Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the International Day for Tolerance established by the United Nations. The concept of tolerance is a curious one. If you say you tolerate something, it implies you are not enthusiastic in your support of it. So why would the United Nations pick the word “tolerance”? Why not acceptance or love or some other equally touchy-feely word? Could it be because they are realists, and don’t really believe in a goal in which all people in all nations could someday love or even accept one another? History, and even more specifically recent history, would support this more cynical viewpoint, especially as the backlash from the events in Paris, Beiruit, Iraq, and Syria have led to calls from governors in the United States to close their doors to Syrian refugees.
If you look at the word tolerance in its broader form, however, nuances emerge that perhaps could shed light on the choice of the the word. In mechanical terms, it could be described in regards to the strength/ability of an object to carry a certain weight, or an object made to fit within certain proscribed standards and specifications. Increased accuracy of measurement and quality of instruments leads to improved tolerance. A carpenter would choose a finely tuned saw with a razor-sharp edge to saw a piece of lumber into 2 pieces that would have the finest tolerance, meaning barely any difference between the two edges when placed next to one another. The ability to “meet up” these two pieces which would allow for the best match would be one in which the raw edges have been honed to the point that the pieces can mesh into 1 stronger object.
Words have power, as we all know from playground taunts to criticisms from loved ones. That power comes from the ability to evoke strong emotions. Take the two words “refugee” and “migrant”. Refugee has connotations of seeking sanctuary from harm, while migrants evokes movement for gain. When we look at others, meaning those we consider different from ourselves, the words we use to describe them allows us to either shorten the distance between us and them, or bring them closer. My family and I were refugees from Vietnam and stayed in refugee camps in the Philippines and Guam awaiting acceptance into this country, then became citizens through the naturalization process. Looking back at media reports regarding Vietnamese refugees who fled the war in Vietnam, the word migrant is not used. So why the difference? What is the difference between one group of people fleeing violence, bloodshed, terror and persecution and another? Even the word refugee, however, implies that they are in need, and in fact, they are. But the fact also exists that some of the greatest contributors to this country have been at one time or another refugees.
This video highlights a few of these individuals including Albert Einstein:
Yes, but, what about all the refugees who have performed acts of terrorism, the governors would argue? How do we protect our citizens from carrying out their hidden agendas? Let’s take a look at some of these terrifying refugees, and postulate how much damage they can do to our country. Perhaps by studying them closely, we can figure out what their hidden agenda is. (all images attributed to Swedish photographer and twice-winner of the World Press Photo awards Magnus Wennman, from his photo project Where the Children Sleep).
What happened to this that adorns a symbol of our nation’s compassion?
“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
If we look at the situation in regards to the Syrian refugees, using this broader concept of tolerance, it begins to make more sense. We need the ability to carry the weight of knowledge in order to have an increased tolerance. The increased accuracy of measurement comes with our ability to look closely at the facts as they stand without the clouding that comes from fear, suspicion or anger, measuring them against the standards of truth. The quality of our instruments, the minds and hearts by which make these measured decisions, should also be held to the highest standards and ideals upon which this country was founded. We must polish our rough edges, to the point we can see that there is barely any difference between our two sides. We are human beings on both sides, and if we can increase our tolerance, we can again become the nation that our forefathers envisioned, one in which “the hungry, the poor, and the oppressed” can find sanctuary.
There is no easy solution to this. We are a nation that already has hungry, poor and oppressed within our own borders. I want to feel safe in my own country from terrorist attacks. I’m not advocating for throwing open the doors to potential security threats. I don’t pretend to have answers for the multitude of problems that our world faces. I don’t consider myself a political person, and certainly not one seeking controversy or conflict. But when we as a people can look at small children in need, paint them with the broad brush of fear, and turn away from them, we are not living the ideals of tolerance. Perhaps I am wrong to seek these ideals, but I know no other way of achieving tolerance than to view one another as human beings, remembering that we were all children once. As a mother, I cannot see pictures of suffering children without thinking of my own, and my heart breaks for these helpless innocents.
Today I am grateful to live in a country that I still believe is the greatest country in the world, with all its flaws and complexities inherent to a nation that was based on free will and independent thought. I am thankful I have the freedom to debate, and to question our leadership, and that I was allowed to become a citizen of this great nation. I owe all that I have and am to becoming an American citizen, and hope that I am doing my part every day to be worthy of these blessings.
More history on the Internationl Day for Tolerance: http://www.un.org/en/events/toleranceday/