Fear of the other has always marked human society. In response to this I frequently hear calls for us to be “tolerant” of those who are different. I don’t think tolerance is capable of overcoming fear. To tolerate something suggests that it is distasteful, that I’ll keep myself as far removed from it is possible but put up with it for the sake of maintaining some greater good. What we need is not more toleration but understanding.
In year 11 I attended a sport and rec camp with other students from my school, Sylvania High. Also attending were students from year 11 at Mount Druitt High Schoo. My image of Mount Druitt high was shaped by the white, Anglo mythologies that abounded in the Sutherland Shire, confirmed by TV news reports just some weeks before camp that showed rioting at Mount Druitt, and fuelled by my reading of The Cross And The Switchblade, David Wilkerson’s account of gang life in the United States. It wasn’t hard to imagine the students from Mount Druitt as a potentially dangerous “other”. I got to camp and discovered that they weren’t a bunch of gang members with flick knives ready to assault me at the slightest provocation. There were just a bunch of teenagers like me.
I see this pattern repeated over and over. The person who is afraid of refugees has a refugee move in next door and all of a sudden discovers they’re fears were misplaced. The person who insists Moslems will never integrate into Australian society, then has Muslims move into their neighbourhood and gets to know them because their kids attend the same school. Instead of fearing the stereotypes they discover that their Muslim friends are generous, kind, and that their faith embodies admirable values.
This is what I mean by understanding. Understanding comes when we engage with the other, when we share meals, tell stories, and open our hearts. Understanding collapses the distance between me and the “other” and turns them from an object of suspicion or fear into a friend. Understanding is built on the backbone of relationship, that interpersonal dynamic that binds us to the other and allows us to see the differences between us not as a threat but as something to be celebrated.
Toleration can’t do any of this and it won’t build a cohesive and harmonious society because fear will always triumph over it. But in understanding built on relationship fear strikes a much more resilient opponent. This is why don’t want to live in a tolerant society. Give me a society built on mutual understanding.