An Intolerable Situation

by Justin Murray '13 | 11/16/09 11:00pm

I have a special talent: I can identify nearly every skeptic in any crowd without asking questions. All I do is announce that I'm Catholic and wait to see who smirks.

Smirkers come from every religion, every nationality and every school of thought. You can see them in classrooms, at rallies and in churches, condescendingly dismissing other people's ideas. But the instant you confront these people, they duck away. "Who, me? Disrespectful? Really, the very last thing I want is to disparage anyone's perspective. After all, it's all good, right?"

This rankles me every time I see it, which is often, as it is a common tactic: cynics snicker rudely at an ideology, then immediately dodge behind the facade of universal acceptance and tolerance. And once there, they are unassailable.

Tolerance has been sanctified by our culture as a panacea for philosophical friction. American culture's collective voice calls for us to accept each other's beliefs as different but valid. Typically, such tolerance is good it prevents a lot of hot-headed squabbling by giving everyone an easy retreat from such confrontations. Indeed, a basis in tolerance is almost required for a free-thinking society. But every pro has a con: Tolerance provides a perfect retreat for snide cynics, allowing them to insult and escape unscathed.

And so we have a quandary. Tolerance allows cynicism and prejudice to infest our society, but would our society be better otherwise? Without our tolerant foundation, I doubt that free-thinking society could exist without dissolving into chaos; we can't live without the poison that is killing us. There is no easy solution.

Perhaps we might succeed by modifying our concept of tolerance. Our current idea of tolerance is indiscriminate we hardly listen to each other because we've already formulated our verdict: "It's all good." Thus, we attempt to avoid all conflict by avoiding all contact: one person speaks past the other, who isn't listening anyway. From that perspective, tolerance hardly seems ideal until you consider the flip side the relationship between Democrats and Republicans, for example. Partisan antipathy is so strong that America sometimes seems like two countries rather than one. In an environment where allegiance is largely emotional, not rational, there is only one step between dismissive tolerance and antagonism. Intolerance, then, is out of the question.

Could we pursue a more limited tolerance, perhaps? I don't mean filtering ideas tolerate this and condemn that any more than we already do. But why can't we take the middle road? Why are simple, clear-headed ideological discussions so rare? In our frenzy to be politically correct, we seem to have stigmatized all questions of principle as condescending. We need to loosen our holds on our own tongues a bit so that philosophical discussion can reenter mainstream conversation. If everyone were open to debate, we could cut off the cynics' retreat; we might even learn something en route.

The guerrilla warfare tactics of cynics have bothered me for years, and I have proposed the above solution more than a few times. Every time, I have received the same answer: "You're not going to change the world." And every time, I've had to swallow hard and admit it: The world, and our American society, is simply too big for me to move.

But we can change Dartmouth. We are high in the mountains north of nowhere, a college full of young, thoughtful people open to insights. If any community on earth is better suited to monitor its own culture, I've never heard of it. It's not like we're trapped in the middle of Boston, drowning in a culture we can't affect. If we so desire, we can completely eradicate negative cultural influences, and we can start with blind acceptance.

I'd like to invite the entire campus to open up with me. Let's start a 4,000-way discussion about religion, politics and history. Let's make a taboo-free Dartmouth. We don't have to agree on everything that's a fantasy even in a group of four. But respectful people need not fear discussion, and a culture of debate is no place to smirk.

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