The trouble with ‘Tolerance’

December 15th, 2015 by Shruti Sridharan

Shruti Sridharan

The trouble with ‘Tolerance’

It started off in late September this year in a village called Bisara, when a man was lynched by a spontaneous mob. His crime? He was ‘suspected’ to have possessed raw beef in the freezer.

Anyone that reads the morning papers in India quickly gets into a routine of sipping their morning tea, while lazily glancing over page after page of morbid headlines that begin with: “Daughter-in-law found murdered…” or “Man thrashed to death…” or the occasional “Mob torches bus…”. But the rest of that morning’s headline and news report was different. This was no everyday occurrence. A man was lynched over ‘suspected possession’ (not even ‘theft’) of a food item – a basic necessity. Suddenly, it was everywhere. Media, social media, people sitting in their living rooms, people drinking tea on street corners, people sitting in their office cabins, celebrities, housewives, taxi drivers, bus drivers – everyone was talking about it.

Who were the lynch mob? What events preceded the lynching? Was the meat in question beef? (it was mutton, by the way.) Does it matter? Is the #BeefBan constitutional? Is our government morally correct? Many such questions started flying around, and continue to hover over us to this day.

In the weeks that followed, the narrative of this story took many twists and turns. But the one word that emerged in the aftermath of this incident, and has found home in the vocabulary of the nation, is: Tolerance.

Even as I write this, the question: “Is India an ‘intolerant’ society?” is being hotly debated.

Those that answer in the affirmative talk about atrocities being committed against minorities in urban cities and far flung villages; they speak of years of servitude and subjugation; they cry foul against casteist, classist and religious politics; they point to the state of the dalits, the women, and the LGBT community.

Those that answer in the negative start by citing history and remind us that India has “always welcomed outsiders”; then they point towards success stories, like when people set aside all differences of religion, caste, class, etc to save each other’s lives during a natural calamity; and finish off by demanding that the people who don’t agree with them must leave the country.

Imaginably, it is all very confusing.

As it happens, I have always found the word ‘Tolerance’ to be a tricky one. Somewhere hidden within it lies a thin boundary line, on the other side of which crouches ‘Intolerance’ – fangs out, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting transgressor. For example: “I am very tolerant of XYZ person, as long as he doesn’t eat beef.”

The word I prefer is 'Acceptance'.


Steps India delivered a programme on ‘Building a Supportive Environment’ at the workplace for a global banking organisation this month.

Apart from addressing bullying in the workplace, the client wanted us to trigger a discussion around the challenges faced by the LGBT community in the context of a supportive work environment. This was the first time that any Indian client had explicitly asked us to delve into this context of diversity and inclusion in a manner that went beyond just a cursory mention to ‘generate awareness’.

Research revealed that the number of employees that were out of the closet at the company was a round figure of Zero. The organisation does have an LGBT council, but they had been struggling to get their people to align with it even just as ‘allies’ of the cause. The employees, though not openly hostile, seemed to be struggling with their tolerance levels when it came to ‘that type of people’. We agreed to have just one ‘hard-hitting’ scene on the subject, and strategically placed it last in the session structure.

The session itself started off on a high. The large training room was packed with close to 70 delegates, a majority of whom had already watched Steps in action in various programmes through the last 15 months. The first two scenarios, which addressed bullying behaviours and ways to deal with them, went off better than we could have hoped for. The participants were engaged throughout; they laughed at the right moments, they picked on the right issues, they fleshed out all the learning objectives, they spoke out openly about the impact of bullying and the benefits of a supportive environment… In short, the delegates were ‘eating out of our hands’ (even if I do say so myself).

Then it was the turn of the LGBT scenario. Suddenly, the laughter in the room died down to an occasional snigger or two from anonymous corners. Some squirmed, others straightened up, everyone paid close attention. The post-scenario debrief started off gingerly, but went on to last a whole 30 minutes. Terms like ‘personal identity’, ‘complete self’ and ‘feeling secure’ were raised and discussed threadbare. Those that were sceptical raised questions, those that empathised found a voice. Almost everyone agreed on the need to create a more comfortable work environment for everyone to be themselves. 19 of the delegates signed up with the LGBT council at the end of the session.

The word, ‘Tolerance’ didn’t feature in the narrative today.

‘Acceptance’, however, did.


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