I’m from the now notorious burg of Wasilla, Alaska, home to a fair number of far-right Christians, life-on-the-fringes Libertarians, and (believe it or not) Yellow Dog Democrats. Now I live in New York, a city that is at once relentlessly progressive and, at times, shockingly provincial. All this to say that I’ve had the great good fortune in my life to meet a fascinating array of people whose political ideologies, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and aesthetic sensibilities are wildly diverse.
Through the magic of Facebook, I’ve got at least a peripheral connection to, at last count, over 600 people from my past and present. Many of these fine folks post frequent personal and political diatribes on Facebook, and as I read the Facebook “news feed” every morning, my past and present worlds converge in a virtual cacophony of dissenting opinions and (often) uncivil discourse.
I’ve got Facebook friends who are religious, atheistic, conservative, liberal, gay, straight, married, single…you get the idea. And I’ve noticed that one thing almost everyone seems to have in common is a firm belief in his or her “tolerance” of other people’s “lifestyles” and opinions. Yet, the language used in many Facebook posts and comments is the opposite of “tolerant.”
Conversations about hot-button topics like health care reform, same sex marriage, Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, and the New York Yankees often degenerate into dialogues scarcely worthy of a junior-high cafeteria squabble. People whom I know to be intelligent, thoughtful, and fully capable of nuanced discussion downshift into name-calling and sweeping generalizations.
Lumping people with whom we disagree into categories like “knee-jerk liberals” and “right-wing nut-jobs” means never having to dig deeper than our preconceived notions about who “they” are and what “they” believe. Our beliefs remain unchallenged and we can make snarky jibes to our heart’s content. Unfortunately, we also forfeit one of the greatest opportunities that the internet affords us: the ability to engage in authentic, honest, real-time discourse with people from all over the world.
I think part of the problem might be the idea of “tolerance” itself. By definition, the word implies a begrudging willingness to “put up with” something or someone outside our sphere of familiarity. What if we strove toward openness and curiosity instead?
I’m not suggesting nor advocating that we should all agree on everything; such monochromatic accord would make for boring Facebook-ing and a boring world. I am suggesting, though, that we actually take the time to ask people, “Why do you feel the way you do?” rather than categorically dismiss their opinions as irrelevant based on their zip code, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or political party affiliation.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my years in Wasilla and New York, it’s that people very seldom conform neatly to our pre-fabbed stereotypes; we humans are as multi-faceted and complex as the issues we face. I truly believe that if we genuinely seek to understand one another, we can be accepting–and, yes, tolerant–of others even if we passionately disagree with their point of view.