When we coexist with wolves, we create an empathic relation in which the other’s needs are valued as our own. We see that through trophic cascade, wolves make healthy ecosystems and cleaner rivers and purer air for our children.
When we tolerate wolves, on the other hand, we see our needs uncomfortably subjugated to a perceived special interest. We see wolves benefitting from our tolerance at a cost to ourselves, when we create forced and false tolerance, rather than coexistence.
As children, our prize possession is that which is “mine.” As adults, property becomes like lines in the sandbox. The idea is that we all “get along” as long as we play nicely and leave each other’s stuff alone. But does tolerance create good neighbors, or strangers?
In the poem “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost’s narrator recounts his neighbor’s mantra: “good fences make good neighbors.” Mending the wall that separates their properties, one of pine and one of apples, the narrator wonders what he is “walling in and walling out.” Certainly fences can be necessary, keeping cattle out of wilderness, and wildlife out of cattle pens. The irony, Frost’s poem shows, is that fences don’t always make good neighbors and “something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.”
Tolerance is a display made by the powerful. “I allow you to be different,” tolerance says. “I have decided to tolerate you.” Meanwhile, oppressed people cannot tolerate, because they can’t choose not to (without violent revolt and uprising). But tolerance is also an indicator of fear, of pretending not to see difference–racial blindness for example–of seeing others as threats in ways that alters our encounters with the others, or in deep inarticulable guilt and embarrassment over differences, particularly economic inequality.
The sun does not tolerate the weed – the weed adapts to the sun. To imagine nature needs our tolerance is to undermine the more serious need for coexistence, compassion and empathy. So what are our ideas about tolerance and difference doing to our sense of self, our relationship with others, our political relations with other nations? And is the difference between tolerance and coexistence really that important?
The difference comes down to power. If I coexist with nature, I understand I am part of it and it is part of me. I leave a light footprint on the planet. If I tolerate nature, on the other hand, I believe nature is to be dominated. I divert waterways, see forests as economic resources, and wilderness as track for road and sport. I see predators as a nuisance. I frack, I plunder, I mine, I pump, I leave a heavy-footed print upon the Earth. I am blind to ecosystems, or our essential interconnection, even if I appreciate nature’s beauty.
We take for granted that tolerance is the best way of being in the world. But emphasizing tolerance stunts the very diversity it purports to protect. Tolerance damages our ability to empathize and grow, and to see our interconnections. And it is that — our fear of change, our fear of growing — that is at the heart of hatred, prejudice, cruelty and real intolerance.
Removing boundaries means coming face to face with change — changing oneself, one’s culture, one’s systems of normalcy. One either encounters difference and meets it from above, saying “I will or will not tolerate you,” or one meets it from below, saying “I hope you tolerate me,” or one meets difference head on, saying “let’s coexist.” Coexisting, by thriving in a universe of radical difference is a virtue and it helps us feel our connections.
When you feel another’s pain, you feel your own pain more. Jeff Mogil’s study, referenced in the TED radio episode “Press Play,” shows being around strangers creates stress. Stress makes it hard to feel empathy. And not feeling empathy is why tolerance is an inadequate marker of social harmony. In his study, Mogil’s subjects plunged their arms into buckets of ice water and rated their pain. When they did so with a stranger, and were asked to rate their perception of the stranger’s pain, the rating was low. Repeating the same test with a friend, their perception of a friend’s pain was higher, as was their own pain. This is empathy. And it makes us wonder — do fences create good neighbors, or strangers?
A funny thing happens with empathy — when you see others as friends and neighbors, rather than as strangers — you stop wanting to kill them. You stop seeing them as immigrants, refugees, or nuisance. Harmony in a civil society cannot come without empathy and tolerance may actually get in the way.
When we tolerate others, we see ourselves as allowing the other to have the privilege of being tolerated by us. I will tolerate you IF you behave to my liking, if you stay off my lawn and out of my schools, if you don’t get too big for your britches, if you stay out of the West Bank and have no real political autonomy or independence, if you don’t make me budge, change, grow, or engage with empathy. As long as the wild doesn’t in any way impact my life. This is not really what we want from tolerance. It does not allow us to coexist.
When we coexist we see our Earth as shared, not something we can take or give. When we coexist we are humbled by the recognition of the vastness of this mysterious universe.