The traditional approach to difference in most pluralistic societies is the cultivation of tolerance.
But tolerance is the cheapest virtue, if it’s a virtue at all. At best, it’s a cease-fire that allows each side to retain, and even cement, its hostile attitudes.
One party can agree to put up with the Other and still look down on him or her. Keeping one party at a distance nearly always fosters misunderstanding and suspicion.
Tolerance may promise non-interference and facilitate peaceful co-existence, but it doesn’t lead to understanding. And certainly not to joint action. On the contrary, it’s built on a willful ignorance that leaves the other party unknown.
Productive societies need more than what one philosopher called a “benign indifference to difference.” Tolerance is only the first – and arguably lowest – step in becoming wise in the ways and why of others – to be OtherWise. Sometimes, it may be all that is attainable; but it should never be a satisfactory goal.
The opposite of “intolerance” is not “tolerance” but “hospitality.” Hospitality requires us to welcome and to make room for the Other, without any judgment beyond recognizing our common humanity.
It’s seeing the Other as a person and not simply as a totem of difference. It’s engaging that person in conversation, fueled not only by curiosity, but also by the conviction that he or she can teach us something of value. It’s sharing that person’s experience emotionally as well as intellectually.
That doesn’t mean we have to set aside our own beliefs in favor of cultural and political relativism. But such an encounter forces us to surface and examine our own preconceptions and biases.
We are each embedded in the particular history and culture that shaped us. Being OtherWise means treating others as individuals, with their own unique story.
Paradoxically that requires keen self-awareness. Only then can we be free of our preconceptions and unspoken fears. Thus unencumbered, we can discover all the ways we are the same – in our interests and our destiny, if not in our experience and our ancestry.
Why bother to acquire the wisdom of relating to the Other? Not because it’s the nice – or even right – thing to do, but in order to be more effective in our increasingly diverse and global society.
Becoming OtherWise is a critical management requirement of the 21st century. It entails intellectual, as well as emotional, development:
- Expanding our worldview to include news of other countries,
- Increasing our cultural literacy of other people,
- Increasing our religious literacy of other faiths,
- Challenging our biases and assumptions about the “Others” in our lives,
- Educating our emotions and developing our sense of empathy,
- Engaging with people outside our immediate circle in meaningful ways.
To be OtherWise is to be open to others and to see them as fellow human beings of dignity and worth. It is to hear their story and to share our own with them. It is appreciating their differences while finding in them common interests and values.
The OtherWise are not naïve and gullible. They realize that some people would take advantage of them, even do them harm. But they try not to make such judgments based on stereotypes; they evaluate people as individuals. And they don’t paper over real disagreements; they confront differences of opinion honestly without thinking less of the person who holds them. They try to find a way to respect the perspective of other people, even if they can’t share it.
To be OtherWise is to see ourselves as others see us and to see ourselves in others. It is to understand the hidden forces that shape others’ behavior, as well as our own. Only then will we see the others, not as something apart, but as someone who is part of our world and our life. Only then, will we be OtherWise.
That's my wish for you in 2012. See you next year.