Is ours really a liberal and tolerant society?

The outrage expressed and being expressed by public and private individuals and organizations over the Supreme Court verdict on Section 377 may lead one to believe that ours is a liberal and tolerant society.

Most of us love to proclaim: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (Wikipedia reports that these words are “often misattributed to Voltaire.” They were actually written by his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall “as an illustration of Voltaire’s beliefs”.) But, in reality, how many of us actually respect the rights of our fellowmen to have thoughts, beliefs, customs and practices that are different from our own?

Some people are openly intolerant. Many more wear a mask of tolerance in public, but the mask comes off in private. This applies mainly to religion, but also to caste, food habits, gender, language, skin colour, economic status, educational background, profession, state of residence, political beliefs, etc., etc.

Read this report in THE HINDU about Sanjay Salve, a teacher, whose increments were withheld by the school he worked for only because, being an atheist, he refused to “fold his hands during prayer time”.

Is it so difficult to be tolerant? Let me share two examples.

An elderly family friend, an ardent devotee of Sri Raghavendra Swami, once happened to describe the inconvenience faced by him while booking train tickets for his wife and himself for their annual pilgrimage to Mantralayam. When I pointed out that he could easily book the tickets online, he said he couldn’t do it as he was ‘computer-illiterate’. I immediately offered to book his tickets, prompting him to ask me whether I, a totally non-religious person, would be comfortable helping him go on a pilgrimage. I replied, “The purpose of your journey is not important. I am happy that I can help you avoid the inconvenience of personally booking train tickets.” When my friend met me after returning from Mantralayam, he hesitatingly offered me a packet of sweets, saying, “I hope it’s OK for you to accept this ‘prasadam’ (food blessed by the deity).” I readily accepted the packet, saying, “You are offering me ‘prasadam’. I am accepting sweets!”

In another incident, the CEO of a small IT company received a request from a senior manager that employees be instructed not to bring non-vegetarian food to office because most of the employees were vegetarians, who found the smell of non-vegetarian food unpleasant. The CEO replied that, while he sympathized with the vegetarian employees, he could not issue such an instruction because he believed that it would violate the right of non-vegetarian employees to eat the food of their choice. What is noteworthy about this incident is the CEO is himself a vegetarian and was equally inconvenienced by the smell of non-vegetarian food!

As these examples show, it is easy to be tolerant in some situations, whereas it is not so easy in other situations. However, it is not that difficult.

What is it that makes some people tolerant and many others intolerant?

What should we do to change people from intolerant to tolerant?


16 thoughts on “Is ours really a liberal and tolerant society?

  1. Lovely post and I completely echo your point of view on this subject. Just because some is religion agnostic doesn’t mean that he should prevent other from practicing the religion of their choice. Just because someone is a vegetarian doesn’t mean that he should try and enforce vegetarianism on all those around him.

  2. I entirely agree! Indians by and large are an extremely tolerant lot unlike its fanatical neighbours. Some Christians fall in the same category by calling others ‘pagans’. Even Buddhists in Sri Lanka and Myanmar are turning like the others.

    • I think very few Indians are genuinely tolerant.

      Most of us are overtly/covertly intolerant. Of these, some of us want to be tolerant, but cannot change because intolerance is deeply ingrained in us. The large majority are happy being intolerant. This can be perceived when we listen to people gleefully making snide remarks about people who are ‘different’ from them in some way.

      Intolerance is not restricted to any nationality or religion or group. Unfortunately, intolerance does not discriminate in any way; it enters the heart and head of any person!

  3. Every human being or rather almost every human being is ingrained with double standards. One for public view & one for private. Regarding veg & nonveg food, there are housing societies in Bombay that absolutely do not allow residents to cook nonveg food at home but have leased out space to restaurants that sell nonveg. Double standards or……????????

  4. We are basically a bunch of hypocrites, Pro! The prominent corporate group with which I started my career preferred “Brahmins” over all other candidates. So sad.

    Also, while some people might have “principles”, Practice is quite another story, especially because people-pleasing is a large part of their life.

    I think experience is the best teacher. Unless someone genuinely empathizes, preaching doesn’t work.

  5. Live and let live. If we all follow this concept world would definitely be a better place. Give every human being all rights that you yourself wish. We must learn to respect and tolerate differences.We need to be free from prejudices and have an open mindset.

  6. If I’m honest, I think tolerance is a myth. There is always a limit to how far tolerance can go. In the case of the no-vegetarian food you gave are the vegetarians intolerant because they find the smell of a meat-eater offensive (in the UK some white people say the same thing of Indians who all have a ‘spicy’ smell – as my family probably have too after many years in Bangladesh! – but this would be seen as racism)? Or are the meat-eaters intolerant because they don’t respect the difficulties vegetarians are having with the aroma of cooked meat?

    In fact I would say as soon as you demand a law or rule for something, you immediately make one side or the other intolerant. Only people relating to one another and putting the wishes of others above their own will be any kind of answer. The meat-eater may bring his or her food to work and his vegetarian friends may withdraw to let them eat in peace, but that non-vegetarian may well choose to take themselves elsewhere to eat, not because a rule makes them, but because they choose their colleagues’ comfort over their own.

    What a world we could live in if all people did this? And one without the need to oppress or subjugate anyone or their beliefs.

    • I wouldn’t agree that tolerance is a myth. Tolerance does work, provided all persons involved are tolerant and considerate towards one another.

      As you rightly said, we must all “relate to one another and put the wishes of others above our own”.

      • I think the key is in your second sentence. I think that human nature is such that none of us really do that without being made to at least to a degree. It’s not in the human instinct to think of others first which is what consideration is all about. For this reason I think the idea of a tolerant society is a myth. No society is or will be truly tolerant.
        Only those of us who choose to try and be tolerant and to make ourselves even more tolerant will succeed in encouraging others in this path. Laws and rules merely stir up resentment.

  7. I am appalled at the amount of intolerance I see around .. forget some elder people.. I am talking about young people in their mid twenties with whom I hang out …. anything which doesn’t go with their views is not normal or wrong .. and they claim to be the modern india.. god, such crap.. Honestly I am tired of dealing with these people…

    • I agree. The scariest part is when people who are externally ‘modern’ are actually narrow-minded and intolerant.

      Have you tried to reason with any such people? What has been their response? Were they even open to a discussion?

  8. Brilliant post! Tolerance is a rather thin veil in our awesome wide religiously and culturally mixed country. I think it boils down to our idea of ‘righteousness’. Being bred as a citizen of a ‘culturally rich’ nation, we grow up making up this huge list of righteous good and devilish wrong and consider ourselves worthy of doing so. “Oh how vain every religion other than mine is!” “How impure their rituals” “How ungodly their diet choice!” “How queer!” Kind of like the British equivalent to rules of etiquette: “Oh how ill her manners!”

    Unless we drop this cloak of righteousness and embrace the ambiguity of acceptance, drop our pride (the vain kind) in our beliefs and accept the possibility of the otherwise, the unknown, tolerance will remain a myth.

    As for change, one can only lead by example. There is no ‘teaching’ (read: preaching to) the ‘righteous’.

    • As you’ve correctly pointed out, pride is OK, vanity is not. Unfortunately, many (maybe most) people try to prove their pride in their nationality/state/religion/language/etc. by being vain and chauvinistic.

      Yes, any kind of good behaviour can be taught only by example.

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