Magazine article World Literature Today

Belief in an Age of Intolerance

Magazine article World Literature Today

Belief in an Age of Intolerance

Article excerpt

Belief can refer to the thing believed, or to the act of believing, and the two meanings are equally available to this forums title, "Belief in an Age of Intolerance." The title could disambiguate toward thing believed by substituting the plural: "Beliefs in an Age of Intolerance." The title could disambiguate toward act of believing by substituting the gerund: "Believing in an Age of Intolerance." As a stay against confusion from this ambiguity, as a way, in fact, to take advantage of the ambiguity to highlight salient facts about belief and intolerance, let "belief (t)" designate the thing believed, and "belief (a)" designate the act of believing. Belief (t) would include such usages as: "I know something if it is a justified true belief"; "It is my belief that Olga Korbut was a better gymnast than Nadia Comăneci." Belief(a) would include such usages as: "Belief in propaganda weakens citizenship"; "It's a warped version of belief that cult practices."

Those responsible for creating this forum are right to ask after the relationship between belief and intolerance. Distinguishing between belief(t) and belief(a) draws attention to a crucial fact about that relationship: Intolerance derives not from belief(t) but from belief(a). Explicitly stating that fact is important, because it would be easy to assume (and many persons do assume) the opposite. Because belief (t) is the primary sense, the one likely to be given as the first definition in a dictionary entry, the natural assumption would be that what relates to intolerance is belief(t). My thesis here, though, is that, contrary to that natural assumption, it is actually belief(a) that relates more directly to intolerance. Making and maintaining the belief(t)/belief(a) distinction sustains various orienting insights about belief in an age of intolerance, among them the following.

1. Belief(t) refers to what one believes; belief(a) refers to how one believes. Intolerance has to do less with what one believes than with how one believes.

An elegant exploration of that problematic occurs in Kate Northrops poem "Gardening," which succinctly narrates, from the daughter's point of view, an ongoing mother/daughter disagreement (Back Through Interruption). The speaker's mother, an avid gardener, wants the speaker "to look at the agapanthus, / at the trout lily," but the speaker herself laments that "I hate it, the garden, all of it . . ." Her mother says, "It's labor I mind," but the daughter/speaker denies the accusation. I don't mind labor, she counters; to the contrary, "all those hours weeding in the sun" are monotonous, and "I like monotony." What I do mind, the speaker reports, is the way my mother "puts her face // into the flower, the way she walks through the garden / without wanting to weep." In noting one further mother/daughter dissonance, that the daughter, contrary to the mother's wishes, does not want "to come home and sit // in the summer house, drinking wine, / watching the sky // abstract itself" or watching moonflowers bloom at night, the speaker chooses the neutral description that her mother doesn't understand why the daughter doesn't want what the mother wants. She neither lets her mother "off the hook" by allowing that her mother can't understand, nor assigns blame by insisting that her mother won't understand. After that, the speaker/daughter concludes the poem by identifying the particular disagreement between her mother and herself as a mild form of intolerance, a particular instance of a more general principle, which the poem formulates from the point of view of the patient rather than the agent of intolerance: "It is always difficult to explain yourself / to the faithful"

"The faithful" does not identify a group based on what its members believe but does so based on how they believe. "Faithful" here does not specify any particular belief(t); instead, it characterizes a mode of belief(a). The problem is not that it is hard to explain yourself to someone who believes that gardening is healthful (or to someone who holds any particular belief(t): that Jesus rose from the dead, that the invisible hand of the free market distributes goods with perfect efficiency, whatever). …

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