Tolerance has become a quite divisive political word in India these days. After every lynching, mob-violence and murder, we are asked by our supposed thought-leaders to be tolerant of others. After every aggressive collective outburst on social media, there is a call to become more tolerant. More tolerant of the other religion, more tolerant of the other political side, more tolerant of the other point of view, more tolerant of the other gender or sex – so forth and so on. Whatever its philosophical connotations, tolerating someone or something, in a colloquial sense, seems a pretty low bar to have set for ourselves.
But tolerance is ‘bearing hardship, or the ability to bear pain and hardship’. It is inherently an individual character of a person in that it is psychological hardship that an individual faces while tolerating someone/thing else. It asks of us to control our religious, gender, cultural or political morality that we might otherwise impose on others if we were to be ‘intolerant’. It does not even go so far enough as to acknowledge the violence of that morality, much less address it in any positive meaningful manner. It just says, if you cannot respect the other, at least tolerate him/her.
Tolerance is a brilliant management tool out of a long list of ready-made ones, to ‘manage’ difference in society. But it shifts the politics of the violence and micro-aggression into the realm of individual psychology. It does not ask of the ‘intolerant’ individuals to accept a share of responsibility of the oppression committed by their peers and ancestors. It just asks them to turn a blind eye to what they still see as acts of very visible violations of majoritarian code. It says nothing of, nor does it bring positive changes to, cultural-socio-economic-political conditions that have historically been colored as suspicious, deviant or provocative, with the sanction of the law and society.
In effect, it depoliticizes the very basis on which the politics of identity, inequality, injustice, exclusion, oppression, and conflict, is fought regularly – all of which a result of cultural, religious, economic, social and political factors that have worked historically to the detriment of those who the we now seek to tolerate. It reduces that very brutal oppression to a mere misunderstanding among individuals, acquitting the majority of any responsibility. The readily available tools of cultural knowledge – TV and social media (since we are reading lesser each day) and its army- that preach this tolerance do nothing to sensitize us to the spectacular violence. At best, they desensitizes us of the oppression we cause and at its worst, it propels paranoia, fear and violence in all its thrill and grandeur.
What use is this ‘tolerance’ of when the tolerant still view and observe the present conditions as natural order – as pre-existing, which should not be changed. While it is laudable to make society more hospitable for others through tolerance, it will be an exercise in futility if this stops there and does not address the reasons why it had been historically inhospitable for a vast population. Tolerance alone cannot be enough. The point of tolerance is not to address the injustice and violence but rather to mold the mindset of individuals to tolerate others even though they still view the other as suspicious, deviant or provocative. Unless those legacies of oppression are meaningfully addressed, tolerance will just be a line in the sand.