Toleration and tolerance are terms used in social, cultural and religious contexts to describe attitudes and practices that prohibit discrimination against those practices or group memberships that may be disapproved of by those in the majority. Conversely, intolerance may be used to refer to the discriminatory practices sought to be prohibited. Though developed to refer to the religious toleration of minority religious sects following the Protestant Reformation, these terms are increasingly used to refer to a wider range of tolerated practices and groups, such as the toleration of sexual practices and orientations, or of political parties or ideas widely considered objectionable.418
The principle of toleration is controversial. Liberal critics may see in it an inappropriate implication that the "tolerated" custom or behavior is an aberration or that authorities have a right to punish difference; such critics may instead emphasize notions such as civility or pluralism. Other critics, some sympathetic to traditional fundamentalism, condemn toleration as a form of moral relativism On the other hand, defenders of toleration may define it as involving positive regard for difference or, alternately, may regard a narrow definition of the term as more specific and useful than its proposed alternatives, since it does not require false expression of enthusiasm for groups or practices that are genuinely disapproved of.
Tolerance and Monotheism
One theory of the origin of religious intolerance, proposed by Sigmund Freud in Moses and Monotheism, links intolerance to monotheism.419 More recently, Bernard Lewis and Mark Cohen have argued that the modern understanding of tolerance, involving concepts of national identity and equal citizenship for persons of different religions, was not considered a value by pre-modern Muslims or Christians, due to the implications of monotheism. The historian G.R. Elton explains that in pre-Modern Times, monotheists viewed such toleration as a sign of weakness or even wickedness towards God. The usual definition of tolerance in pre-modern times as Bernard Lewis puts it was that: “I am in charge. I will allow you some though not all of the rights and privileges that I enjoy, provided that you behave yourself according to rules that I will lie down and enforce”.420
Mark Cohen states that it seems that all the monotheistic religions in power throughout the history have felt it proper, if not obligatory, to persecute nonconforming religions. Therefore, Cohen concludes, Early Islam and Medieval Christianity in power should have persecuted non-believers in their lands and "Judaism, briefly in power during the Hasmonean period (2nd Century B.C.) should have persecuted pagan Idumeans…When all is said and done, however, the historical evidence indicates that the Jews of Islam, especially during the formative and classical centuries (up to thirteenth century), experienced much less persecution than did the Jews of Christendom. This begs a more thorough and nuanced explanation than has hitherto been given".421
Tolerating the Intolerant
Philosopher Karl Popper's assertion in The Open Society and Its Enemies that we are warranted in refusing to tolerate intolerance illustrates that there are limits to tolerance.
In particular, should a tolerant society tolerate intolerance? What if by tolerating action "A", society destroys itself? Tolerance of "A" could be used to introduce a new thought system leading to intolerance of vital institution "B". It is difficult to strike a balance and different societies do not always agree on the details, indeed different groups within a single society also often fail to agree. The current suppression of Nazism in Germany is considered intolerant by some countries, for instance, while in Germany itself it is Nazism which is considered intolerably intolerant.422
Philosopher John Rawls devotes a section of his influential and controversial book A Theory of Justice to the problem of whether a just society should or should not tolerate the intolerant, and to the related problem of whether or not, in any society, the intolerant have any right to complain when they are not tolerated.
Rawls concludes that a just society must be tolerant; therefore, the intolerant must be tolerated, for otherwise, the society would then be intolerant, and so unjust. However, Rawls qualifies this by insisting that society and its social institutions have a reasonable right of self-preservation that supersedes the principle of tolerance. Hence, the intolerant must be tolerated but only insofar as they do not endanger the tolerant society and its institutions.
Similarly, continues Rawls, while the intolerant might forfeit the right to complain when they are themselves not tolerated, other members of society have a right, perhaps even a duty, to complain on their behalf, again, as long as society itself is not endangered by these intolerant members. The ACLU is a good example of a social institution that protects the rights of the intolerant, as it frequently defends the right to free speech of such intolerant organizations as the Ku Klux Klan.423
Followers of Ayn Rand tend to see tolerance as associated with the institution of objective law.424 Attempts to increase tolerance by applying different rules to different people would ultimately be self defeating.
Many universities, in attempting to enforce certain political and ideological viewpoints through means other than instruction and debate have been come to be viewed by some as intolerant.
