There is a debate roiling, an existential discussion being had quietly at dinner tables and in dimly lit rooms across the country about whether we find ourselves past the peak of culture and civility. About whether the the light from the “shining city upon a hill” is dimming its ability to draw those “freedom seeking people” everywhere. In part, this discussion is being provoked by the continued silence of the ever quiet majority, a majority who remains mum in the face of a vocal minority whose fear has metastasized into something ugly and hateful. However, in this deafening silence from those who might be able to soothe the lost and scared, there is an argument that seems to be consistently overlooked, undervalued, or maybe just forgotten — that tolerance is an endlessly valuable strategy for reducing this fear, as well as for overall success. In fact, beyond any sense of nationalism, ethnicity, social or cultural identity, tolerance can be pointed to as the key to the existence of Culture itself — that’s Culture with a capital “c.”
First, let’s allow for a working definition of tolerance. Tolerance is the ability to allow for others to have different opinions, different genes, different morphology, different anything, without adverse reaction. Tolerance, then, is a value that can only be promoted by the environments we create, and not an idea in itself we can force upon people. It is a value that is borne out of safety, a deep sense of safety where one knows beyond any shadow of a doubt that their physical being will be protected no matter what wandering roads their mind chooses to bring them down. It is in this safety, from both physical and emotional harm, that tolerance is borne.
So how then is this a strategy for success? And where can you find proof of the success of this strategy? Let’s start from the beginning. No, literally, the beginning of civilization as we know it.
“Demographic models based on increased human population density from the late Pleistocene onward have been increasingly invoked to understand the emergence of behavioral modernity. However, high levels of social tolerance, as seen among living humans, are a necessary prerequisite to life at higher population densities and to the kinds of cooperative cultural behaviors essential to these demographic models.”
There is a concept within anthropology known as The Great Leap Forward — not to be confused with the Chinese Revolution — which suggests that human culture seemed to burst onto the scene all at once, in a sort of binary fashion. There are lots of debates about when exactly this happened (between 100K-35K years ago), and why (e.g. ice age, genetic bottleneck etc.), but one thing that is clear is that culture as we know it today is highly dependent on tolerance. We live, in increasing numbers, in cities. This requires people to live together without hurting or killing each other. But simply not killing each other doesn’t highlight what we stand to gain as a result of living in these close communities with a higher level of tolerance.
Some anthropologist point to tool use and production as an early sign of tolerance. The production of tools, such as arrowheads, would require persistent, repetitive behaviors, a skill set that favors those on the autism spectrum — the consistent quality of the arrowheads in local archeological records demonstrates this specialization. In this example, the community that tolerated the different types of behaviors exhibited by those on the autism spectrum were rewarded with a consistent source of high-quality arrowheads. This early example of specialized contributions within society requires tolerance, and provides a win-win for the individual and the group as a whole — those individuals with autism may not have otherwise been able to survive to adulthood without the protection of the community, and the community is rewarded with their arrowheads and spear tips as a result of their tolerance. The community increases its ability to ward off attacks and hunt for food, and the individual increases their likelihood of passing their genes on to the next generation.
It’s not just autism. We’ve been shown, both through history and in more recent times, that art and culture tend to be created with a higher frequency by those who possess other forms of neurodiversity — writers with bipolar disorder, painters with depression, shamans and religious figures with schizophrenia. The list goes on. By allowing them to be different, we’re rewarded with the contributions that they’re especially predisposed to provide to their communities. And so our culture expands.
How does this relate to today?
Today we find ourselves in the midst of a Presidential election where, latently or explicitly, the idea of tolerance seems to be behind all the big issues we’re fighting about. Mexican immigrants? Black Lives Matter? Syrian refugees? Christian values? Partisan politics? They’re all questions of tolerance, and of the environment within the country that we’re willing to create. Is this a place that is safe, both physically as well as emotionally, for people of different ideas, genetics, morphologies, neurologies, or creeds? Or do we have knee-jerk adverse reactions to those things based purely on the fact that they are different or other?
Require further proof that tolerance is a strategy we should be working towards beyond the fact human civilization owes its existence, and continued growth in complexity, to our ability to be tolerant of others? Below is additional evidence explaining why we should seek to increase our capacity for tolerance as companies, organizations, and individuals.
Diversity Wins, Which Means Tolerance Should Win.
We were reluctant to use the word “diversity” in this piece because of all of the baggage it carries, but if we’re unwilling to tolerate this term, then the problem is much bigger than we thought. The reason for the reluctance is that “diversity” is an active strategy to change the way we decide to form groups, whereas tolerance is based on the qualities of our environments and the way we choose to view “others.” However, regardless of how we frame it, study after study shows that groups that are made up of many, different types of individuals are more successful than those made of individuals that are the same.
It starts in theories as foundational as evolution. Species with a higher level of diversity of traits in their gene pool are more likely to survive some major environmental change. A great example of this is the peppered moth who adapted to the pollution of the industrial revolution — one of the first studies to prove out natural selection. But the theory also holds true in human social environments like our schools and companies. Diversity wins whether it is a group of diverse problem solvers, nations composed of diverse individuals, even randomly selected portfolios of diverse algorithms outperform portfolios of algorithms that are chosen based on performance on a problem in question. And it makes sense when you view our experiences, our genetics, or our perspectives as resources to be exploited in solving any given problem. The idea is that each one is a “tool” in a “toolbox,” and common sense would tell you that the more tools you have in your toolbox, the more likely you are to be able to solve any problem chosen at random. It doesn’t help to have 8 phillips head screw drivers when what you need is a hammer.
Based on all of this, one of the biggest flaws in the political strategies of both the insular and the xenophobic are that they statistically reduce the likelihood of “winning” into the future. Anything that reduces the number of sources for solutions statistically also reduces the likely quality of the solutions. Be that a wall, an onerous immigration policy (asylum or not), or just the fear of the unknown. These all begin to reduce the diversity of our country, our companies, and our schools.
Whether you’re an individual or an organization, liberal or conservative, christian or muslim, tolerance is something that benefits all of us. When viewed from the perspective of your organization, there are a lot of traditional strategies that are quickly put in stark relief for their failures to promote diversity. For example, recruiting from an extremely short list of schools quickly reduces the diversity within your organization, even if those schools are elite.
The truth is, it’s sort of a sad state of affairs when there seems to be a need for an article like this, expounding the commercial benefits of tolerance. While the business benefits of diversity and tolerance are abundant, one would hope that the human and moral benefits of tolerance would be obvious enough not to require it to be put in such terms. However, here we are, in a country where the turn to vitriol and even violence is bellowed by the sad and fearful. And so, even if it seems obvious, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded that tolerance, the ability to accept other opinions, genetics, morphologies, or ideas, is a powerful strategy for success. It has been proven out in science, and logic, and rational thinking.
In the coming months, if you hear that song of isolation and intolerance plucking at your neighbors heartstrings, remember that tolerance and diversity have shown that they always win, whether they are employed here or somewhere else. It is part of what made the “melting pot” of America so successful — despite our imperfect ability to tolerate large groups of our own at different points through our history (including now). So if you’re into winning, then it’s all of our responsibility to create environments of ever increasing tolerance, where it’s safe for everyone to be as weird or different as they want to be. We just thought that if you don’t want to do it because it’s right, you might be compelled by the money.