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Selections from the News Stand

No, I Really Mean It

I was browsing through the Chronicle’s “Era in Ideas” feature, the last of which is on tolerance. In this section, Omid Safi, a professor of religious studies, explores the titular concept in the context of the States’ post-9/11 “discourse about Islam and Muslims.”


I’m not writing about politics, though. Sometimes an unrelated sequence of actions can lead to a surprising insight. A day earlier, I had read Inside Higher Ed’s “Precision First,” in which psychology professor L. Kimberly Epting urges teachers to balance the often myopic focus on brevity in college writing assignments with a healthy dose of precision. As Epting puts it, “perhaps pressing students to write concisely is the right thing to do. But concise is not always precise, and without precision, concision is just vague at best, and misleading at worst.”

This hit a chord with me because precision is one of the key virtues that I promote all semester long in my writing classes. It’s also (usually) the virtue that students lack most. All of us, especially younger people, are oversaturated in discourse and communication. Precision in those areas just doesn’t seem to be convenient anymore, to say nothing of it as a cultural value.

So what? the skeptic might ask. We still seem to get along just fine. The problem is that we don’t. Discursively speaking, we’re the group of old men harrumph-ing in Blazing Saddles. Ours is an era of confusion and vitriol, ignorance, and anger. Substantive, thoughtful conversation is a rare luxury like caviar—expensive, hard to come by, and viewed mistrustfully by most.

We don't need no stinkin' caviar!

Reading Safi’s piece and what is at the moment the only comment left by a reader, I was reminded that Epting’s imperative of precision should be applied equally to reading and listening as it is to writing and speaking. Think of the situation mathematically. For every misreading, confusion (let’s call it “C”) increases, and because discourse is not just a one-two exchange, every additional misreading (let’s call that “n”) heaped on top of the original misreading adds an exponential amount of confusion. Thus, we have Cx, where x=2(n-1).

Of course, that’s not real math, and I’m sure that everyone even halfway competent in the discipline just threw up a little in their mouths. The point, though, is that imprecise reading and listening can add up to a seriously confused, unproductive, and potentially harmful discourse. For example, Safi writes that

“[t]he origins of the word ‘tolerance’ are in medieval pharmacology and toxicology, dealing with how much poison a body can “tolerate” before it succumbs to a foreign, poisonous substance. Is that our notion of dialogue? Is it about how many Muslims (or gays, blacks, Hispanics, or insert your favorite beleaguered minority group) we can tolerate before they kill us? We can, and must, do better than that.”

However, the commenter rebuts, “[t]he ‘tolerance debate’ wasn’t kicked off by Medieval texts.  It was brought forward in Europe by Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers.”

This person may very well have a valid point about Kant, et. al., but it’s raised in objection to what the commenter perceives as Safi claiming that the “tolerance debate” was “kicked off by Medieval texts.” Is this really what Safi is saying? Sure, there’s some stuff in the ballpark of those concepts, but Safi makes no claims concerning the origins of the “debate” on tolerance.

He does include a historical and etymological perspective on “tolerance” to indicate that the word (or concept) itself is already fraught with contradictions—that it doesn’t necessarily signify the antithesis to intolerance, but actually names a specific kind of intolerance, one that is withheld or restrained and isn’t acted upon as openly. Pure tolerance, therefore, is an ignis fatuus, an equation that works only in a vacuum. In short, tolerance (type) is intolerance (category).


This is the whole point of Safi’s piece: “if we believe only in tolerance, it will be too easy to forget about the equal protection of all human beings before the law, to trample on the rights of disempowered racial, religious, and ethnic minorities.” Nowhere does Safi even begin to make any arguments about when and with whom the philosophical debate over tolerance began. The commenter is responding to something that Safi’s piece doesn’t do, and this adds confusion to the overall discourse.

I often return to the Mad Hatter’s insight that to mean what one says and to say what one means are not exactly identical concepts. Without precision, language becomes an obstacle, a cipher, a barrier, instead of what it should be—a vehicle, a facilitator, a bridge.

This is precisely why people need to practice reading/listening and writing/speaking, well, precisely. It certainly argues in favor of an educational system that still values the humanities, the area of study that most aggressively engages these rhetorical considerations. Otherwise, we’ll continue playing discursive dodgeball, waiting for a chance just to throw our ideas at others instead of genuinely participating in a constructive and thoughtful conversation. And, as always, the smart people are picked off first.


—Trey Conatser




  1. Pingback: A Modest Entreaty « Novel Ideas - August 24, 2011

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