In February of this year, the Pew Research Center released a study on the Millennial Generation, those people born after 1980. The research uncovered a trend towards greater tolerance of racial differences.
In a Chicago Tribune article, Ted Gregory explains that some discouraging signs lie beneath the surface of the research. These young adults have grown up proselytized with a diversity slogan. When children of different races and cultures are integrated into their communities and schools, they are less prone to fear those differences. A massive cultural campaign to embrace multiculturalism and diversity has reinforced this acceptance.
Digging deeper, Gregory notes that “tolerance doesn’t necessarily mean understanding. Adults working with teens say they see an unsettling strain of desensitivity among young people.” According to studies, college students are 40 percent less empathic than they were thirty years ago. Many factors might be contributing to this growing hardness, including violent video games, technological social networking and the ruthless content of television, especially in reality shows.
Apparently students exercise tolerance without talking about their cultural distinctions and their effects. They accept dissimilarities without knowing what they mean and they do not take the time to explore the diversity. They are willing to look past skin color, but make no effort to understand what it means to be an African-American or Muslim in a predominantly Christian Anglo culture. This results in an absence of empathy for one another.
This naïve socialization becomes potentially harmful when relationships require deeper bonds of trust and understanding, such as marriage. Two people attracted to one another may construct their mutuality on the things they share in common, but never think to explore contrary ideas or ways of thinking that lie beneath the surface and threaten to disrupt their euphoria.
Deeper diversity inevitably surfaces and requires careful negotiation. Ideally, these differences should be discussed before forming a permanent union. This will test the depth of mutual acceptance necessary to sustain a marriage. If the differences appear after the couple has said “I do,” they can produce competition, conflict or damaging divisions.
A shallow promotion of tolerance has yielded a superficial form of acceptance. Cultural usage has minimized discernment. Fear of bigotry led to indiscriminate approval. Relativism qualified beliefs and choices as private, requiring affirmation without any form of judgment.
Oddly, fear has swung the pendulum in the other direction. The threat of terrorism has driven government leaders to promote discrimination, racial profiling and prejudice. Where is tolerance in the Ground Zero mosque conflict? How can we deny Muslim-Americans the right to build a place of worship simply because it is “near” the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks? Suddenly the differences are linked to consequences. Unfortunately, in this case, the connection lacks logic.
Ideas and beliefs determine choices and behavior. And the behavior of each person affects everyone in his relational circle. The degree of effect varies with the level of association. The beliefs of the person on the elliptical machine next to you at the club will probably not generate any tension with your beliefs. Opposing beliefs may generate some discord between co-workers if they influence business practices. In a marriage, the distinctions may become divisive when it comes to decisions on important matters.
The guiding principle for Christian relationships is to love one another as yourself. Love is not blind. It is discriminating and discerning. It is sensitive and compassionate. Christ-like love considers others as more significant than one’s self. It accepts differences that do not harm either person or the relationship, but it diligently strives to remove anything that threatens to injure the other person. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Cor. 13:7) Love transcends tolerance, especially the shallow kind that has infected our society.
Intolerance does not translate into bigotry by default. We should not tolerate behavior that hurts other people, even the person doing it. We cannot tolerate practices that weaken the social structures necessary to form a cohesive community. Tolerance, as popularly proclaimed, will not take informed action against such threats. Love will.
Tolerance is nice, but love is better.