On Tolerance, Ignorance, and Humanity

I am so incredibly lucky to have grown up in an environment as free of bias as possible. Being taught from an early age that you can do anything you want to do, regardless of where you were born, what you were born, which arbitrarily chosen ‘part’ of society you belong to, has helped me grow into the person I am today.

Am I free of judgement? Am I completely and utterly tolerant? Of course not. Nobody is. But I strive to be, every day of my life. Occasionally, I catch myself thinking a word that is closer to a racial slur than to a proper noun, because I’ve heard it used as such so often that it has become second nature. I’m no better than anyone else, would never think I am, but what I do when something like this happens is try to not let it happen again. I fail eventually, of course, but for a while, I am as free of false judgement as I can possibly be. And I’m aware of it every step of the way.

But what is tolerance, actually? Cambridge defines it as the ‘willingness to accept behaviour and beliefs which are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them’. Being tolerant, thus, doesn’t necessarily imply the acceptance of ideas that you disapprove of, it is merely harder when that is the case. But what is absolutely and irrefutably included in the definition are the words ‘behaviour’ and ‘beliefs’. Tolerance is about things that can be changed. If my brother decides to start playing the drums at three in the morning, I can decide to tolerate it and let him, or I can decide not to and take away the sticks. What tolerance does not apply to is attributes such as skin colour, native language, cultural background.

If I let my brother play the drums in the middle of the night, I’m tolerant.

If I accept that my new neighbour has skin darker than my own, yells about my brother’s playing the drum in a language I don’t understand, and prays five times a day instead of just one, am I being tolerant? No. I’m being human. My neighbour can’t change his skin colour any more than I can change mine, and maybe in time, I’ll understand enough of his language to wish him a good morning like he wishes me one in mine.

Let’s look at another word: Ignorance. The ‘lack of knowledge, understanding or information about something’. During one of my first Latin classes in school, I was taught exactly that: Ignorance means the lack of knowledge. It has, in theory, nothing to do with not wanting to know about a certain subject, but simply with the fact of not knowing. If the simple lack of knowledge was society’s problem, I think we’d all be a thousand times better off. Today, the meaning of the word has shifted, indicating also the unwillingness to learn more or at all. About strange customs, foreign people, new ideas. So what do we do instead? At best, we ignore them (—a much more appropriate meaning of the Latin root these days—), at worst, we shun them, denunciate them as the Other, Alien, Evil.

We want diversity in every part of our lives; we change our hair colour three times a year, our ‘life partners’ almost (or at least) as often. We eat food from every continent, wear clothes made my people halfway across the globe. We move, we travel, we explore.

What is true for one person is not true for another, of course. Some people never dye their hair, some live their whole life in the same part of one city and couldn’t be happier. But what we all have in common is choice. Every day, every hour, every minute of our lives we have a choice; to change or to stay the same. Both are equally good choices, neither superior to the other, but what matters it that we can decide freely.

We all have favourites, in any and all aspects in life. We might not decide freely to like red better than green, or to love chicken more than veal, it’s always a matter of taste. But we do have favourites, and they’re always different. And if we didn’t, if we all loved chicken the most and only painted our houses red, the world would be too dull to live in. No, we want diversity here, too.

So why are we so unwilling to accept diversity of people? Of religious beliefs and colours of skin? What is it about cultural peculiarities and sexual orientation and languages we don’t understand that makes us so reluctant to learn, to share, to experience? I wish anyone had a precise answer, one that actually makes sense. Because if we knew what exactly some people’s problems were with fellow human beings that are simply somewhat different, maybe then we’d be able to do something about it, to change it and make it disappear.

Tolerance, ignorance, humanity…

We’re all victims of our own upbringing. That’s not to say we can’t change; of course we can, if we only make an effort. But there will always be a small part of us that is as much slave to our family’s values as we are to the rules of nature. I’m just incredibly glad I was taught the right approach to living with others, was taught the meaning of ‘tolerance’ before I ever even knew what ignorance was.

For that, I will forever be grateful to my parents.

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