Letter from South America

Tolerance = a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, beliefs, practices, racial or ethnic origins, etc., differ from one’s own; freedom from bigotry. … a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward opinions, beliefs, and practices that differ from one’s own.

Dear Bob,
 
I am always dealing with students being unkind to each other, and it always puzzles me why we can be so inhuman. I know sometimes it is difficult to accept differences.  But it in the end we have to accept them if we want to live in peace. The problem is how we go about doing that. I find teenagers to be especially severe with their judgments of others. I have a student, Sam, cute and smart 13 year old but brutal with a teacher who appears to be homosexual. He is equally bad with a classmate whose skin color and thinness are the objects of his derision. Sam shows no respect. Another example is my student Val who considers homosexuality the ultimate state of debauchery.
 
Being overweight or the opposite, being quiet, being homosexual, having some disability or whatever difference from the majority, can be hell in school. I am a teacher and I hear the students’ stories in my class all the time. This is because my class is very small and they feel at ease saying all these things in front of me.
 
So is this intolerance due to our evolutionary make up? Are we programmed to reject difference? Do we want to see a mirror not something unknown? Different means threat? Or are these phobias all fed into the kid’s mind by parents, friends, religion or simply a natural reaction? As a teacher, I wonder what I can do to help. Last week I asked Sam if he thought he could have a best friend who was black. He replied that obviously he could. It is not that he hates the difference; it is that he finds the special feature of his classmate a good chance to tease and he feels good when he bugs this kid.  I don’t want to get angry (as I find this behavior so obnoxious and repellent) but I want to stay positive and do something that gives them insight. I don’t pretend that we like every person around us, but only that we accept and don’t feel the need to tease, humiliate, annihilate.
 
I would like Sam to feel what the other kid does when he is being teased and called names. I guess this is possible through a play or movie. Something that makes him feel the pain of rejection. That pain he feels through the story could be that pain of his classmate. Perhaps the best way to get rid of this impulse to tease is to travel and see people all over the world, so you find differences natural. I think this is what Natalia Ponce de Leon experienced in New York. Natalia Ponce de Leon was the victim of an attack with acid that left her face badly burnt and deformed. She has undergone many plastic surgeries. She became famous because she went to congress with an initiative asking for severe punishment for perpetrators and ordering the health system to cover all expenses of reconstructive surgeries for the victims (the surgeries were considered non-essential treatment before). She won and is not afraid to appear in public. But she says that just before she decided to appear on TV for the first time after the attack, she visited New York by herself. That it was liberating. No one stared. No one laughed. No one teased. She took the subway, she walked around Manhattan, she entered restaurants, museums, and shops and she felt it was no different from when she had her old face.  New York is liberating because one is among diversity. We need diversity to understand diversity, I suppose.
 
We are cruel to that one who is different from most. But surely, being different could be a way to get stronger too (“A Boy Named Sue” comes to mind J ). So many people look for a way to be different so they can find identity. Did you hear about 10 year-old Joe Maldonado? He is the first transgender kid to join the Boy Scouts in the US. He was expelled when the institution found out he was transgender but a court ordered the Scouts to accept him again. He is amazingly strong and understands why his friends would tease him at first – he says friends were just ignorant.
 
Tattoos, dyed hair, piercings are just ways to look different, and doing these things to your body has the risk of rejection and bullying. Difference is richness; I know that. And I know everyone would acknowledge that a world of infinite colors is better than a black and white one. How can we live and teach others to live a life that truly honors that true statement? I am just not sure how to handle this problem with my students, or with anybody for that matter.  
 
Laura.

9 thoughts on “Letter from South America

  1. Thanks for this important letter. You ask some important questions! So is this intolerance due to our evolutionary make up? Are we programmed to reject difference? Do we want to see a mirror not something unknown? Different means threat? Or are these phobias all fed into the kid’s mind by parents, friends, religion or simply a natural reaction? As a teacher, I wonder what I can do to help.
    1. Yes, but it can be overridden.
    2. Yes, but “.
    3. same
    4. same
    5. All of the above.

    What to do? Step one think and question as you are doing (your kids are in good hands!). Find some TED talks on tolerance – watch appropriate ones with the kids.
    Write a short play for the kids to perform.
    Let us know what works!

    Thanks, Laura!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “I have a student, Sam, cute and smart 13 year old but brutal with a teacher who appears to be homosexual. He is equally bad with a classmate whose skin color and thinness are the objects of his derision. Sam shows no respect. Another example is my student Val who considers homosexuality the ultimate state of debauchery.”

    What you are describing is fear. These students are at an age where they see the world beyond those who have protected them, their family and relations. It occurs to them that the world is dangerous and something bad may happen to them. That life is not a game where, if you win you get points, and if you lose you can start a new game. They are afraid to acknowledge they are vulnerable. Attacking others who are different gives them a fleeting feeling of importance in a world that does not need them, and will carry on regardless of whether they survive or not. They are coming to terms with their place in this world and are not yet ready to deal with mortality.

    This is also a world that worships power over life, for the same reasons. I remember my own cruelty and judgements even while I believed I was insignificant and my thoughts and words did not matter to anyone. Kindness brings us back into the family of life and some of this can be found in poetry which refers to the human condition. Mary Oliver – Wild Geese, Walt Whitman, Margaret Atwood, Wendell Berry.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Difference is richness; I know that. And I know everyone would acknowledge that a world of infinite colors is better than a black and white one. How can we live and teach others to live a life that truly honors that true statement? I am just not sure how to handle this problem with my students, or with anybody for that matter.

    Your honesty is a good foundation from which to start. I like the idea of writing a play to perform in class. Kids just need that “aha” moment to see that they are both different and the same. We don’t all dress the same. So what? We don’t all believe in god or gods. So what? We don’t all have the same skills. That seems like a good thing!

    You might want to try showing some Dr. Seuss videos in class. Our kids always responded to these stories. For example, One Fish . . .and others.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you all for your comments. I find especially useful to understand how kids want to feel important, smart and powerful. I love to offer them my attention and try to have honest conversation about what they do. Thanks for all your suggestions! I have work to do to promote tolerance.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. In the post on CR referred to above Alexandra writes, “When I think of ‘Cultural Relativism’, I always go to the place of female circumcision; this is what I think of right away!

    I can not even begin to be tolerant..philosphical..accepting..I immediately go to the place of…el stupido!”

    That does seem to me to bring the discussion of tolerance to a new level. Yes, we should be tolerant. But, tolerant of what? Muder? Honour killing? Female circumcision?

    Perhaps tolerance, like sincerity, is a second class virtue. For example, in a claim like “One should be tolerant of ___________” it is what is in the blank that matters.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Tolerance has its limits. We do not permit people to drive on sidewalks, run red lights, or drive on the wrong side of the street. Neither do we permit breaking and entering or the violation of legitimate property rights. We also restrict unaccompanied minors from certain establishments. In effect, every just law enshrines some limit to tolerance.

    Conservatives and liberals debate what limits the law should enshrine, but both sides want civil law to set some limits. Even libertarians, while wanting less law in general, see a role for some laws and limits; they are not anarchists. In his play Saint Joan, George Bernard Shaw wrote, “We may prate of toleration as we will; but society must always draw a line somewhere between allowable conduct and insanity or crime.”

    Read another philosopher’s post here.

    Like

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