International Day for Tolerance: The Pursuit of Acceptance and Understanding

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The United Nations has set November 16 as the International Day for Tolerance. The idea behind the UN-mandated day is to strengthen tolerance around the globe through initiatives and discussions that foster “mutual understanding among cultures and people.” In this worrisome time, where we see the rise of violent extremist movements and hateful actions spread by fear, the post-US election world is in desperate need of visible and meaningful acts of tolerance.

The UN’s position on fostering respect and tolerance is to define the perimeters around actually preventing intolerance or bigotry. In 1995, The Member States of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) met in Paris in 1995 to assemble the Declaration of Principles on Tolerance. Now, UNESCO identifies five major ways that intolerance can be countered: 1) through Government enforcement by law; 2) through education, as they identify “ignorance” as the driving culprit; 3) through access to information, by promoting freedom of the press; 4) through individual awareness, by asking people to think critically about their own behaviour; and 5) through solutions at the local level, as they place importance on grassroots development and community solidarity.

Perhaps, however, we must move beyond tolerance. What we need now — more than ever — is a united move from tolerance to acceptance, as both are conceptually different. Kim Samuel has highlighted the importance of the difference between tolerance and acceptance in overcoming social isolation by stating, “I’ve always found it a bit ironic that we preach “tolerance” as a virtue. To me, tolerance can be a form of turning away: you do what you do, and I’ll tolerate it. I think reciprocity is much more positive, and powerful. That demands engagement.” Furthermore, Merriam-Webster defines tolerance as “willingness to accept feelings, habits, or beliefs that are different from your own.” Acceptance goes one step further than that, as Jefferson M. Fish, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at St John’s University, discusses in an article on Psychology Today. He explains that you can be tolerant without being accepting, but you cannot be accepting without first being tolerant. “If a sign of tolerance is a feeling of ‘I can live with X (behavior, religion, race, culture, etc.)’ acceptance moves beyond that in the direction of ‘X is OK.’”

Taking into consideration the difference between these two concepts, Professor Fish suggests further that one can be tolerant and accepting, without actually understanding. This is true of many situations in our present world, and is not simply a matter of semantics. Take for example the current Syrian refugee crisis; it is possible to tolerate and accept the influx of refugees from war-torn Syria, but do we, collectively, understand their plight and heartache? Have we taken the steps to truly understand what they have gone through and what they have to offer?

In Canada, a great example of the acceptance of refugees is the #WelcomeRefugees campaign to promote not only tolerance for, but adoption of, Syrian families seeking refuge. The hashtag, coined by the Canadian government itself, was meant to drive a collective reception, and continues to this day as the country has welcomed 33,723. As the U.S. faces overwhelming anti-refugee rhetoric, this government-supported push for acceptance in Canada is a promising contrast.

According to a joint Environics Institute and Canadian Race Relations Foundation survey conducted in October 2016, Canadians are accepting refugees more than ever before. More than a year since the first refugees arrived, 58% of the 2,000 respondents said they disagreed with the sentiment that the country was letting in too many immigrants. Nearly 44% also now believe that asylum seekers have “real cause for Canada’s protection” – a number up from previous years. It is evident that with increased awareness about the plight of the Syrian people, as well as their positive contributions to society, Canadians are becoming not only more tolerant of the situation, but accepting of individuals involved.

While acceptance of refugees is in itself a significant milestone, taking steps to understand their circumstances is truly impactful. IKEA recently presented the reality facing refugees in a way that activates human understanding of the war experience. At their Norwegian flagship store, they partnered with the Red Cross to build a replica of the inside of a real Syrian home — a tiny, 25-square-metre dwelling based on a real structure that housed a woman named Rana and her family of nine. After nearly 400,000 people visited the replica IKEA home, the Red Cross raised 22 million euros for their efforts in Syria. This type of activation is an example of creating meaningful impact by generating understanding and, ultimately, appreciation for the real experiences of the people affected by conflict.

The International Day of Tolerance marks a global observance of acts that foster respect and open-mindedness. It is a day that we must recognize as we work collectively toward a better, more tolerant human existence. Only when we practice tolerance, do we arrive at acceptance; and only after tolerance and acceptance are reached, do we have a chance of reaching true understanding and consciousness. Maybe at that stage, we can finally reach the global peace we are seeking.