Moving beyond tolerance

The ideas and viewpoints expressed in the posts on the Ideas and Creations blog are solely the view of the author(s). Luther College's mission statement calls us to "embrace diversity and challenge one another to learn in community," and to be "enlivened and transformed by encounters with one another, by the exchange of ideas, and by the life of faith and learning." Alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends of the college are encouraged to express their views, model "good disagreement" and engage in respectful dialogue.

Luther College is a campus of tolerance, and I do not mean it as a compliment. In fact, I mean "tolerance" in the most literal sense of the word: "the ability to tolerate the existence of opinion or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with." You'll have to pardon my elementary Google search—I'll admit it's a reductive analysis of "tolerance" and its history. But I am prompted to ask, when did "putting up" with difference, and existence, become something to be proud of?

Each day at Luther College is a flurry of "how are you's," and distance doorholding is our favorite sport. But how often do we ask one another "how are you?" and actually care about the answer? How often do we hold the door open for a stranger only to avoid eye contact with them?

I have worked with incoming international students during their orientation week for two years. Each year, we do a brief lecture on "American culture." More often than not, it turns into a conversation on Midwestern culture, and even more narrowly, Luther College culture. And each year, one of the most complicated things to explain is why Luther students say "how are you?" and not actually want to know the answer, or, why, when someone asks to "catch up sometime," they rarely follow through.

Of course, there are significant cultural differences that make this confusing. Yet, being a Luther student for three years, the persistent culture of indifferent friendliness can make for a lonely four years for some students. And in light the recent "bias incidents" on our campus, it seems many of us are only just beginning to realize that our sanctitorial bubble can be popped while we look the other way when certain communities, within our larger community, have their livelihoods attacked.

The presence of tolerance does not mean the absence of oppression. In my varied experiences, Luther students are good, passionate and tolerant individuals. Yet, when acts of racist slander occur on campus and in the greater world, it can be all too easy to slip into the comfortable childhood bed of willful ignorance, where you don't have to address the realities of the world, of the systemic injustices that plague certain communities and identities, because it doesn't affect the comfort of your everyday life.

However, the campus-wide sit-in on Friday, April 27th, gives me hope. Over 600 students, staff and faculty came to support and stand in solidarity with those in our community who are hurting, and to hold our administration accountable for inaction. This much needed day of healing and collective activism showed that we, the Luther community, have great potential to use our voices and positions of power for the greater good. I only ask—what will we do next?

Tolerance is the first step, a bare minimum requirement, in crafting a pluralist society. By pluralist, and pluralism, I mean possessing an enthusiasm for dialogue and understanding of difference that seeks to entwine the beauty of diversity into the fabric of a society. For example: in Rochester, Minnesota, a city with a high population of Somali-Muslim immigrants, this year's April 3rd "Punish a Muslim Day" was nerve-wracking for local residents. But I saw "tolerance," or more aptly, "pluralism," when several Rochester church leaders took shifts posting outside a local mosque during the day's five prayers. Likewise, I am reminded of 2013 events in Egypt, when, after a series of church-bombings, 20 Muslim men held hands and created a line of defense outside a Catholic church as its parishioners attended mass. These simple acts go beyond tolerance—they are pluralism—an indisputable encouragement of existence and solidarity with suffering communities.

In George Eliot's classic English novel, "Middlemarch," heroine Dorothea Brooke is a young woman who desires nothing else but to find meaning through societal transformation. In the end of the novel, she is married and happy, but somewhat unsatisfied in her contributions to society during her lifetime. In the last paragraph of the novel, Dorothea reflects:

...the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Chances are, most of us won't go down in the Luther College historical records, and even fewer of us in future United States history textbooks. It is the same with the pastors in Rochester and the Muslim men in Egypt. Despite our contributions to the world, we will live hidden lives, and one day, rest in unvisited tombs until the end of time. But the little, seemingly minute actions and words we put into our dizzying world are ultimately as important as discovering the atom or inventing sliced bread. Something that seems as simple as helping your neighbor pray in safety can create a ripple effect of goodness that persists through time and place.

