16 November is the United Nations International Day for Tolerance

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In the scheme of universal values “tolerance” appears to be the most misunderstood and abused in everyday life. The United Nations General Assembly first discussed over three decades ago to get educational institutions and the general public to see “tolerance” as a staple of society. Therefore, in 1995 UNESCO created the Declaration of Principles of Tolerance as a way to define and provide awareness of tolerance for any and all governing and participating bodies. That day happened to be 16 November which got adopted as the UN International Day for Tolerance. The goal was to help spread tolerance and raise awareness of instances of intolerance and find ways to eradicate such negative behaviour.  It was expected that tolerance would be practiced every day, however by setting aside a particular date in the year the importance of this virtue serves as a reminder.  Sadly, in today’s times the degree of intolerance for all sorts of reasons is increasing.

The UNESCO has even created an award to recognize those with great achievements in promoting the spirit of tolerance or non-violence in fields such as science, culture, and the arts. The UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize and the UNESCO International Day for Tolerance both recognize that tolerance is a universal human right.

Historically, there are three highly enlightening turning-points that eventually led to the adoption of an International Day of Tolerance as follows: 1915 when Mahatma Gandhi returned to India from South Africa help his country fight for freedom through non-violence and tolerance; 1963 when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech calling for civil and economic rights of African-Americans and the end to racism in the United States during the march to Washington accompanied by some 250,000 supporters. So great was its impact that a year later in 1964 The Civil Rights Act was enacted that banned discrimination on the basis of race, colour, religion, sex or national origin.

Although the vast majority of the peoples of the world quite easily understand the benefits of being tolerant and willingness to tolerate other persons views; in practice, particularly at the level of decision-makers and nation-states there are hardly any role-models. Personally, I believe this virtue provides a great opportunity to reflect and introspect. How we react to a different perspective and treat those who belong to a different culture, religion, country or speak a different language, belong to a different race or caste. Why are we so judgmental and attached to distorted notions about “the other”? Are we ready to make friends, be considerate, even caring?  Do we listen to those with whom we harbour differences?  Despite powerful legislations by Governments and International Institutions intolerant behaviour is rife.

We in India, have been propagating the ideal of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” (world is one family), the Ganga-Jumna tehzib calling for abandonment of prejudices of every kind—race, class, caste, colour, creed, nation, sex, degree of material civilization, everything which enables people to consider themselves superior to others.  And yet the reality that engulfs us is quite harsh. Violence fuelled by intolerance is widespread.

Here are some practical suggestions to underscore the importance of International Day for Tolerance. (i) It is educational and helps to make us more tolerant and prevent situations of intolerance; (ii) It brings us together, for humans are a gregarious species composed of families and communities, societies and nation-states. Differences were never meant to be the cause of conflicts; (iii) It reminds us that being tolerant requires a constant effort to avoid the pitfalls of intolerance. (iv) It imposes upon adults the responsibility of setting positive examples, especially before our children and youth; (iv) It encourages appreciation of different cultures or nationalities through reading and study; (v) It helps to develop capacity of understanding “unity in diversity”; (vi) It makes us better listeners– tolerance and intolerance can only be identified by listening more to those who may have suffered at the hands of those who were intolerant and hearing what they have to say; (vi) It opens up spaces for advocacy and assuaging the sufferings of victims of intolerance by taking positive action, for example, holding candlelight vigil; (vii) It make us vigilant of hate crimes and fake news because no is born with inherent hate.  “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion,” wrote Nelson Mandela

As UNESCO puts it: “Education for tolerance should aim at countering influences that lead to fear and exclusion of others, and should help young people develop capacities for independent judgement, critical thinking and ethical reasoning. The diversity of our world’s many religions, languages, cultures and ethnicities are not a pretext for conflict, but is a treasure that enriches us all.”

I firmly believe that it is within human power to build a tolerant and vibrant society. All communities whether religious or secular can contribute to a safer world by combating prejudice and intolerance. Here are some practical steps.  (i) Create an atmosphere of trust and safety to support dialogue; (ii) Problematizing tolerance–explore what it actually means, the impact of intolerance, how does that feel, what issues does intolerance cause both personally, in school and in the wider world; (iii) Building confidence and resilience; (iv) Identity, rights and freedoms–understanding what makes me me, similarity and difference. Study political frameworks, Magna Carta, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, among others; (v) Reasoning and reflection; thinking things through in dialogue; (vi) Storytelling; perspective and the power of narrative–understanding story structure, learning to listen and building empathy; (vii) Taking action–the importance of taking meaningful action that brings people together, heals divides, rights wrongs and promotes harmony.

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*The author is an independent researcher, social worker and an active member of the Baha’i Faith and its Lotus Temple, based in New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.


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