Writing Right with Dmitri: Writing Tolerance
Have you heard about the idea of teaching tolerance? Did you think it was something everybody already knew? Did you think it was something that couldn't be taught? Or did you think it was the job of your local vicar, priest, rabbi, or imam? Get real – more real than Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Full disclosure: I am not a fan of these two gentlemen. Not only because I hope I have better taste than to enjoy most of the earworms from their musicals. Don't get me wrong, I like musicals. I even like some of their musicals. But their ham-fisted attempt to teach tolerance in South Pacific really got on my nerves, particularly when they wrote:
You've got to be taught to hate and fear, you've got to be taught from year to year… – from South Pacific.
Bosh. Very few humans are born tolerant. Even fewer are born with the ability to express their tolerance in meaningful ways. Of course, I take Rodgers' and Hammerstein's point: influences are important. That's why Jesus said what he did about people who destroy the hearts of children and what they deserved: it involved a very heavy rock and a large body of water. Nonetheless, tolerance needs to be taught. It's not enough to be 'nice'.
Why is that so? Most people, everywhere in time and space, are decent and fair, most of the time. They understand that other people have just as much right to walk the planet as they do. They know they need to share the pavement with that differently-dressed/odd-looking person. They don't mind, really. It's just that they don't know anything about him, and frankly, they're very busy. They're worried, and now that they've spotted him muttering to himself, they're more worried. He might be a threat. Is that a bomb in his backpack? A machete in his overcoat pocket? Is he a mugger, a rapist, a jihadist? Does he want our money, our safety, our very lives? How to tell?
If we write, presumably, we know a thing or two about people. (If we don't, we should stop writing immediately and do something less dangerous, like pouring hot coffee at the local shop.) We know that people everywhere have similar concerns, but express them differently depending on age, gender, nationality, native language, religious outlook, climate, profession, etc, etc. We know that these important differences need to be expressed in our writing so that our readers can find the even more important congruences inside those others.
We have to teach tolerance.
Not 'should'. Not 'can' or 'may'. Have to. We've got a planet to save, remember?
People Will Listen
How do we teach tolerance in our writing?
- By never making the 'other' stereotypical.
- By refusing to use different ethnicities, genders (I'm looking at you), sexual orientations, or religious groups as straw men for our narrative arguments.
- By making people of all nations, kindreds and creeds interesting to our readers. By portraying them with sympathy and insight.
No, the guy with the Russian accent is not automatically the bad guy. Maybe he doesn't belong to the Russian Mafia. Maybe he's a nice but nutty chess whizz like the hero of Endgame, the Canadian TV series where he wouldn't come out of the Vancouver hotel. My Russian's iffy, and I can't play chess at all. But I understand pain and loss. The PTSD that keeps Arkady in that hotel is something we can all identify with. And then…maybe then we'll stop filing Russians away in our heads as dangerous criminals, and Chechens as terrorists, and…
Careful the things you say, children will listen, careful the things you do, children will see and learn... – from Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim.
Does it matter? You bet it does. Are we, as writers, responsible for what we say in public? You bet we are. 'Careful the spell you cast, not just on children...' Mr Sondheim was right, you know. They're listening. And reading.
Let's cast a better spell.