In 1996, the United Nations invited its member states to observe an International Day for Tolerance annually on November 16, aimed at the promotion of a spirit of tolerance and nonviolence globally.
Notwithstanding the call for tolerance, we see increasingly high levels of intolerance in South Africa, as well as globally. Think about ubiquitous intolerance against certain sexual orientations, or United States President Donald Trump’s intolerance of other countries and ethnic cultures — in his description of all Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug addicts, for example.
There is the omnipresent intolerance between different races as recently demonstrated by Economic Freedom Fighters members’ attempts to stop the unification of South Africans over racial boundaries after the Springboks’ Rugby World Cup victory with racial slurs and judgments.
Intolerance among different religious faiths has led to many bloody wars over centuries — and it is still continuing today. The list of humanity’s intolerances is endless and growing. Obviously, it is fit to observe a Day for Tolerance. But tolerance can only be the first step: it is not nearly enough.
Unless we move beyond tolerance to acceptance, it is unlikely that the world will change for the better. If one investigates the definition and etymological roots of tolerance, it focuses on bearing with or enduring situations or beliefs that are different to one’s own, without being affected and without interference.
This approach to those who are different from oneself does not remove the sting that tolerance inherently leaves behind in people. One can bear with those who one is tolerant of endure them and not interfere, but can still judge them, stereotype them and be smudged with bigotry.
We often grudgingly tolerate differences in people, ideas or practices and do not interfere because of our inability to do so. Gay people are tolerated only because the Constitution recognises the right of sexual orientation. In the meantime, a gay person is stigmatised, stereotyped and not accepted as just another equal human being with similar needs, desires and hopes to any other; as just another person, with good and bad, just like anyone else.
One can be tolerant of people from another ethnic group or whom speak another language, but still stereotype them, sneer at them or avoid them as far as possible. Although most of the big religions preach acceptance, their followers typically tolerate other religions only on a superficial level. And how many people accept those who are agnostic or choose not to ascribe to any religion as equal spiritual beings?
Acceptance is required to move people beyond tolerance. Acceptance is about a fair, objective and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, beliefs, practices, racial or ethnic origins, et cetera, differ from one’s own. It is about freedom from bigotry, understanding and appreciating differences without criticism or judgment, even if one does not understand it or agree with them.
Acceptance is not without boundaries; acceptance excludes malignant ideas, opinions and practices. But be careful not to judge this too quickly and only from your own point of view, as few of us can see beyond our own predispositions.
Many individuals are scared to move to acceptance in the delusion that it will remove differences or one’s right to be different. However, acceptance is not assimilation or becoming the same. Rather, it is about appreciating and, dare one say, celebrating different ideas, opinions and practices with an interest to learn and understand. Is it not the celebration of differences that lies at the root of discerned individuals’ desire to travel and the joy of seeing different places and experiencing cultures that are different to one’s own?
Tolerance is an essential first step towards creating a more accommodating and nonviolent world, but it is insufficient and passive. We must move beyond tolerance to acceptance to change the world for the better, starting with every one of us. In the humble words of Mahatma Gandhi: “I will be the change that I want to see in the world.”
Mias de Klerk is a professor in leadership and organisational behaviour at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. He writes in his personal capacity