What Does Tolerance Mean

Throughout the world, humanitarian crises are exacerbated by conflicts caused by ethnic, religious, language, or racial intolerance. We would not have famine but for conflicts inflamed by intolerance. The world can just about produce enough food to feed everyone, but the food is not in the same place as those in need.  Wars, long-simmering tension, and corrupt governments exploiting ethnic tensions to bolster support often get in the way of getting the food, medicine, and shelter to the people who need it.  Ethnic conflicts, tension, restrictions on people’s movement, and denial of opportunity all exact a high cost in terms of refugee flight and suffering, loss of life, decline in living standards, destruction of property, destruction of livelihoods, and diminishment of people’s hopes.

Addressing the causes of intolerance, mitigating the costs of conflicts stemming from intolerance, and achieving reconciliation can bring as much benefit to people as the extraordinary philanthropic work that helps directly alleviate the physical damages of humanitarian crises. In some cases, aid to provide medical care, food, shelter, and better educational opportunities won’t even reach people who need it because a conflict, an oppressive government, or a quasi-military organization gets in the way. Replacing intolerance with tolerance is a necessary condition for alleviating humanitarian suffering as well as an essential goal in its own right.

The world is becoming an ever more mixed place.  Even with new nations formed after the end of colonialism in Africa and the breakup of the former Soviet Union, the world is not divided into ethnically homogeneous enclaves–nor should it be. People from different ethnic groups live in the same nation-states, provinces, cities, and villages. Globalization connects more people economically; brings more people to new geographic homes; and exposes more people to cultures beyond their own family backgrounds.  In some traditional societies where people often stayed in a specific geographic area lifelong, interactions with and dependency on people from different cultures may have been relatively unusual, although historic examples abound where mixing has always been the case.  But today, more people will see, hear, live near, interact with, and become economically interdependent with people from different cultures and with different people within a shared culture. 

It should be clear that creating ethnically homogeneous enclaves will not eliminate intolerance even when that might be the desire of a disadvantaged or persecuted group hoping that its safety, rights, and aspirations will be fulfilled in a place of their own.  When a territory is divided to provide a new ethnically-defined homeland, members of the old rival group will remain in the new “homeland” and cousins of those who predominate in the newly gained homeland will remain on the other side of the new border.  Instead of two ethnically “pure” societies, the result will likely be two ethnic majorities, each living with an ethnic minority.  Both enclaves resulting from the split must then recognize the rights of all within their new borders, despite the memories of still smoldering historic or recent grievances.  Otherwise, new ethnic conflicts will ensue, fracturing countries and villages or, more likely and worse yet, causing painful physical migrations of people across the newly created divide.

In much of the world, the basic principles that enable people from different ethnic groups to live together in the same communities and nations in daily harmony with equal rights and opportunities are not understood.  Indeed, such an outcome, let alone the underlying principles, may not even be imaginable or believable because so many people experience in their very bones that their rights, privileges, and life outcomes are determined almost entirely by the group they were born into or chose as a life commitment.  Indeed, this has often been the actual experience for too many people and it remains their ingrained belief. Others who haven’t suffered ethnically-based injustice or who might have been the ones who knowingly or unknowingly inflicted such injustices share these same beliefs. 

Though it may seem a cruel “science,” we must try to understand the causes, institutional injustices, and false justifications for intolerance that are rooted in the social, historical, and legal systems that secure and defend the advantages a “favored” group holds over an “unfavored” group. We can already sense some of the causes of intolerance:  

  • demonizing or de-humanizing essentially all of the members of the unfavored group; 

  • using false history, deception, or illegitimate differentiation to support spurious justifications for a repressive system, designed to achieve economic advantage and political power, or reinforce deep-seated, unchallenged prejudice;

  • creating explicit laws that disadvantage members of an unfavored group; 

  • controlling the press, legal system, external communication, or “accepted” history to prevent challenges to an unjust system; 

  • undermining the courts and other institutions that seek to redress the injustices resulting from such a system.

Once we gain some insight into intolerance, we must then focus on a positively understanding what tolerance means and how to achieve it in society. Compassion and love–the deep recognition of the shared fate and experience of all humans–seem more powerful than the limited, reluctant acceptance of others that we sometimes call tolerance.  Could we cut right through the conflicts to make people directly connect with the “other” and recognize that they share the same needs, fears, hopes, and dreams?  Ideally, yes.  This seems more compelling than a set of abstract principles, laws, institutions, or courts. Ultimately, this deep connection is necessary–at least among all who would work to bridge and resolve ethnic conflict. Recognizing our common destiny as humans on this planet motivates the principles of philosophical tolerance. It is the starting point for defining the principles that will enable multi-ethnic societies to work.  It should give us urgency to find ways to achieve multi-ethnic co-existence and acceptance.

Yet, we still need to achieve tolerance where direct appeals to hope, love, and compassion in the hearts of every perpetrator and every victim of ethnic intolerance seem to be no more than a remote possibility.  We need a broadly convincing and well-understood basic framework for enabling multi-ethnic coexistence in societies. This fundamental understanding enables those who do have hope and compassion to help build a way forward towards tolerance, reconciliation, and establishing an enduring foundation for peaceful, long-term social and civic co-existence in a stable society.

The most basic principle of tolerance is that our rights, privileges, and security are ours simply because we are a human beings on this planet, not because we are or are not members of the right group. How a society defines rights, privileges, and security equally for members of all groups while allowing the expression of group affinity and individuality must be explicit as the basis for society’s laws, political organization, and community interaction. We are all members of several groups and we derive crucial aspects of our identity, culture, and aspirations from both our individuality and our group affinities of voluntary association and birth. We must suffer no loss nor gain of rights, privileges, and security by virtue of our membership in groups defined by ethnicity, religion, language, national origin, race, gender preference, physical traits, or entrenched caste or class. Today, this is not obvious as a fundamental principle nor as a tangible reality for more than half the world’s people.

We cannot solve intolerance conflicts by reversing the roles of the “up-group” and the “down-group” even if that may feel “just” or satisfying.  This leads to a perpetual cycle of grievances, redresses, and new grievances.   Yet, this is often what happens when external parties intervene to stop a crisis and punish the guilty. Too rarely do aggrieved groups realize that altering the foundation of their society, rather than punishing the guilty and gaining the upper hand, is the way forward to enduring peace.  But, it has happened.

The enduring messages of compassion, hope, and our shared human experience are the foundation for these principles. People who already embrace these also share the basic motivation to build society on the principles of tolerance. For many others, though, the practical application of the principles of tolerance, without compassionate feelings, will have to do.  When we look pragmatically at how to resolve intolerance conflicts, we need to understand the common features of these conflicts as well as the particular local and historic tensions.  We will often find common causes of intolerance conflicts, common mechanisms that preserve unfair group relations, and common causes for an undercurrent of tension to break into open conflict.

Our goal is to define principles that define how multi-ethnic societies can work successfully.  We need to be able to identify and call out the features of intolerance conflicts.  We need to provide direct personal experiences that enable ordinary people and people in positions of influence to understand why the intolerance conflict is wrong and why the new principles will work to create a more positive society. People won’t become believers just because of an outside intervention. They are more likely to believe if and when their own experiences help them realize that the “other” is like them; that a society based on group rights inevitably perpetuates conflict, and that fear of establishing rights and privileges for the “other”–whether former oppressor or former victim–will only repeat the problems of the old order.  Tolerance can establish a new order. [note: not exactly a stirring conclusion…]