Grassroot kindness and pluralism have kept the world turning thus far, and continuing to seek this intentional pluralism is how we move forward, and how hope triumphs over hate. We must not just "tolerate" people's existences; we must encourage them to exist, help them to exist and be in solidarity with their existence. Tolerance means intertwining with pluralism at the expense of our own comforts and privileges.

Luther College can do better than tolerance. We have work to do beyond the "how are you's" and doorholding we hold up as the epitome of politeness. Encourage and support the existence of your fellow community members by continuing to educate yourself, showing up and not shying away from uncomfortable conversations. Each small piece of goodness and pluralism you put into the Luther community will be what helps us achieve large scale institutional change, as well as a campus climate where our students don't just feel safe, but feel they are a valued, integral part of this beloved community.

Rebecka Green

Rebecka Green

Rebecka Green, class of 2019, is majoring in religion and English-with an emphasis on writing. She is a 2015 graduate of Decorah High School. She currently works as a student outreach assistant in Luther's Diversity Center working with international and other multi-cultural student groups. She is also the president of Interfaith in Action, Luther College's interfaith student organization. In her free time she likes to watch the same movies over and over again and look at real estate in Europe.

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  • August 27 2018 at 10:05 pm
    Steve Bakke

    How are you, Rebecka:

    Your article on tolerance was excellent, and more importantly, thought provoking. Your theme, as I understand it, was that we should move beyond the shallowness of typical tolerance to a new level you define, approximately, as pluralistic tolerance - i.e. meaningful and helpful support, in our world of cultural tension and outright violence.

    As you mentioned, I am another of those LC grads ('68) who will go down in LC history, in neither fame nor in infamy. I've thought a lot about the history, variations, and evolution of the term tolerance. I'd like to take your discussion in a slightly different direction, and offer it for your consideration.

    In recent years we have been using/overusing variations of the word phobia, or phobic. Going back in time, that was used narrowly to describe fear of something, like flying or spiders or heights. A somewhat similar term used to describe interpersonal feelings or relationships was "intolerance." And obviously, the flip-side of intolerance would be tolerance."

    Back then, "tolerance" was a feeling about a person, group, organization, opinion, policy, etc. It reflected feelings that while not enthusiastic, was more positive than negative - i.e. not something one would take a stand against. Tolerance was true acceptance, but not necessarily agreement or approval. In recent years the definition evolved and expanded - now, outright agreement is required, along with approval, and (for some) vocal endorsement.

    A willingness to just peacefully accept something is no longer enough to be called "tolerant." And what are these formerly tolerant individuals now called? Well, INTOLERANT of course - and those intolerant culprits haven't even changed their opinions. For some, they might even meet the loose definition of "phobic." So, the requirements for tolerance has moved from quiet, sincere acceptance to cheerleading and promotion. And those modern tolerance activists have become "intolerant" of those meeting merely the old definition of quiet acceptance, but not necessarily agreement. 

    So, in a way, extreme tolerance results in intolerance. I suggest that from this intolerance has sprung the concepts of political correctness and cultural appropriation, etc. Sometimes that's good, but too often I find it unhelpful. I suggest, some of the old-fashioned tepid feelings of tolerance offer a useful category of acceptable feelings. I think old fashioned tolerance is better than the alternative - abject opposition.

    Your commentary on tolerance is all about different cultures. Unless you include tolerance of ideas alongside your concern for cultural tolerance, you would be in violation of your LC blog commentary policy which states: "Horor differing viewpoints." For me, that's a big deal too!

    By the way, in reference to my greeting which started this reply, I'm one of those trite, polite Norwegians who use that welcoming comment without really expecting, nor wanting, to hear a detailed response. Norwegians are too often obtuse when we talk, and make you guess our meaning. If I ever meet you and make the mistake of saying "How are you?" - what I'm actually trying to say is: "I hope you are well." That would be sincere and would comfortably require no response - nor criticism I hope.

    Steve Bakke - Class of '68








  • August 28 2018 at 10:55 am
    Rob Severson

    Interesting article and comment by Steve Bakke

    I will just say that we took a good word "tolerate" and changed its meaning by requiring approval to be tolerant.

    Do we need another word now? 

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