Tolerance is a commitment to accept individuals I may never understand and cultures I may never grasp, as though they don’t require my acceptance. Everyone knows that in the workplace, one is expected not to discriminate on the basis of the big four: ethnicity, gender, creed, or sexuality. In practice, however, several types of discrimination tend to fall through the cracks. Often they are overlooked entirely, even if they do just as much harm. By delineating only certain types of protection, these forms of discrimination, arguably and actually, are given prevalence:
Immigrants who have not fully assimilated. Perhaps they have an imperfect or nonexistent command of English. Maybe they bring with them customs that the previous wave of immigrants finds bizarre. It’s inappropriate to make comments like “if you don’t speak English, you don’t belong in this country….” The heart of discrimination is, in fact, to make anyone feel that they don’t belong. We all belong.
Microminorities often get short shrift. Critics of tolerance have utilized reductio to observe that if certain classes of people are protected, this could be expanded to include smaller and more individualized or obscure groups (red-headed, left-handed, fooseball lovers who are vegetarian), until ultimately we are protecting classes that contain only one person somewhere. They ask “where does it end?” This criticism illustrates precisely the point that tolerance is tolerance, and intolerance is intolerance, whether someone belongs to a large class of people, or is unlike any other human being you’ve ever met. In fact, your character is revealed by how you treat someone who is alone – who doesn’t have any specific official protection. There’s no excuse for discrimination on the basis that the person cannot claim enough support from others like him. I once heard a government employee manning an office that deals with discrimination claim that religious discrimination isn’t considered discrimination. Clearly, he, like the aforementioned ideologues, had missed the point.
Military Opponents: It is sometimes considered acceptable or at least “understandable” to demonstrate bigotry toward any group with which we are currently or have recently been at war. At one time, it was acceptable to associate all Germans (or Germans generally) with Nazis. Likewise caricatures of Japanese were popular, though for a shorter period since Japanese immigrants widely compensated for the defeat of the Empire by placing an exaggerated emphasis on assimilation. After WWII, it was widely considered acceptable to mock Russians (Cold War era) and, in the wake of the rising Middle Eastern conflicts, to pin up demeaning posters of the Ayatolla Khomeini. Recently, at the outset of the US bombing of Iraq, I watched a company hold and require attendance to “patriotism parties” on the production floor at work, complete with Christian hymns fitted with military lyrics, and cheering. This came on the heels of mandating the decoration of all workspaces with red, white, and blue streamers. This further weakened tolerance for people of Arabic descent, and even people of totally unrelated ethnic backgrounds who merely “looked” Arabic to the ill-informed. Among microminorities who were greeted with a hostile workplace were pacifists who felt too fearful to resist participation. This kind of bigotry can be extended by many subtle means; it may involve intentionally butchering someone’s name (easy to claim innocence there), making suggestions about the ethnic food that people eat, or asking uncomfortable questions about one’s family, country of origin, or political views. Simply put, the fact that there’s a military conflict doesn’t excuse bigotry in the workplace. Bigotry is bigotry.