article: On Intolerance

This country is the envy of the world. It has achieved virtually the highest living standards of any land. Though the distinction between standard of living and quality of life is valid, I would argue that on the whole the impact of technology has been positive. Undeniably industrialization, unsustainable development, or the opportunities for misinformation in the media pose tremendous challenge. Yet by and large the peoples of the third world are attracted to the opulence and comforts of modern civilization, and their aspirations are probably not misguided.

One might conclude from this, as indeed some seem to, that one can afford to be contemptuous and dismissive of immigrants and outsiders. But that reasoning is fatefully mistaken. To explain what I mean, let me describe a scene I once witnessed in Pullman, Washington. I consider it typical. A work crew near my home included an Oriental who had a foreign accent. This fellow tried all manner of conversational gambits, talking almost incessantly, without being acknowledged by as much as a single word in response. The rest of the crew kept a deadly silence, which was nevertheless broken at a given point by one of them asking another–not the Oriental, of course–for some missing tool. This request, commonplace in surface content, in fact packed volumes of innuendo: it was meant to sound as a cry for help from a party that have been violated by the presence of an intruder. I thought that the ostracized person, who was apparently trying desperately to be one of the guys, might just crack eventually, thereby becoming actually a burden to society. And just whom would that benefit?

Intolerance is widespread in the world, and at this stage in history it acts as an obstacle to progress. Groups preoccupied with ethnic and religious hatred get bogged down and cease to advance.

The mentality I describe has particular relevance to the area where the incident I depicted above took place. Even apart from ethnicity, clannishness and misguided local pride can assume unusual proportions there. People will declare that while their own community is composed of upright citizens, the next town is inhabited by a bunch of lawbreakers. I have often wondered, “Do they really think that?”

Not likely. It must be a kind of make-believe; they must get something out of being intentionally unfair. But, as Kant’s maxim puts it, what you cannot universalize won’t work in the long run. A concrete example: if everyone was a liar, society would break down, because no one could be trusted. The dictum has a special message for our time. For thousands of years, exploitation and brute force ruled this planet; their grip was enduring. But science has accelerated change, and the spread of knowledge is teaching people everywhere to resist inequitable treatment.

The finest traditions of the United States have made it a beacon of freedom and equality; it was indeed born of that spirit and at crucial moments has acted upon it with a generosity unparalleled by any other nation. Let us be faithful to that legacy.

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