This generation can bring civility and tolerance back into American society
March 15, 2017 12:00 AM
By Mary Crossley, William Eskridge and Robin Fretwell Wilson
Few would disagree that our political and civil conversation is fracturing. In the era of cable news, we increasingly listen only to the media outlets and political leaders we like; we choose friends who think just like us; we choose neighborhoods with people like us; we divide our states into Red and Blue. As our exposure to “different” shrinks, we appear and sometimes act less tolerant of ideas and persons who are different. This in turn fosters a “for-me-to-win-you-must-lose” attitude in our politics, our conversations and, too often, our interactions with each other.
It’s time to pull back and consider the impact of this fracturing. If we continue siloed political and civil conversation, we risk making the divides between us so great that repair becomes nearly impossible.
As teachers, we see the promise for healing rifts in our students, who pull together even in the most adverse circumstances. Millennials are more accepting of change. They are more politically energized today than any time since the civil rights era. And they have more at stake, standing on the cusp of futures that will shape America.
This generation has the opportunity to take a new trajectory, to bring back tolerance.
On Thursday, the University of Pittsburgh is charting that path: opening a dialogue with students and community members on gay rights, religion and the meaning of tolerance. Must they be at odds, or can we instead provide protections for all?
If our goal is to return tolerance to civil and political dialogue, we have to ask what tolerance means. The basic definition of tolerance is accepting behavior and beliefs different from our own, even ones we might not agree with. An element of tolerance is respect — to see how another’s beliefs on hard, important questions can be as legitimate as our own.
At the 60,000-foot level, tolerance risks being a platitude — who would disagree with its value? The real meaning of tolerance emerges from the context.
Each of us wrestles in our work with thorny questions. How do we treat people with disabilities with respect, dismantling barriers that society erects to full participation? How do we give full membership in society to LGBT people, who have long been discriminated against despite recent gains? How do we respect people of faith and more traditional convictions about marriage, even as the law opens that institution to all families?
These questions are not just theoretical: They are being debated across the country. To forge policy solutions at a time of great division, civil — tolerant— conversation is a must.
Such conversations are occurring in classrooms, which provide a medium for the flourishing of ideas.
Millennials are less wed to any one account of complex questions. Students probe and sometimes reject conventional assumptions, asking: “Is it really true that allowing transgender students to use bathrooms of their choice necessarily invades the privacy of another student?” “Aren’t there stalls?”
To ask these questions is not to disrespect those concerned about their children’s welfare. Quite the contrary. It is to explore whether two things that are both good — respecting trans students and respecting others’ privacy — can peacefully coexist.
Millennials are less likely to buy the caricatured positions given by opposing camps. Is a baker declining to make a cake for a same-sex wedding an act of faith or an act of hate? Our students remind us that faith communities themselves reflect a rich tapestry of views on LGBT rights. Indeed, two of us are Presbyterians, one in a congregation that since the ’90s has publicly adopted a position of full inclusion of LGBT persons in church membership and leadership. Another attends a Bible church that consciously asks what the loving response is to neighbors in need.
Recognizing the rich diversity of faiths need not minimize religious concerns voiced by more traditional faiths. Instead, recognizing America’s changing religious landscape places a premium on being welcoming of religious minorities, whether people of the Muslim faith or believers who suddenly find themselves in the minority.
Rebuilding the practice of tolerance in our country is crucial: It is the foundation of civil society in the United States. Our civil society and the institutions supporting it — our universities, schools, charities, churches, and civil rights and advocacy groups — all exist because of our basic First Amendment rights of speech, press, religion, assembly and the right to petition our government. But they also rest on an edifice of tolerance long practiced in America. Unlike our First Amendment guarantees, tolerance is not guaranteed by our Constitution: It can be corroded, damaged and lost.
More tolerant conversations are the first, and most important, step to more tolerant lives and communities. With real dialogue comes understanding — each side recognizing the other’s legitimate needs and their sometimes very different beliefs.
With any luck, we will leave thinking more like millennials.
Mary Crossley is a law professor and disability and health law scholar at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Law and its former dean; William Eskridge is the John A. Garver Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School and a leading expert on LGBT rights; Robin Fretwell Wilson is the Roger and Stephany Joslin Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law and an expert on religious freedom. They will participate in a panel discussion with two students at 2 p.m. Thursday at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law: “Religion and Gay Marriage: Do They Have to Be at Odds?” Registration is at www.law.pitt.edu/events.
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