Archive for the ‘American Politics’ category

The Misuse of Tolerance: How Learning to Disagree Will Bring Us Together

August 11, 2011

“Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions.” — G.K. Chesterton

“In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher.” — Dalai Lama

As a Westerner living in a Middle East country, every day is an adventure in what we call “tolerance” back in the US.

Living in a culture so vastly different than Western culture brings a new perspective on “tolerance”– I’ve been going over this in my mind recently. What follows are my mental ramblings on the subject.

Tolerance.org, an organization that helps promote tolerance in education, writes on its site: “In its Declaration on the Principles of Tolerance, UNESCO offers a definition of tolerance that most closely matches our philosophical use of the word: ‘Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. Tolerance is harmony in difference.’”

These definitions reveal what I have come to believe about American culture: we are terrified to disagree with each other and we are convinced that disagreement will lead to division, hatred and violence. Indeed, I have close friends and family with whom I am terrified to talk about religion and politics for fear of some big blow-up or disagreement.

It seems in an effort to stop ugly disagreements and self-righteousness we’ve developed this idea of tolerance. At its bare-bones, the idea of tolerance is great: don’t be so ethnocentric or self-centered that you judge others as less than you. But we have twisted this great idea into its own ethnocentric judgmental criterion.

It is to the point in the U.S. that if you condemn an idea, you are accused of being intolerant and self-righteous (especially if the idea is seen as a progressive one).  The idea of tolerance, how it is practiced now, seems to devalue and condemn whoever it deems intolerant. How are we ever to learn from each other if we cannot talk about ideas without condemning each other as awful people? We need to learn how to disagree and still value each other.

In our misuse of “tolerance” (of which I am also guilty), we have defined it very poorly and applied it in ways in which it cancels itself out.

Poorly Defined

The definition given above is logically inconsistent. It states that “Tolerance is harmony in difference.” But just before it states that, “tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation” of differences. If I respect, accept and appreciate the ideas and practices that make you different from me, then we are no longer different because I have now accepted your ideas and practices.

For example, say I am convinced that female circumcision is inherently wrong and oppressive no matter the context. You believe that female circumcision is okay within the cultural context in which it is practiced. Can I respect, accept and appreciate your view that female circumcision is a good form “of expression” and a good way “of being human”? I cannot “accept” your view, that’s why my view is different. I think my view is correct, that is why I cannot “respect” your view–I think it is wrong because I believe it is inhumane. And if I think it is wrong and oppressive, I cannot “appreciate” your view.

These definitions of tolerance fail us miserably when we scratch just below the surface–beyond superficial things like cultural dress and celebrations.

Here we run into the same problem I mentioned in my blog about the idea that all religions are the same. If we either a) only focus on the areas where we are the same, or b) accept and respect every idea for the sake of harmony, we end up with a false harmony–a harmony based on both parties not being allowed to be fully themselves. They are outwardly stunted, pruned and trimmed to avoid conflict. But the real differences are still there, lurking below the surface, and they are never brought into dialogue, never talked about, never allowed to emerge. We can never fully know and understand each other when we fear having real differences and fear expressing them.

Poorly Implemented

Unfortunately, tolerance is itself an ideal that not every culture holds. In other words, tolerance teaches me to accept and appreciate “the rich diversity of our world’s cultures” when many of those cultures do not teach tolerance. Tolerance unwittingly becomes another form of ethnocentrism by saying “Our cultural way (tolerance) is best. Intolerance is not acceptable.” By promoting a worldview that accepts all cultures, it becomes intolerant of worldviews that do not accept all cultures.

Take, for example, the cultural parts of America that say “God hates gays.” Can someone who promotes tolerance (like myself) “accept” and “appreciate” that cultural view? I cannot. Or, can they accept and appreciate the culture of Saudi Arabia that restricts women from stepping outside the home without a male relative? Those cultures are not tolerant so tolerance by definition cannot accept and appreciate them.

Tolerance, as a concept, tries to decrease a judgmental, self-righteousness that ends up hurting and dividing people. But because it has become a philosophy itself, I have seen people who pride themselves on being tolerant say the most vicious and self-righteous things about those they deem intolerant (I’m guilty of this myself). The quality of people we call intolerant (like those who say God hates gays)– nonacceptance and self-righteousness– is mimicked by we who say we are tolerant, because we do not accept anything but tolerance and are sure we are right. Certainly, we can see the irony in that.

So what do we do?

