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Are You Feeling Intolerant of Intolerance?

I’ve made an unfortunate discovery about myself recently. My intolerance for intolerance has made me, well, intolerant. I’m growing frustrated with all sorts of conversations, stressed out by polarized views, and downright grumpy.

I’ve always liked to view myself as being open-minded. I’m interested in understanding behavior and how different people think. I like understanding differing worldviews. I enjoy conversations where my mind is changed. But as our country continues to polarize on every issue, I’m becoming weary. I think most people are. The news and social media are filled with hate and insults.

We’ve raised whining and complaining to an art form in our culture. But what are we each doing about it? I sometimes feel like I’m falling into the negativity vortex. My growing intolerance of intolerance is just part of it.

Stephen Covey, in The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, advises us to “begin with the end in mind.” I find this helpful even with a simple conversation. In heated discussions it would seem that the intended goal is to release anger, belittle the other person, and make ourselves feel superior. That’s what you’d think if you just listened in to many conversations these days. What good does this do?

When I think of the current division in our country, it’s easy to blame the media for pushing fear, some say to the point of psychological warfare against our country. Corporate media profits much more from division and anger than they do from uniting Americans. Our politicians can also be blamed. Social media can be blamed. But if all we do is blame, it just contributes to our self-righteous attitudes towards our own anger and intolerance. Easy, yes. Productive, no.

In reality, we can each do something even if just in our own little world. You might feel like one small person who cannot change the course of the discourse in our country. But we are not powerless either. If each of us took one small step to improve our own behavior, there would be about 300 million small steps in our country.

Here are some simple ideas that usually help me. These are all basic lessons we learn throughout life but tend to forget when we’re angry or tired ….. or intolerant.

Try empathy rather than persuasion.

Even when we don’t agree with someone’s actions, perhaps we can at least understand the grievances or pain behind those actions. We need a little more empathy in this country. That alone can change polarized attitudes. You do not have to agree with someone to understand someone. Set aside your desire to persuade and instead just try to understand another point of view. It’s that simple. It’s far more interesting and much less stressful.

There are more than two views.

We tend to condense our limited understanding of complex issues into simplified narratives. There is “my view” and “the evil view” or “the right answer” and “the wrong answer.” For example, consider the topic of illegal immigration. They are viewed as either victims or dangerous criminals. It's so much more complex than that and we all know it! We fixate on one small part of the problem that justifies our opinion. Yet you can focus on moral, political, legal, education, cost, health issues and more. Each one has quite different issues to consider and learn about. This frame of mind helps me want to listen rather than lecture and grow even more intolerant.

Most hot topic political issues are vastly complicated and intertwined. Solving one problem just creates another. Every choice has an intended and unintended side effect. Geez, just listen to a pharmaceutical ad if you want to understand intended and unintended side effects!

Plastics were a wonderful way to save the trees, but now they clog our oceans.

Studies have found that suspending problematic children from school worsens their behavior, as they are more likely to engage in criminal behavior when outside school.

Five decades of the War on Drugs has led to underground methods of distributing those drugs and very wealthy drug cartels that now dominate and terrorize entire countries.

These are not simplistic issues that we’re arguing about in our country and within our families. Understanding differing opinions is a must if wise choices are ever to be made.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” John Muir

"The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing." Socrates

Beware of Confirmation Bias.

If the story doesn’t fit our current opinion, we tune it out. It must be false, biased, or misleading. This is confirmation bias. It’s easy to identify, even in yourself. Life is filled with dilemmas that challenge our views and values. If you listen to only CNN or Fox News, you are not informed. Confirmation Bias can make you stupid.


People can easily recognize intolerance in others – but too often can’t recognize it in themselves.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Matthew 7:3

How long will we continue to wait for “the other guy” to change?

Unfortunately, we’ll always have these major political / social problems to argue about. Whatever reforms we come up with, if we do, there will still be crime. There will still be injustice. There will still be really annoying people. There will still be hate. You can’t legislate kindness. Kindness is a choice, as is listening, and empathy, and realizing that we all have a lot to learn.

Take Aways

  • If all we do is blame others for intolerant attitudes, it just contributes to our self-righteous attitudes towards our own anger and intolerance. We all play a part in this.

  • Try empathy. Even when we don’t agree with someone’s actions, perhaps we can at least understand the grievances or pain behind those actions.

  • There are more than two polarized views. Things are usually more complicated than that. Listen and learn rather than lecture.

  • Beware of confirmation bias. It can make you stupid.


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