Teaching Tolerance: What Research Tells Us. (Research and Practice)

By Avery, Patricia G. | Social Education, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Teaching Tolerance: What Research Tells Us. (Research and Practice)


Avery, Patricia G., Social Education


They first came for the Communists and I didn't speak up became I wasn't a Communist.

Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out.

Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me. (1)

Attributed to Pastor Martin Niemoeller, a German opponent of Nazism

WHEN U.S. CITIZENS ARE ASKED WHAT America means to them, they are most likely to talk about freedoms, liberties, and individual rights. In one study, in answer to the question what it means to be American, the typical response was "Being an American is to be free, to speak up for yourself, to fight for your freedom." (2) Regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity. U.S. citizens tend to associate their country with individual freedoms and rights, particularly freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to assemble, and the right to a trial by a jury of peers. Yet in the aftermath of the tragedy of September 11, 2001, polls indicate that many U.S. citizens are willing to accept restrictions on their freedoms in exchange for greater security. One month after the terrorist attack, 42 percent of those polled did not feel it was "okay" to criticize President George W. Bush on domestic or economic issues. (3)

Clearly, no rights are absolute. In 1919, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing panic." (4) But the abnegation of civil liberties in a democracy is a very serious proposition and deserves no less than our full attention. The internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s and the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s are just two of the periods in recent history during which limitations were placed on civil liberties. Today, many U.S. citizens view these events, with regret, and believe that the government exceeded its authority.

Political tolerance is the willingness to extend civil liberties to those, whose views you find objectionable. (5) You do not demonstrate "tolerance" toward groups whose ideas you support or about which you don't care. For example, if you are sympathetic to the views of a pro-life group, or are neutral toward their stance, then you should not describe yourself as "tolerant" toward the group. It is when you find a group's views quite objectionable that you can truly demonstrate tolerance toward the group.

Each of us has groups whose views ignite our passionate opposition: some examples at different ends of the political spectrum are the Aryan Nation, the National Rifle Association (NRA), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Pro-life and pro-choice groups are among those that frequently impinge upon core beliefs. It is not easy to grant groups forums for expressing their views when these ideas are in direct opposition to your own.

For more than fifty years, political scientists and psychologists have examined levels of political tolerance among adults and adolescents. (6) In general, the role of demographic characteristics such as age, gender, and socioeconomic status in predicting levels of tolerance is minimal at best. Psychological characteristics, such as level of dogmatism, authoritarianism, and self-esteem are much better predictors of tolerance. Individuals who demonstrate high levels of dogmatism and authoritarianism and low levels of self-esteem are likely to be more intolerant than are their counterparts.

College education is one of the most powerful predictors of tolerance. (7) College experiences seem to decrease authoritarianism and dogmatism, and increase self-esteem, thereby increasing levels of tolerance. It is thought that the college environment exposes students to diverse points of view, either through course readings or interaction with people who hold views in opposition to their own. …

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