News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

The paradox of tolerance

In the world of mental health, we contend with the abstract intersections of nature versus nurture and what behaviors we have agency over versus those we may not.

The role of accountability can be hard to define.

How do we define who should “know better,” versus who should be excused? When the layers of trauma and struggle are excavated, and the context of a person’s defenses brought to the surface, bad behavior can be interpreted as remnants of survival.

Where, then, does tolerance end and accountability begin? In our increasingly politically correct world, tolerance is seen as a popularized moral directive and yet, with the undercurrents of division in our society, intolerance of whole groups of people has become commonplace.

Accountability must have a launch pad. What constitutes this launching pad of morality is forever evolving. In a democracy, discerning and defining a reasonable constitution of overarching morality, policy, and law demands dialogue, careful judgment, and rational arguments. Unfortunately, in our current political and social landscape, constructive dialogue is lacking and the act of “reaching across” is infrequent.

We often approach politics with defensiveness as a way to protect ourselves from the “other,” and galvanize those most similar to us.

We can assume in our state of division that those on the other side of the fence are unchangeable, or a lost cause, and forget that mindsets are complex, and often fragile.

We preach a certain version of progress but often do not take the time to listen to those threatened or made uncertain by the progress we hope for.

And in that stagnation and hesitancy, the basis for accountability dies, and the infrastructure of democracy crumbles.

As the collective shies away from shaping the groundwork of accountability, there can be a trickle-down effect from our governments to our communities, to our families, and to ourselves.

In the absence of accountability, there is more room for bad behavior, but even more concerning — apathy.

Apathy and unbridled tolerance are, in many ways, synonymous. Philosopher Karl Popper speaks of the paradox of tolerance: “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”

In other words, by standing too long on the pedestal of tolerance, and not coming together to define a collective basis of reasonable morality and accountability, we risk being overwhelmed by intolerance and roll out the red carpet for extremism and authoritarianism.

Whole communities have fallen victim to this phenomenon. Portland, the City of Roses, historically glorified by its trendy eccentricity, foodie scene, and natural beauty, is buckling under rising homelessness, unprecedented crime, vacant storefronts, and political missteps. Known for its attitude of progressive tolerance, so much citywide upheaval has finally led to collective pressure to better define the boundaries of this so-called tolerance. The idea of “live and let live” can be liberating as long as what we are asked to tolerate does not come at the expense of somebody else’s existence or well-being.

As a mental health professional, the concepts of radical responsibility and accountability are in no way in opposition to grace and understanding. Accountability is not punitive, and, in fact, communicates an investment of care and engagement on a personal, familial, community, and societal level. Promoting accountability promotes growth.

The intersection of tolerance and accountability is inevitably vague and will continue to be such in our non-dual world where the definitions of right and wrong are continually in flux. Therefore, the health of our democracy is worth fighting for. When we can do the hard, but so very necessary, work of debating, dialoguing, and discerning the basis of accountability and boundaries of tolerance in our larger communities, we also benefit from greater clarity and growth on a personal level.

Let’s hope we can stay brave enough to keep coming together, as messy as it might be. In our country, fortified by a democracy emulated throughout the world, this turbulent and sometimes riotous persuasion and dialogue is, after all, our hallmark, our means to progress, and the backbone of our freedom.


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