I suggest we redefine the idea to specifically mean acceptance and respect of other people as fellow human beings with equal value no matter what. In other words, I do not have to respect your actions or your ideas but I respect you as a person no matter your actions or ideas.

Inherent in this view is that all people have equal intrinsic value that is not dependent on the views they hold or the things they do. The value of a human does not ebb or flow with their actions.

Further, we must recognize this idea as one that not everyone holds. So those who do not think all people have equal value should not be denigrated or thought of as less–we can fight their idea, but they are also equally valuable as people.

Secondly- and this is a must- we need to practice arguing and disagreeing fairly without it damaging the relationship. A good friend of mine, who grew up in the Middle East, came to the U.S.A. for college. For the first time she was introduced to the theological discussion around the God of the Old Testament seeming so angry and the God of the New Testament seeming so loving. She was baffled because she never saw that discrepancy, though she knew The Bible well. She didn’t see an inconsistency between anger and love–in her culture, expressions of anger do not rule out close relationship and love. In fact, love sometimes is the impetus for anger.

Lack of argument is not harmony. In the white US culture especially, we often think arguments are bad and we avoid really knowing each other for sake of this fake peace. I think we need to learn to argue fairly and be okay with disagreements. If we really try to value the other person we can battle over the ideas and practices–and maybe even understand each other better in the end.

Another definition of ‘tolerance’ puts it this way: “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one’s own.” (dictionary.reference.com).

Might I suggest a slight tweaking of that definition? “Tolerance is a fair, objective and permissive attitude toward other humans whose opinions and practices differ from one’s own.”

If we want a false harmony and a philosophy that continues to breed self-righteousness from all sides, by all means, let us continue defining and practicing tolerance as we have.

I’d rather have true dialogue and mutual respect as people, though it may cause arguments–at least it breeds understanding and brings us together.

Christmas, Violence and God

December 30, 2010

Yesterday, December 29th, the Orthodox Christian calendar marks the commemoration of the Holy Innocents.

According to the biblical account, Herod ordered all the male children under the age of 2 in Bethlehem to be slaughtered, because he had heard from the Magi that a king was born there and he wanted to eliminate any threats to his throne.

According to Church tradition, 14,000 infants were massacred.

After a Christmas season of singing “Joy to the World!” this day is a stark reminder that God’s Incarnation into this world results in a violence the evil of which is hard to imagine.

The historic Christmas was not all sugar plums and figgy pudding.

This commemoration of these precious infants seems pertinent in this day and age when violence and God are often married together to ligitimize the actions of groups and governments as they terrorize and destroy innocent people.

The difference with this story, however, is that God comes to the earth not with drone missles, suicide bombers, preemptive strikes or 737’s.

He comes as a baby, helpless and homeless. He who holds the universe in His hand, was wrapped in swaddling clothes.

That His coming is accompanied by the violence of Herod is evidence that the world (read: our hearts) thinks of power differently than does God –that it will seek to seize that power however it can in its frantic existential anxiety.

The darkness prefers darkness.

It makes sense to me that when true peace and love are brought into a place that is not used to it, it causes violent reactions. Like a red hot iron rod dipped into a bucket of cold water. Until the water heats, it reacts violently to the superheated metal.

Let us remember those slain 2,000 years ago and those slain even today and ask God to heat us up and rid our hearts of violence.

Living in the Middle East: Different Strokes

December 23, 2010

I’ve struggled for some time trying to express what it is like to live here to anyone from the West who has never lived in this part of the world.

The following are my experiences only–as best as I can express them, understand them and explain them to fellow Westerns right now. This is not a judgment or riducule of either culture.

What’chu Talkin’ ’bout Willis!?

I live in a rather small Arab town/city with little western influence. It isn’t a village, but it is not the metropolis of Dubai or Abu Dhabi.

The difference, culturally, from the West is dramatic. Okay–there is some western influence. But it comes in the form of KFC and the young men listening to Tupac– that’s pop culture. I’m talking about real cultural difference, when worldviews collide

What do you do when the underlying values and definitions through which you see  and understand humankind and the world–that you’ve been taught all your life are the correct views–are faced with a people group that not only hold a different worldview than you, but sometimes a complete opposite worldview from you?

How Do You Know That You Know?

Western culture is shaped by the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is often taken for granted, especially if we grew up in the post-Enlightenment. We think in “Enlightment” ways that we just assume are the ways that everyone has always thought. However, The Enlightenment was a massive shift in epistemology and worldview. It elevated reason and the scientific method as the ultimate sources of truth. It encourages individualism and critical thinking.

