Friday, July 8, 2011

Tolerance- Not a Concession but an Obligation

If you ask me about the one factor that I am proud of my home state, Kerala, my answer would be- (no, not the treasure unearthed in the Travancore Temple, but) the tolerance among its people.

You walk into any of the restaurants in Kerala and you are most likely to find a chaste vegetarian Hindu sitting and eating his Masala Dosa next to a Muslim or a Christian who is eating his Malabari Poratta with beef fry or chicken curry. No one is offended by what the next person is eating. He will eat what he likes and give the same freedom to others to eat what they like. This is what I call tolerance.

When I say I am proud of Keralites’ tolerance, I am not trying to gloss over the intolerance that is creeping among some sections of the society. Violence arising out of religious and political intolerance is on the rise and is a matter of great concern. I am only emphasising that the tolerance among average people of the state is much higher than that of other states in India, even when majority of them continue to be very conservative in their private life.

What is tolerance?
The meaning of the term ‘tolerance’ is a fair, objective and permissive attitude towards those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality or habits that differ from one’s own; i.e., freedom from bigotry.

On a higher plane, tolerance is the interest and concern (or at least an open mind and lack of aversion) for ideas and practices that differ from one’s own.

It is also the permissive and fair attitude towards other people’s practice of things that one disapproves such as social, sexual, religious or political practices.

Importance of Tolerance
Tolerance is one of the basic principles on which the concept called society exists. It is the binding glue for the diverse people to join together and form a society.

Man is a thinking animal. The reactions of each man to any given set of information/ occurrence are bound to be different, based on his own level of thinking, surroundings, education, experience and scores of other factors. Therefore, to expect that all others in the society will think or react in the same manner, in a given situation or to specific information, is unrealistic.

With diverse thoughts, perspectives and reactions, the members of a society manage to coexist, only by making use of their tolerance. Without tolerance, the society is bound to disintegrate sooner than later. If each member of the society becomes intolerant to other views/ persons, then the society will be broken into more and more fractions, until there will not be a society existing anymore but only individuals.

Why Intolerance?
What causes intolerance in human beings? It is the misplaced confidence in one’s beliefs, faiths, preferences and viewpoints that make one intolerant to others. It stems from a state of mind that finds it easier to be intolerant of others than to reason one’s own actions or views.

We are taught by our family, our society and our education system to conform to various ideas/ prejudices. We blindly follow them, never asking why or how; because our systems are intolerant even to such questioning.

I often ask many a friend, as to what made them what they are today; defending some, or attacking other, things. For example, how many ‘Muslim jihadists’ have ever asked themselves, as to whether they would have still become so, if they were born to Hindu parents? How many ‘proud Hindus’ have introspected about their own aversion to the minority and considered whether they would have gone ahead and become a Hindu, if their parents were from some other religion?

Intolerance is caused due to our dependence on the status of a person as the defining factor for our expectations (in other words prejudice) about that person. By using status of the person such as sex, caste, creed, colour, language, religion, sexual preferences, profession, and political affiliations and so on, we try to place him in one of the pigeon holes of our prejudices. We are also constantly taught to be part of ‘us’ and to keep away from ‘them’.

How to Overcome Intolerance?
It was said, ‘the paradox of tolerance is that even a tolerant person is intolerant towards intolerance!”. Intolerance is a habit and to escape from intolerance is a tough task.

We must help our children to grow with less and less intolerance and greater tolerance towards divergent people and views; if not for anything else, for the benefit that tolerance will afford him in adjusting to the current globalised world. Unlike in the past, when we were all expected to lead comfortable life in our own ‘circles’, the present generation is forced to be mobile and adaptable to different cultures and life styles, merely to survive.

We must understand the basic fact that every coin has two sides (discounting the edge which is altogether a different side). We must also understand that white and black are merely different shades of grey. So, our side of the coin or our shade of the grey is not the only truth. It is only an aspect of the truth.

Truth is multidimensional. The least we can do, for a beginning, is not to be adamant on making all others to agree to our side of the coin. Let us stick to our side but be tolerant to the people who swear by the other side, even if we disagree with them. Our life and our society as a whole will be much better if we follow this simple principle in our dealings with fellow members.
Tolerance is not giving up one’s faith or believes. Tolerance is merely the recognition and adaptation of that basic principle in life that ‘I may not believe in what you believe; but I strongly believe in your right to believe what you believe in’!

Finally, we must remember that tolerance is not a concession but an obligation towards society for granting us its membership!


  1. Actually Indians can tolerate anything as we are taught to adjust to any situation. Hope your article brings some wisdom.

  2. Super important in today's world...and applies universally.. I am not sure where I am in the scale, but travel has been the most important aspect in developing this for me...again glad to have read and be aware :)

  3. Brilliant. While intolerance shows signs of rearing its ugly head, Indians have tolerance in their DNA per se. Not an excuse though to drop one's vigil.