Intolerance Essay

On By In 1

By
Sarah Peterson

July 2003

What is Tolerance?

Hobbes: "How are you doing on your New Year's resolutions?"

Calvin: "I didn't make any. See, in order to improve oneself, one must have some idea of what's 'good.' That implies certain values. But as we all know, values are relative. Every system of belief is equally valid and we need to tolerate diversity. Virtue isn't 'better' than vice. It's just different."

Hobbes: "I don't know if I can tolerate that much tolerance."

Calvin: "I refuse to be victimized by notions of virtuous behavior."

-- A Bill Watterson cartoon shows Calvin and Hobbes walking through the snow.

Tolerance is the appreciation of diversity and the ability to live and let others live. It is the ability to exercise a fair and objective attitude towards those whose opinions, practices, religion, nationality and so on differ from one's own.[1] As William Ury notes, "tolerance is not just agreeing with one another or remaining indifferent in the face of injustice, but rather showing respect for the essential humanity in every person."[2]

Intolerance is the failure to appreciate and respect the practices, opinions and beliefs of another group. For instance, there is a high degree of intolerance between Israeli Jews and Palestinians who are at odds over issues of identity, security, self-determination, statehood, the right of return for refugees, the status of Jerusalem and many other issues. The result is continuing inter-group violence.

Why Does Tolerance Matter?

At a post-9/11 conference on multiculturalism in the United States, participants asked, "How can we be tolerant of those who are intolerant of us?"[3] For many, tolerating intolerance is neither acceptable nor possible.

Though tolerance may seem an impossible exercise in certain situations -- as illustrated by Hobbes in the inset box on the right -- being tolerant nonetheless remains key to easing hostile tensions between groups and to helping communities move past intractable conflict. That is because tolerance is integral to different groups relating to one another in a respectful and understanding way. In cases where communities have been deeply entrenched in violent conflict, being tolerant helps the affected groups endure the pain of the past and resolve their differences. In Rwanda, the Hutus and the Tutsis have tolerated a reconciliation process, which has helped them to work through their anger and resentment towards one another.


Angela Khaminwa emphasizes the flexibility of meanings of the concept "coexistence."

The Origins of Intolerance

In situations where conditions are economically depressed and politically charged, groups and individuals may find it hard to tolerate those that are different from them or have caused them harm. In such cases, discrimination, dehumanization, repression, and violence may occur. This can be seen in the context of Kosovo, where Kosovar Alabanians, grappling with poverty and unemployment, needed a scapegoat, and supported an aggressive Serbian attack against neighboring Bosnian Muslim and Croatian neighbors.

The Consequences of Intolerance

Intolerance will drive groups apart, creating a sense of permanent separation between them. For example, though the laws of apartheid in South Africa were abolished nine years ago, there still exists a noticeable level of personal separation between black and white South Africans, as evidenced in studies on the levels of perceived social distance between the two groups.[4] This continued racial division perpetuates the problems of inter-group resentment and hostility.

How is Intolerance Perpetuated?

Between Individuals: In the absence of their own experiences, individuals base their impressions and opinions of one another on assumptions. These assumptions can be influenced by the positive or negative beliefs of those who are either closest or most influential in their lives, including parents or other family members, colleagues, educators, and/or role models.

In the Media: Individual attitudes are influenced by the images of other groups in the media and the press. For instance, many Serbian communities believed that the western media portrayed a negative image of the Serbian people during the NATO bombing in Kosovo and Serbia.[5] This de-humanization may have contributed to the West's willingness to bomb Serbia. However, there are studies that suggest media images may not influence individuals in all cases. For example, a study conducted on stereotypes discovered people of specific towns in southeastern Australia did not agree with the negative stereotypes of Muslims presented in the media.[6]

In Education: There exists school curriculum and educational literature that provide biased and/or negative historical accounts of world cultures. Education or schooling based on myths can demonize and dehumanize other cultures rather than promote cultural understanding and a tolerance for diversity and differences.

What Can Be Done to Deal with Intolerance?

