Memphis is always tough on tolerance, but it’s been an especially bad year for a virtue that’s defining cities looking to succeed in the global economy.

Even if you are uncomfortable talking about a city’s moral values, there’s also a reason anchored in enlightened self-interest: Tolerance is a critical competitive advantage for cities today, particularly as they work to attract and retain college-educated young workers.

That’s because two out of three of these people – the gold standard for the knowledge-based economy – pick where they live before they pick where they work, and they say that they want to live in a city where each can “live the life that I want to lead.”

The Pot Boils Over

Incidentally, the percentage of women who say they want to live in this kind of city is slightly larger than the percentage of men, a fact made more important by the fact that women are now 20 percent more likely to be college-educated than men. In that regard, economic growth today is powered by the 25-34 year-old college-educated demographic, but cities getting on the front of the wave also have are figuring out ways to attract women in particular.

But we digress. The point of this year to us is that if had set out to send the most negative messages to the rest of the country and to the target demographic, chalk 2007 up as a total success. It was a year when Memphis’ toxic displays of intolerance – now a regular staple of our civic and political life – burst in the national media time after time.

The Kwanzaa tempest in the Memphis teapot that closed the year seemed almost the perfect punctuation for a year in which intolerance was a overpowering theme. Unfortunately, the conflict over the African-American cultural celebration attracted more national attention to what appears to be Memphis’ flirtation with self-destruction.


Of course, publicity of this kind was in great supply in the past 12 months, particularly during the venomous election for city mayor, a race that featured the most overtly racial pandering in modern times. Meanwhile, in City Council meetings, some members repeatedly poisoned the atmosphere with racial invectives against people appearing before them, to the point that one council member called the head of a city-county agency a bigot, despite the person’s lifetime of work for civil rights.

Not to be outdone, on the county side of the street, a couple of equally belligerent commissioners tossed around racial epithets, oblivious to the corrosive atmosphere they were creating for reasoned discussed. Then, there was troubling undercurrent of anti-Semitism that has existed since the election of U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen and that fed the anti-gay screed by some scripturally-deprived Baptist preachers opposed to his support for hate crime legislation.

All in all, it’s a troubling commentary on Memphis’ inability to come to grips with the simplest of principles – live and let live. Rather, we are capable of jumping on the mildest of disagreements to launch into the kind of vitriol that undermines any sense of civility in our community. (The media’s codependency with this culture of crassness is a constant indictment of their leadership for a better city.)


A few days ago, we were talking with a psychiatrist friend about dysfunctional families and the difficulty that its members have in breaking away from the abusiveness and antagonism that are their constant companions. Ironically, in the midst of a destructive relationship, members fear – and fight – any change to things.

The problems are twofold: one, the family members think all families are like theirs, and two, the dysfunction becomes familiar and comfortable albeit it hostile and painful.

In this environment, communications is raw and attacks are common, and communications has been used as a weapon so long that family members can no longer interpret each other’s dispassionately or react proportionally. Instead, every one is forced to take sides in every disagreement, escalating every issue into a controversy that bursts the family at its seams.

Resisting Change

As he talked, we forgot for a moment that he was describing dysfunctional families. We thought he was describing Memphis.

But we didn’t tell him. Instead, we asked: What does someone do to change things?

He said that it’s no easy or quick. The people who use the dysfunction to have power resist change the most. They immediately feel threatened and set up roadblocks and obstacles. We thought of some old guard political leaders.

What To Do

If people are serious about changing things, he said, there are several things they have to do:

1) They have to realize that one person’s not in charge of another person’s life, and every one has the right to make their own choices free of attack;

2) They have to quit fighting old battles, because there are no winners, because every one loses;

3) They have to identify what they want to happen and then change their behavior to make it happen; and

4) They simply refuse to respond to the dysfunction or engage in the old combative ways of communicating.

Paying Attention

Most of all, for change to happen, it requires constant attention to positive behaviors and improvements in relationships, until the people who try to perpetuate the dysfunction find no reward or power in it.

Perhaps, there’s no better New Year’s resolution for Memphis than for each of us to pledge to find our own ways to change our dysfunctional civic family.

Maybe, before it’s over, we can actually attract some national attention for our ability to transcend our differences and abandon the bomb-throwing behavior that attracts national attention.

Competing In A New World

As we said, it’s much more than simple decency (although that would be reason enough). Rather, it’s an economic necessity.

In a world of multitudinous ethnic groups, an assortment of religions, different sexual orientations and collections of cultures, a city that can’t respect its own differences can never connect – or compete – in a world whose overwhelming characteristic is its diversity.

Or put another way, a city that is open, inclusive and tolerant has the best chance of competing for the kinds of jobs – and workers – that matter most in a knowledge-based economy.

That’s why we think if Memphis is going to adopt a new bumper sticker slogan as part of our latest economic growth plan, it’s this: Tolerance: our most important competitive advantage.