Intolerably Tolerant

In my own small world I like to think that I am a pretty tolerant person. I have to be; with two children, two cats, a humongous dog, neighbours, coworkers, two spouses (one former and one current) and friends from all walks of life, there’s a part of me that thinks if I weren’t I would implode from all the little improprieties that surround my life.

There is one area for which I am not tolerant though, and that is intolerance. That’s right. I can’t tolerate intolerance. Perhaps what bothers me so much about this is that there is just so much of it out there. We like to think that we are all broad-minded people, happily living our politically correct lives, forgoing our Christmases and Christmas trees for the more generic Holidays and Holiday trees but you know, the older I get the more I see that most of this is just chimera. We behave the way we do because that is how we’re supposed to, and we can feel proud of ourselves for doing it. We’re paying lip service to propriety.

The problem as I see it is that we aren’t tolerant of one another’s differences. Not really. We live our lives in our own comfortable circles, following beliefs we are taught to accept as the right ones and we feel virtuous for doing so. Where I have a problem I guess is that I have not in my 47 years, ever been able to put a finger on what exactly is the “right” one for anything.

Take religion, for instance. Please. I put this number one on my list because it befuddles me that we have all these organized and quasi-organized entities running around telling us that their way is the right way to believe. With hushed tones and deepened voices they will tell you, “It’s how God wants it to be”.

So here’s the thing: which God are we talking about? The Protestant God? The Catholic God? The Muslim God? The Jewish God? The Buddhist God? How about one of the Hindu ones? And if you chose any one of those, you also have to navigate down to the various sub groups, like Baptists and Sikhs, for example. Every one of those religions has good aspects and some not so good ones, and determining that all depends on your perspective. The sad thing is that if you look – and I mean really look – at all of them they do have some things in common. You just have to get past the rhetoric to find it. Things like honouring your mother and father. Being selfless. Loving your fellow man. Caring for those less fortunate. All very nice things.

But to me, it means nothing if you feel virtuous donating to feed the poor all the while you’re voting against increasing the minimum wage because you’re worried it’ll up your taxes. Nor do I see that sanctioning the murder of doctors who perform abortions (but they murder unborn babies!) as very loving or compassionate. Especially if the law is that abortion is allowed.

We are told that love between partners should be sanctioned by marriage, and yet those of us who are biologically programmed differently aren’t allowed that sanction, in fact they are excommunicated or worse, murdered all in the name of faith. It’s one thing to be told to be honest, quite another to vilify people who are honest about themselves. If we are all made in God’s image, then what are the so-called deviants made from?

Charity begins at home it is said. But to me, sadly, that charity often extends only to those whose home is the same as yours. If their culture or colour or language or sexual orientation is different, well then all bets are off. It only extends so far as when they believe the same thing you do. And that’s a rather myopic way of looking at this very varied world wouldn’t you say?

Some years ago I took the train from Ottawa to Vancouver. I was 21, all by myself, proud of my independence and simply loving all the different people I encountered. I sat for a while beside a man who came from Scotland. He was disgusted with the many hours of trees and lakes and rocks we passed. He was bored silly, and couldn’t understand why we didn’t want towns to be interspersed with the odd cow and farm and then back to civilization. I explained to him that we are here because this is exactly how we like it – all this empty meant an awful lot to us. If it didn’t we’d be in Scotland too.

Later on in the Prairies I was joined by a teenaged girl who was happily looking forward to being a veterinarian for farm animals. She was enthralled that I came from Ottawa – that big city – and even more so that I was of such an exotic extraction as being Irish. She’d never met anyone Irish before. They were all Polish and Ukrainian. I told her that where I come from, that’s a bit exotic, Irish people were everywhere. Then she asked what I thought about a teacher from her province who was being fired and charged with hate for teaching that the Holocaust didn’t exist. She wasn’t sure it was such a bad thing, but I told her a lot of that ambilivance comes simply from not knowing Jewish people and their culture. Imagine, I said, if you were a Polish person surrounded by the Irish and we decided that your history was wrong even though you knew people who had lost family to this, and that you were less than something because of the virtue of the family you were born into? Would that be right? A little light bulb went off in her mind and she thanked me for helping her understand. A little understanding goes a long way.

