Tolerance and Coexistence: American individualism responds to diversity

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There is a different expression of individualism today, which is the expression that relies on monikers such as “coexistence” and “tolerance” to frame how we should respond to lifestyles, ideologies and cultures different from our own.  Photo by    elPadawan    on Flickr Creative Commons,

There is a different expression of individualism today, which is the expression that relies on monikers such as “coexistence” and “tolerance” to frame how we should respond to lifestyles, ideologies and cultures different from our own. Photo by elPadawan on Flickr Creative Commons,

Throughout our nation’s history, the expression of individualism although varying in form has been constant in cultural attitudes, political sentiments and our collective actions. The notion of individualism may often be associated with intolerance, arrogant self-reliance and isolationism. Yet there is a different expression of individualism today, which is the expression that relies on monikers such as “coexistence” and “tolerance” to frame how we should respond to lifestyles, ideologies and cultures different from our own. This sort of individualism unconditionally accepts differences as a way to cope with differences, and while it is absolutely necessary to an extent, it is destructive as an end. 

One of the crucial ways in which diversity is America’s strength is that it provides us with opportunities to grow morally as a nation. In a previous article, I wrote about how our nation can only ensure that the moral arc of our nation is bending towards justice if we make ourselves conscious of the paradoxes and enigmas of our world. Diversity creates an opportunity for this, but only when there is an environment that is accepting of differences. Diversity creates majorities and minorities within society, and for anyone in the minority, there comes a moment of consciousness where reconciling the differences between the world within and the world that surrounds you is unavoidable. This reconciliation process is two-fold, involving both a letting go and a clinging to, of both giving up and preserving. The preservation sometimes represents an examination and conscious rejection of something fundamentally American, and so in this act of preservation we are exposed to what may be a problem or paradox in our culture that we are blind to and have not examined but desperately need to. Preservation is somewhat conducive to being in a society that is accepting of differences, because to preserve is to consciously claim a difference as a part of one’s identity. 

Yet when this instantaneous, unconditional acceptance of differences which we label as “tolerance” and “coexistence” are an end to how we respond to diversity, we risk allowing diversity to fragment our society because we do not progress beyond that to the understanding and love necessary for unification. When we are faced with differences in ideology, culture or lifestyle, it is human nature to not always understand the whys and hows of a world different from our own. The individualistic response is to accept differences without questioning and without trying to understand, to avoid an entanglement of thought with an alternative worldview. This sort of avoidance is not how humans form relationships and communities. We don’t use the words “coexist” and “tolerate” when we talk about people that we truly want to understand and love. So why should we use these terms when we talk about the people we form communities with?  

Perhaps we are afraid to go beyond acceptance of differences to trying to understand differences because understanding raises questions, and we assume that the only place questioning comes from is a place of racism and intolerance. Yet if we allow this fear to inhibit us from moving beyond tolerance and coexistence, then we allow ourselves to remain traumatized by our own history, unable to see that there is another kind of questioning that doesn’t come from the mouths of oppressors, that doesn’t demand assertions of legitimacy or humanity and that isn’t intended to degrade or dehumanize. 

This other kind of questioning acknowledges, even asserts, the others’ humanity in its desire to understand and to love. This sort of questioning is hard. It is profoundly non-individualistic, because in doing so one risks a re-examining of one’s own self in relation to others and their community which can be uncomfortable and disconcerting. This sort of questioning is bold. It signals the belief that forming relationships and community despite differences is possible in a way that the notions of coexistence and tolerance do not.  

In clinging to the American value of individualism, we need to move beyond tolerance and coexistence when responding to diversity. James Baldwin once wrote, “Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.” American individualism needs to grow up. Individualism to an extent is necessary, but if it debilitates us from progressing beyond acceptance towards understanding of and love for others in our communities, our diverse country will fragment into pieces of a disassembled mosaic.  


Sharon Spaulding is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at sharon.spaulding@uconn.edu.

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