I never really liked the word "tolerance." It suggests the bare minimum. Simply tolerating each other is far from accepting or, better yet, celebrating each other. In the end "tolerance" is not much of a value statement.
It's for that reason that we have a responsibility to aim higher, and that means that we not only develop an acceptance and respect for those who are different from us, but also for those who hold different opinions. It also means that we need to work harder to give people the benefit of the doubt. In both cases it means that we have to consider the impact that our words can have on other individuals.
My tradition is rich in stories that tell us of the importance of guarding our tongues. We are told that the tongue is so powerful that it requires two gates (the lips and teeth) to restrain.
There is an old Hasidic tale that tells of a man who spoke ill of his neighbour. Realizing his mistake he went to a rabbi and asked forgiveness. The rabbi said he would be forgiven but first he must take a feather pillow to the centre of town, rip it open and spread the feathers to the wind. The villager did as the rabbi asked. When he returned he told the rabbi his job was completed and asked for forgiveness. "Now," said the rabbi, "go and collect each of those feathers."
"But that's impossible" said the man.
"Precisely," the rabbi answered, "and while you may sincerely regret the damage you have done, it's as impossible to undo it as it is to recover all the feathers."
Like those feathers, hateful words have consequences. On a human level they simply degrade relationships. In the age of Facebook, blogs and Twitter, hateful words become the bully's new weapon.
Instead of the threat of the fist, the intimidation comes in the form of words that can be distributed to potential thousands in the blink of an eye. And like those feathers, even with hindsight and the understanding that a wrong was done, the words can simply not be retrieved.
In the past it was difficult for bullies to gain a public pulpit. Letters to newspapers were closely monitored to ensure that slander and intimidation were not published. Magazines and television likewise; the professional mainstream media for the most part undertook the responsibility to self-regulate. Today anyone can publish virtually anything. And sadly, more often than not, bullying and ad hominem attacks are de rigueur.
Here are just a few examples of the type of discourse that can regularly be found on some political blogs:
"X is an incredibly stupid twit, note I didn't say man as he isn't. Ask his wife."
"This guy has a face like a can of worms IMO. Just puked on my keyboard looking at it"
"Y is too stupid to really be Jewish"
And this little gem from a notorious blogging bigot who took offence at me running for public office:
"What a genius! International laughing stock, wearer of tee-shirts and credit-taker Bernie Farber once again proves he's completely witless by hooking up with Canada's Liberal Party just days after the party went down to historic defeat. I mean, if there was a Holocaust Party, he'd be perfect, but otherwise? Jezuz."
To be sure, the above quotes originate from the far right of the spectrum. There have been similar attacks from the far left blogosphere as well. And let's not forget the comment sections of some online newspapers which have become feeding grounds for racists, bigots, homophobes and those who slander without compunction.
Thankfully most newspaper comment sections are moderated and complaints are taken seriously.
Do not mistake this blog as advocating for uncivil behaviour to be regulated. Indeed, Canada has some very robust anti-hate laws that deal with the most egregious hate speech. My point is to make a case for what Canadians do best; engage in vigorous, passionate civil discourse.
My dear friend and past CJC colleague Eric Vernon hit the nail firmly on the head when he wrote of John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address admonishing both sides of the Cold war divide reminding the world that "civility is not a weakness".
More than 50 years later Vernon expounded quite wisely noting "civility is an essential component of a healthy, vibrant democracy that encourages civic engagement and the frank discussion of opposing perspectives in the public square."
When it comes to civility let's not settle for mediocrity. Let's work towards true civility. In the end, I am always reminded of the words a prudent teacher once taught me, "Never engage in a pissing match with a skunk; just let the skunks simply "talk" amongst themselves."
Follow Bernie Farber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@berniefarber