Real Tolerance: Understanding vs. Conversion

A couple weeks ago I, while on a flight to Washington DC, found myself in conversation with a guy who makes documentaries for a living.

It started out as a chat about camera lenses and moved quickly into a discussion on his favorite topic, global warming. Something about the early bits of our talk must have put him at ease because he started to REALLY go off on the COMPLETE stupidity of conservatives. I told him I thought the trouble was that as a society we were becoming so polarized that it was becoming less and less possible to have rational dialogue.

He nodded in agreement then shared with stunned amazement the example of a friend of his from college, someone he had sheared life with, been in a band with, gotten drunk with who had become a university professor, adopted a conservative perspective and, in his words, become an idiot. When he finally cycled back to global warming I took a risk.

“You know”, I said, “I actually come from more of a conservative perspective myself. I don’t disagree with your evidence of ice caps melting or temperatures rising but what is missing for me is proof of causality. If it really the humans fault then we should see some correlation between temperature change and population growth coupled with industrialization. I just haven’t seen that piece.”

He launched…

Him: “Well, do you believe in science?”
Me: “Yeah, I was a science major in college. I believe in the scientific method and the repeatability of results, sure.”
Him: “No, I mean to you believe in evolution?”
Me: “No, I’m more of a creation guy.”
Him: “Pfft, so you think the earth was created in just seven days?!?”
Me: “Not necessarily, Genesis says, ‘there was morning and there was evening, the first day’, in Kansas that is 24 hours. In northern Alaska that is a year. I’m open to the idea that the Genesis days could be time periods and any length.”

I must have passed some sort of entrance exam at that point because he began to share his views on global warming in an animated but not antagonistic manner. When we got to the key point on human causality, after careful previous argument, decently justified statistics, and seemingly rational assessment of potential results, he said, “It has to be humans, there is no other answer.”

Really? That’s all you got? It HAS to be?

Of course I didn’t say that out loud. We finished the conversation amicably, even swapped contact information and went our separate ways as long flight seatmates seemingly always do.

So what just happened there, in my opinion, was a small example of a contrast of goals.

My goal in the conversation was understanding. I wanted to both clarify my position, (not all conservatives are stupid and we need to be able to dialogue), and understand his, (conservatives are stupid particularly when it comes to global warming). His goal in the conversation was conversion. He wanted to prove to an idiot conservative that they were wrong and he was right. In doing so he stereotyped me, made assumptions, and he ascribed motive. All included in the no-no list I posted last week.

As a result of that conversation a couple of truths about tolerance became newly clear to me:

1. True tolerance is about wide goals, not narrow goals.
As I said last week tolerance begins from a point of disagreement. Thus the widest goal under the heading of tolerance is understanding. But too often the conversation narrows to conversion, then narrows still further to debate when conversion seems to be failing. This is where the hate speech starts to come in to play.

2. True tolerance is about compromise, not all or nothing.
Too often cries for “tolerance” are really just masks for pushing forward a particular agenda. You can tell this by the narrowness of goals and the speed with which the conversation turns to claims of hatred. There will ALWAYS be points of disagreement. You can choose to focus the conversation there, narrow goal, or work to find points of compromised agreement, wide goal.

The recent hoopla between the LGBT community and chicken eating conservative Christians has highlighted the fact that these two camps hold COMPLETELY different view of life, the world, and everything. There are obviously, without doubt, narrowly focused sub groups on either side of the debate, but even in THIS instance there are points of tolerant compromise that can be found. We just need to be willing to find points of agreed upon compromise through tolerant dialogue.

What is it like when you find yourself in a truly tolerant dialogue?




3 responses to “Real Tolerance: Understanding vs. Conversion

  1. Curtis, I think the difficulty often comes in when one member of the dialogue has based their opinion on their “feelings” about the issue, their personal experience, or what someone else has either told them or prepped them to say.

    I recently had a conversation with someone who was trying to argue for the idea of homosexuality being OK. He tried to base his argument on “contradictions in scripture”, gave me a couple instances he called examples, but when I questioned them he didn’t know where they were actually found. Funny thing is, I have since tried to dig deep to find anything remotely resembling the examples he gave and can’t find them.

    At the time, I challenged him that he needed to be careful not to just take the word of others, but to dig deep and make sure that his beliefs were REALLY his beliefs and not something that someone else gave him to use as ammunition or argument that just happened to fit what he, in his heart, WANTED to believe.

    I’m afraid that often there is a tendency to want to take the easy way out and not to really know what we believe and WHY we believe it, but to just regurgitate what we have heard others say, which my or may not be accurate. Then there is a tendency to become defensive when the argument is challenged and they have nothing to fall back on to prove their point.

    You’ve got to know both what you believe and why you believe it and have facts to show to prove your point. The problem happens when one of those pieces is missing. Defensiveness leads to argumentitiveness. It’s never fun to talk to someone who feels like they’ve been backed into a corner and have to talk their way out of it! 😕

    • And that is an example of a “convert” conversation. He was trying to convert you to his point of view and had weak supporting evidence, wasn’t even really sure what his point of view really other than you should agree with the people I have decided to agree with.

  2. Most of my life, I have avoided conversations that are of much controversy. I just never thought quickly enough to feel like I could converse without being sucked into the other person’s world, if that makes sense. Now, I realize how I need an understanding of some things in preparation for getting outside of my comfort zone somewhat in this area. This series is helping me understand how to think about tolerance and to approach controversial conversations by seeking to understand first. I appreciate how you are explaining the process, and I think it is going to help me a lot with future conversations.

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