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When Tolerance Falls Short


When we got the call that my brother David was joining a fraternity, the shock and disappointment in the house were palpable. My parents – one, a “Self-Expression and Creative Writing as a Pedagogical Tool” major and the other, a passionate advocate of non-genetically modified food (or as he calls it, “real” food) and the overthrow of the capitalist system – searched for days for the answer to the simple question, “Where did we go wrong?”

We took David to anti-war rallies starting when he was a baby, my parents thought. We taught him to advocate for the rights of his aunts who could not get married and of his friends who could not attain citizenship. We showed him that the futons in our basement ought to be occupied by whoever needs a warm place to sleep and taught him to always, always side with the marginalized. We never could have seen this coming.

They were never able to figure out where they went wrong for one simple reason: they didn’t go wrong. There was no big screw-up or miscommunication that led their beloved oldest son to become a close-minded, privileged, misogynistic frat boy, because he never became one. It was unfair of them to assume that he would.

This sort of thing seems to have become a pattern, especially in a city as liberal as DC, where open mindedness is the norm and diversity is encouraged. Many of the most progressively-thinking, loving and seemingly tolerant people I know – at times myself included – seem to have strong prejudices against those who are not marginalized, who are not different enough.

I know that endorsing frats is not a popular move, especially right now, and that is not the message I intend to send. I simply believe that tolerance should not be a selective state of mind. If you intend to be tolerant (and you should), then you must be tolerant of all people. This doesn’t mean you should ignore cases of rape or racial profiling in favor of tolerance for fraternity brothers and policemen. It simply means you shouldn’t rule people out because they fit into a box that is not one of the ones you identify with, or because they fit into a box at all.

Recently I read an article in NY Magazine by one of David’s (fraternity) brothers about his own reluctance to join a fraternity because he believed, like many of us, that fraternities were “bastion[s] of misogyny, elitism, and white privilege.”

Ultimately he ended up joining one, obviously, but the article was about how being in a fraternity helped him to “better understand the histories of discrimination and oppression from which [his] life as a straight, white, cisgender man had shielded [him].” He found the fraternity to be a clear manifestation of such a shield. He was acknowledging his inherent advantage as such a person (white, straight, cisgender, well-off) and when I idly began to read the comments, as I clearly shouldn’t have, I was surprised, as I clearly shouldn’t have been, by the way he was being attacked.

Readers assailed him for his privilege, questioning the validity of his white-straight-male voice, perhaps because they didn’t realize that his understanding of it was the centerpiece of the article. Most surprisingly, they criticized his use of the word “cisgender,” a word which I interpret to be the epitome of political correctness. I don’t see how chastising someone for using a word on which there is no existing consensus of appropriate use is more important than trying to understand where said someone is coming from.

Tolerance should not be a competition or a private party, a grappling for newer and more complicated words, a volley of angry internet comments. There should be ample space on the tolerance train for fraternity brothers who think and religious fanatics who care and anyone who wants to join in. There are so many things to be angry about that word choice and conformity don’t even come close to making the list.


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