Sometimes I think we are suffering from the problem that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Recently I was at a dinner where “those knives that those Muslim people wear” came up. I held my tongue, having known a few of these very foreign people – but I did tell them that knife was called a kirpan. What I didn’t tell them is that it is only the Sikhs, not all Muslims who wear these and there are specific reasons why they do. Perhaps I should have said that they are forbidden to draw those knives but I didn’t want to start a war at the table. They had a new word for their vocabulary but I’m a little disappointed with myself for not explaining the little that I know about the subject. I just wasn’t sure it would have made any difference at all in their opinions, as fixed as they appeared to be.

It all comes down to one’s perspective of things. In general people want answers, they want the simple way and if it means parking logical thinking or one’s emotions to follow those rules, so be it. It’s far easier to say, ban smoking from public places and throw insults at smokers than it is to realize that this is a strong addiction to a substance that is legal to procure and use. I smoked a lot when I was going through my marriage breakup, and to the people who clucked clucked as they passed by me outside, or said disparaging comments I often wondered what the reaction would be if they were to switch “you xyzing smoker” with “coloured person”. How acceptable would it be then? Not very much I would say. As much as I wanted to point that out I didn’t because my heart was breaking, I was under a lot of stress and I was self-medicating the only legal way I could and still function. But I’m saying it now: be careful of publicly approved insults. This is just another form of discrimination.

Discrimination happens in all sorts of ways, and the hardest to stomach for me is the ones against physical disabilities. There are those who will berate people who park in handicapped spots who aren’t in wheelchairs that never know that there are some who are entitled to them; perhaps they have a heart condition and can’t walk far. I have a child who was diagnosed with a disorder and I was thrown into the world of the invisible disability a few years ago. I have had people shout insults at me when my young child was having a meltdown in public. I had a lady chase after me with a box of crackers insisting I was starving my baby, couldn’t I see? Actually he had just eaten and was disturbed by the lights and the crowds in the store. But I was a bad mother, not a mother desperately trying to cope and managing the best I knew how. I have had the police called on me for middle of the night meltdowns (the night was storming him and the windows were open because it was hot). I have been told I need to discipline him better, that one child could go to a birthday and but not the other because he was just “too much” – and an aside here, one of the reasons I dearly love my daughter is because she had the courage at a very young age to tell that lady that if he can’t come she wasn’t either. We have been thrown out of McDonald’s, harassed at Wendy’s, and all because something is different and I tried as best I could for us to be normal.

I used to say to my friends that I don’t know what normal is. You know what? I still don’t. Six year olds who still couldn’t sleep through the night to me was normal. Being a single mother and abandoned by friends and some other people who I thought would be supportive when I left a hurtful situation was normal. Trying to find love and be whole and creative and publish my writings without a degree was normal. “Living in sin” for me is normal, because it is legal and I choose to live that way. Divorce is a long and painful process, expensive and wearing and I choose not to put myself in the possibility of that situation again. Some would argue I should have held the marriage together for the children, but to me raising a child in an unhappy home is not normal, or fair.

Life isn’t fair. If there’s anything I’ve learned and truly believe it’s that there is no black and white, only myriad shades of grey. Laws are made based on votes of elected officials and these elected officials are supposedly representing the majority of our society. For the most part, it works. I would hate to live in a society where we are dictated as to how we should feel or think or believe. There is a little of that here, no doubt about it, but I am grateful to live where I do where there are so many differing opinions and cultures and beliefs. I can choose to agree or disagree. I can be confident that most likely the law will err on the side of compassion, and I like that. It doesn’t mean I’d ever have an abortion because for me that decision would haunt me forever, but I would never deny a person the right to choose that option under the law, and I would never vote for a law that denied a woman that medical procedure. I will not be the person screaming at a stranger to stop doing what they’re doing if it is their right to do it. I’ve been on the other side of that voice and I can tell you honestly it hurts like hell and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

We all have a right to our beliefs and opinions and that’s good. It’s just sometimes people don’t see the hypocrisy in what we do. There are bumper stickers that people put on their cars these days that drive me crazy. They read: If you don’t support our troops, feel free to stand in front of them. Now I’m all for supporting the troops’ efforts, but how is threatening people to support them or they’ll use their weapons on you something that will make me want to support them? Isn’t that kind of behaviour what we’re over there fighting against?

There is too much fighting in this world. On the grand scale, in our tiny lives. If we just step outside of our own view of things, just for a moment and try to feel things from the opposite end, well, I guess you’ll be just as messed up about life as I am.

And I’d be very happy if you were.

© Catherine M. Harris, June 2009.