Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Tolerance, Acceptance and Understanding

Dina's awesome post on Michael Kirby brought up the very condescending nature of tolerance. As a high profile gay man, he pointed out that he has no desire for people to tolerate him, he wants them to accept him. Seems pretty reasonable to me, and it also brought to mind the fact that there are things I don't wish to tolerate. Tolerance is something best left to describe handling pain.

I agree that acceptance is where we all need to be with homosexuality. But the necessary step on the way is understanding. For mine, the key point about homosexuality is that it is part of who someone is, it isn't an abomination, and it isn't a choice. I can see why some people might feel that the idea is repugnant. I think the idea of eating mushrooms is repugnant. But that doesn't matter, you don't have to do it yourself (and it's much easier to avoid than eating mushrooms, I can assure you). Other people doing it isn't going to hurt you.

But I don't think all things different deserve acceptance. They do all deserve understanding. When something about a group of people induces a "that's just wrong" response, there are a number of things to consider.

Firstly, is it an integral, unavoidable part of who they are? Race, gender, sexuality and no doubt plenty of other things obviously are. Other things have ambiguous answers - paedophiles is one that comes to mind - clearly broken, but could conceivably be congenitally broken.

Second, am I in some way being required to participate?

Third, is the net negative effect substantial enough to warrant action? I'm thinking a borderline case here might be the Australian love of the swear word. Some people find it really offensive, and it disturbs them greatly. I'm not sure we should completely ignore that - after all most of us don't swear at relo's who really don't like it. But then how much damage is it actually doing?

The point of all this question answering, is that I think sometimes understanding can lead to intolerance, and justifiably so. A culture is not an unchangeable thing, it is reasonable to conclude that you personally don't like a culture. I really don't like the Japanese culture. But I find myself terribly reluctant to say that sort of thing for fear of being judged intolerant and racist. I don't believe anything much at all about Japanese people. Stereotypes come from people looking at a culture and making generalisations about the people who come from it. I don't vilify stereotypes, they are just the descriptive equivalent of statistics. They describe a population, but never a person. And just like statistics, they can be powerful, convenient or misleading. When deliberately abused, they are downright malevolent. Of course, that analogy would work better for the stereotype's image if our own culture didn't make so many decisions about individuals based on the statistics that describe the population they come from. The obsession the medical establishment has with a normal distribution and the damage that does to the field and its patients is a topic for another rant. However, just because we are inept at using them, it doesn't make them inherently bad.

We have to be very careful that we don't create a taboo about criticising culture, religion and other things which we have the power to change, simply because we are not part of them. Culture and religion are growing, changing things. I don't have to come from the Cape to know that the Aboriginal communities need to change the cultures in which child abuse has become endemic. Nor did I need to live in Northern Ireland to know that both sides needed to let go of the hate, because it simply wasn't working.

Of course, understanding is a pre-requisite to criticism. I was trying to come up with an example from Africa, where all sorts of atrocities are taking place, but I simply don't understand enough to be able to make anything resembling valid criticisms. This is why comparitive religion should be taught in schools. If you want to criticise religion A, you really should understand it first.

I don't have moral dilemmas about criticising a culture - a culture gets a "no" answer for question 1. The moral dilemmas I have are when there is a "yes" to question 1 and a "yes" to question 3. If paedophilia (or a subset of it) turns out to be a kind of congenital brokenness, what should we do? Clearly children need to be protected from harm, but I have a problem with vilifying someone for something they can't do anything about. It's a lose-lose. Logic dictates that the safety of the child takes priority, because all morals aside, it may help prevent more brokenness in the future.

Something which, with understanding, is unacceptable and changeable, should be criticised and discussed in an effort to make real change.
Something which, with understanding, is unacceptable and unchangeable is a real challenge. Tolerance is still not an option. Understanding is needed in buckets and a lot of deep thought about avoiding harm in ways that don't vilify those who have no choice.

On a positive note, there are a lot more things that with understanding, turn out to be homosexuality or mushrooms - nothing at all wrong with them as long as no-one's making it compulsory. Acceptance follows naturally from that. And if someone is making it compulsory, that's who needs to cop the flak, not the mushrooms.


