Life’s Matters: Do Tolerance Laws Change Society?
In my last post, I discussed the drawbacks and inadequacies of social tolerance, “Social Tolerance is Unacceptable.” The article provoked some questions by my editor, Nancy Heather Brown.
Now, in response to her questions, I seek to expand on the points I made. This post is number two in a four-part series.
1. Do laws change society? Have opinions changed after laws are passed? Have behaviors changed?
Laws result from changes in opinion rather than the other way around. Members of society change first, then enact laws to enforce those changes. Laws define appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. Penal and financial sanctions are leveled against violators in addition to media coverage of their transgressions.
Strongly-opposed people comply with laws to avoid sanctions, but their negative beliefs and attitudes of hatred remain. People with firmly entrenched beliefs and opinions of hatred and exclusion don’t change their attitudes with the rest of society. Laws only incense them and deepen their conviction that their behaviors are justified. They seek ways to circumvent the mandates. When legislative leaders—governors, the president, congress—show support for laws, citizens are more likely to change their opinions, not just their behavior.
Some people see their behaviors reflected in the law and are appalled at their attitude and actions or inaction. They see their errors in judgment, take responsibility for themselves, and institute steps to change their lives in ways that foster equality and inclusion. Others are indifferent to the law as they harbor an attitude of compliance, keeping their opinions and beliefs to themselves while carrying out the tenets of civility because they want order.
2. Is tolerance better than overt racism? Is tolerance better than nothing? Is tolerance better than anti-tolerance laws (laws that encourage bigotry)?
Honesty reveals the true intentions of racists and bigots. Overt racism, as horrible as it is, is more honest than tolerance. With overt racism, nothing is hidden. We know what we’re dealing with, and we can take calculated steps to address or avoid the situation.
With tolerance, the racist hides behind a veneer of compliance. Underneath, hatred, fear, ignorance, greed, and patent disregard for other human beings burble, awaiting an opportunity to emerge. But, even with its many drawbacks, tolerance does demand a measure of civility. It gets people jobs, housing, and education.
Anti-tolerance laws encourage misguided beliefs. These laws validate for people that their beliefs are accurate, their hatred is well-founded, and their behaviors are warranted. Anti-tolerance laws promote overt racism, bigotry, oppression, and discrimination. The laws are blatant, giving opponents of the laws solid points of contention. Steps can be taken to overturn an anti-tolerance law—such as ones mandating the deportation of immigrants and the re-segregation of schools.
3. Does the expectation of tolerance lead to sudden disappointments, shocks, awkwardness, pain, and danger?
Expectations always have the potential for letdowns. People expect laws to protect them from unfair treatment, which can happen only in blatant, overt situations. Subtle violations are more nuanced and layered and harder to clarify. Laws of tolerance are no guarantees.
James Conley III did not expect to be racially profiled when he entered an Old Navy store in West Des Moines, IA on January 30, 2018, wearing an Old Navy jacket he received as a Christmas present. When the surveillance footage showed that he, indeed, wore the jacket into the store, store personnel offered no apologies.
And, on April 12, 2018, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson expected to engage in a non-eventful visit to a Philadelphia, PA, Starbucks for a business meeting. They did not expect to be arrested and charged with criminal activity.
4. If not tolerance, then are you saying the goal should be acceptance, but that can’t be mandated?
The overarching goal is equality. Laws only mandate rudimentary tolerance but don’t guarantee acceptance. Tolerance carries the message that certain people or situations must be allowed regardless of one’s feelings about them. Forced emotional suppression creates anger, frustration, and fear. Unchanged minds and errant behavior go underground. The cold, hard veneer over searing hatred remains intact. We realize acceptance through interpersonal relationships developed through curiosity, a genuine interest in other people, an open heart, and an open mind. Tolerance and acceptance are emotion-laden states that laws can’t regulate.
5. Comment on flare-ups of white supremacy in the world stirred up by Russian bots via the internet.
The convenience of the internet and the speed with which people disseminate information and ideas offer prime opportunities for international collaboration. White supremacists also are active in Poland, Brazil, and Germany. They confer with each other internationally on weapons, combat tactics, attack strategies, and other tenets of operation. They infiltrate social media to spread propaganda and recruit new members. They visit other countries and hold meetings and participate in each other’s rallies.
6. If our leaders are racists, bigots, etc., do others follow suit?
Hate-filled leaders validate the beliefs, opinions, and emotions of like-minded people, offering credibility and hope to the followers. Followers feel relieved and empowered that a leader shares their views and, therefore take the leader’s rhetoric as permission to act out previously forbidden practices. Followers feel safe, believing the leaders will back them and protect them from opponents of their hate-fueled actions. Their belief in the justification of their cause grows, regardless of how hideous, detrimental, or unjust their stance.
7. Secrecy/Secret Bigots. Is it better to know who’s racist/bigoted, out in the open? Should they be forced to wear tags, labels, or tattoos to identify themselves (so they don’t surprise you)?
Wherever I go, I am permanently marked by the color of my skin, my gray hair, and my obvious female features. These features act as targets which entice those who are inclined to hate me to declare open season on me and others like me because of our markers. If racists and bigots were required to identify themselves, their behavior and their beliefs might change. They would know the feeling of being hated and hunted. Let’s level the field and see how the racists and bigots fare.
The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is comprised of secret racists and bigots, cowards who know they’re wrong and don’t want to take responsibility for their actions. They are too weak to act individually, so they carry out their acts of violence and brutality and terrorism as a group in secret at night, robed and hooded to mask their identity. When hate crimes are revealed, they deny that they were involved. The KKK is a prime example of tolerance. By day, they’re upstanding citizens with conservative viewpoints. By night, they’re terrorists and murderers. Requiring them to wear their capes at all times and abolishing their hoods would be a step toward leveling the field of equality. To outfit them with permanent tags, labels, or tattoos is a splendid idea.
