I have been distressed this past week by the efforts of the governing party in Quebec to pass its Charter of Quebec Values, essentially banning all expressions of religious expression from public life. For those of you who have not followed this story – if passed, employees of public institutions will be forbidden from wearing anything but the smallest of religious symbols to work. In other words, hijabs, turbans, kippas – all will be banned. From the government’s perspective, they are protecting Quebec’s cultural values of secularism. From the perspective of those opposed, at best, the government is promoting intolerance; at worst such legislated action can lay the foundation for increased hatred, bullying and other acts of violence.
What does it mean to be a tolerant society? Intolerance and conflict after all are so very closely linked. It is true that some of the conflicts we encounter are over real and tangible issues. One could even argue that the debate in Quebec is over a real and tangible issue: What does it mean to be identified as Quebecois? Under such a real and tangible issue, however, often lies a more hidden and potentially sinister root. We just don’t like or tolerate those who differ from us. Or even worse, we gain unity by mutually excluding another. I am reminded that the holocaust was made possible in part because of years and years of sanctioned exclusion and intolerance.
Lest we feel comforted that we are not Quebec, let us consider how this underlying intolerance might find expression in our own lives. Perhaps we cannot accept this other person because their personality is too odd or too strange or too loud or too quiet. Or we cannot accept this other person because they belong to a group of which we are suspicious. Or we cannot accept this other because in some way, we are threatened by their very existence. When we are intolerant of differences we run the very serious risk of not only dehumanizing the other, we ourselves are dehumanized.
As I write this, I am hearing echoes in my mind of people I know who have struggled with abusive or unkind colleagues yet they have been told that they must tolerate these very colleagues because the issue is simply that their personalities differ from one another. In other words, the people have been accused of intolerance. Acceptance of differences does not mean acceptance of abuse. In contexts of abuse or dysfunction, we may need to enhance our boundaries absolutely. Acceptance of differences, however, does mean being open to crossing the divide that separates all of us, to seeing all people of all walks of life as being on this journey together. Acceptance of differences asks us to curiously, respectfully and even lovingly grant one another unconditional positive regard.