In the East the Enlightenment never happened. Here someone with epilepsy, for example, may still be believed by many to be possessed by spirits. Keep in mind, this is not a village. The person may drive an Infinity, go to college, eat at Pizza Hut and listen to Dr. Dre– but the Enlightenment has not created a divide between scientific and spiritual in his/her mind.

Also, accepted truth is not always based on outside knowledge or scientific study. Many people get their information from neighbors and family members and do not question its validity. Some are long held beliefs.

Way of Living: Western and Eastern

One friend from the USA, who had a baby girl, lived in an apartment complex with many people from the Middle East and India as neighbors and friends. When the baby girl was about 1 year old and was starting to stand and walk, my friend’s Eastern neighbors would often pick up the baby and make her sit again. They didn’t want her to stand, as they believed that if baby girls stand too early they will be bow-legged. My friend tried to tell them time and time again that that was not true, but they adamantly stuck by their belief as truth. Only after my friend decided to tell them, “It’s okay for her to stand because American babies are different” did they let the baby stand and walk.

You Can’t Handle the Truth!

Western culture also is a truth-based culture. Eastern cultures tend to be more relationship-based. To give an example: I asked a man for directions to a certain place and he gave them to me. However, it was clear after following his directions that he had no idea where my desired destination was, but he was not going to say that he didn’t know– in his eyes that would be rude. He’d rather lie and give bum directions than say “No” to me because that would be seen as harming the relationship. The truth (i.e. “I don’t know”) is not as important as the relationship.

Whenever I ask someone for information, I have to take it with a grain of salt. I am getting a little better at reading the very subtle body language which helps me spot when someone is afraid to say, “I don’t know.”

Have You Been a Good Boy?

Western culture is a culture that is concerned with right and wrong. When faced with how I should act in a moral situation, I ask myself, “What is the right thing to do?” In my best moments, I then choose the right thing to do, no matter the consequences.

Eastern culture is not so much concerned with right or wrong as it is with honor and shame. An Easterner in the same situation will more likely ask himself, “What action will not bring shame  (or will bring honor) on me and my family?” The consequences or effects of the action (i.e. honor or shame) matter more than the action itself. So, “right” or “wrong” may not matter if I do not get caught. As long as I did not bring shame.

The Eastern way often feels “wrong” and “unjust” to me as I experience living here–but then I am looking at the East through my culture’s view of “right and wrong”– but I can’t help that, I am a Western.

The View of Self: Western and Eastern

Me, Myself and I

The West is a blatantly individualistic culture. I remember my parents telling me that their job was to raise me to be a self-sufficient adult– who could function well in life on my own. In the West we are concerned with the health, wealth, rights and actions of individuals.

The Eastern view is different. We call it collectivism. The individual is not more important than the family or tribe. There is not as much of a concern about “my rights.” If you were never taught to view yourself as a complete and separate individual, where would you even get the idea of “my rights?”

This plays out in teaching students not to cheat. How do you tell a student who grew up in the East, whose heritage is tribal, not to help a fellow student who asked him for answers? Not to help is thought unconscionable– life is collective. And even if you can convince them it is “wrong” to help in this case, you have to deal with the fact that the way they think about “right” and “wrong” is different (as mentioned above).

Sugar and Spice

Specifically in this part of the world how the genders relate is very different from the West and other Eastern countries. Schools, even colleges, are separated by gender (at least the government ones)– though it is slowly starting to change. A man will not tell other men his wife’s name– it’s considered shameful. Unmarried, unrelated men and women should not communicate with each other, and, of course, never touch. Even if a women talks to a man, she is being too forward, shames her family and drastically affects her ability to get married (if it is found out).

Some women will not go to the movies because of what people may think about them. If they do go, they will go with a male family member– never just with other women. Law does not require a woman to cover, but if a local woman does not, the social and familial consequences would be dire or worse. Also, special permission must be granted to take photographs of women. If a photograph showing the face of a local woman, without permission, is shown to anyone whom is not her family it is a great shame.

I work with several local women. I’ve never taken their picture. I am friends with many of them on Facebook–but they never put a picture of themselves in their profile, and they often alter their name so only their friends know it is them. It is an ingenious way to make social networking something they can enjoy while remaining women of integrity and honor.

Never the ‘Twain Shall Meet?

So, the cultural gaps are many. Living here is far different than living in the West. Learning how to navigate these differences and sometimes altering a core worldview seem the keys to survival and growth here.