KKK members equate their organization with those of black people and other races, saying there’s no one to protect the rights of white people. However, blacks and other minorities don’t go into white neighborhoods and terrorize, maim, rape, and murder the residents. Black people don’t run white people off the roads. Black people don’t lynch white people. White people are protected by “white privilege.” White rhetoric states the opposite. White supremacists inflict on others the very behaviors they say they fear from minorities. These are the behaviors white supremacists say they fear: immigrants are criminals coming here to rape, steal, and murder “real (white) Americans.”
8. Do mandates of tolerance force people to lie and cover up their genuine hatred? Is this good? Bad? Something else?
In my experience and observation, when people are forced to put up with something or someone they abhor, they will finagle ways to justify their “errors in judgment” when they are caught in violation of the mandate. The veneer of tolerance acts as a shield between the hater’s covert behavior and their true feelings. They must act against their true feelings which sets the stage for rage to erupt. The stress must express somewhere. When the haters are forced to suppress authentic feelings and beliefs, the oppressed people are forced into a position to be blind-sided. The oppressed people have no way to protect themselves because they don’t know what they’re up against and don’t know who they can trust.
9. On the one hand, mandates are necessary, but on the other hand, they aren’t enough?
From my vantage point, handing down rulings is the only way we maintain any modicum of civility and order. That someone sees hateful behavior as so wrong that a law against it is necessary is progress. Laws begin to unmask the terrorism of racism and bigotry. They shine light into the corners and crevices of inequality for everyone to see. They show people that the problem is a big deal, that certain practices and behaviors are not okay. But, laws can’t penetrate the armor of firmly entrenched beliefs. People comply with laws to avoid sanctions, which means they’ll perform at minimum levels and invent ways to skirt the law. They have no intention of furthering equality. With their portal of expression challenged, their hateful beliefs gain strength.
10. Can tolerance lead to acceptance if someone is willing? Can people use uncomfortable situations to learn acceptance? You can’t make them change but without learning civil behavior is there is zero chance of change?
Some people will realize their beliefs have been inaccurate and their behaviors harmful to themselves as well as others. The pain they’ve inflicted, and the damage they’ve caused to the people they hated, themselves, and those around them confront them. These are people who needed someone to point out their erroneous thinking and set them on a course of reform.
Transformation most often happens when there is enough friction to evoke a different response. We create friction when we place ourselves in situations of vulnerability. Don’t like a coworker? Invite her or him out to lunch. Uncomfortable with new neighbors? Invite them over for dinner, coffee, or tea. Listen to what these people are saying. Listen to their story. Time spent with another human being is precious and the time they spend with you is valuable. Treat their presence with respect. Be curious. Be gracious. Ask open-ended questions about their experience. Share your story with them from a place of honesty. Education can cure ignorance, fear, and distrust. Attempts at external forcefulness only drive negativity deeper. People must be allowed to change through experiences of interaction and education, not forced to act a certain way. Through everyday exchanges, people learn the errors in their thinking and beliefs. When we can listen to others, really listen, and speak to others through a voice of caring reciprocity and mutual respect, those around us are more likely to respond in kind.
Some people won’t transform. Their ignorance, hatred, and greed will defy all attempts to sway their judgment. Still, we cannot abandon our approach of graciousness and open-hearted communication and our message of equality and inclusion. We can present our side of the debate even as we protect ourselves from direct onslaughts of venom.
Pro-tolerance laws always evoke more questions than they answer, but they’re a step forward. We must be willing to ask questions and face the answers squarely to continue advancing toward equality, inclusion, and acceptance. We learn and evolve only by asking questions and opening our minds and hearts to the answers which may not be delivered in the form or manner we expected. Some lessons are immediately unforgettable, and we recount them for years. Other lessons are deeper and come to us only after we’ve had some time for the message to seep into us. The main tenet to remember is that honest communication and open-hearted relationships are the keys to moving from hatred to tolerance to acceptance to celebration. My next article addresses the concept of acceptance—what it looks like and how we can cultivate it.
Billie Wade is a gregarious introvert whose primary interests are writing, lifelong learning, personal development, and how we all are affected by life’s vagaries. Issues facing black people, women, the LGBTQ community, and aging adults are of particular concern to her. She enjoys open-hearted dialogue with diverse people. She is experienced in human resources employee services administration, chemical dependency counseling, and magazine publishing editorial assistant. The opinions expressed here are her own.
Can a Law Change a Society?—The New York Times
Laws may be ineffective if they don’t reflect social norms, Stanford scholar says
Law Does Not Define Society It Reflects Society
America Is Stuck in the Purgatory of Tolerance
Surprisingly High Tolerance For Racism Revealed
Iowa man says he was racially profiled by Old Navy employees
Revisiting Starbucks and racism
Changing Company Culture Requires a Movement, Not a Mandate
Do You Tip Here? The Power of Compliance and Acceptance
After Florida School Shooting, Russian ‘Bot’ Army Pounced
White supremacy movement is more than just an American problem
‘White Europe’: 60,000 nationalists march on Poland’s Independence Day
Politics and the Dangerous Psychology of Hate
The politics of hate
Ku Klux Klan
12 Horrific Crimes Committed By The KKK Between 1921 And 2016
How One Man Convinced 200 Ku Klux Klan Members To Give Up Their Robes
The Incredible Power of Listening and Empathy