The New Intolerance

The current level of overall cultural intolerance - intolerance toward groups in a different race, culture, lifestyle, or merely people we encounter throughout our day - seems to be growing. It is hard to verify for truth, though. We try to measure it by charting the established legislation and public opinion. We yank polling data and assemble it to form a narrative about increased or decreased tolerance. We parse news stories and political speeches for loaded words and attitudes in an attempt to gauge 'how we're doing.'

How do we get a bead on society's 'intolerance index?' It's not a good idea to use the mainstream media as a yardstick, because the whole media mechanism is a hall of mirrors, reporting on itself reporting on itself reporting on ideas spawned by prior reporting. Yes, that's the news now, whether you like it or not.  That echo chamber creates an atmosphere where there are conflicts everywhere no matter the National mood, where war metaphors describe even the tamest encounters. If you stay tuned in to the cable news cycle, you begin to see our society much like a World War battlefield, with volleys constantly being exchanged and everyone hunkered down, clinging to their ideas like canteens.

Current attitudes toward women, the poor, immigrants, cultures and races all seem to be sputtering. It's hard to measure how much of this intolerance is just part of a sensational media product package, and how much is actually coming straight up from the dirt of our true cultural experience.

I sense an angry, fearful bigotry permeating the national dialogue. Bigotry is eternal and global, but the intolerance here at home is especially steely and hard right now. It reflects our times. It reflects our economy. It reflects our national character, which has been sorely tested and as far as I can tell, is failing the written portion.

I blame the state of the economy for our rising intolerance. You may not see a direct correlation, but I do. Most of us are experiencing varying degrees of financial pressure and hardship. I know a small handful of successful entrepreneurs millionaires who doesn't fit the mold, but it's a rarity. The economy has hardened us and brought out the worst in us. I'm even one of the lucky ones. I have a place to live. Even those of us who aren't out on the street are feeling the pinch on our roads and bridges, in the way that infrastructure can't keep the pace of population and traffic growth. California's latest budget projections are horrifying and dire for the future of this state.

Psychological pressure due to economic catastrophe brings out the best in some, but it brings out the worst in many, many others. It leads to intolerance that increases like a slow turning screw. This slow turn, for many, started when their homes were taken away.

I once worked in a law firm representing the noxious entities partially responsible for the economic mess we're in now. I spoke with helpless homeowners in default every day. Many of them were clearly in over their heads. They had a responsibility for the mess they found themselves in, but there was plenty of blame to go around. If you educate yourself about the shock and awe campaign of the subprime mortgage era, it looks like an assault: a predatory series of strikes launched in an atmosphere of ethically challenged deception. It's suddenly easy to see the sparks of economic disaster as system-wide dysfunction. For these debtors, outstanding liens and overdue bills are lifetime companions. Recovery from bankruptcy - again, as many of my friends can attest - is like a long recovery from major surgery.

The stress of dealing with these people was toxic. Their impotent rage bled out over the phone, and in turn, despite our awareness that they deserved help, we began to despise them and generalize them to get over the complication of dealing with such an upsetting topic day after day. This tendency toward unfair generalization and apathy is an easy route to take, because it requires the least amount of emotional investment or empathy. It keeps us disconnected from our discontent, explains away complicated failures, and keeps others' misery at arm's length. After all, how much room do you really have for others' pain?

Finding oneself at the receiving end of wide economic disparity is sometimes like a kind of prison. A society like ours, fed by the media culture described above, and wrestling with the guilt and helplessness from losing everything, begins to feel stretched and tested. The limits of tolerance and acceptance are tested when conditions become dire. Look around the world for thousands of examples of this. Yes, wars are fought over religion and geography and resources, but wars, no matter their talking points, happen as a result of economic injustice and the sense that someone is being underrepresented.

Despite the United States' rocky path to cultural sobriety in the wake of a global financial meltdown, and the subsequent aftershocks, we still contend with a mirage of our country's perception of itself in its 'greatest' years. That 'greatness' memorializes an era during which a good degree of economic and cultural superiority over other cultures left room for a vast, successful middle class. The stark reality of our present, a present in which this idealized notion seems forever out of reach - creates grief and anguish. When I listen to the platitudes of politicians about 'getting our country back,' their words are tinged with a sense of sadness and longing. A spurned lover, lost and betrayed, often cannot face up to what has happened, and that denial can become a sickness.