How would you do if you had to live in a place where all your underlying assumptions about truth, right and wrong, personal rights and gender are challenged on a daily basis?

We either bend with the breeze or we break.

Some days I bend, some days I break. But, I am always learning!

Imagine By John Lennon

October 9, 2010

As the 70th birthday of John Lennon has just passed us many people are remembering him and his music.

To be sure, his musical legacy is without comparison. I listen to and thoroughly enjoy The Beatles often– I prefer their later more psychedelic stuff.

His extremely popular post-Beatles solo song Imagine is cherished not so much for its musical simplicity (which is beautiful), but for the ethic and value its lyrics espouse.

The words of the song express a desire for a world with no divisions, where the whole world lives in peace. Which is a wonderful thing to imagine indeed. And an even more wonderful thing to work towards.

He seems, however, to misunderstand his own philosophy. He advocates peace and oneness but suggests that one way to help achieve that is to get rid of religion. The song promotes a secular humanist perspective of the problem and the solution to that problem. What Lennon seemed to fail to recognize was that secular humanism is a religion, too.

In essence, the song is saying believe like me and we will live in peace. Which is the same thing many religious people say which creates divisions. In offering a solution to the world’s problems, the song Imagine unwittingly creates the very thing it decries.

Of course a song cannot answer all the questions and cover all the details of a philosophy it promotes. However, what is surprising to me is number of people who adore these lyrics without questioning their own underlying assumptions. Many of these assumptions are truths indeed, but if one just assumes that it is true without thinking about why it is true one is building a house without looking at the foundation.

For example: Underlying assumption: Peace is Good

We must ask: Why is this true? Most everyone instinctively believes that peace is good. But what philosophical foundation do you have for that? Someone could argue since survival of the fittest is what helps us progress that peace would actually work against the evolution and progress of our species and is therefore bad. If you don’t agree with their argument, do you know why you don’t?

Ultimately, I agree with most of John Lennon’s vision in the song Imagine. Except it is my religion that teaches me those truths. If you strip that from me, as the song suggests, I can think of no foundation that builds the house he envisions.

The dream, then, evaporates and gets no farther than what it was when it started– imagination.

Islamaphobia: A Mosque at Ground Zero

August 19, 2010

Should a mosque be built near Ground Zero in New York city?

Answers to this question vary, opinions vary and emotionally it seems like a charged issue for many Americans.

Those in favor, like President Obama, cite American religious freedom guaranteed by law. They also note that “Muslim” terrorists are a small minority and most Muslims are peace-loving people who oppose such acts of violence. Our war is not against Islam, they say, it is against terrorists.

But those opposed to the mosque in New York say that Muslims will see it as a trophy of victory for 9-11 in their conquest to take over the world. They often believe that Islam is intrinsically violent and facist and that America is a Christian nation. They make no distinction between the political and religious aspects of the issue, seeing those aspects as combined and united. Or they say they believe in the religious freedom, legally, to build it, but feel the people who want to build it should not.

It is not unlike a question the small community in Walkersville, Maryland faced a few years back– do they allow a Muslim group to build a convention center in their town? A local pastor did not want the Muslim group in the town, citing our country’s constitution and Christian values and heritage. Islam is unAmerican, was his point.

Here’s how I think through three of the points from those opposed. (Disclaimer: I say all of the following as an American and as a Christian).

1) Is Islam intrinsically violent? Opinions differ. Most Muslims would answer that question with a resounding, “No!” Also, it could be claimed that the America government is intrinsically violent– and history might make it hard to argue against such a claim.

2) Is Islam intrinsically unAmerican? True, Islam by nature is designed to be a state religion. So an Islamic government could not hold the ideal of separation of church and state in the same way that the American government has so far. But those opposed to the mosque on the grounds that “America is a Christian nation” obviously do not believe in separation of church and state in the same way the American government has so far either.

To say Islam is unAmerican is apparently ignorant of the fact that many American citizens are Muslim and they, with clear consciences, pledge allegiance to the same Republic, serve in the same military and vote in the same elections as do all other Americans.

America is changing socially. It is becoming less white and less Christian. American no longer means “white” and “Christian.” If some are so upset by this that they will fight a war to keep it from happening, then I would suggest that maybe they are more attached to their race or narrow view of America than to their Christian faith and ethics.

