I Don’t Owe You My Tolerance: How “Civil Discourse” Functions to Uphold Systems of Oppression

BY: DEVONTAE TORRIENTE 

In the current political climate, I sometimes have conversations about politics with people whose views run counter to my core principles. When that happens, the belief that repeatedly rears its head is that we are supposed to be tolerant, if not accepting, of those with whom we disagree and their views. On a very surface level, that claim is innocuous. Many of us are socialized to believe that we are going to come across people who have views, be they political or otherwise, with which we disagree and the best we can do is try to see the other side.

Now, the thought of tolerating others’ opinions can be harmless in the context of food, television shows, movies and even music. But when it comes to politics, a more nuanced approach is required. However, let me be clear in that I believe everything is political, from the food you eat to the production of the movies you watch. By that, I mean all of it is deeply entrenched in its own power structures and systemic challenges that reveal something about our status in society. Food deserts, in places like D.C., are a good example of this. They show that what we eat is directly related to what food we have access to, which  in turn, is linked with socioeconomic status and race.

When it comes to politics itself, there is a fairly narrow view of what it means. It is often discussed as an abstract concept that consists of people running for office or those in elected positions making important decisions about policy. These conversations lack a certain level of critical depth, asserting that no matter the decisions made, those officials are still people whom we should respect and be civil towards; that regardless of the impact of their actions while in office, they are people first and politicians second. Along with those politicians come their supporters, many of whom want that same assurance. After all, that is what’s at the core of the misguided and fraught renewed calls for civil discourse and empathy when it comes to Trump supporters, right?

In this country, the overarching sentiment among both public officials and everyday people seems to be that regardless of our political affiliation or ideology, we are “Americans first.” Because of such, we are supposed to be able to reach across the aisle and see the other side, no matter how much you oppose the other side’s beliefs.

But racism, sexism, Islamophobia, ableism, and any other form of oppression are not simply the “other side;” they are direct threats to our lives and livelihoods. Assertions that we are “Americans first” ring hollow in light of the abject brutality against Black and Brown bodies, the denial of bodily autonomy to women, and the fundamental rejection of rights for the LGBTQ community, not to mention the converging issues that arise at the intersection of our various identities. Any attempts to reduce those forms of violence to the “other side” are dangerous.

At a time when there is a man in power who has a history of sexual violence against women, wants to deport millions of undocumented Latinx people, seeks to ban Muslims from entering the country, is a certified racist, and has a blatant disregard for anything or anyone who does not serve to inflate his ego and support his demagoguery, civil discourse is not a virtue. Instead, civil discourse functions to uphold the violent and oppressive norms of white supremacy, the patriarchy, and any other system that targets marginalized communities. It silences our resistance efforts, backing us into a corner where we are powerless and unable to dismantle the very systems that exploit us and threaten our existence. It is both the white student reducing their Black peer’s impassioned comments during a class discussion to “aggression” and the white male pundit dismissing the valid concerns of the second Black woman elected to the United States Senate as “hysteria.”

It’s time for us to do away with the idea that we must be respectful or courteous to be entitled to our rights. Politeness isn’t a requirement when we are confronting anyone who uses their political and social power to further disenfranchise us. We are now charged with ushering in a new era of normalized discomfort in which people in positions of power know that in this fight for our humanity, we will not concede the raw power of our indignation. In this age of entitlement by those with problematic or seemingly unpopular views, remember this: I don’t owe you my tolerance, especially not when my life is at stake.

Cover Photo: Creative Common

Jenna CaldwellComment