The United Nations General Assembly decided in 1996 to designate November 16 of each year as International Day for Tolerance. The Day provides us with an opportunity to review and renew our commitment to tolerance, to accept our differences, to cherish our commonalities and share our humanistic values.
Perhaps, while we are at it, we should also reassess our use of the term tolerance. To many, the word carries negative connotations of indifference and supercilious smugness. Maybe, what we need is less of tolerance and more of acceptance and respect for others who are seemingly different from us.
As the United Nations’ Declaration on Principles of Tolerance affirms, tolerance is neither indulgence nor indifference. Tolerance should be about respect for the diversity in our world; for its multiplicity and richness of cultures, religions, ethnicities and languages. Tolerance should be about recognizing, understanding, appreciating and accepting the fact that it is our differences which enrich us as humans.
We are living through a period of rapid global transition, with modern technology bringing us closer and making the world seem smaller. But this proximity has not transformed into more tolerance or better understanding and respect for each other. In fact, intolerance is on the rise in many places and, suspicion, distrust and hatred have placed millions in conflict regions at risk of violence and displacement. Conflicts and tensions also breed and sometimes exacerbate social challenges such as poverty, hunger and other inequalities.
Narrow, parochial loyalties are increasingly becoming irrelevant in a globalized world. We need to redefine home as not just the place we live in or the country we reside in, but rather the entire world that we are obliged to care for collectively and share peacefully in order to ensure our survival as a race. The causes and factors that lead to intolerance and fractious societies are often complex and do not lend themselves to simple or facile solutions and needs to be tackled on different levels and often on a global scale.
It is in this global, holistic context that the mutual acceptance and respect promoted by the United Nations Global Alliance on Civilization (UNGAC) gains added relevance. In the six years since it was founded, UNGAC has grown to become a major global initiative committed to promoting more tolerance as a way to solving the multifaceted and inter-related social challenges we face.
Speaking at the Sixth Global Forum of UNGAC, held recently in Bali, Indonesia, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted that many of the world’s worst crises are driven by intolerance. He stated that too many societies are fracturing along cultural, religious or ethnic lines due to a lack of tolerance and willingness to coexist peacefully. One area that drew special focus at the UNGAC forum was emphasizing tolerance and respect for others through education.
The realization that legislation alone cannot usher in non-discrimination among communities has led to calls for developing the spirit of tolerance starting with children in schools. While teachers and educational institutions cannot be expected to resolve the political and social tensions arising in communities, it is recognized that they have a crucial role to play in shaping the attitudes and behaviors of young future citizens.
Often, at the heart of discrimination, intolerance and racism is prejudice and fear of the unknown. Prejudice generally stems from an exaggerated sense of self-worth and pride in one’s personal beliefs and values. Fear of the unknown — about other people, cultures, religions and life choices — usually arises from ignorance. Education, at an early age, has been identified as one of the best possible ways to both, remove prejudices and diffuse fears.
However, given differences in individuals, their living conditions and the fact that discrimination exists at every level in society, creating a tolerant attitude in children is a challenge that necessitates constant work. Children cannot be instantly inoculated against the prejudices they learn at home, nor can they be forced to understand and embrace the harmony in diversity. This takes times, effort and commitment from teachers and schools, as well as and effective involvement from society.
Starting from playgrounds, we need to teach young girls and boys the importance of inclusiveness, of accepting and respecting the difference in others. We need to foster in them greater understanding and appreciation of other cultures and religions. It is only by encouraging inclusiveness at every level that children can be taught to tackle inequality, respect cultural differences and to reject social discrimination based on racial, ethnic, gender, religious or other biases.
Teaching acceptance and respect for others is critical to creating more tolerant, inclusive, open and peaceful societies in future. Catching them young and teaching them early, is no longer an option, it is a necessity, given the growing intolerance we see around us.
There will always be some people who wallow in spreading bigotry, intolerance and hate; it is up to the rest of us to ensure we rise above them and not sink to their pathetic level. On this International Day for Tolerance let us accept and respect the differences in others, let us recognize the richness of other cultures as our common wealth to share as one people of this planet.
Tolerance needs to begin, before anywhere else, at home. No doubt, parental responsibilities demand that we voice objection to our child’s desire to get a tattoo, sport a ring on one ear or nose, and to go out wearing faded, ripped jeans. But we need to remind ourselves that not too long ago, we too were trying to win approval of our peers by going about wearing psychedelic shirts, flared pants and men were sporting long hair that rivaled those of women.
When the self-titled Austrian ‘bearded-lady’ and drag-act Conchita Wurst won this year’s Eurovision Song Contest with an overwhelming 290 points, receiving more than 180 million votes from viewers in 45 countries, that was indeed an attestation of acceptance and respect for diversity.
When President Obama decided to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, on the pretext of Russian government’s attitude towards homosexuals, it smacked hypocrisy. The president had no such compunction when it came to attending service in a church, which is also intolerant of homosexuals and discriminates against women priests.