  1. I don't think someone should be seen as a villain because they have pedophile impulses. I think probably (maybe) it's something you're born with. BUT...I think it goes along with your question of do I have to be involved?

    I don't think pedophile thoughts are evil. Pedophile ACTS are because it's hurting a child.

    The thing is though some people say the same for homosexuals. Yes, we know this is how you feel...but you should just suppress it.

    It's weird. I totally support homosexual rights (marriage, adoption, etc) but I also accept the right of people to be homophobic. I think of this as THEIR belief/culture. But like a pedophile....I think they should keep it to themselves and not impose their beliefs on others. They definitely should not influence the laws of a community. If they want to preach that homosexuality is a sin, they can do it privately in their church. I feel gay people can just go and find themselves a better church.

    Now when they leave a church and start harassing mourners at a funeral....THAT I have no tolerance for.

    As for you, I have cultures I'm not a fan of. For the most part, I don't see it as something I need to change though. My feeling is more along the lines of you do your thing...just don't involve me (or anyone else who doesn't want to be involved)

    In terms of intervening in a culture....I feel it should be done only when people are trapped in the culture and WANT to come out.

    For example...I think we should try to make changes if women are being hurt by female circumcision. If they ask for help, I think we should rescue them and get them out. If enough of them protest the practice, I think we should try to change the culture.

    But what if there's a culture that happily accepts this? I think we should leave them alone.

    When I was into the whole attachment parenting thing, I remember reading about all the anti-circumcision stuff. It's abusive. It's disgusting. It's wrong. There was so much passion on these websites. But the thing I kept thinking is I'm Jewish. I know a lot of Jewish men. I have never once heard a Jewish man say he regretted that he was missing his foreskin. I'm sure there are people out there, but I think the majority of Jews are perfectly fine with it. So, I don't think intervention is needed. I don't think that aspect of Jewish culture needs to be changed because they're okay with it. My feeling is as long as they don't push it on other people.....

    When children are involved, it gets sticky. Who decides what's abuse or not? I mean some things are obvious...children being used for sex, children being beaten, children not being fed, etc.....

    But in many cases, it's not about doing something wrong. It's about doing something different.

    Let's say there's a culture that doesn't send their children to school. Not only that, the children never learn to read. They never learn to count. They can't do basic math. They spend all their time fishing, farming, and hunting. Is that abusive? Do we need to intervene? Are the children being deprived?

    I say no. That's the culture they were born into. When they're adults...they can leave and go get an education if they want to. Now if their community keeps them prisoner and refuses to let them leave....THEN I think we should judge and intervene.

    Back to tolerance and acceptance. I think acceptance IS so much better especially when it comes to people we love. But I do think tolerance plays a part in our lives. Acceptance is better than tolerance. But tolerance is better than intolerance. For me tolerance is saying "You do your thing. Just keep it away from me please."

  2. I am not saying we should intervene in every culture we don't like. The Japanese culture is monumentally misogynistic, but I don't think we should be rescuing women from Japan. I think we should be discussing, openly, that it is a culture that is like that.

    In your example of a culture that doesn't educate their children academically, it is completely legitimate to discuss the shortcomings of that culture. For starters, as adults those people will find leaving quite hard - they may not even know there is an elsewhere to go, and secondly, there is a very good reason why we teach reading and basic maths starting from 5 or 6. The older you get, the harder it is to learn those things.

    Understanding is the critical element here. I don't believe anyone has the right to criticise anything without understanding it. You can't hide wrong headed thinking behind culture or beliefs. If it is factually wrong, it is factually wrong. In terms of circumcision, I also read lots and lots about it, talked to doctors and so on and came to the conclusion that there isn't a lot of factual evidence either way. We ended up not doing it, but because it was the path of least resistance, not for any "position". In that case, I agree with you, leave the Jews to it. On the other hand, if there was genuine factual evidence that there was real harm, then the Jewish culture needs to take the new information on board and evolve.