Now, that take trauma and marry it to the shame and regret of homeowners and debtors, the rage and depression of proud people who cannot look after their families, the fear and frustration of coping with a disappearing middle class and an increasing sense that the financial industry has gotten none of its due, and the worst in us begins to emerge, little by little. It is toxic. As Yoda said, fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.

In the mad scramble to explain the causes of financial alienation and distress, no one is left unscathed. Groups perceived as getting special treatment from the Government are blamed and become targets of hate. The margins that we, as a culture, normally leave open to make room for other lifestyles and political beliefs have grown dangerously thin. Sometimes, in our distress, there is only room for blame. Hate groups slink under the surface and take advantage of economic PTSD to promote hate and intolerance. Corporations' reliance on overseas labor - either by bringing in engineers on work visas or shipping jobs to other countries - has fostered huge amounts of racial and cultural tension among people normally benign on cultural differences.

The media's 'reaction time' to hate, intolerance, and unfairness is unpredictable, not rooted in what the public demands, but rather what the news corporation needs. The news cycle is an amoral one, and isn't often infused with a sense of prescience or urgency. We've historically depended on an ordinarily stoic media to keep things in check when they get out of hand (witness Edward R. Murrow's brave stance against McCarthyism, or Walter Cronkite's Vietnam reporting) but that age is long gone. We are caught between several imperfect journalistic outfits, among them: NPR's simpering, sycophantic moderate conservatism, the frenzied, repetitious and deafening cable news cycle, and myopic propaganda of conspiracy-minded idea cults.

In turn, the public's 'reaction time' to hate, intolerance and unfairness is, oddly, dictated by our exposure to the news cycle. We react when (and if) they react. Yes, there are exceptions to every rule, and there are citizens who spend their lives shining light on stories and issues the mainstream media won't touch, but many of us can't be bothered to be activists. We're too busy letting the toxins from stress and fear course through our veins.

The moral fabric of our country is woven from acceptance and inclusiveness, and that fabric is tattered.

So, what to do?

There is no National Cure for intolerance. Government can mandate behavior to a certain degree, but it has no hand in teaching tolerance. National Ad Campaigns do offer hope. They instruct tolerance and fight ignorance on sexual behavior, bullying, and other topics, but the campaigns have to be damned good to attract attention.

There is also a free way to teach tolerance: you and your example, multiplied by billions.

I have to work on my tolerance every day. I find myself getting impatient with people and I have to pull back. I am almost always rewarded for that. People like smiles. People like to feel like they're not the source of your tension. People like to feel like if you're upset, it's not personal.

People want to be encouraged that they are improving your day, whether they know it or not.

You're not always to connect with everyone, but it helps to try. Sometimes you'll try to be nice and someone will still be a jerk. That's just how it is. It's not that they hate you; it's that they can't see what you're trying to do because they're too locked up in their own 'stuff' to perceive you.

It's especially helpful to show service staff - including janitors, maintenance and sanitation workers, stock clerks, Receptionists, and others who are often overlooked - a little kindness. Smile. Say hello. Sometimes all it takes is a nod, or a look that says 'I see you.' This wonderful movie and this one illustrate the immediate effects of active compassion. It's not easy to do, it almost always takes a push, but the rewards of treating others with kindness and tolerance are not one-sided, not ever.

We all hold a diversity of views, but none of those views need be threatened by the premise that tolerance, inclusion and acceptance lead to a stronger society. Including others, even if they don't fit into your worldview, does not dilute your spiritual or cultural experience. Including others does not cheat you out of hard-fought gains, as much as it may feel that way.

I often fight to catch myself when I feel I am generalizing or depersonalizing another person or group because of my own unhappiness and stress level. I don't always succeed, but the mindfulness is always there, trying to win the day. The examples we set while practicing this mindfulness sets a mood, one that isn't always immediately felt, but if multiplied and sustained, can overcome the most deafening intolerance.


Popular Posts