Simply stated, tolerance is “recognizing and respecting other’s beliefs and practices without sharing in them” (Neufeldt, 1994). It can also be described as “a respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world's cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. Tolerance is harmony in difference” (Southern Poverty Law Center).
Within Article 1 of the Declaration of Principles on Tolerance, which was proclaimed and signed by the Member States of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1995, the meaning of tolerance in today’s political context is:
1.1 Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world's cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. It is fostered by knowledge, openness, communication, and freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Tolerance is harmony in difference. It is not only a moral duty, it is also a political and legal requirement. Tolerance, the virtue that makes peace possible, contributes to the replacement of the culture of war by a culture of peace (UNESCO MOST Clearing House Declaration of Principles on Tolerance).
1.2 Tolerance is not concession, condescension or indulgence. Tolerance is, above all, an active attitude prompted by recognition of the universal human rights and fundamental freedoms of others. In no circumstance can it be used to justify infringements of these fundamental values. Tolerance is to be exercised by individuals, groups and States (ibid.).
1.3 Tolerance is the responsibility that upholds human rights, pluralism (including cultural pluralism), democracy and the rule of law. It involves the rejection of dogmatism and absolutism and affirms the standards set out in international human rights instruments (ibid.).
1.4 Consistent with respect for human rights, the practice of tolerance does not mean toleration of social injustice or the abandonment or weakening of ones convictions. It means that one is free to adhere to one's own convictions and accepts that others adhere to theirs. It means accepting the fact that human beings, naturally diverse in their appearance, situation, speech, behaviour and values, have the right to live in peace and to be as they are. It also means that one's views are not to be imposed on others (ibid.).
Throughout world history, we have seen cruel acts of hatred and prejudice. A more recent history of intolerances include intolerances of race such as slavery and racism in the United States, and intolerances of religion such as the Holocaust of World War II. Along with these cruel acts, however, also come those individuals ready to help by promoting tolerance.
Societies throughout world history have utilized slave labor. Many believe the first slaves in the United States appeared in Jamestown in 1619 where they were put to work growing tobacco on plantations. Black people also helped whites build houses and ships, cobble shoes, bake bread, brew beer, make hats, weave cloth, and sew gowns. They cleaned streets and they hauled heavily laden carts. They waited on planters in Virginia mansions and on lawyers, merchants, and public officials in northern cities. Black men helped turn ore into metal on the "iron plantations" from Virginia to New York. Black women cooked, washed, tended children, and did scullery work in white households everywhere. They also did heavy labor in which no white woman would have been asked. In essence, they were not treated as equals (Bedfordmartins.com).
The total slave trade from Africa to the Western Hemisphere amounted to 9,566,000 people, the largest forced migration in all history. The 4,700,000 taken to South America accounted for half of the entire trade. Forty percent or 4,040,000 went to the West Indies. By comparison, the British colonies/United States received about 399,000. South America imported nearly 12 slaves and the West Indies imported more than 10 slaves for every slave who went to North America (ibid.).
There were many who fought to free the slaves and abolish slavery including Harriet Tubman, Thomas Garrett, William Still, Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. The Underground Railroad was a popular means of escape where these leaders harbored and helped slaves escape to freedom, often to Canada (National Geographic.com). In 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that forever freed slaves within the Confederacy. However, the mistreatment of black people continued through racism.
Racism erupted in the 1960s where peaceful protests and also riots broke out to bring attention to segregation and discrimination.
Martin Luther King is perhaps best known for his work in the civil rights movement. His peaceful protests and “I Have a Dream” speech still inspire many today to live a more tolerant life toward each other.
Adolf Hitler began the murderous events of the Holocaust around 1933 when he was named Chancellor of Germany, created the Gestapo police, and passed a law allowing forced sterilization of those found by a Hereditary Health Court to have genetic defects. Groups of people were killed in Nazi Germany by the state because they were seen as "undesirable." Some were killed in concentration camps by working them to death or they killed by poison gas; others were shot near their homes. The following is an estimate of the numbers of people who were killed: Jews (5.1–6 million killed) including Polish Jews (3–3.5 million killed); other Poles (1.8–1.9 million killed); Gypsies (200,000–800,000 killed); disabled people (200,000–250,000 killed); homosexuals (2200–25,000 killed); Jehovah's Witnesses (950–2500 killed); and in addition, 6–12 million other civilians were gunned down with machine guns, especially Russians, other Slavs, and people who spoke badly of the Nazis. In 1945, concentrations camps were liberated (History Place 1997).
In 1948, the name “United Nations” was coined to describe the alliance fighting to end the Nazi regime. Worldwide opposition to the genocide was the driving force behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As the Preamble to the Declaration says, “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”. The General Assembly also adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (United Nations Information Service 2004).
Later, the United Nations made 1995 the International Year for Tolerance. The Member States of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization met to create a Tolerance Program that would deal with events across the globe that stemmed from problems of intolerance. They met from October 26 through November 16, 1995 and adopted a universal Declaration of Principles on Tolerance. In this Declaration, tolerance was said to be not only a moral duty, but also a political and legal requirement for individuals, groups and States (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).
Being tolerant of each other and caring for each other is what makes us human. By teaching tolerance, we allow individuality and diversity while promoting peace and a civil society. Our success in the struggle of intolerance depends on the effort we make to educate ourselves and our children. “Intolerance can be unlearnt. Tolerance and mutual respect have to be learnt” (United Nations Information Service 2004).
Every person of every religion has an obligation to uphold the meaning of tolerance. In fact, tolerance is a major belief within religion; however, it is not always practiced. Many people within many religions have, throughout history, and continue to this day, practiced intolerance in order to gain personal or secular power.
“No Muslim, no Jew, no Christian, no Hindu, no Buddhist—no one who is true to the principles of any of the world’s faiths, no one who claims a cultural, national or religious identity based on values such as truth, decency and justice—can be neutral in the fight against intolerance” (United Nations Information Service 2004).