The tolerance template

The root cause of a significant share of social issues is differences between people and ideologies, and it is human nature that we rarely tolerate other people’s opinions that do not resonate with our own. However, this diversity is what propels a nation forward, because it helps us see new and better ways to look at things.

Today (16) marks the International Day for Tolerance, which the United Nations (UN), the entity that declared this day in 1996 at its General Assembly, said is aimed at strengthening tolerance by fostering mutual understanding among cultures and people. It said that tolerance is more important than ever in this era of rising and violent extremism and widening conflicts that are characterised by a fundamental disregard for human life.

In 1995, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Member States also adopted a Declaration of Principles of Tolerance, which, among other things, affirms that tolerance is respect and appreciation of the rich variety of the world’s cultures, forms of expression, and ways of being human. That is precisely what Sri Lanka, or any country dealing with issues due to the lack of tolerance for that matter, need to understand – harmony comes from respect founded on understanding, not necessarily through respect founded on consensus.

Sri Lanka is a country that has suffered the bitter consequences of being intolerant for decades, and endless ethnic conflicts, discrimination, and oppression against dissenting voices, show deep rooted intolerance for differences. Sri Lankans need to understand that there is no way, or need, to eradicate differences, and must not see differences as an obstacle to the development of a society. On the contrary, diversity should be celebrated for it is what creates the uniqueness of a community. However, the lack of knowledge among the public is a big issue.

Who is to blame for this? People fear what they do not understand or know, and it is this ignorance that most parties who incite violence and disharmony among different ethnicities and communalities exploit. It is a massive issue; however, Sri Lanka not giving adequate attention to educating the people on diversity, and making studying diversity more normal and acceptable, is a much bigger issue. The number of subjects in educational institutions, or programmes for the public, children or adults, aimed at discussing and understanding diversity is not nearly enough.

This lack of tolerance has affected Sri Lanka in many ways. The best example is the 30-year-long war in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, which cost Sri Lanka countless resources including lives.

The fate of the Vedda community is another example. Despite them having existed in Sri Lanka longer than the modern public has, the country has failed to give them the due recognition, which has resulted in their demands for more freedom, especially in their traditional lands, not being tolerated or accepted by the larger society and the authorities. They have been reduced to a mere indigenous tribe that has no role in modern society. 

The recent writ petition filed by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer and questioning (LGBTIQ+) community demanding an end to harassment by the Police, also shows how “tolerant” we are as a society.

Legal action against writers such as Shakthika Sathkumara is a prime example of how tolerant we, as a society are, when it comes to discussing different opinions.

However, like differences, similarities, especially cultural similarities that exist between ethnic communities in Sri Lanka, too should be celebrated. In fact, it is these similarities that have the potential to strengthen the bond between diverse ethnic and religious groups.

Sri Lanka has been discussing, actually bragging about, strengthening ties between different communities, and thereby preventing bloodshed the country witnessed during the past few decades. Steps to do so were and still are one of the main election promises. However, the efforts to achieve such harmony are in a sorry state, and even a decade after the end of the war, we are moving very sluggishly. National leadership and prominent figures have a massive duty in this connection, which does not seem to be fulfilled. When it comes to matters of this nature, i.e. matters that have a direct connection to the people’s identities and self-worth, there is very little laws and policies can do, and planting the seeds of tolerance has more to do with what we teach our children and discuss in the society.

However, respecting differences has to be done with a focus on respecting human and fundamental rights, and if a certain cultural practice violates a person’s rights, tolerating it in the name of harmony or respect is not an option. At the end of the day, we are under no obligation to, and are practically not in a position to, agree with everything that matters to a person who believes in a different set of ideologies and values, and therefore, what we need to reiterate is that tolerance is not about consensus, but about understanding and respecting differences. All we need to do is to always remember an age old idiom: Live and let live.