    But even in the equivocal situation that does exist, those who look genuinely at the evidence and decide against circumcision have the right to criticise the Jewish culture for it, and the Jews have the right to tell them why they disagree.

    And no, I don't think we should ignore a culture that is bad just because the people who live in don't think it is bad. The generally held view in Japan is that their culture is something of a found thing, unassailable and unchangeable. They don't want to change it, but that doesn't mean that misogyny deserves acceptance, or the aspects of the culture that make suicide an honorable solution to a problem. I don't accept those things, nor do I tolerate them. I am not suggesting cultural imperialism, just open dialogue. Very, very slowly, attitudes in Japan towards whaling are changing, and this is only happening because there is loud discussion and criticism. If we had said "that's just part of their culture", it would not have changed.

    I would not like to think that our culture will be the same in 50 years. Some of the criticisms of the Australian culture made by non-Australians have come as quite a shock to me. It can be hard to see from the inside. Some of them have come from a place of misunderstanding, but others have been dead on. We are a product of our culture, but we also produce it. If we don't constantly change it and improve it, nothing gets better.

    Religion is the same. Some religious people claim their religion is unchangeable and unassailable, but that simply isn't true. There isn't a single religion that hasn't changed and evolved constantly throughout its history. Creationism is wrong, scientifically. It is not a matter of faith. I don't have to tolerate or accept it being taught as fact. I can't stop someone believing it, but if they do, they have not met the first criterion - understanding. I don't have to respect that belief.

    I am trying to think of something I tolerate but don't accept. There are plenty of things I accept but would never participate in - people who shoot feral animals, traditional female Muslim clothing (only in summer, actually - in winter it often looks very attractive), homeschooling (lol!). These things are not for me, but I accept them, not just tolerate them. The only things I tolerate without accepting are unchangeable facts of life. Pain, toddler tantrums, that sort of thing. And even those may have some element of acceptance.

    To me, tolerance is always condescending. It's like saying "well you can't be/don't know any better, just keep your distance." I think we're all in this together, we should all be working towards improving everyone's lives. If we don't bother to understand well enough to be able to accept or make valid crtiticisms, we aren't doing enough for each other. Or at the very least, we should ignore completely, not stand on the high ground and tolerate.

  3. Ariane,

    I was out with Jack today and I started thinking....I think I'm pretty much incapable of tolerance. I either accept/like something or I'm intolerant. Too many little things bother me. My own hometown. I barely go out because I'm so picky about things.

    I don't like Fort Worth culture.

    But yeah. I think you're right. I think it's fine to criticize a culture--as long as it's done with intelligence. And it's not about being small-minded and ethnocentric.

    I get mad when people judge stuff based on a gut reaction. "Oh, they have an open marriage! That's disgusting." or "Why does she wear a Hijab. That's so sexist."

    I've encountered criticism for homeschooling. I was told by the rabbi that he thought it was one step above child abuse. And it wasn't the last time I've heard it labeled as abusive. I think it's fine to discuss and criticize something, but not when it's done without research.

    I think the basic thing when criticizing a culture is to ask is it really bad/harmful or is it just different from what we're used to.

    In terms of the kids not learning the basics example. Yeah, there would be some problems. But a lot of different education systems have inherent problems. On the other side of the coin, you have education systems which push the kids too much and are too academically focused. I think those can issues as well.

    If it's bad for a child to wait too long to learn to read and write, what about the child who's pushed too early?

    My feeling about religion is people should believe what they want to believe. They don't have to follow logic or science. If they want to believe an alien sneezed and the snot formed into our planet, I say "Great!" Just don't force me to believe what you believe. Don't insist that your ideas be taught to my children. And don't insist that the schools avoid teaching science because it conflicts with your weird beliefs.

    The culture I probably criticize the most (besides the ones I personally belong to) is Christianity. I have no problems with what they believe. I can accept that. I have a problem with the fact that they push their beliefs on others. I am very intolerant of that.

    It's fine to say "I'm against homosexuality" or "I'm against abortion" but when you push the belief on others....that's just wrong. And then they back it up with Bible quotes. I want to scream. "I don't believe in your Bible!!!!"