Being Tolerant of Intolerance

That was the topic of a conversation after Quaker silent worship yesterday. A small group of us stayed to chat. The topic of intolerance came up. We wondered together how do we respond to intolerance without becoming intolerant and aggressive ourselves? How do we stay true to our values of peace and non-violence?

Our consensus was that it is important not to meet intolerance with intolerance. But we were uncertain about how to share our values when confronted with intolerant attitudes, speech and behavior. I’m sure we all left continuing to ponder this increasingly important subject in our country.

Then an amazing thing happened. We were with Scott’s father in the emergency room of the Veteran’s Hospital. He is 92 and was not feeling well after a trip to see his twin sister in California. I was sitting in the waiting room while Scott was with Jim in an examining room.

There were two men behind a glass partition in the lobby behind me. One of them had helped us when we entered. I was sitting behind a partial wall with my back to them, reading. I had noticed they were two large men who seemed to double as greeters and security guards.

One of the men began a long, angry diatribe about children’s exposure to homosexuality in the schools. He must have been reading an opinion piece from the local paper, because he kept quoting passages from it. I gathered a video had been shown to local schoolchildren depicting homosexuality as a lifestyle choice, and the writer of the opinion piece objected to this. This man was also outraged, though he had no children, because his taxpayer money was paying for this atrocity.

Occasionally, through the diatribe, I heard the other man’s soft voice interject content into the conversation. Sadly, I couldn’t make out his words because of his soft voice and my distance from the conversation and the glass partition. (Which tells you something about the volume of the other speaker’s voice.) The angry man seemed to take in the calm man’s comments/questions and then launch into another phase of his attack.

I’m not sure how the topic changed, but he began to rant about Pearl Harbor, the Japanese and the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The general gist of his point was that we needed enough nuclear weapons to destroy as many of an enemy as we could, because that is what ends wars. Again, I heard a calm, soft response to this. Then, the angry man accused the calm man of being a liberal and a Nazi. He made some accusation about him being from Columbia, so not a “real” American. I remember raising my eyebrows. I wondered how he was going to respond to this.

I so wish I could have heard it. But again, it was calm. Suddenly, the angry man switched tactics and softened. He began talking about his 4th of July plans and asking the calm man about his. If you hadn’t heard what had come before, you would think they were two congenial co-workers. The angry man announced he was headed home and came out from behind the glass partition, heading towards the door. He paused and bantered some more, then wished his colleague a Happy 4th of July before leaving.

I sat there and soaked all this in and I thought, “Now that is Spirit giving you a real life demonstration to your question from earlier today!” I became curious about this calm man. Who was he? How did he learn to respond in this way to intolerance?

Later, when it was decided that Scott’s father would be staying the night in the hospital, I got the opportunity to see him in action. He was the one who handled the admission. It was quick, maybe 10 minutes. During this time, the gentle giant quipped and made jokes with my recalcitrant father-in-law, softening and cajoling him. I watched Jim grin in spite of himself. The man was probably in his mid to late 50’s and had a slight, Spanish accent. He must have been in the U.S. most of his life. His badge said he was a veteran.

3 thoughts on “Being Tolerant of Intolerance

  1. Marlene Williamson

    An excellent example of how a calm, tolerant response to bombastic intolerance does work. There is plenty of intolerance on both sides of the fence and it’s so self-defeating. I applaud the man who calmed the loud man down. I’ve found that it does no good to argue with someone’s opinion when it differs from mine. I know I’m not going to change the other person’s mind……, it’s wasted energy. Positivity, not negativity……..calmness, not histrionics, are always better choices.

    1. Bruce

      Awesome story Rhonda, thanks for sharing! A good example on how to deal with intolerance, because it’s so easy to do the angry response. Sadly I think it’s how we’re wired. But this is an example of how we can overcome our wiring.

      1. Rhonda Ashurst Post author

        Thanks for these great comments! Yes, we can overcome our natural tendency to be defensive and intolerant in response to intolerance. We can build bridges instead of burning them, choosing the path of positivity and calm, centeredness.

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