A look back, and forward

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I don’t know what possessed me, but the other day, as I was contemplating what to write about this month, I got the idea of looking back to see what I wrote in my column exactly 10 years ago — in our June 2007 issue.

I was struck by how timely that 10-year-old column seems to be for us today. So I am repeating it below, with this bit of introduction.

Two months before my June 2007 column, I had done something rare for me at the time: namely, express an opinion on a hot political topic of the day: the war in Iraq.

Not surprisingly, we received a large number of letters from readers expressing their own thoughts. What did take me by surprise was how many of them were also filled with four-letter words, ad hominem attacks on me, and rants against the Beacon itself — all due to my expressing a personal opinion that differed from theirs.

I was quite shocked by the tone and content of some of those letters, and wrote the column below in response.

I don’t think it takes a lot of imagination to see how the tenor of today’s debates, particularly over political matters, seems unsettlingly similar.

And what we’ve been seeing on many college campuses of late — namely a refusal to even permit minority opinions to be expressed, and a turn to violent protest to prevent certain speakers from appearing — indicates that our level of tolerance has continued to decline over the past decade.

I invite readers to share their thoughts on the subject — with respect. We will print a selection of letters/emails in upcoming issues.

Thoughts on tolerance
(from June 2007)

My April editorial on the war in Iraq continues to generate much reader (or former reader) comment, as the letters we printed last month and below suggest.

Last month, I expressed surprise at the strident, even vicious, tone of many of them, and I have received a range of responses to that as well. Reactions range from sympathy over how it feels to be personally attacked, to “buck up, what did you expect?” to “you got what you deserved.”

All in all, these valuable experiences have led me to give a lot of thought to the following question: What does it mean, in this day and age, to be tolerant?

Our society has pretty strict rules today about what a good person may and may not believe (or at least, say in public) about another.

First, of course, it is not acceptable to devalue other people, or worse, to speak of or treat them differently, because of the color of their skin. It is clearly unacceptable today to be racially intolerant.

But what about differences in belief? Is it OK to be intolerant of someone whose religious beliefs differ from yours? What if you pray to Jesus and they pray to Allah? What if they pray to a stone idol? What if they don’t believe there’s a deity at all?

I think the vast majority of Americans today would look down on someone who judged another person ill on the basis of religious belief or non-belief.

What if people differ regarding how they believe our tax dollars should be spent? Can we be intolerant of people who want to see more tax dollars spent on social services? What about people who want to see more government funds spent on preventing illegal immigration?

And should there be a difference in how we treat people who hold each of these opinions? Or isn’t it the very definition of the word “tolerance” that we treat all our fellow countrymen with respect, regardless of the issues on which we disagree?

Now let’s turn to foreign policy. Is this an area where the rules about tolerance apply or not?

I had a conversation the other day (not an argument, just a conversation!) with someone whom I respect, and who I know to be a well-read, articulate, good-hearted person. We disagreed completely and passionately on a foreign policy question (not Iraq, at least not this time around).

I think it took some self-control on both our parts, but we kept our cool, and parted smiling at each other and looking forward to our next occasion to talk.

I believe it’s the ability to form, hold and, yes, change our opinions — and to communicate with others about them — that truly makes us different from animals.

A person who cannot or will not treat other people with respect despite a difference of opinion has lost the ability to communicate with his fellow human beings, and therefore lost much of his humanity. I think that is tragic.

I also think it’s ironic: Two years ago, millions of Iraqis voted in their country’s first free election in 50 years, risking death threats from their fellow Iraqis to cast a vote for self-rule.

Their fragile democracy, however, is at risk due to the threatened and actual violence perpetrated daily by factions on both sides of their political and religious divide.  

If we have learned anything from this war, it should be that what’s good and noble about mankind and about democracy can be wrecked by a relative few who so believe they are the keepers of The Truth that they demonize their fellow countrymen.

Yes, our American freedom is premised on freedom of thought and expression. But for all to be able to exercise that freedom, expression needs to be civil.

There’s a reason “being civil” and “civilized” means to treat other people with respect. That’s an essential component of civil discourse and, at some level, of our civil freedoms.