The other day, during a meeting among student facilitators for a class I’m taking, we exchanged tips and concerns about preparing to facilitate this week’s section discussion about gender and sexuality. We’ve already noticed a trend among our students — especially the female students — that they don’t strongly identify with their gender in a sociological context. Many have said they don’t think gender is significant anymore as an identifier. Some have said any oppression women do face — insofar as they are, by default, sexual objects in a dominantly male society — isn’t really so bad. In fact, they think it’s kind of flattering.
Our roles as facilitators don’t authorize us to actively inform the opinions and perceptions of our students. Even though many of us have had more experience working through topics in sociology, we’re peers without classroom hierarchy. Our conversations are often rooted in worldviews and self-concepts, not the more objective stuff of number games and textual analysis. So, in the event of a seriously off-putting comment and in practice of tolerance, maybe we should bite our tongues and move on?
While walking through the Diag this week, I saw the obscene affront to the University that was the larger-than-life exhibit displaying several photos of mutilated fetuses and genocide victims, brought to campus by organization Students for Life. I then saw the handfuls of students surrounding the display and engaging in what looked like verbal hair pulling with the anti-abortion protesters. Those students, it seemed, simply couldn’t pass by such an aggressively offensive and absurd scene without addressing the people responsible.
I overheard two Students for Life members remarking on the fact that pro-choice supporters didn’t want to see the truth, which is why they were unwilling to look at the disturbing photos. Those students, it seemed, simply couldn’t accept that so many people were unwilling to understand abortion as they understood it. So they forced the images of abortion, as they see it, onto the University community — whether we liked it or not.
The dynamic between the anti-abortion protesters and the students passing by wasn’t so different from the Diag preachers’ regular routine of religious proselytizing, which is always met with students’ counter-arguments and, often times, ridicule. The man screams and holds signs condemning University students to hell; the University students laugh and diagnose insanity. Because of our collectively prized right to free speech, we’ve adapted to a campus in which people say and do things we think are ridiculous, and we either respond with anger and ridicule, or we remind ourselves to be tolerant.
But I wonder if tolerance should really be so valued. If I were to simply tolerate the opinion of a classmate, I’d be deeming her incapable of thinking deeply about her beliefs when pressed. If I were to tolerate the antics of the anti-abortion protesters, it would be inherently condescending in that I’d regard their behavior as so far out of the realm of what’s reasonable that I couldn’t even bring myself to engage. And when I pass the Diag religious fanatic, I dismiss him with my tolerance.
I’m not advocating for intolerance either, as it’s the flip side of a duly unimpressive coin. I found the anti-abortion protesters to exemplify the worst of intolerance. Their complete intolerance of the opposition prompted them to visually assault and offend hundreds of people during their two-day exhibit. They revealed a total lack of respect for the minds of pro-choice supporters and an unwillingness to engage in productive conversation that might have clarified their understanding of the truth. Instead, they employed as much force as they could muster to effectively punch all of us in the face.
I think that if we made an effort to treat others with respect rather than to meet their words with tolerance, we’d achieve a much greater understanding of one another and ourselves. A friend of mine, who is (in my opinion) among the most determined and effective pro-life leaders of our generation, understands the world in a fundamentally different way than I. But because she respects me, enough to talk to me, rather than to tolerate me, I actually believe that it’s possible for all of us to live without the dissonance caused by plugged ears and shouting mouths. I guess we might call the alternative harmony.
Libby Ashton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.