To encourage tolerance, parties to a conflict and third parties must remind themselves and others that tolerating tolerance is preferable to tolerating intolerance. Following are some useful strategies that may be used as tools to promote tolerance.

Inter-Group Contact: There is evidence that casual inter-group contact does not necessarily reduce inter-group tensions, and may in fact exacerbate existing animosities. However, through intimate inter-group contact, groups will base their opinions of one another on personal experiences, which can reduce prejudices. Intimate inter-group contact should be sustained over a week or longer in order for it to be effective.[7]

In Dialogue: To enhance communication between both sides, dialogue mechanisms such as dialogue groups or problem solving workshops provide opportunities for both sides to express their needs and interests. In such cases, actors engaged in the workshops or similar forums feel their concerns have been heard and recognized. Restorative justice programs such as victim-offender mediation provide this kind of opportunity. For instance, through victim-offender mediation, victims can ask for an apology from the offender.[8]

What Individuals Can Do

Individuals should continually focus on being tolerant of others in their daily lives. This involves consciously challenging the stereotypes and assumptions that they typically encounter in making decisions about others and/or working with others either in a social or a professional environment.

What the Media Can Do

The media should use positive images to promote understanding and cultural sensitivity. The more groups and individuals are exposed to positive media messages about other cultures, the less they are likely to find faults with one another -- particularly those communities who have little access to the outside world and are susceptible to what the media tells them. See the section on stereotypes in this volume to learn more about how the media perpetuate negative images of different groups.

What the Educational System Can Do

Educators are instrumental in promoting tolerance and peaceful coexistence. For instance, schools that create a tolerant environment help young people respect and understand different cultures. In Israel, an Arab and Israeli community called Neve Shalom or Wahat Al-Salam ("Oasis of Peace") created a school designed to support inter-cultural understanding by providing children between the first and sixth grades the opportunity to learn and grow together in a tolerant environment.[9]

What Other Third Parties Can Do

Conflict transformation NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and other actors in the field of peacebuilding can offer mechanisms such as trainings to help parties to a conflict communicate with one another. For instance, several organizations have launched a series of projects in Macedonia that aim to reduce tensions between the country's Albanian, Romani and Macedonian populations, including activities that promote democracy, ethnic tolerance, and respect for human rights.[10]

International organizations need to find ways to enshrine the principles of tolerance in policy. For instance, the United Nations has already created The Declaration of Moral Principles on Tolerance, adopted and signed in Paris by UNESCO's 185 member states on Nov. 16, 1995, which qualifies tolerance as a moral, political, and legal requirement for individuals, groups, and states.[11]

Governments also should aim to institutionalize policies of tolerance. For example, in South Africa, the Education Ministry has advocated the integration of a public school tolerance curriculum into the classroom; the curriculum promotes a holistic approach to learning. The United States government has recognized one week a year as international education week, encouraging schools, organizations, institutions, and individuals to engage in projects and exchanges to heighten global awareness of cultural differences.

The Diaspora community can also play an important role in promoting and sustaining tolerance. They can provide resources to ease tensions and affect institutional policies in a positive way. For example, Jewish, Irish, and Islamic communities have contributed to the peacebuilding effort within their places of origin from their places of residence in the United States. [12]


[1] The American Heritage Dictionary (New York: Dell Publishing, 1994).

[2] William Ury, Getting To Peace (New York: The Penguin Group, 1999), 127.

[3] As identified by Serge Schmemann, a New York Times columnist noted in his piece of Dec. 29, 2002, in The New York Times entitled "The Burden of Tolerance in a World of Division" that tolerance is a burden rather than a blessing in today's society.

[4] Jannie Malan, "From Exclusive Aversion to Inclusive Coexistence," Short Paper, African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD), Conference on Coexistence Community Consultations, Durban, South Africa, January 2003, 6.

[5] As noted by Susan Sachs, a New York Times columnist in her piece of Dec. 16, 2001, in The New York Times entitled "In One Muslim Land, an Effort to Enforce Lessons of Tolerance."

