The rise of intolerance and the value of dialogue

Intolerance is the new black and, frankly, we should all be scared regardless of who we are. Living in Maine, many of us have become almost immune to the bombastic rantings of our governor, but the truth is that Paul LePage is a microcosm of something much larger than an intolerant bigot in a predominantly white state who often makes for good laughs across the country.

Bigotry and intolerance have always existed and I suspect that as long as humans roam the earth, there will always be a group of humans who live in silos of intolerance. To be human is to be flawed and for some of us, our chief flaw is the inability to see all humans as equals. Growing numbers of people are clinging to their intolerance and some of those people hold great power. Others aspire to even greater power.

As President Obama’s tenure draws closer to the end, the floodgates of hate have been unleashed in the United States and the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump seems to be capturing just how real intolerance is and how we have all been deluding ourselves with the idea that we were all just getting along fine.

The thing about today’s intolerance that differs from the intolerance of yesterday is that few will name it and call it what it is; instead, intolerance is couched in words that distract from the real issues. At the core though, it is fear that drives today’s intolerance. Fear of the “other,” fear of losing our spaces and places to those who we deem different than us. Fear rooted in supremacy that tells some of us that to accept equality and to share power is to become weak. Fear of losing security in a very impermanent world where the only true guarantee that we have is that our time in this space is time limited.  We seek the permanent in the impermanent, which is a recipe for disaster.

Yet no matter how bleak the future seems, to accept that hate will be the law of the land once again is not acceptable. We have to do better, and doing better starts with breaking down the walls that divide us and choosing not to validate the words of those who traffic in hate and wall building. To not simply refuse to embrace that hatred but also to combat it actively. Increasingly, I believe that change that leads to true hope for all will require dialogue. Not just talk. Dialogue. Real conversations that go beyond the weather and the latest Facebook meme.

A couple of years ago, my colleague, author Debby Irving, and I got together for what we assumed would be a one-time gig where we talked openly about race as a 50-something-year-old upper middle class white woman and a 40-something-year-old working class Black woman. The dialogue grew out of a natural synergy and a series of personal talks we were having where we found ourselves talking openly about race. Over the years we have modeled this dialogue to different groups and each time I am utterly surprised at how well received it. After all, we are just two chicks having a conversation.

In a culture that finds discussions of the real often uncomfortable, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a cross-cultural dialogue between two women would strike a chord with many. However we don’t need to be racial or social justice educators or activists to have a real conversation with the people in our world. All we need is a willingness to be real, to be authentic and to know that serious conversations, while often messy and damn uncomfortable, have the potential to serve as powerful catalysts for change. 

Too often we look to the experts to save us and make change. But the truth is that systemic change requires active participation from all members of the system; anything less is unfair and won’t contribute to lasting change.
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2 thoughts on “The rise of intolerance and the value of dialogue”

  1. How well I remember when Shay and the author Debby Irving held their “conversation at PPL” . I finally got to meet the talented Shay and as a bonus her so tall, so handsome and so talented son. What I had not expected is to have my world view change to the core. I am always assumed that racism was a product of the lower class, under educated masses — those we refer to in the south as “redneck” or those deamed as “common”. But to learn that racisim could be found as well in those that should know better— the white, well educated upper class of New England— was eye opening. What ever happen to “enlightenment” ?

  2. Thank you for sharing this. As a young white man, up in rural Franklin county, it speaks to me the metaphor of the white bubble and feeling lost as to how to get involved in the conversation. It’s reassuring to know that there is dialogue happening elsewhere in the state.

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