Something interesting has begun to shift over the course of the last few years. It’s a very ironic shift. In the midst of an overarching shift into postmodern culture, where we have become much more comfortable with ambivalence, mystery, and a multiplicity of worldviews coexisting, we have simultaneously seen a shift toward the squashing of dissent. Dissenting opinions (which ironically are often older or more traditional opinions) are called down, labeled with nasty names, and pressured by the group with the dominant view to fall into line.
How, you might wonder, can we as a culture be more comfortable than ever with the coexistence of vastly divergent worldviews, without prejudice or judgment, and yet at the same time be completely uncomfortable with those who disagree with the dominant worldview? To get more specific, how can we champion a non-judgmental stance toward the way others see the world and be so judgmental toward the way certain people see the world? I am not sure how we got here, but let’s consider one outgrowth of this and try to trace the origins of this line of thinking.
The most common place where I see this strange shift pop up is related to the issue of tolerance. Back perhaps 50 years ago in America, there was a dominant cultural way to view and understand the world. Variant worldviews were not really tolerated, certainly not to the degree they are today. One was expected to think and act and see the world in a particular way, or else you were just strange. Or dangerous. Potentially you could even be ostracized if your worldview was seen as unacceptable or incompatible with the building of a safe and wholesome society.
As our culture has shifted toward and into postmodernism, this has changed drastically. Far from the belief that there is one correct way to view and understand the world, we as a culture have shifted to nearly the opposite end of the spectrum; there are any number of ways to view the world, and no one can state they have the corner on the correct way. Not knowing is now generally seen as okay, or even a given. The journey is more important than the destination, we say, and we have become more comfortable with mystery and less comfortable with certainty.
This shift has led to the championing of tolerance as perhaps the greatest virtue. And to be sure, tolerance is a good thing. But intolerance can also be good. If, for example, I see a father berating and smacking his children around, I should be intolerant of his actions (and, presumably, his worldview that sees such actions as acceptable). At some point there is a line, and we can likely all see that line in such an example. But we as a culture would generally prefer to think about how tolerance is almost always a good thing. Since we all have a different take on life and our own unique worldview, we should respect each other’s worldviews as equally valid and important. This leads to a conviction that every way of living, every way of viewing, and every way of interacting with the world is equally valid.
And yet… What if someone disagrees with this? What if someone sees a particular way of living, or a certain way of interacting with the world, as unacceptable? Unwholesome? Harmful to the fabric of society? If all the world comes to the conclusion that this way of living is acceptable, and passes laws to ensure that all understand this way of interacting with the world is right and good, can someone still have a dissenting opinion? Is that okay? Can the dissenter’s worldview, which we have already established they have every right to hold, include within it the view that other worldviews are not valid or acceptable?
What a complicated conundrum! And I think we are facing this every day. I have purposely avoided mentioning any specific worldviews in this post, because that’s not what I’m talking about. I have no desire to have more “culture war” discussions. I am merely bringing up the very disturbing trend that has been growing, namely the calling down and shaming of anyone who does not agree with the dominant worldview on an issue. In the name of tolerance, the dominant group shows remarkable intolerance in forcing those they label “naive,” “prehistoric,” “bigoted,” “ignorant,” or worse into the larger camp. This is not the best path in my opinion.
The only way we grow and learn is by listening to dissenters, contrarians as I like to call them, and processing what they are saying. In the process of listening and understanding one another, we ourselves see the world from a new angle. Though this doesn’t necessarily change our way of thinking, it broadens us, brings us healthy humility, and keeps us from our own type of self-centered ignorance. May we stop shaming each other in the name of tolerance, and seek to understand as we want to be understood…