Intolerance: A Tough Nut to Crack

Close-up of a boy's hand

Donald Trump, 3 October: “When you come back from war… and you’re strong and you can handle it – but a lot of people can’t handle it and they see horror stories.”

Joe Biden, later that day: “It’s not that he doesn’t get it. It’s that he doesn’t want to find out.”


At ANU, people who aren’t Kat Carrington have spare time to devote to things that aren’t central in their lives. And most (including Kat Carrington) have the energy and interest to engage with new and challenging things and ideas.

People further along in their lives tend to be less tolerant. When I say “tolerance”, I’m not talking dictionary-definition tolerance where you just have the capacity to endure difference. When I say “tolerance”, I mean the whole-hearted embracing and celebration of difference. Of course, generations further along than us were raised in times where standards were different, but also they have kids, full time jobs, and generally reduced energy levels. As a result, while admittedly this is a huge generalisation, they have a reduced capacity to process and accept new things.

It’s not so long a bow to draw to say that to be tolerant of something takes a degree of mental energy. My mum wouldn’t have had to do extra thinking, or non-standard planning for me, were I straight. In her case, she doesn’t mind the extra effort, and in fact, it has brought us closer. Nonetheless, if everybody fitted a standard mould, we wouldn’t need to engage in the laborious task of complex thought: interests would be the same, so we wouldn’t need to pretend to care about others; we wouldn’t need to be sensitive to disadvantaged groups, and no special accommodations would need to be made for anyone, since all needs would be the same.

To experience, even in some small part, another person’s worldview and life experience takes real effort. So perhaps a large part of ignorance is born from exhaustion: our brains don’t want to do extra work. If a person working under or with us neglects their part in a project, then we can rightly be frustrated. There can be many reasons – some of which we may even find palatable – for things not being assigned their requisite amount of effort. So if we accept that much intolerance comes from people being unwilling or unable to muster the effort to empathise, then perhaps we can better approach situations of intolerance.

When I say that intolerance can be born from exhaustion, that is not to excuse it or to equivocate on my values. My first instinct is to hate homophobes. Misogynists aren’t worth my time. Detractors of people with medical conditions of any kind are irredeemable scum – perhaps even a basket of deplorables.

There are good reasons for my instinctive reactions – after all, my energy stores are limited too. Why should the energy required come from me? The answer is that because I’m the one trying to make something change, I’d better be prepared to expend some of my own energy on it.

So maybe – not from their words but from what we can read into them – we can learn from people like Scott Morrison, who voiced the opinion on ABC Radio National that opponents of marriage equality also face “hate speech and bigotry”. People do feel under attack when their views are dismissed as out-of-touch or otherwise irrelevant. Insulting people will seldom make them agree with you.

This analysis is not new or insightful, but perhaps one strategy to get around this opinion-based wall is. Is it really fair that we attack people for not having the energy to reinvent their world view? Sure, if you have a gay kid, then you’re expected to try to understand. But, if Bob Katter’s impression that there were not any gay people in his electorate had not actually turned out to be so hilariously wrong, would we really have expected him to go to all the effort of empathising with a distant issue, just so he could have the final reward of finding out he had been wrong the whole time?

We love the idea that we are curious and always looking for a challenge, but in reality, stepping out of one’s comfort zone is pretty tiring for the average person, whose life is already crammed full of stuff they have to care about. In cases where you have somebody who is willing to listen, I would argue that a gentle attempt at empathy, and a non-confrontational attempt at informing and interfacing, is likely to be your best bet.

I would love to be an ideologue, and while I am secure in my views, I try not to be strident about them. Maybe #heforshe is too much of a sell-out viewpoint and I should stand more firm. For me, though, I think I would prefer to win somebody over than to beat them.

You crack a nut with the proper application of pressure in the right places. A sledgehammer will either miss, or crush the container and the prize altogether.