Friday, August 04, 2006

The Meaning of Tolerance

Days ago, Mel Gibson was drunk, driving, and got stopped. During his arrest he made a number of comments deemed to be anti-semitic. He apologized but the fire-storm of controversy persists.

A Huffington Post blogger reprinted a letter that advocates tolerance of Gibson's drunken slurs. And in that letter I find the seeds of redemption for all of us who either say things under stress, altered circumstances, or to impress someone. In other words, this letter applies to all parents, administrators, teens, bloggers, activists, and humans. Each and every one of us uses bad judgement occasionally and say things that are neither meant to be taken seriously nor represent anything approaching a deeply held belief.

And I want to include it here because the meaning of tolerance has been so politically disfigured by the hyenas of intolence that the concept deserves reclamation as a holy and humane process to heal both accuser and accused. Tolerance by an offended party does not imply one condones the offense. It simply means that the offense does not rise to something anyone else, including ourselves, might not be guilty of in similar circumstances.

See if you agree:

A "Dear Ari" Letter

My comments here are not personal; I don't know you, and Mel Gibson is not a client. Rather, I'm writing about ideas. I read your letter urging the industry to take action "by professionally shunning Mel Gibson and refusing to work with him." I expect you will one day forgive him - at that moment, you'll see firsthand that words spoken in the heat of one situation don't always retain their meaning over time.

- snip-

After thirty years of predicting intent through assessing words and context, I can tell you if we start taking the things people say when very drunk or very high or very angry as their enduring truth, we're all going to have to reassess many relationships. Not long ago, one of my sons told me, "I hate you, Man!" I decided he didn't mean it. Under the Ari-rule, my forgiveness came too easy.

I recognize there is also some history in this situation. People had already speculated on Mel's views about Jews, so words he might choose could be clues to those views - as we've seen on the news. (Do the rhymes represent flippancy about anti-Semitism? No, but it's hard to tell what's in someone's heart, isn't it?) If one honors the larger context of Mel's words playing into a preconception some people had, then one must also honor the smaller context: This was crap he said while very drunk, while being arrested, while scared, upset, out of his mind. Is anybody really able to enter that mind and identify "the truth" within all the raw humanness?

You wrote that "alcoholism does not excuse anti-Semitism," which is obvious. Also true is that alcoholism cannot be used to prove anti-Semitism. You describe your position as "standing up against bigotry." I suggest that your position is bigotry, bigotry about alcoholism. And more than that, it's bigotry about humanness itself, for every one of us has said terrible things.


When you do forgive Mel, you'll be in the good company of many Jewish leaders, and if you wonder why so many have been willing to forgive him, consider that Jews, having been profoundly victimized by intolerance, know the value of tolerance.

We all have our prejudices, our bigotry, and our zealotry. It's all in all of us. We're built of the same ingredients, just different recipes. Accepting that truth can help us feel compassion for Mel and his family, right now when they need it. But I understand you're still angry. I truly do. The whole thing will pass, and I'm sure you won't be going through your client list identifying the ones who've said hateful things, abusive things, racist things - and asking the industry to stop working with them too.

You're the one who boldly said "standing up against bigotry and racism is more important than money." It's a position that would be heroic - except for the hypocrisy. We all fall down. How quickly do we get up and make amends? That's what endures.

Gavin de Becker
Author of Bestselling Books about Violence and Words
Bar Mitzvah 1968, Graduated Hebrew School 1969
Never Been Really Drunk
Said Plenty of Regrettable Things When Sober

I would hope that public school curriculums can find room in all their courses to teach our kids how to forgive and make amends.

Tags: tolerance, curriculum, culture, education

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