The True Test of Tolerance

By Betsy Shultz

The rancor of politics is not new to me – given that I engage in politics and policy as a profession, I am constantly surrounded by passionate people believing radically different things. Sometimes I help my clients win, sometimes we collectively endure the sting of loss, yet nothing has prepared me for the intense emotions searing across our communities over the past few weeks.

Since our country’s inception, discussing political opinions has been a trademark of ours. The arrival of social media however, has added a layer of perceived safety allowing a level of vitriol in political debate hardly matched in history. My social media feeds have exploded in recent days, with friends I would usually describe as intelligent, tolerant people becoming unhinged in their effort to express not just their opinion – their complete disdain for the opinions of others.

I have found it remarkable that the very people who have marched against the hatred they believe is being spewed into our world are the very same people who (perhaps unknowingly) are expressing that same level of hatred toward those who may disagree with them.

Conversely, some of those who for the past eight years have stridently opposed the actions and person of the president are now blindly saying everything the new administration does is completely defendable.

I am slowly discovering that simply because we as Americans have the freedom of speech does not mean exercising that right is always the best course of action. Tolerance is only authentic when it is systemic – when we are tolerant not only toward those who are of a different race or gender, but toward those who hold a different opinion – especially when we find that opinion repellent.

We are quickly morphing from a nation divided by race, gender and region toward one splintered by opinions held so dearly that anyone who doesn’t agree is vilified to such an extent that any kind of productive discourse is curtailed.

Recently I have seen many intelligent people (on both sides of the political spectrum) proclaim their superiority over what they declare to be hateful and bigoted acts and opinions. I would suggest that we cannot achieve moral superiority at the expense of another human being.

Throughout the course of history our nation has struggled with how to treat those who are different from us – in whatever physical way those differences were presented. We have not always succeeded and the ghosts of those struggles continue with us to this day. I would suggest that we are now embarking on a new struggle for the soul and conscience of our nation. This struggle does not have to do with navigating our physical differences, but rather with our metaphysical ones: how do we live alongside those who hold radically different opinions on issues we individually hold sacred?

The hate will never end until our freedom of expression is matched by the depth of our tolerance.

Ours is a nation which is at the same time a Democracy and a Republic. Ours is a system of government which values the voice of the people as well as a system that checks the voice of the people. We are a nation of immigrants and a nation of those who have melded into a cohesive whole. We have the freedom to speak and we have the burden to let other voices be heard. Until we can hold these and many other beautiful and divergent truths at the same time, without compromising the strength and brightness of either, we will continue to be ripped apart, our society dominated by the voices of the most strident.

Betsy Schultz is a political consultant in the Eugene area.