3) Do Muslims want to take over the world? Some do. Some don’t. But they might think, after the invasion of Iraq, that evangelical Christians like George W. Bush want to take over the world. Would the same people who oppose the building of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York also oppose the building of an evagelical Christian church in Baghdad? Both can be taken as a slap in the face to a traumatized nation. Not to mention that some Americans want American democracy to take over the world and use that stance to justify unjustifiably violent acts.

The effect 9/11 has had on peace-loving Muslims is great (the majority of Muslims are peace-loving). They are ashamed that people calling themselves “Muslims” would do such a horrific thing. Many of them tell me of the fear, hurt and anger they feel when judged and shunned in the West just because they are a Muslim. They are scared and upset by what seems to be a growing Islamaphobia in Europe and America. Many won’t travel to America for fear of what might happen to them.

What many don’t understand is the great amount of fear in America after 9-11. They see America as the sole superpower in the world with nothing to fear. It often doesn’t cross their minds just how scared the average American is after 9-11. Yes, a superpower can still be traumatized.

And the average American doesn’t understand the difference between Sunni, Shi’ite, Sufi, Wahabi or Ahmadiyya (or know that some do not consider the others true Muslims)– traumatized thinking equates Muslim with terrorist, period.

Fear seems to be the key issue here, on both sides.

But acting out of fear promotes continued fear and encourages continued ignorance.

The remedy to most fear is education, relation and the will not to act on fear. Let us Americans educate ourselves on Islam, share our lives with more Muslim neighbors and have the willpower, as hard as it is sometimes, not to take action motivated by fear.

Not Right or Left: The Via Media

May 3, 2010

Political differences in the USA are on my mind this week.

In the past I was fairly conservative, but now I’m more left-leaning. I have seen and embodied the fear and the venomous self-righteousness that comes from both sides of the political spectrum in the States.

Now, however, I reject both worldviews that seem to emanate from the two parties. The following are only some of the reasons why. I speak in generalizations of course, as the topic necessitates.

The Left

The left, generally speaking, sees that any movement away from the past is progress. Hence, the term “Progressives” to describe them. They have mistakenly applied Darwin’s biological Theory of Evolution to social and cultural issues. However, even if we do grant them that their application is valid, they forget that for every case of biological change that is advantageous and moves a species “forward,” there are hundreds maybe thousands of changes that are disadvantageous and get “selected out.” Change and movement is not necessarily progress.

This flippant quickness to disregard something from the past is too shallow for me. In doing so, I feel that many traditions and views have been thrown out, when it was their abuse that was the problem, not the thing itself.

The left, in general, also promotes tolerance. However, I’ve read and heard reactions of those who preach tolerance when they see intolerance– and their venom against it is just as self-righteous as the act they are deriding. Their answer, all too often, to self-righteous, judgmental people is to judge them, call them names and devalue them. And the irony seems lost on them. The other problem I have with tolerance is that it has come to mean that I have to respect all ideas as many sides to truth and reality and believe that it’s all relative and there is no ‘one right’ way– while it promotes tolerance as the ‘one right’ way.

I believe in tolerance. But, tolerance means tolerating (accepting) people. I do not have to tolerate your ideas, but I recognize and honor your value as a person nonetheless. Of course I believe my ideas are right, that’s why they are my ideas! I can believe your ideas stink and still show you love and good will. Your personhood and its intrinsic value is not diminished by the views you hold or the things you do.

The Right

The right, in general, has co-opted Christianity but used it to incite fear and anger. Ideas like “America is a Christian nation” abound– and the consistent logic that follows turns Christianity more in to Americanism than America into Christ-likeness. Christianity, intrinsically, is not a state religion.

This use of Christ to bolster patriotism and nationalism is a gross blasphemy which I cannot abide.

The right, in general, also puts individualism and personal responsibility on a pedestal above all else. This denies, however, the indelible truth that no man is an island. American culture has worshipped at the statue of the Individual for a long time. If a mistake has been made, it is in the direction of taking individualism too far, not the other way around. Humankind is not individuals that make up society, nor are we a society made up of individuals– society and individuals are one in the same.

The right’s unwillingness and refusal to see the need for some social responsibility and action in government confuses me. If the government is to make laws against such things like murder and bribery in order to ensure peace and order, then making laws for things like changing systemic problems in industries and creating organizations that help to alleviate societal issues is also toward peace and order.

All in all, I’m down the middle and it saddens me that the divisiveness and partisanship has reached the levels it has. Lets hope more of us can find the via media (the middle way). There, at least, we can find somewhere to talk with civility about our differences and really hear each other and maybe grow and learn a thing or two.

Who’ll join me?