Active Tolerance in Action: Accepting Conflicting Cultural Values in a Constructive Way

When living and working in a foreign environment, you are guaranteed to face cultural conflicts.

Conflicts in behavioral norms. Conflicts in values. Conflicts in the line between what’s sensitive/offensive and what’s not.

Last week, we discussed that acceptance and active tolerance do not necessarily mean you must agree with or adopt another culture’s values or norms.

But while it’s easy to discuss, it’s not that easy to envision.

How, exactly, you demonstrate active tolerance?

The following anecdote about conflicting values will help illustrate what active tolerance looks like in action.

Anecdotal Example of Active Tolerance

My father was a Christian missionary working in development aid in Africa in the 1970s.

There, he was confronted with the cultural norms of polygamy, something that deeply conflicted with his spiritual and moral ideals of the sacred commitment of marriage between one man and one woman.

Religious beliefs can make cultural conflicts all the more powerful, being that the acceptance of opposing ideologies means disobedience to God.

My father’s monkey moment was no longer surface; it was a deeply ingrained conflict linked to sin, eternity, and virtue.

But instead of reacting immediately with intolerance, and separating the polygamous men from all wives but their first, as early Christian missionaries were traditionally wont to do, my father took an objective view of the matter.

He realized in forcing separations, the leftover wives would be ostracized, impoverished, and with no family or future. In turn, all childcare and chores would fall on the shoulders of the single wife remaining with her husband, making her unhappy, exhausted, and overworked.

This solution would cause more problems than it solved.

The Flip Side

Of course, my father also saw the other side: the negative aspects of polygamy.

Historically, polygamy allowed for the difference in the mortality rate between women and men. Women far outlived men, forcing a gender imbalance.

Allowing polygamy provided social security for women, as a male sibling was obliged to marry the wives of his brother if he died prematurely.

Nowadays, the mortality rate between men and women is more or less the same. This has allowed for much younger brides being forced into marriage to much older men, with some being promised even before they’re born.

My father faced a moral conundrum: not only was polygamy morally wrong to him, but it was also wrong in that it resulted in forced marriage. However, forcing existing wives to be left to fend for themselves in a social culture was, without question, not morally right.

Did accepting polygamy in this society mean he was complicit? Would being tolerant of polygamy mean he’d be abandoning his own values?

The Solution

My father saw his way through this conflict with active tolerance.

He accepted that polygamy has historically been part of this culture’s social fabric while also standing firm in his beliefs without forcing them upon the locals, as he understood that many polygamous relationships in the culture were consensual.

However, he distinguished between consensual polygamy and forced marriages. And while respecting the culture’s historical roots and perspective on polygamy to the point that he argued to his church council that wives should not be turned out, he found a way to help those women who wanted to flee forced marriages by building a shelter for them.

Through this anecdote and many more, my father taught me what active tolerance really means: to respect those with diverging opinions, as they often have the same conviction and integrity in their view as you do yours.