Language as an Invention: Tolerance
A few evenings ago when responding to someone on twitter, I posed the question: “isn’t it passed your bedtime?” and I was called out on my error.
It was an error. However, it got me thinking about language and how the slightest mistake can totally change your purpose. Language-as-invention permits “passed my bedtime” if my purpose is to provide imagery of time-personification. This brings me to one of my greatest frustrations–follow me on this train of thought if you will–if language is an invention and we are reinventing it constantly, why does certain language trigger a degree of complacency that ultimately results in resistance to inclusion? The answer seems to be that there is more to our language than the words that escape our lips. Language hails concepts that we develop a sense of ownership over–concepts that we are reluctant to forfeit.
One of the clearer examples is that of inclusion regarding religion-affiliated holiday celebrations as they are marketed to a diverse population. The reluctance of a single party to forfeit the word “Christmas”, for example, and adopt the more inclusive “Holiday”, does more to marginalize those who are unable to relate than it does to be inclusive of those who do. I approached this issue with my student staff with the following perspective: we are responsible for community development in a complex of 800 residents of incredibly diverse backgrounds. If we are not being inclusive of all 800 of our residents, then we are marginalizing someone and, as leaders, that is entirely unacceptable. I digress.
Back to the issue concept-hailing language, I can go on about phrases such as “that’s so gay” or “you’re retarded”, or “man up”, but the concept that I would like to engage some rhetoric on is the term “tolerance”. Tolerance is a word that is thrown around in elementary school classrooms and university mission statements quite frequently, but what exactly does it mean? Do we believe that tolerance should really be a goal outlined in a university’s diversity statement? I strongly believe that although once upon a time tolerance was a goal, it evolved into a concept that was accepted as neither “good” nor “bad”, and ultimately evolved into something that we shouldn’t be striving for as an end-result. Tolerance, the word in itself, signifies a degree of superiority. Think about it, “I am tolerant of other cultures”–doesn’t that convey a culturally elitist message? Someone once argued with me that “tolerance” is a good “first step”, but I argue: a first step towards what? Sure, it’s a step away from hate, but does that automatically make it a step towards social action? Is it more like a sidestep towards detachment and apathy? Is someone who is merely tolerant likely to take that leap towards positive social action or is tolerance a mechanism that does more to prevent social justice rather than encourage it? Thoughts?