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This blog post was written by Maja Elfving, intern at the RWI Afghanistan Programme in Lund.
The International Day for Tolerance is commemorated on November 16th every year. According to the UN, the core aim of this day is to emphasise the importance of tolerance in an increasingly diverse world, highlighting that tolerance entails work beyond passively accepting each other. How can tolerance be enacted and observed in real life? In light of growing intolerance, how can we in practice work towards accepting each other? And, is unconditional tolerance always the way to go?
The concept of tolerance is often described as essential for the upholding of human rights and general societal harmony. It relates to the importance of respecting individual differences, be it differences in opinion, belief, culture, or lifestyle. As such, tolerance constitutes an important pillar in any democratic society, as it acts as a base for various individual freedoms, including the freedom of speech and the right to protest, encouraging open discussion and enabling the exchange of ideas. Essentially, a tolerant society is one that respects everyone’s right to express and explore their true self.
In an increasingly diverse world, values like tolerance and respect becomes even more important to honour, but doing so sometimes feels like an elusive task. A case study carried out in a small Indonesian village in kampong Buneng called Boro is a compelling example of how tolerance can be achieved through inter-cultural communication. The case can teach us how one of the main pillars of a tolerant society is communication and accepting the fact that people are different. Boro, a diverse village inhabited by Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Bhuddists, who speak a range of different languages and dialects, is said to have achieved societal harmony through inter-cultural communication competence. More specifically, tolerance is achieved and characterized on an individual level by small everyday acts of respect towards the other. One tangible example of how this is done is through the use of various religious greetings as a way to acknowledge and honor the faith of others. Hence, according to the researchers in question, small acts of respect towards another, just like this one, have led to an environment of mutual understanding. As of 2019, there had not been any acts of ethnic or religious violence in Boro in decades. This fact in itself speaks to the power of tolerance and communication.
Regrettably, the case of Boro is an exception rather than a rule. Globally, acts and attitudes characterized by intolerance are on the rise. In light of this, the importance of actively working for a tolerant society is made increasingly clear. Many philosophers have argued that intolerance will, in fact, breed further intolerance, meaning that that intolerance will grow if we don’t work actively against it in our everyday lives. In this sense, paradoxically, intolerance is a self-sustaining thing. Tolerance on the other hand, is not. Related to this is what Karl Popper calls the paradox of tolerance. He emphasizes that too much tolerance will lead to intolerance. As the theory highlights, the danger of tolerance is that “unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance” (Popper, 1945, see Harvie, 2019). This statement is stressing the fact that there is a balance to how tolerance is approached in relation to upholding human rights.The concept centers on the assumption that we have to respect the opinions and beliefs of others, but does this still apply if those beliefs are of a discriminative nature? Do we respect the beliefs of those who subscribe to ideas of xenophobia, racism, homophobia or other ideas characterized by intolerance towards individuals? Do we tolerate the onslaught of intolerance, just for the sake of respecting other’s world views, even if these world views entails disrespecting, or even hurting, other people?
The ever present vulnerability of tolerance emphasizes the importance of commemorating it with this day. Discussing how to uphold tolerance could be both insightful and constructive. While, contemporarily, it might seem like an elusive utopia, a tolerant society is not necessarily unachievable. Rather, small acts of respect might make a big difference in promoting a more tolerant society. As shown in the case of the Indonesian village Boro, acts of respect do not have to be complicated or cumbersome. Rather, a possible initial step could be individual, or micro-level efforts towards increased inter-cultural communication competence. What the case of Boro teach us is that respecting your peers should never be underestimated, as this could be the way to a society built on mutual understanding, tolerance, and respect.
However, this day also necessitates us to question where we draw the line. Working with human rights and humanitarian law we know that all acts are not tolerable. Atrocities violating every human’s equal worth can never be condoned. Tolerance cannot be applied when Talibans in Afghanistan deny basic education to women and girls. When groups are being persecuted on the basis of religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality. When it is no longer possible to speak one’s mind without fear of imprisonment, or worse. While international humanitarian law demonstrates clear delimitations of what human rights violations constitutes, do we, as individuals, really let it go this far before speaking up against atrocities, or do we act before it gets to this point? In consideration of this, the paradox of tolerance highlights that sometimes, working towards a tolerant society might require some intolerance – intolerance towards the intolerant. Maybe this is what this day should be used for, as a possibility to consider how we can actively work for a tolerant society, without falling into the trap of intolerance.
Harvie, Will. (2019). Don’t Tolerate the Intolerant, wrote Philosopher Karl Popper during his Stay in NZ. https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/christchurch-shooting/ [2023-11-13].
Sri Eko, B., & Putranto, H. (2019). The Role of Intercultural Competence and Local Wisdom in Building Intercultural and Inter-religious Tolerance. Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, 48(4): 341-369.
UNESCO. (n.d.). International Day for Tolerance. https://www.unesco.org/en/days/tolerance [2023-11-13].
United Nations. (n.d.). International Day for Tolerance: 16 November. https://www.un.org/en/academic-impact/international-day-tolerance-16-november [2023-11-13].