[6] Amber Hague, "Attitudes of high school students and teachers towards Muslims and Islam in a southeaster Australian community," Intercultural Education 2 (2001): 185-196.

[7] Yehuda Amir, "Contact Hypothesis in Ethnic Relations," in Weiner, Eugene, eds. The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence (New York: The Continuing Publishing Company, 2000), 162-181.

[8] The Ukrainian Centre for Common Ground has launched a successful restorative justice project. Information available on-line at www.sfcg.org.

[9] Neve Shalom homepage [on-line]; available at www.nswas.com; Internet.

[10] Lessons in Tolerance after Conflict. http://www.beyondintractability.org/library/external-resource?biblio=9997

[11] "A Global Quest for Tolerance" [article on-line] (UNESCO, 1995, accessed 11 February 2003); available at http://www.unesco.org/new/en/social-and-human-sciences/themes/fight-against-discrimination/promoting-tolerance/; Internet.

[12] Louis Kriesberg, "Coexistence and the Reconciliation of Communal Conflicts." In Weiner, Eugene, eds. The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence (New York: The Continuing Publishing Company, 2000), 182-198.


Use the following to cite this article:
Peterson, Sarah. "Tolerance." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/tolerance>.


Additional Resources

“Our tradition teaches tolerance; our philosophy preaches tolerance; our Constitution practises tolerance; let us not dilute it.” These stirring sentiments were expressed by Justice Chinnappa Reddy in a Supreme Court judgment pronounced in August 1986 which invalidated expulsion from school of students belonging to Jehova’s Witness faith. Regrettably, over the years, tolerance has been replaced by the rising menace of intolerance which strikes at various fields of human endeavour and creativity: writings, music, drama, paintings and movies.

Intolerance stems from an invincible assumption of the infallibility of one’s beliefs and a dogmatic conviction about their rightness. An intolerant society cannot tolerate expression of ideas and views which challenge its current doctrines and conventional wisdom. Consequently, unconventional and heterodox thoughts and views have to be suppressed. That is the prime motivation for censorship.

Extent of dissent

One criterion to determine whether a country is truly democratic is the extent of dissent permitted. A liberal democracy is one in which all groups in the country accept the fact that in a free country, people can have different opinions and beliefs and shall have equal rights in voicing them without fear of legal penalties or social sanctions. Right to dissent and tolerance of dissent are sine qua non of a liberal democratic society.

Today we have reached a stage where expression of a different point of view is viewed with resentment and hostility and there are vociferous demands for bans. The banning itch has become infectious. Sikhs are offended by certain words in the title of a movie; Christians want the movie, The Da Vinci Code, banned because they find some portions hurtful. The ban was struck down by the Andhra Pradesh High Court. No one dare write an authentic and critical biography of a revered religious or political leader. The American author James Laine who wrote a biography of Shivaji in which there were unpalatable remarks about Shivaji was sought to be prosecuted which was quashed by the Supreme Court. Worse, the prestigious Bhandarkar Institute at Pune where Laine had done some research was vandalised. That was mobocracy in action. The exhibition of M.F. Husain’s paintings was stopped by intimidation followed by vandalism of the premises. The exhibition The Naked and the Nude at the Art Gallery in Delhi is threatened with dire consequences because it is considered obscene by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad women’s wing. The musical performance by a teenage girl rock band in Kashmir was coerced into silence because the music was termed un-Islamic by a popular religious leader. There are media reports that Mani Ratnam’s latest movie Kadal has come under fire on account of Christian ire that it has ‘hurt’ the feelings of the community. One wonders whether we are hell bent on emulating the Taliban.

Fortunately, our Supreme Court has been a valiant defender of freedom of expression. The well known actor Khushboo faced several criminal prosecutions on account of her remarks on premarital sex and its prevalence in metropolitan cities which were considered to be against the dignity of Tamil women and ruined the culture and morality of the people of Tamil Nadu. The Supreme Court quashed the criminal proceedings on the ground that “under our constitutional scheme different views are allowed to be expressed by the proponents and opponents. … Morality and criminality are far from being coextensive. An expression of opinion in favour of non-dogmatic and non-conventional morality has to be tolerated and the same cannot be a ground to penalise the author.”

