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?