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January 7, 2016


envelopeTo the editor:

I am writing to concur with Michael Goodhart’s critique of the limitations of a “toleration” framework, quoted in the Dec. 10 University Times article about the Dec. 1 Faculty Assembly. Many people find “toleration” inadequate because of the suggestion that difference is something unpleasant we should endure. George Washington, in his 1790 letter to the Jews of Newport, expressed the idea that recognition of rights is better. Washington wrote about religious freedom in the new U.S.: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” The complaint that “toleration” has the wrong connotations, especially when dealing with intergroup relations, is frequent today as well. African-Americans and transgender people are protesting not that they are not tolerated, but, for example, that they do not have human rights such as freedom of movement, driving or walking without being confronted and beaten by a policeman. Women are not asking men to tolerate them but to respect them and in particular not to insult or physically violate them. “Respect” and “justice” are better words to use because they do not presume inequality.

The use of words such as “tolerance” and “toleration” first developed with regard to treatment of members of a religious minority in a country with an established church which considered them heretics or infidels. Well-meaning institutions such as the Museum of Tolerance and the Southern Poverty Law Center have tried to redefine tolerance, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, as late as 2009, has written of it as an important first step. But by now we should be beyond first steps in including women and African Americans in a great university. The word “toleration” carries a lot of baggage of condescension or worse. Using “justice” won’t solve all problems; it’s not necessarily obvious what is just in any particular situation, and the same may be true of “respect.” Listening is needed.

The topic of academic freedom has been set for months for our spring plenary, and so a tie-in with recent controversies about the treatment of ideas and speech is an obvious connection to make. But we should give attention to the many places where other frameworks are offered to address intergroup relations. There may be some in connection with this year’s plenary. Others are the Provost’s Diversity Institute and the University Human Rights Network. And perhaps next year there will be a Senate plenary or another event with equivalent visibility on what more Pitt can do to promote justice and respect for all.

Marianne Novy
Department of English
Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences


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