The movie, Bandit Queen, was banned on the ground of obscenity because of the very brief scene of frontal nudity of the bandit Phoolan Devi in the movie. The Supreme Court struck down the ban and ruled that nakedness is not per se obscene. The Court emphasised that the Censor Tribunal which is a multi-member body comprised of persons who gauge public reactions to films had approved exhibition of the movie. This aspect was also highlighted by the Supreme Court in its judgment in T. Kannan.

Exhibition of movies is included in the fundamental right of freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution. One of the reasons frequently assigned for imposing a ban is that it hurts the sentiments of a certain section of people in society. ‘Hurt feelings’ is a slippery slope for banning expression. Any book or movie or play which criticises certain practices and advocates reforms will ‘hurt’ the sentiments of the status-quoists. For example, the abolition of Sati or the abolition of certain superstitious practices in the name of religion. Criticism should not be equated with causing offence. In the context of hurt feelings, the Supreme Court has repeatedly laid down that the standard to be applied for judging the film should be that of an ordinary man of common sense and prudence and not that of “hypersensitive” persons who sense offence in every scene or perceive hurt in every statement. The right method is to vigorously refute the criticism by rebutting its reasoning and data on which its conclusions are based.

Another ground for imposing a ban is the bogey about apprehension of breach of law and order and outbreak of violence in view of threats by certain groups about the exhibition of the movie. As far back as November 2000, the Supreme Court in KM Shankarappa’s case categorically ruled that “once an expert body has considered the impact of the film on the public and has cleared the film, it is no excuse to say that there may be a law and order situation. … In such a case, the clear duty of the government is to ensure that law and order is maintained by taking appropriate actions against persons who choose to breach the law.”

The same bogey of breach of law and order and violence was raised by the State of Tamil Nadu regarding exhibition of the movie, Ore Oru Gramathile. The Supreme Court firmly rejected the State’s plea in its decision in Rangarajan in March 1989 in these words: “Freedom of expression cannot be suppressed on account of threat of demonstration and processions or threats of violence. That would tantamount to negation of the rule of law and a surrender to blackmail and intimidation.” The Court reiterated that “it is the duty of the State to protect freedom of expression. The State cannot plead its inability to handle the hostile audience problem. It is its obligatory duty to prevent it and protect the freedom of expression.” It is noteworthy that the Supreme Court endorsed the celebrated dictum of the European Court of Human Rights that freedom of expression guarantees “not only views that are generally received but also those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population. Such are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no democratic society.”

During the hearing of the writ petition regarding the movie Dam999, certain observations were made orally off the cuff by the Supreme Court about law and order problems that may arise because of the exhibition of a movie. The writ petition was in fact dismissed as infructuous because the period of the ban had expired. There is no mention or discussion of the decision in Rangarajan at all in the operative part of the Supreme Court order. The salutary principle laid down in the Rangarajan decision has been approved in three subsequent decisions of the Supreme Court. It firmly holds the field and has not been diluted at all.

In contravention of the law

Banning of the movie Vishwaroopam by the State of Tamil Nadu was clearly in contravention of the law laid down by our Supreme Court. The sad part is that Kamal Haasan, producer of the movie, agreed to carry out cuts in the movie as demanded by certain Muslim groups. It was not a settlement but surrender by Mr. Haasan albeit for pragmatic reasons. However it lays down a bad precedent because it concedes to certain intolerant groups demanding a ban, a veto or appellate power over the decision of an expert body like the Censor Board.

Our Constitution prescribes certain fundamental duties to be performed by citizens (Article 51-A). One duty of paramount importance which should be performed is the duty to practise tolerance. Otherwise democracy, a basic feature of our Constitution, will be under siege and the cherished right to freedom of expression will be held hostage by an intolerant mindless mob.

(Soli J. Sorabjee is a former Attorney General of India)

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