Archive for the ‘Psychology’ 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.

Advertisements

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!

The Expatriot (Not Starring Mel Gibson)

December 6, 2009

 

The United Arab Emirates National Day celebrations were just a few days ago and the excitement is contagious. The UAE celebrated its 38th birthday on December 2.

I find I get excited when I think of many aspects of this culture and nation. I have a desire to put a UAE flag on my car and celebrate this country as a new home for me.

However, I also hesitate because when I lived in the States, I purposefully did not display American flags on my car or in my house. In many ways I see myself as a pilgrim and stranger on this earth. My allegiance to any nation is not greater than another. I am pro-world before I am pro-America or pro-UAE.

Also, if I champion America and become patriotic it feels like I, as an American citizen, am saying, “American is better than anywhere else!” Indeed, in many ways Oscar Wilde was right when he stated, “Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.” However, if I flaunt the UAE as a non-Emirati, I feel like I am saying, “I embrace this country as equal to all the rest, as a culture and nation that adds to the world’s beauty. It is also my home.”

My American acts of patriotism are also more subtle. I have never complained about paying taxes and consider it an honor to do so. I signed up for the draft–though it is law I also considered it the right thing to do. I vote.

Here in the UAE, I pay no taxes, not even sales tax. I am not “on call” for the military. I do not vote.

So maybe flying a UAE flag or putting a sticker on my car will help me highlight its strenghts, embrace it as a home and show some outward support for the country that is allowing me, a foreign, to live and work within its borders. It doesn’t mean I think the UAE is better than America or anywhere else. It doesn’t mean I think America is worse than the UAE.

It  just means that I am an “expatriot.”

Superheroes and Why We Like Them

September 23, 2009

A few months ago my wife and sister-in-law and I went to see X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  The character Wolverine is a human that, due to a genetic mutation has the ability to heal extremely quickly. As such, he is the only one who could undergo (and survive) a military test operation that coated all his bones with adamantium: a virtually indestructible metal. The result is a man who can protrude, wield and retract, at will, three 12 inch razor sharp knives out of each of his fists and who is almost impossible to kill. He also has a temper and is a somewhat tortured soul.

My wife and I have always thoroughly enjoyed well-made superhero movies.

So I’ve often wondered: Why are such stories so appealing? Why have they always been appealing throughout humankind’s history? (Recall the Roman and Greek gods and goddesses, and countless other myths of people with superhuman strength and power from all cultures throughout the world from all time.) If I was to guess as to their appeal, I would say that what they must somehow touch something in us that we long for…perhaps something missing from our very selves.

The reason I think this is because it seems too trite and easy to say that the appeal lies only in the fantastical. As if to say, just because those stories tell us of something that we do not see in real life they keep our attention. I can imagine a story with many fantastical details that would not make me rush to see the movie or buy the book. That is to say, fantastical does not always equal appealing.

So perhaps it’s the power that the superhero has that enthralls us. Maybe Lord of Rings is right and humankind, above all the other races, desires power. But then wouldn’t the more powerful people in the world enjoy these stories less? (Maybe not if our hunger for power was insatiable.) However, I don’t buy the power theory either because the desire for power (in a superhero way) may not be a totally universal human experience: I don’t know if everyone would agree that they desire power.

So perhaps superheroes’ appeal lies in the fact that they are marked as special, set apart, different, but in a good way–a way that increases their human potential. I believe that is a better explanation of their universal appeal. I believe it appeals to us because we very rarely experience it ourselves.

If this lack is a common existential experience, what does that tell us about our ontological make-up? Why would we all universally experience the same lack or same desire? Were we meant for something greater? Did we, as a race, have a potential that we lost? Or do we intrinsically have it but lost our ability to see it clearly? Why the common yearning and desire?

And then, why do we feel a lack that we seemingly lack the ability to fill? Even recognizing that one desires to be “more” does not enable one to meet their own desire. Even the richest and most powerful people in the world often report that they feel this same lack in life, like something is still missing.

Perhaps finding out what really quenches that desire or fills that lack is the meaning of life.

Too bad adamantium doesn’t do the trick.

Eid al Fitr

September 21, 2009

The Muslim celebration of Eid al Fitr started yesterday at sundown. It marks the end of the month-long fast of Ramadan.

Needless to say, Eid al Fitr is big here. It lasts three days and it feels like Christmas in the States; beforehand, the malls were packed with people buying gifts and during Eid the roads and malls are fairly empty.

I have the entire week off work which is very nice.

It seems providential that we are finally moving into our house in a few days. After 6 weeks painfully finding my way in the new job, living in a hotel waiting for my employer to find us accommodation and struggling through the most basic daily tasks like ordering pizza or picking up my laundry, we will finally have a place to call our own: a refuge, a home.

Learning to live abroad is not for wimps.

As I look back on the last 6 weeks I think, “Maybe this was my fast. A fast from everything familiar. A hunger for things to be more settled.” So I am asking myself, “Did it draw me closer to God? Did I use the adversity and frustration to grow and learn?” The answer is that sometimes I did and sometimes I didn’t. However, I think I walk away from it stronger from the experience.

But, now, the fast is somewhat over. The learning curve of the job is much less steep already and we have a place to call our own so we can really start to settle down and make Fujairah our home. We haven’t felt settled for over 10 months now.

Eid al Fitr is the Festival of Fast-Breaking.

Though we are not Muslim, we’re celebrating, too!

Hazy with Low Visibility

August 3, 2009

The weather in Dubai has been strange the last few days. It is very hazy. It isn’t exactly a sandstorm, but it isn’t fog or clouds either. Visibility is low. Sometimes it feels like it’s overcast, a rainstorm about to come in with the brightness of the sun hampered a bit.

It’s dust.

The winds aren’t so strong as to kick up a lot of sand. But they are strong enough to cover the city and a tannish-light brown haze. Dust is just “kicked-up” and hasn’t settled yet. We brought the clothes rack inside to dry the clothes. The front stoop, usually dusty and sandy every few days, needs to be swept twice a day.

The weather is exactly how I feel– “kicked-up” and not yet settled. We quit our jobs in the middle of March and moved to Dubai. Since then we have been living with family and awaiting the start of my new job and our life in Fujairah (about 1 1/2 hours from where we live now). During this time my sister-in-law’s family moved across the street and my parents-in-law moved in to this villa. Constant change. Even back home my parents are in the midst of selling my childhood home and moving to Pittsburgh– everything is changing.

In such a state of flux, visibility is low. You can’t tell exactly what lies ahead.

My job starts next week. The benefits are exquisite. Nine weeks paid vacation a year, housing paid for, relocation allowance because I’m an “overseas” hire, two round-trip airfares back the States once a year, tax-free salary, etc. I am excited about working (and having an income) again, but also feeling the typical “new job” nervousness. They’ll put us up in a hotel for the  first week or two while they find our new home– then we can move in. We don’t know what to expect. Will I like the job? My co-workers? Will we like the place they find for us? Will we like Fujairah? Though it looks like stability is coming, there is still so much “up in the air.” And though living with instability is hard, the scary thing about letting things settle is that you may not like the way it all comes to rest.

So, the forecast is continued dusty and “kicked-up” for at least another month. I never was one that wanted the settled, white-picket fence suburb life– however, I’m craving some stability at this point.

There’s something to be said for letting the dust settle– fall where it may– just fall.