A couple of things have happened this week that made me think about tolerance in our society–how important it is, how fragile it is, and how hard we must work to maintain it.
It just so happens that the subject that came up in the class I was teaching this week was the Holocaust. Admittedly that’s a rather depressing subject. More depressing still is how little today’s college students know about it. A colleague of mine said a student told him, “The Holocaust? Yeah, I think I’ve heard of that.” This is one of those subjects that slips between the cracks because professors and TA’s, especially at the college level, simply assume that it’s been taught in high school or in lower-division college courses. That assumption isn’t always correct. So, for my students I thought I would give them a brief capsule summary of what happened, from beginning to end, how it happened, and attempt to answer the big question, why it happened.
It happened because of intolerance. Hitler was unwilling to share Germany–or planet Earth–with people he viewed as subhuman, not just Jews, but also Roma (Gypsies), Slavs, Communists, and homosexuals.
This was on Tuesday. On Wednesday I made this post about the fall of Constantinople in 1453. To my surprise, it sparked a huge controversy. A very intolerant person posted some comments to that article suggesting that Islam was an inherently evil religion, and in fact he went so far as to call for a literal crusade to destroy it. I have to say this really shocked me. I mean, the Crusades are centuries in the past. There is a great deal of anti-Muslim bigotry out there, especially since 9/11, and I cringe when I hear people speak of conflicts between Western and Islamic countries or people as a “clash of civilizations.” But here was this guy, on my blog, shrieking about how Muslims should be destroyed. My refusal to agree with his anti-Muslim bigotry triggered this priceless tirade:
Now go , moan and raise an outcry against all those who despise traitors and nihilists like you and who won’t desecrate the holy memory of martyrs like Constantine XI whom you allegedly commemorated on the 560th anniversary of his heroic death. If he had had a grave , he would be turning in it hearing a spepch of such a renegade and spiritual janissary like you.
I don’t invite controversy on this blog, but I don’t shirk from it either. I am not a Muslim. While I agree with some of the teachings of Islam, I disagree with others. But I certainly don’t agree that an entire religion and its billions of believers worldwide should be wiped off the face of the earth. That is insanity, and it’s bigotry. I told this commenter so, and several other readers of this blog echoed the sentiments–for that I thank you. The hateful commenter, by the way, has been banned.
Right after I got done dealing with the flame war, I crossed the central quad of the university campus where I work and found a fundamentalist Christian sidewalk preacher standing in front of the student center with a crude cardboard sign reading “YOU DESERVE TO GO TO HELL.” My campus is very liberal, and a large group of students had gathered around the hate preacher to argue with him. This was the second day in a row he was on campus. He was screeching hateful invective, studded with Bible verses, about how homosexuals and nonbelievers are damned to hell.
The fracas with the anti-Muslim bigot had me in a state of mind where I couldn’t stand to see more hatred right in front of me. I called out the hate preacher. I pointed to my wedding ring and told him that I’m married to a man, and that God loves us both. The look of confusion on the hate preacher’s face was priceless. The students around us clapped.
Standing behind the hate preacher was a female undergraduate student. During his tirade she was holding up her own hand-lettered sign reading “LOVE IS A BLESSING, NOT A SIN.” The photo I took of her is at the top of this article. Later she was joined by another student, a person of androgynous appearance who told the hate preacher he/she was transgendered. The group around them applauded again.
As I finished up my day I felt better, and it was curious that I felt better. The encounter with the anti-Muslim bigot on my blog and the Christian hate preacher on the quad could have very well ruined my day, but it was the encounter with the two students, the woman holding the sign and her transgendered partner, that brought the day up for me. I felt like they showed a proud and positive alternative to the dark and troubling way of hatred and intolerance. They also showed that we need to keep reinforcing that alternative constantly.
I’m not a Christian, but I do believe in God. As I told the bigot in the blog comments yesterday, I can’t imagine that God does not want His children to live in harmony with one another, and to respect their differences rather than seek conflict over them. I really don’t think God cares whether you worship Allah while facing Mecca, or recite verses from the Torah, or take John 3:16 as your personal mantra. I really don’t think God cares whether you believe in Him or not. Atheists have an important place in the cultural and spiritual journey of humankind. Many terrible things have been done in the name of religion, but religion is a construct of human beings, not God. We have to remember that.
Every time the human race moves forward toward greater tolerance, greater inclusion, greater respect and more diversity, societies advance and benefit. The Enlightenment, the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, the work of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II, Desmond Tutu, the Supreme Court cases of Loving v. Virginia and Lawrence v. Texas–all of these are positive advances. They are the way forward. They are our future.
Every time a society turns backwards and embraces intolerance, there is tragedy. The Crusades and the Holocaust top the list of these tragic events, but you can list many more–the Jews’ bondage in Egypt, the Spanish Inquisition, the terrible works of Robespierre, Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, genocides in Rwanda, Darfur and Somalia–these are steps backwards, retreats from progress and civilization.
Let us hope that there is more tolerance than intolerance in our future. I would like to see more Martin Luther Kings and Loving v. Virginias in our future, and fewer Crusades and Holocausts. But, as the character of Demetrius says in Beowulf is Boring, “The plan of God can advance only so far as the free will of Man will allow it.” We, the people, must choose our future, and we must choose tolerance. We don’t have to like everybody. But we do have to live with them on our common Earth. We can work hard, passionately even, to change things we think are wrong, and yes that does sometimes involve conflict, but we must never lose sight of the better world and more open future we must commit ourselves to creating.
Intolerance and bigotry surround us every day. Sometimes they seem too powerful to resist. But we must never delude ourselves that there’s no way to change it, or that tolerance is the better future.
Sorry to preach. I don’t do it often. But I thought I’d say something about this so long as it was on my mind. Thanks for reading.