The half-truth of ‘tolerance of diversity’- 2 October 2016.

A curious youth asked a seemingly simple question- is ‘tolerance’ a positive word or a negative one. Apparently we would agree that tolerance is a positive word for we often hear that we must increase our tolerance for others in terms of religious differences, caste and class differences and such other categories. In a nation where the range of diversity is very vast in each sense of the word, whether it is language, life-styles, cultural rituals or habits, ‘tolerance’ of diversity is a key word with ethical underpinnings. In the corporate world too ‘diversity’ is a buzzword which encourages tolerance for different races, ethnicity and gender. Psychologically we realise that too much tolerance may lead to a fault too. It leads to submissiveness and depression. But that makes a separate discussion. When we look at life around us, we are amazed and pained at the levels of intolerance that people display towards each other and behave irrationally as if it was a question of heaven and hell. We see people indulging in intolerant behaviour on minor and often insignificant differences.

Let’s take a commonplace illustration of a new marriage. A new bride says ‘in the home of her in-laws small issues matter a lot whereas her maternal side is modern where such issues are ignored’. These small issues are ‘blown out of proportion for no reason. Why cannot her in-laws tolerate small differences in her behaviour or her thought process or her life style? What is so earth shattering about it and why do they want you to conform to their standards at all times’. She adds that she has ‘enough capacity to tolerate the nonsense but it has caused tremendous stress’. This means many people with less capacity for tolerance would succumb to stress and fall sick either mentally or physically. If you tolerate beyond your threshold of tolerance you pay a heavy price to keep your sanity intact. The question is why should people want to enforce their own viewpoints on others and think that they are right and others are wrong? Why can’t differences be respected and accepted as they are and be celebrated instead? It is a self centred and narrow ego that believes in self righteousness and denigrates the other- a deadly state of mind.

This is also how many groups operate with their peculiarities of group behaviour. Groups can victimise people who are different and dare to be so. The situation could belong to any sector such as a home, an office, an industry, a shop or a social group. People like to operate in groups for it gives them a sense of cohesiveness, a sense of security, a sense of belonging and empowerment. Surprisingly this sense of cohesiveness is always partial and never total or complete because the undercurrents of differences are always there but yet there is something that glues them together. Most times groups experience a ‘shared perception’ of things or values or traditions and feel cosy about that. The problem begins when a person who does not seem to ‘belong’ to the specific group begins to assert his expressions. At such situations high levels of intolerance is shown by others to shout it down with an aim to enforce submission and conformity.

At the work force dominant groups can victimise and harass the other small groups, such as, men can dominate women employees, upper castes can harass the lower castes, the rich can suppress the lesser rich and so on and so forth. We create stress and sickness for an otherwise healthy population by our intolerant attitudes and behaviour. Empathy and regard for others would make us sensitive to differing viewpoints and increase tolerance.

We have a catchy slogan ‘unity in diversity’ but it remains at the surface level and is of cosmetic value only. We talk of diversity but do not know what it means and hence fail to agree to disagree. We look for uniformity and similarity in others and feel comfortable in those circles. Diversity is a much touted word today in politics and in the corporate world too. Operationally it means that we should respect the differences that people stand for which comes from their socio-cultural background, from their religions and from the basic differences between the sexes of being a man or a woman. In politics we have been blowing the trumpet of the women’s reservation Bill for 26 years and have not yet had the guts to pass it in Parliament. Why? Representation of diversity is encouraged in the corporate sector too but we know the proverbial glass ceilings that stops the process of women’s progress at all levels of management either at the entry level or at the higher levels. Diversity only remains at a level of tokenism where we need to display our sense of fairness and justice but it does not get translated into behaviour easily.

Tolerance of diversity requires two fundamental things- one is a deep rooted acceptance of differences of people at all spheres of life and second is respect for the differences and not contempt and disgust for others which springs from a sense of superiority. The day we start looking at all human beings as equal, unique, different and yet lovable we would become a tolerant race. What we need is not acceptance of diversity but celebration of diversity in the true sense.


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