosophy. You compartmentalize tolerance to fit your experience, when tolerance, I think, is much larger. It has to do with social power, and comes into play for things that shouldn’t matter: race, gender, sexuality, etc. Our ideas, on the other hand, do matter because sometimes they affect people’s civil rights, and I find it counterintuitive to “tolerate” an idea that hurts people.

I also think it’s counter intuitive to multiculturalism for your class to have made digs at your identity. But having that strongly of a negative reaction to an idea is something that that probably everyone, myself included, is familiar with. When someone says something that threatens the safety I associate with multiculturalism, I get angry. Sometimes I get mean and feel like I need to attack someone’s character in order to feel safe. The mutual hurt that goes on is obviously not ideal, but contextualized, the exchange makes sense. There are Christian queer folks who feel they deserve to be a married couple over civil partners. There are non-Christian queer folks who feel the same. These people and their allies are among your peers. For these people, whom your idea directly affects, refusing to recognize that there is inequality between a civil union and a marriage, religious beliefs completely aside, endorses inequality at large. I think we need to be able to discuss ideas like this without attacking their owners, which is what seems to have happened to you. But recognize that being attacked is a signal that someone feels like their safety is at stake, and everyone deserves to feel safe: not just you, not just people affected by your opinion. Everyone.

Macalester’s mission is to provide an education that creates individuals who “choose actions or beliefs for which they are willing to be held accountable.” As members of this community, I expect us to hold each other accountable for our ideas, and I charge you to be accountable for your ideas. You may have walked away hurt from this situation, but there’s not a doubt in my mind that your classmates did as well.

March 14, 2014

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