At a recent post-9/11 conference on multiculturalism in the United States, participants asked, "How can we be tolerant of those who are intolerant of us?" For many, tolerating intolerance is neither acceptable nor possible.425
Though tolerance may seem an impossible exercise in certain situations being tolerant nonetheless the key remains to easing hostile tensions between groups and to helping communities move past intractable conflict. That is because tolerance is integral to different groups relating to one another in a respectful and understanding way. In cases where communities have been deeply entrenched in violent conflict, being tolerant helps the affected groups endure the pain of the past and resolve their differences. In Rwanda, the Hutus and the Tutsis have tolerated a reconciliation process, which has helped them to work through their anger and resentment towards one another.
Origins and Consequences
In situations where conditions are economically depressed and politically charged, groups and individuals may find it hard to tolerate those that are different from them or have caused them harm. In such cases, discrimination, dehumanization, repression, and violence may occur. This can be seen in the context of Kosovo, where Kosovar Albanians, grappling with poverty and unemployment, needed a scapegoat, even supported an aggressive Serbian attack against neighboring Bosnian Muslim and Croatian neighbors.
Intolerance will drive groups apart, creating a sense of permanent separation between them. For example, though the laws of apartheid in South Africa were abolished a decade ago, there still exists a noticeable level of personal separation between black and white South Africans, as evidenced in studies on the levels of perceived social distance between the two groups. This continued racial division perpetuates the problems of inter-group resentment and hostility.
The perpetuation of Intolerance
Among Individuals: In the absence of their own experiences, individuals base their impressions and opinions of one another on assumptions. These assumptions can be influenced by the positive or negative beliefs of those who are either closest or most influential in their lives, including parents or other family members, colleagues, educators, and/or role models.
In the Media: Individual attitudes are influenced by the images of other groups in the media and the press. For instance, many Serbian communities believed that the western media portrayed a negative image of the Serbian people during the NATO bombing in Kosovo and Serbia. This de-humanization may have contributed to the West's willingness to bomb Serbia. However, there are studies that suggest media images may not influence individuals in all cases. For example, a study conducted on stereotypes discovered people of specific towns in southeastern Australia did not agree with the negative stereotypes of Muslims presented in the media.426
In the Educational System: School curricula and educational literature frequently provide biased and/or negative historical accounts of world cultures. Education or schooling based on myths can demonize and dehumanize other cultures rather than promote cultural understanding and a tolerance for diversity and differences.
Dealing with Intolerance
To encourage tolerance, parties to a conflict and third parties must remind themselves and others that tolerating tolerance is preferable to tolerating intolerance. Some useful strategies that may be used as tools to promote tolerance are as follows:
Inter-Group Contact: There is evidence that casual inter-group contact does not necessarily reduce inter-group tensions, and may in fact exacerbate existing animosities. However, through intimate inter-group contact, groups will base their opinions of one another on personal experiences, which can reduce prejudices. Intimate inter-group contact should be sustained over longer periods in order for it to be effective.
Dialogue: To enhance communication between both sides, dialogue mechanisms such as dialogue groups or problem solving workshops provide opportunities for both sides to express their needs and interests. In such cases, actors engaged in the workshops or similar forums feel their concerns have been heard and recognized. Restorative justice programs such as victim-offender mediation provide this kind of opportunity. For instance, through victim-offender mediation, victims can ask for an apology from the offender.
The role of the individual
Individuals should continually focus on being tolerant of others in their daily lives. This involves consciously challenging the stereotypes and assumptions that they typically encounter in making decisions about others and/or working with others in either a social or a professional environment.
The role of the media
The media should use positive images to promote understanding and cultural sensitivity. The more groups and individuals are exposed to positive media messages about other cultures, the less they are likely to find faults with one another particularly those communities who have little access to the outside world and are susceptible to what the media tells them.
This is particularly important in an age when television plays such a pervasive influence in forming our opinions. This is partly due to the power of the medium itself, and partly due to the growing intellectual laziness of the public, and its willingness to base opinions on “instant” news and catchy sound-bytes.
The role of the educational system
Educators are instrumental in promoting tolerance and peaceful coexistence. For instance, schools that create a tolerant environment help young people respect and understand different cultures. In Israel, an Arab and Israeli community called Neve Shalom or Wahat Al-Salam ("Oasis of Peace") created a school designed to support inter-cultural understanding by providing children between the 1st and 6th grades the opportunity to learn and grow together in a tolerant environment.427
Similar initiatives are espoused in Seeds of Peace428, now part of the educational system in several universities, and elsewhere.
