Friday, January 21, 2011

From Intolerant to Tolerant: The Wisdom of Gandhi

Harper Lee imbued her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, with the spirit of empathy. Atticus’ advice to Scout is a metaphor for empathy when he tells her she must walk in the shoes of another to truly understand him. Atticus wants Scout to put herself in the place of others, to see through their eyes, to walk the ground they must walk. He teaches her tolerance and understanding with this advice--just as he teaches Jem the same lessons by forcing him to read to Mrs. Dubose and learn about the whole woman, not just the despicable racist woman.

When Gandhi wrote that “Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding," he suggests that the absence of empathy is a plague upon societies. He suggests that Atticus’ lessons are essential lessons for the next generation, and I agree.

Intolerance drove the Puritans to this continent. Yet once here, where they could worship freely and govern themselves, they became mirror images of the persecutors they had just fled. They exiled voices raised in opposition to their own. Anne Hutchison and Roger Williams were two forced out, forced to start anew. Williams argued that the Church and State should be separate and that Puritans had no right to take land from the Native Americans because their Bible granted them sovereignty. He founded Rhode Island under new more egalitarian principles once ousted for his convictions.

The Puritans were among the first to implement the three strikes penalty and used it upon Quakers who returned to Puritan villages to proselytize a third time. Quakers were merely evicted first, punished after a second visit, and hanged after a third. Quakers were not the only objects of Puritan justice: the Pequot Indians were brutally slaughtered when they refused to acquiesce to Puritans demands.

The history of the United States, from colonial to revolutionary and modern times, is a tale of intolerance. The Puritans fled religious persecution, only to re-create it here. The colonists revolted because the King and Parliament failed to respect and uphold colonial points-of-view. Post-revolution, the country prospered by acting with extreme prejudice against those racially different; planters and land-owners persuaded themselves that slavery was appropriate and necessary. Even after the nation had fought itself to be rid of slavery, segregation institutionalized and furthered intolerance, suppressing the promise of African-Americans.

Still, immigrants came, some unwillingly and many quite willingly because this nation promised a better tomorrow for them. They fled famine, poverty, and powerlessness to transform themselves for their children and children’s children. The Irish, for example, were persecuted even though they looked like their persecutors. Religion divided them from the Anglican majority in England and carried over in Protestant America. They endured. They thrived. They became American citizens.

Years later, the Vietnamese immigrated to the U. S., many at the invitation of the U. S. after the American soldier left Vietnam. Those who were given sanctuary found a different persecutor instead after settling along the coast to take up lives as fishermen. There, the old terrorist organizations from the late 1800s, including the Ku Klux Klan, intimidated the Vietnamese shrimpers by overcharging them for boats, coercing bait shops to block Vietnamese fishermen from buying bait, and even burning their boats (Galveston Bay, TX from 1979-1981).

Now, the targets are Middle Eastern and Latino, and now, intolerance is legislated in states like Oklahoma and Arizona. Persecutors go by political party names and take advantage of social networking and the media to increase their following and petition their government for repressive laws.

None of this history is admirable. None of it should make us nostalgic for some form of good old days, and none of it takes into account the contributions of immigrants. Levi and Strauss, nineteenth-century immigrants, provided the ubiquitous and ever more fashionable riveted clothing, better known as blue jeans. A Belgian-born immigrant, Baekeland, provided an early useful plastic, Bakelite. Tesla, originally from Serbia, gave the world radio. Gideon Sundbach, a Swede who immigrated, improved the zipper that became an essential tool for the U. S. Army during World War I. The simple Q-tip was given to the U. S. by Gerstenzang, a man born in Poland.
African-American inventors are many; George Washington Carver, a former slave, is one of the most famous among them.

We do not truly know what the good old days were if we wish to return to them. The world, this nation in particular, slowly turns toward the good. We become less barbaric. We become more tolerant. We search our souls for truth and answers to questions for justice. Much of this evolution is the result of understanding--of empathy. We must continue to heed the wise advice of those few souls who seem further along the spiritual evolutionary scale, souls that include advocates for equality, seekers of justice, men like Gandhi who also counseled:

"I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest . . . whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [independence] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away." - Mohandas Gandhi

Let us ask ourselves Gandhi’s questions as we contemplate regulation, reform, taxes, health care, gun violence, political vitriol, and immigration. Let us find tolerance within through empathy.