Beyond Tolerance -- Our Fractured World Needs Respect

Each day brings news of struggle and discord.

Brussels is bombed. Lahore is attacked. Refugees flee war-torn homes, risking life and limb to pursue hope and dignity in distant lands.

Headlines at home are no less sinister.

Presidential candidates contend less on the playing field of ideas and vision, and more on the volume of diatribe and the bitterness of personal attacks.

These struggles signal a deep intolerance that is all too pervasive in our modern world.

It is tempting, in this context, to meet intolerance with a call for greater tolerance.

But our fractured world needs something more - it needs respect.

Several years ago, I recall my friend Rick Little, founder of the International Youth Foundation, being the first to describe to me his distaste for tolerance as an objective for a better global society.

Tolerance implies control of anger, the repression of dislike, and a grudging apathy toward the people and things we'd rather avoid.

While tolerance may tamp violence, reduce vitriol, and soften the blow of human excess, what it does not do is foster the empathy and understanding needed to solve our greatest problems.

Only respect can do that.

Respect is bolder, and harder, than tolerance.

And it's something we badly need in public policy, politics, business, communities, homes, and in our basic discourse as human beings.

When we seek tolerance, we're not doing enough. We're not opening our minds to truly understand others. We're not showing our own humility and gratitude for what we have in the world, nor are we realizing that others might not have as much as we do. We're not overcoming ignorance, unlocking prejudice, or building awareness about who others are, where they come from, and what they hope to achieve in the future.

Tolerance requires suppression.

Respect demands much more.

Respect insists on acceptance. It means I accept you have your rights, your freedoms - including the freedom to speak out against my position -, and your own distinct path and destiny in the world. And respect requires me to acknowledge that you earned it.

In this way, respect also calls on us to reexamine our own position in the world. Even if I disagree with what you are doing, respect means I don't prevent you from pursuing your deserved path, just as you should not prevent me from pursuing my own.

If we approach our interactions with this type of good faith, we will build understanding that ultimately leads to respect.

This has implications that span the world of policy, politics, business, and beyond.

So, what does respect versus tolerance look like in action?

Consider the refugee crisis.

When a million-plus Syrians pour onto Europe's shores and into her cities, tolerance means casting our gaze aside and going about our daily lives while others raise their voice in condemnation, labeling each would-be countrymen as a danger to society, a burden on the public dole, a usurper of jobs that should instead go to domestic workers.

Respect, on the other hand, means first considering the struggle refugees endured to reach Europe. And while it does not demand that we accept them into our homes and our countries without end, it does demand us to understand and empathize with the forces that led them to attempt such a perilous journey in the first place.

Or look at America's coming election.

Tolerance among candidates would mean ditching the ad-hominem character assaults that have come to consume TV debates in favor of silent deferment as others make their point.

Respect, by contrast, would mean actively welcoming an opponent's point of view, and using it as impetus to lift the logic and ambition of one's own viewpoint.

Respect in our nation's politics is especially important, because it raises the level of our public debate, and ensures the ideas that emanate from electoral contests breed policy solutions on par with the challenges we face.

Let's turn to business.

The minimum wage is a major issue in American public policy. Employers often dismiss worker requests for more pay as an unbearable burden on business, while labor lambasts this recalcitrance as greed and an unremitting focus on profits.

Tolerance, here, leads to an unhealthy equilibrium in which employers face high turnover among staff, while workers shift from job to job in search of higher pay and more regular hours.

Respect entails an honest and open discussion in which workers come to understand more fully the operational and competitive pressure under which their business is working, and employers empathize more deeply with how low pay and shifting hours can make it difficult for workers to provide for their families.

Such discussions can enhance the equilibrium for both parties, breeding one in which workers earn a better living and are more productive, and in which employers save money and boost profits due to reduced turnover among staff.

Or consider diplomacy.

Diplomacy nowadays is no longer the sole territory of government but rather requires the discourse and the engagement of leaders across public, private, and civil society sectors. Tolerance would mean being indifferent to others and thus alienating ones "opponents" and its peoples. Diplomacy is a departure from indifference and its defining feature is respect: connecting over culture, values and the need for co-creation of policies, exchanges, and protocols.

Whether across the board room or negotiating between countries, respect explodes myths that divide us and establishes unique bonds that unite us.

And the list goes on.

Don't get me wrong: I am a pragmatic and realistic idealist who sees clearly a world where evil exists and where we must unite leadership to fight for freedom, and rally others to ensure our common security and protect humanity.

In our daily interactions, striving for respect is more difficult than settling for tolerance.

But the problems we face demand something more.

We do have common enemies to fight. Our world stands at a crossroads. Our challenges are getting bigger, and they're not going away. Domestically and internationally, the root of those challenges often comes down to a fundamental lack of respect toward our own people, our allies, and would be friends.

At a time when leaders and pundits are focused on the need to show tolerance in an intolerant world, let us instead lift our sights higher, and unite along the plane of respect.

We may not be able to stop evil in the world, but how we treat one another and create coalitions for common good is entirely up to us.

Alan H. Fleischmann is President & CEO of Laurel Strategies, a global business advisory and strategic communications firm for Leaders, CEOs, and their C-suite.