Op-Ed

America's tolerance dilemma

We tolerate more and yet we encounter diversity less. Will it end American exceptionalism?

Americans like to believe that our exceptional story was cooked up in the proverbial melting pot. And it's true that we've broadly taken strength from our diversity. But the way we engage our differences has more recently begun to shift. We're more tolerant today than we've ever been, but we're also more likely to wall ourselves off from those who hold opposing points of view. As a result, the latitude to lead lives of our own choosing allows and sometimes compels us to narrow the horizons of our individual experience.

We're right to celebrate the nation's growing aversion to outright bigotry. Few things have been more startling than America's broadening embrace of civil rights. The Pew Research Center has been tracking American values for decades. Its polling reveals that, as recently as the late 1980s, a bona fide majority of Americans thought school administrators should have the right to fire teachers simply for being homosexual; that figure has since dwindled to little more than a fifth. In 1983, a full half of Americans opposed interracial marriage; today, only a fraction of the nation's adults hold the same view.

Oddly enough, however, all that newfound tolerance hasn't led to a broader diversity in our everyday lives as much as it's touched off a stampede toward balkanization. Empowered to deviate from any central norm by the erosion of prejudice, we have sought comfortable, familiar niches.

As author Bill Bishop detailed in “The Big Sort,” census data and election results reveal that Americans have moved into communities that are more homogeneously partisan, with both conservatives and progressives preferring to avoid living near people who hold opposing views. As Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow has documented, even in the religious realm, the faithful today are willing to travel out of their way in search of a congregation that embraces their preferred liturgy.

In many cases, we've been fooled into presuming that modernity serves only to broaden our horizons because people with different perspectives are now only a few mouse clicks away. But that assumption conflates the ability to connect with the same predilection. Even beyond the careful algorithms Google and Facebook use to circumscribe what we see online, technology lets us make contact with one another without registering our full identities.

Two generations ago, a member of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society looking to hock a vintage baseball card would likely have had to come face to face with a buyer — even if she'd pinned a picture of President Kennedy on her lapel. Today, by contrast, a tea partier can sell memorabilia to a Latino immigrant on EBay, and neither is any the wiser for it. The spirit of American commerce once compelled us to know one another in depth. Today, by contrast, we frequently engage entirely on the surface.

We can't discount the blessings of the new norm. Most of us find comfort living inside pockets of like-minded acquaintances. And keeping antagonistic communities separated can tamp down the tension between them.

But if the magic of the American experience was born in the cultural melange of our broader diversity, something has been lost along the way. Indeed, our lack of interaction and the mutual understanding it builds is likely contributing to the vitriol that has hamstrung Congress. Members who represent constituencies with little to no shared experience are more likely to refrain from any meaningful collaboration.

To combat this trend, some might argue that we should promote ever greater diversity. But the magic of the melting pot wasn't simply the fact of its jumble; it was that various groups were compelled to interact, share ideas, discuss their differences and learn from their disagreements.

As Arthur Koestler wrote in the 1960s: “The creative act is not an act of creation in the sense of the Old Testament. It does not create something out of nothing; it uncovers, selects, reshuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills.”

Joshua Wolf Shenk's recent book, “Powers of Two,” explored how partners like Lennon and McCartney found magic through the intensity of their interaction. But that phenomenon is true on a wider scale as well. America's social architecture was uniquely adept at incubating a range of collaboration. The fact that we couldn't get away from one another fueled the nation's dynamism.

That's no longer true. The principle of “live and let live” has led us to look away when coming across someone unfamiliar. We should undoubtedly celebrate victories in the fight for individual rights. But if tolerance is driving balkanization, we need to recognize that the American experience has changed at its root.

Marc J. Dunkelman, a research fellow at Brown University's A. Alfred Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions, is the author of the just-published book, "The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community."

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