The role of other third parties
Conflict transformational NGOs and other actors in the field of peace-building can offer mechanisms such as training programs to help parties in a conflict to communicate with one another. For instance, several organizations have launched a series of projects in Macedonia that aim to reduce tensions between the Albanian, Romani and Macedonian populations in the country, including activities that promote democracy, ethnic tolerance, and respect for human rights.
International organizations need to find ways to enshrine the principles of tolerance in policy. For instance, the United Nations has already created The Declaration of Moral Principles on Tolerance, adopted and signed in Paris by UNESCO's 185 member states in November 1995, which qualifies tolerance as a moral, political, and legal requirement for individuals, groups, and states.429
Governments also should aim to institutionalize policies of tolerance. For example, in South Africa, the Education Ministry has advocated the integration of a public school tolerance curriculum into the classroom; the curriculum promotes a holistic approach to learning. The United States government has recognized one week a year as International Education Week, encouraging schools, organizations, institutions, and individuals to engage in projects and exchanges to heighten global awareness of cultural differences.
The diaspora community can also play an important role in promoting and sustaining tolerance. They can provide resources to ease tensions and affect institutional policies in a positive way. For example, Jewish, Irish, and Islamic communities have contributed to the peace building effort within their places of origin from their places of residence in the United States.
In conclusion, one can thus state that, even though the de facto powers may wish to maintain their own societies at a level of high intolerance for their own benefits430, global human society can nevertheless build, develop and preserve tolerance by understanding the importance of the following elements:
Democracy: A democratic political system and a democratic economy go hand in hand with a democratic society. It is necessary to take fundamental political reforms aimed at finally realizing the full democratic promise of peoples, including: easy access to the state structure and its services; equal access to educational and social benefits; equal access to information; equal access to the law; proportional representation in the legislative bodies and government; among others.
Human Rights: We have to support basic rights for all peoples, including the indigenous and native nations, handicapped persons, as well as affirmative action and reparations for people of color, women and other victims of historic injustice and oppression. We have to oppose the repression directed against immigrants, particularly economic immigrants. We have to oppose to all forms of discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, age, class, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, disabilities, health status (including HIV), national origin or citizenship. Likewise, we have to support full reproductive freedoms for women and oppose all forms of violence, particularly against women and children, including domestic violence, rape, incest and sexual harassment.
Equal justice: We have to oppose the deep-seated racism and class bias that permeate our so-called "judicial system". It is necessary to create a crash program to re-train and re-structure civil security institutions that, in a great majority of countries, are steeped in a culture of racism, abuse, corruption and brutality. Society needs to develop a humane criminal sanction system that is genuinely aimed at the rehabilitation of those who have engaged in anti-social activity, and which depends on alternatives to incarceration except for those who pose a clear danger to society unless incarcerated.
Support for Diversity and Equality: People of color and women must be substantial in numbers in the membership and particularly in leadership positions in our independent political networks. Opposition to racism must be a priority for all people but especially for the majority group of the society. Men have a special responsibility to cultivate positive environment for participation by those of all abilities, sizes, ages, and genders.
Political independence: We have to promote independent candidates and parties who subscribe to the above principles and who are part of the solution. In order to get a better global society, we have to promote and support solidarity across our countries, and beyond our geopolitical borders.
People's power: We have to find and support the power to change our world and develop a society that places human needs over profit. People organized into democratically controlled organizations and institutions are the wellspring from which a powerful movement for social and economic change must emerge. It is from the experience and struggles of the people that solutions to the severe crises facing our nations will be found. It is with the consent and will of the people that governments are legitimized and leaders empowered.
Economic justice: Only through such a social movement can we build a just and sustainable society in which the gross and obscene concentration of corporate power and personal wealth is overcome by the achievement of basic political and economic rights for all: equality and tolerance; secure jobs at living wages; decent and affordable housing; adequate food and clothing; universal health care; quality education; a safe, clean environment; an equitable, progressive tax system; sustainable food production based upon family farms and farm cooperatives; and protection from economic insecurity caused by disability, old age, sickness, accident or unemployment.
Sustainable environment: An ecologically sustainable society requires replacing the endless "growth" compelled by a profit-oriented society with a democratic economy enabling people to gear production to human needs on a sustainable basis.
All this requires the sustained tolerance of and respect for the opinions of the “other”, as has been ingrained into us by the history of thousands of years of our spiritual and intellectual development. That attitude, and that attitude alone can guarantee the fundamental ethical dimensions of human rights towards which we must all strive.