I had the honor of sharing a bit of last week’s Tribute post at my grandfather’s funeral service yesterday, and in preparing for those remarks realized that I needed to make a small but significant revision to the final of my three points. In the post I called Arthur “the most tolerant and open-minded” person I had ever met, but the more I thought about it, and connected my thoughts to other ideas and conversations I’ve had kicking around my head for a while now, the more I realized that tolerant is not quite the word I was looking for. As Mark Twain famously noted, the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug, and I believe yesterday I got a good bit closer to the lightning: “Granddad,” I put it, “was the oldest person I knew, and also the most open-minded and accepting.”
The difference between “tolerant” and “accepting,” I would argue, gets very nicely at some of the most significant stakes of my argument for a cross-cultural American experience and identity that connects all Americans. In even the best case of a multicultural narrative and national identity, what we’re hoping for, it seems to me, is in most ways tolerance—an understanding of the wide range of cultures and heritages and identities that have comprised America since its origin points, and thus a tolerance of one another as we continue to coexist here. Yet the problem with tolerance is that it very directly implies that the other person is an “Other” in one way or another, is fundamentally different from me, and thus that what I am trying to accept is precisely that otherness, that difference. No matter how fully or perfectly I achieve such tolerance, though, I will never in this narrative see myself as fundamentally the same as that other person; perhaps I might come to see certain similarities alongside the differences, and perhaps might even embrace someone as a brother or sister as a result (brothers and sisters are not necessarily the same, after all, just related, linked), but nonetheless, there will always be that awareness of difference, and always I would argue a gap between us because of it.
Obviously people in general, and Americans specifically, are indeed different from each other—not only because of different cultural heritages and all that comes with them (languages, customs, beliefs, and much more), but for all sorts of other fundamental reasons too. But if we come to recognize that something—such as a heritage of cross-cultural transformations and the identities that they produce—is shared across all of us, that would be one very key way to imagine relationships based not on tolerance but on acceptance, on two interconnected levels: acceptance of every individual for who he or she is, for every aspect of his or her identity and experience; and, even more communally and critically, acceptance that we are all Americans in this core and defining way, all linked by experiences and heritages that, whatever their specific differences, are fundamentally the same. Those levels might seem contradictory, but I don’t believe that they ultimately are: we can and must recognize that every individual’s identity is unique and specific, and can (as my Granddad most definitely did) strive to accept every person on his or her terms; and in so doing, especially when paired with some communal understandings of what links all of us, we would move very fully toward a national identity in which every individual is equally present and defining, and the communal whole depends on all of us and on our accepted and vital interdependences.
Like Bruce’s oft-repeated (and certainly parallel to these ideas) line, “Remember, in the end, nobody wins unless everybody wins,” this goal is, I am very much aware, an ideal. As with any ideal, and as for that matter with the optimistic and utopian images of hope at the conclusions of the novels on which my next book will focus, that means it would and will be very difficult to achieve, and perhaps even harder to maintain into a communal future. But if we are to become the more perfect union for which we have so long strived, I think that’s a challenge we can, and in fact must, accept. More tomorrow,
PS. No links for this one, but as always your thoughts and perspectives and ideas will be much more than just tolerated, will be fully accepted and much appreciated!
Hey Ben, great post. I was recently enlightened by my wife, who shared her perspective that one of the reason's many White Americans are so anti-government is that they view it as serving "the others" within their own country. The unfortunate side effect of this is that White Americans will actually vote against their own self-interests because they have failed to see how programs like Healthcare Reform are designed to benefit all Americans. I believe that the shift you are talking about, from tolerance to acceptance, would actually create a positive shift in the voting IQ of many Americans as well.ReplyDelete
Thanks very much for the comment! I think Sapna's definitely onto something there, and certainly that there could be very practical and meaningful concurrent shifts along with this perspectival one.
Your blog looks great too, and I'll be reading and commenting more soon I hope. Thanks,