Intolerance of Intolerance

I recently saw an Internet meme that questioned whether a tolerant society should or can tolerate intolerance. After all, to be fully tolerant, you must accept (or at least hear and allow to exist) all points of view, even if they differ from your own, even if that viewpoint is based in total intolerance of specific racial or religious groups. However, it is clear that this should not – must not – be the case. A tolerant society should not tolerate intolerance. Of course, not all intolerance is bad (e.g., “I will not tolerate using cell phones at the dinner table”). However, when intolerance is based in prejudice and hatred, as was witnessed in Charlottesville last week, it must not be tolerated.

Fighting back against such violent rhetoric can be scary and intimidating. You may feel uncertain of how to proceed toward fighting intolerance or question whether the actions of one individual will make any difference at all. The Bystander Effect is a psychological phenomenon that shows that most people will passively sit back when they think others are taking the reins in an emergency. Imagine if everyone had that same mindset? Nothing would ever get accomplished. Therefore, let the fight against intolerance begin with you.

An easy place to start is at home within your own family. We must teach love and acceptance and compassion and understanding to our youth (as well as how to stand up against intolerance) from an early age. Research shows that many parents, especially white parents, do not talk to their children about race. Some people fear that these discussions will draw attention to race, whereas they may think that silence on the issue will promote “colorblindness,” an ideology that strives to ignore skin color and view people as equals. However, research shows that children as young as 2 ½ prefer playmates that look like them, and that by age 7 they are already savvy to the way whiteness is privileged in American society. If this occurs without families having conversations about race, then clearly the attempt at colorblindness is unsuccessful. Not only that, but colorblindness implicitly suggests that race is bad, something to ignore, something too taboo to discuss; it invalidates the discriminatory experiences that minority groups have endured. Therefore, it is prudent to initiate conversations about race and tolerance with our children rather than having them absorb the systemic biases that exist in our society.

How to go about doing this in your family? If your child makes an insensitive comment about another child’s race, don’t extinguish the conversation with a quick “Don’t talk about that” or “It’s not nice to say things like that.” Instead, proceed with curiosity and ask where those ideas originated. Use it as an opportunity to have an open, respectful dialogue and amend the distorted beliefs that your child may have. Also, talking to kids about within-group diversity helps to breakdown stereotypes, or the idea that all members of a certain racial group share common features. Even members of the same family have different interests and personality traits, so it follows that people within any given racial or religious group will exhibit enormous differences as well. On the flipside, you can also talk to your kids about the similarities that different people share (“Even though your skin color is different, you both have two eyes and you both smile when you are happy”).

Exposure to and friendships with diverse peers is one of the best ways to promote acceptance. Further, when parents have a diverse group of friends, it models to their children that they too can find common ground and have rewarding relationships with people who may seem very different from them. Encourage your kids to explore and participate in other culture’s traditions and invite friends from different cultures to participate in yours. Lastly, watch the language that you use to describe people, including yourself. If you routinely comment that you don’t like your gray hair or that you’re unhappy with your body weight, it teaches children to focus on physical attributes rather than more important, internal ones.

In sum, diversity is something to be celebrated. When discrimination and hatred abounds, it is our society’s responsibility to include children in the conversation and teach them compassion and acceptance. While these conversations may be uncomfortable, the future climate of this country may very well depend on today’s children and the lessons of kindness that we teach them.

Ashley Kaplan, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist