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Text by Jessica Couloute

International Day of Tolerance was created in 1996 as follow-up to the Year of Tolerance, which was designated by the United Nations in 1995. This decision was made in 1993 by the UN General Assembly upon determining the Declaration of Principles on Tolerance and follow-up plan of action in partnership with UNESCO. In observation of the Year and to recognise the 125 birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, UNESCO introduced the The UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence which honours significant contributions promoting tolerance and non-violence.

This prize is awarded every two years on 16 November, in celebration of International Day of Tolerance. When we consider the moments in history where humankind overcomes the perils of hate, division and intolerance — these moments are worth celebrating as an achievement in the name of progress. However, flash forward to the year 2020, and it seems as though society continues to fight the same battles. The rise of nationalism, antisemitism and polarisation on different issues.

It appears history is repeating itself, but maybe the truth is society never practised ‘tolerance’ in the first place. And that is because ‘tolerance’ isn’t a call for celebration. Tolerance does not overcome hate or division. It does not eradicate classism, racism or sexism. By definition it only accomplishes “indulgence, endurance and the ability to suffers through”. Tolerance isn’t resolve, it is a form of denial, making its celebratory concept controversial in nature.

Mahatma Gandhi is a renowned figured across the world. His role in liberating India from British Colonial rule is significant and deserving of the upmost praise. His philosophy surrounding non-violence and the power of protest is revolutionary, as these principles influenced the 1960’s American Civil Rights movement. While people revere Gandhi for his remarkable efforts and contributions, they should also acknowledge his flaws.

According to an NPR report, in 2018, the University of Ghana removed his statue from its campus due to its learning of Gandhi’s racist remarks made in his early life. When living in South Africa, he wrote his assertions that white people were “the predominating race” and believed black people to be, “troublesome, very dirty” and proclaimed that they, “lived like animals”. He also carried the notion that Indians were more civilised than black people and often used the terminology, “kaffirs,” a highly offensive racial slur, when referring to black South Africans.

Later in his public life, Gandhi would shed his racist beliefs and denounce racism and discrimination in all its forms; and would even push for gender equality and female representation in politics. Before his death, it is noted that in challenging his own celibacy, he slept naked next to his grandniece, a teenager at the time, to test his self control in abstaining from sex. These facts about Gandhi are disappointing and disturbing; but they must be acknowledged. His contributions are worthy of praise, and sentiments surrounding his position as the “father of a nation” are understood; but this does absolve him of his fallible nature or place him in a position of sanctity.

In realising this, we can examine the concept of tolerance in the same light. We can praise the progress we have made in the name of tolerance, but it is not the all-encompassing solution.

To fully understand the argument against tolerance, we can contextualise it by looking at its definition. Merriam-Webster, defines tolerance as the following:

  1. capacity to endure pain or hardship : ENDURANCE, FORTITUDE, STAMINA;
  2. a: sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own b: the act of allowing something : TOLERATION;
  3. the allowable deviation from a standard, especially: the range of variation permitted in maintaining a specified dimension in machining a piece;
  4. the capacity of the body to endure or become less responsive to a substance (such as a drug) or a physiological insult especially with repeated use or exposure developed a tolerance to painkillers.

Based on the definition alone, to say that we must tolerate each other, our different cultures, backgrounds or beliefs is essentially saying that:

  1. Our differences are painful and we must endure the discomfort.
  2. Our differences call for sympathy that we give must extend it out of pity or as a favour.
  3. There is a standard or an acceptable way of being, and one group has the authority to determine said standard, consider its deviations, and grant permission to be different.
  4. If we put up with our differences long enough, we will not longer be inconvenienced by its discomfort.

One could say that the idea of tolerance is well intended, but in its true meaning, perpetuates the establishment of often unbalanced power dynamics. It absolves society from the responsibility of actually dismantling unjust structures. In asking us to be only tolerant of one another, we are paradoxically tolerating racism, classism, sexism and discrimination in all of its forms. We are simply “agreeing to disagree” and dealing with the discomfort of these societal ailments to a point where it becomes, arguably, antagonising.

If we want to reach a point of genuine acceptance of one another, we should be intolerant of tolerance itself. Slovenian Philosopher, Slavoj Žižek points out that, “Never once did Martin Luther King Jr. use the word tolerance in his speeches. For him (and he was right) it would have been an obscenity to say, ‘white people should learn to tolerate us more.’ The goal of the Civil Rights Movement was not simply appealing to liberal magnanimity, but demanding equity, including economic equity. Tolerance is a request that represents a retreat from that ambitious vision.”

Similar to how people started to rethink the sanctity of Mahatma Gandhi and recognise his flaws, it is time to rethink the role of tolerance and recognise its limitations when discussing unity. This is not to discredit progressive accomplishments, but only implore us to strive for better. Society needs to examine what it means to be tolerant and question its objectives. What tolerance and discrimination appear to have in common is a lack of honest understanding. True understanding, requires conscious, active efforts that develop tangible solutions which will lead us closer to equity and unity of the human race. And while this is easier said than done, if it leads to the actual eradication of racism, sexism, classism and forms of discrimination alike, then it is certainly worth the effort — and that is worth celebrating.