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Tolerance Intolerant by Dawn Lerman









Tolerance Intolerant

By Dawn Lerman, Ph.D.

It all started with a racial slur scribbled on a student’s dorm door.  Then came what almost seems like a barrage of similar incidents on campus, if only because they all occurred during a short time span: first, more racial graffiti and next, a homophobic epithet hurled at a student.    

Campus administration at all levels has made strong statements denouncing the incidents, declaring that bigotry has no place at Fordham and reinforcing the “values and responsibilities that come with membership in the Fordham community.”  Yet the incidents continue, most recently with a rather sophomoric story in an April Fool’s issue of our student newspaper about “Jesuits Gone Jewish” that many Jews on campus felt was insensitive at best.  According to the article, Fordham will turn campus chapels into synagogues, replace its Fordham Mornings campus cable news program with a Shalom, Fordham broadcast, and kosher the cafeterias as part of a religious affiliation swap with Yeshiva University, “a leading Jewish school with six campuses in New York and one in Israel.”

Personally--and I say this as a Jewish faculty member at a Jesuit university-- I think the story was just as, if not more, offensive to the Jesuits as to the Jews. Let the Jesuits be Jesuits!  Any suggestion that they be someone else is an attack on both personal liberty and religious freedom.  It is also a direct affront on cura personalis---the Ignatian principles of respect and care for the individual--- that underlies Fordham’s Jesuit tradition. But what troubles me most is that the story uncovered all sorts of anti Semitism that some our Jewish undergraduate students have experienced at the hands of classmates: In one case, students urinating on a posted flyer about an upcoming Jewish event. In another, students asking to play Frisbee with a Jewish classmate’s yarmulke. 

Perhaps I have simply been lucky to have never encountered anti Semitism in my twelve years on the Fordham faculty, but I never thought of it as luck.  I always thought of it as good fortune for landing at an institution that respects each and every individual.  I have many non-Jewish colleagues, and they have always been nothing but welcoming and supportive.  Never have I felt it necessary to hide my Judaism or to defend it.  For this I am grateful, as it is not always like this in life, including in my life outside of Fordham, where I’ve encountered more than my fair share of anti Semitism--like my dorm-mate who told me that “Hitler should have killed all the Jews when he had the chance.”  Or the stranger seated next to me at a wedding who quite inappropriately complained to me for some length of time about her son’s poor relationship choices.  (Apparently, his first wife was bad enough but now he was dating a Jewish lawyer.  “Talk about jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire!” she told me.) Indeed.

Throughout the years, I’ve shared these stories with friends and colleagues. Most people are appalled, using my stories as evidence that we really need more tolerance in this world. We hear that word quite frequently, don’t we?

When a synagogue is defaced, we call for tolerance.  When gay teens kill themselves in order to escape bullying, we call for tolerance.  This past Easter, the Pope called for greater religious tolerance in Africa, as did Nigeria’s Senate President David Mark.  And this spring, crowds gathered across the country to call for civil rights, racial tolerance and stricter gun laws following the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin and others like him.

While I’m certainly a fan of tolerance, I can’t help but wonder: Is that the best we can do? Is that the best we can strive for—tolerance? I tolerate traffic during my morning commute.  I tolerate the near constant interruptions to my work day.  I tolerate the unnecessarily loud noises emanating from my daughter’s toys when I get home.  I put up with—tolerate—them but I do not welcome them. Nor do I accept them.

We are of two minds in our use of the word ‘tolerance.’  Narrowly defined, it means “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one's own” or “the allowable deviation from a standard.” The term has been used in the context of “teaching tolerance” or invoking in our children an appreciation of our many differences.  But colloquially, this is not how the term tolerance is used.  And until we change our vocabulary, we are not advocating an open, welcoming society that appreciates differences.

The continuing of bias incidents at Fordham is no doubt frustrating members of our community at all levels--- from students right up to the University president.  And the administration’s inability to put an end to it just feeds the frustration.  None of this is Fordham’s fault, but rather a failing of society in general.  The students who perpetrated these crimes and injustices did not learn bigotry at Fordham but likely came to us harboring their recently broadcast biases.  In fact, in some ways, our campus community is fortunate that these biases have come to light, as it gives us an opportunity to address them and hopefully, right a wrong. 

In the circumstances in which we find ourselves--both at Fordham and within our larger society--the word tolerate should only be used in the negative, as in ‘we will NOT tolerate.’  We will not tolerate discrimination of any kind--ethnic, racial, religious, sexual, or otherwise. In my roles as a college administrator and a professor--but more importantly, as a human being--I do not tolerate it. Nor do I simply tolerate those of you who are ethnically, racially, religiously, or sexually different from me.  Instead, I welcome and embrace you.

Dawn Lerman, Ph.D., is chair of the marketing department and a professor at the Schools of Business at Fordham University. 

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