Thursday, June 15, 2006

Pointless Essay #Q: Tolerance

The library of the large state university in Ohio where I work had a staff appreciation lunch on the big lawn today. I had the opportunity to sit with two ladies from the Slavic and Cyrillic library, and we talked about our jobs. I learned that the two ladies are from very different backgrounds. One is Bosnian and the other is Croatian. That might not mean much here in America, but in Eastern Europe that’s like saying one is Sunni and the other is Shiite, or one is Capulet and the other a Montegue.

One is a Hatfield and the other a McCoy.

Due to the nature of their collection, they often have guests from Eastern Europe over to visit. They will stay in the city of the large state university in Ohio where I work and spend their days pouring over the vast collection of ancient literature and whatnot. The ladies told me that their personal heritage can sometimes come into play.

“We have to warn people that I am from Serbia and she is from Croatia,” one lady said, “because sometimes they make inappropriate and disparaging comments about one race or the other if they don’t know. It might not sound right to us here in the States, but that’s just how they do things over there.”

We went on to talk about the geographical landscape of Eastern Europe and how, in order to retain their history, culture, and heritage, many groups also retained the social prejudices that went along with it. Otherwise, they argued, this heritage would be lost forever. ”It’s unfortunate,” they said, “but that’s the world they live in.”

After this happy conversation, they asked me what I did. I told them that I sat around all day, watching movies on my computer and posting to my blog and they smiled, saying that it sounded interesting. (actually, I told them what I did and they were immediately bored beyond belief; which is ironic, considering they deal with ancient Slavic tax records all day). They asked if this was my first experience working in a library and I said that I had worked as a Circulation manager at the highly esteemed University of Cincinnati Medical School library (you can’t spell SUCKS with out UC!), and that this was the city in which I was raised.

“Cincinnati’s a weird town,” one of them told me. “I’ve never understood it. Everybody there is so f**king conservative. I hate it.”

“Yes,” the other lady said, “What’s the deal with you people?”

Now I understood that they were joking, but I still found it mildly ironic that these ladies, who had spent a great deal of time discussing the great pains to they take in order to avoid offending people with Slavic backgrounds, would so easily speak about Cincinnatians and conservatives in such broad, derisive, and stereotypical terms, especially when you consider that they had never met me and knew nothing about me.

I told them that Cincinnati was a lot like Eastern Europe when it comes to tolerance and diversity and the acceptance of outside cultures. Due to its geographical landscape of surrounding hills, the city developed through small valley towns in between the hills which, for many years, remained isolated from the others with only a few rare exceptions. As the city grew and the towns expanded, the small pockets of civilization had to choose whether to give up their individuality and welcome outsiders or remain as they were. Many of the small towns refused to accept outsiders, which is why many people who move into the city from other locations can still feel like outsiders even after living their for over a decade. It is also why the city feels like it is stuck in the ‘70s, and has slowly begun a cultural descent that is eaten on one side by the aging population of those who were here in its heyday and on the other, the rampant flashy, suburbanized, tract housing blandness that threatens to destroy most cities across America.

I went on to say that, while the county is excessively conservative, the city is actually quite liberal. There is a vibrant arts and music scene, there are major sports teams with rich histories, and there are two major universities that contribute to the global community of science, art, architecture, and literature. The majority of Cincinnati’s politicians are democrats, and nearly every mayor in the city’s history has been rabidly liberal. This is the city that spawned Jerry Springer, remember.

“Well they need to stop being so damn conservative and just get with the times,” the ladies said, and we moved on to discuss other things.

I was surprised, though, that these women, who were open to other cultures outside the American landscape, would be close-minded when it came to domestic differences. This is, I think, a problem with the way we view society here in America. Have you noticed that both sides of the political spectrum make it a habit of accusing the other of close-mindedness? It’s almost to the point that this has become the defining characteristic of “those with whom we disagree,” and this is likely a large part of why so many people on either side of the equation refuse to discuss issues with people who challenge them.

This is a gross misconception about society as a whole. Most of us work with people who think differently. Pro choice people work hand in hand with pro life people. Homosexuals and conservative Christians shop in the same supermarkets. Democrats and Republicans sit next to each other at company picnics, eat the same food, drink the same beer, and often laugh at the same jokes. We are not as different as the popular beliefs make us out to be.

So how do we define cultural diversity and tolerance? Does tolerance mean that we should accept differing opinions as equally correct, even if those opinions exist in diametric opposition? Does it mean that we should recognize our differences and merely learn to co-exist? Or does it mean we should recognize people’s right to be wrong about stuff, realize that many of our deeply held beliefs and convictions are likely just as wrong, and commit to learning from other people through community?

I’ve always believed it’s the third one. While it is the most difficult, it can also be the most rewarding. It means that some of us conservative Christians can learn a thing or two about standing up to opposition (like Christ did) through the struggles faced by many in the homosexual community, many at the hands of our brethren. It means that socialists and free market capitalists can finally come together and realize that where one idea is weak, the other is strong, and that an economic ideal likely exists with both ends of the spectrum working in concert. It means Eastern Europeans realizing that historical mistakes really do repeat themselves if we fail to learn from them, and that the correct response to this repetition is not to sit back and call those involved close-minded, but rather to actively work towards quelling those mistakes before they get started.

And it means that fat, bald, white guys from Cincinnati should realize that this is a difficult thing for Eastern Europeans to do. Or anyone else for that matter.

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