It’s okay to be intolerant of intolerance

Last Updated : 17 November 2021, 00:17 IST

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Tolerance is a virtue badly needed in this diverse, impatient, angry world. Etymologically owing its origin to the Latin word tolerate, it implies enduring. The word has however evolved to mean much more. It has come to mean one who is free from hate, and prejudice — somebody who is big enough to accept differences in thought and practice in others.

UNESCO’s Declaration of Principles on Tolerance describes it best. ‘Tolerance,’ the Declaration states, ‘is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. Tolerance is harmony in difference. It is not only a moral duty; it is also a political and legal requirement’. India has been a member of UNESCO since its inception.

Voltaire it is, who is said to have exclaimed ‘I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. As has been said this implies that even if one finds a particular practice unpalatable and has the power to stop it, self-restraint is exercised. The essence of tolerance thus is self-control. Tolerance ensures acceptance and consequently less friction.

All religions speak of tolerance. Tragically too many followers fail their religious precepts. Intolerance between religious groups is widespread in the world of today. It is based on the belief, as Martha Nussbaum points out, that one religion is supreme and that all others are false, distorted, or non-existential.

Intolerance is a slippery slope that so very easily leads to acts of violence. This is the worrying aspect of intolerance. Thus, some of the most dreadful acts of violence are the result of religious intolerance.

One of the major reasons for intolerance is threat perception. The perception may be very far away from reality but is enough to trigger intolerance. An intolerant world is necessarily an imperfect world. Ideas are stifled. Debate suffers, fear thrives, creativity dies.

Tolerance implies freedom of thought. The test of tolerance comes when we are in the majority. It means going the extra mile to instil a sense of confidence in the minority. It is not a concession. And the principle of Tolerance extends equally to those in the minority. They cannot thumb their noses at the practices of the majority and expect a tolerant response. Tolerance is ultimately a two-way street, wherein we not only accept differences but celebrate them. This is the hallmark of civil society.

It does appear easy, but tolerance is difficult. As Yuval Noah Harari writes, tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. Therefore, it becomes all the more important and urgent. Our world is increasingly becoming pluralistic and culturally and religiously diverse, and requires acceptance of these differences. Tolerance has to be taught. The key to such inculcation is education ‘in the most positive sense of the word, ie. as nurturing and guiding’. Education, whereby tolerance is taught, is the best investment societies can make for a better future.

Prescribing limits as to what can be tolerated and what cannot is challenging. Should ideas that are intrinsically intolerant be tolerated? Does tolerance mean permissiveness? Does it mean that a person, who despite having the power to stop an objectionable practice and does not do so because he is tolerant, is guilty of hypocrisy? Karl Popper has termed this the ‘The Paradox of Tolerance’. These are troubling questions for which there are no easy answers.

Governments the world over have taken upon themselves the role of prescribing limits. They have increasingly demonstrated a strong streak of intolerance. While valid security concerns have dictated this, a constant review is essential – restrictions cannot become the norm.

Not all tolerance, however, is a virtue. We should never forget the lament of Martin Niemoller, who in Nazi Germany, tolerated all the evil that was happening around him since it did not concern him, till “they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.” So, it is alright to be intolerant — if it means standing up for eternal values of right and wrong.

(The writer is a former chairman of the Central Board of Indirect taxes & Customs)

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Published 16 November 2021, 18:03 IST

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