Where does intolerance of diversity come from? Do people learn racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry and prejudice? Or is it something ingrained in our psychology?
What do our readers think? We had a comment come in from Costi, who says: “I think [tolerance] is actually born and we were taught to become intolerant; take a 3 year-old white child and a 3 year-old black child and let them be close; they will have no problem playing together.”
To get a reaction, we put Costi’s comment to Dr. Yasemin El-Menouar, Senior Expert on the Living Values Programme at Bertelsmann Stiftung, a German foundation working to “make it possible for everyone to participate in society and to promote the reforms needed to make that happen”. How would she respond?
It is important to think again about what tolerance actually means. Tolerance is actually something very paradoxical: it means accepting something that you actually reject. Tolerance does not mean that you recognise or respect something as equivalent. Based on the example with the two children playing, differences, in this case the different skin colour, are not noticed by the two children. Tolerance, however, requires the perception of differences, and these are not necessarily rated positively. It is of course desirable that the different skin tones play no role for the two children. Such normalcy can, however, be destroyed if parents or other role models address these differences or even evaluate them negatively.
For another perspective, we put the same comment to Moninne Griffith, CEO of BeLonG To Youth Services, an Irish charity supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI+) young people. What would she say?
I think Costi is right, to a point. I think children don’t see difference in the way adults are taught to see it. It’s systems, structures, and societies that imbue those kind of values and that lens on how we see difference.
But there is also an unconscious bias that we’re born with, and that is something that goes back to our old reptilian brains. The reason that’s there was for out ancestors to understand difference as something dangerous; if there was a sabre-tooth tiger coming down to your village, you would realise ‘Uh oh! This is dangerous. Gather up my loved-ones and let’s run’. Or if somebody else from a different village came down to steal the women and food, that’s an old part of our brain that we there and served a purpose.
But we have to overcome that, and that’s where we learn this as children – either to just let that reptilian brain and old part of your unconscious bias rule you, or to go: ‘No, wait a second. I recognise that I’m having this reaction about this person because they’re different to me, but the rational part of my brain can go: It’s okay, they’re not here to steal my food or rob me or do something that might affect my enjoyment of my life. This is just a natural reaction I’m having, and I now know in 2020 that difference is fine’.
So, I think Costi is right in that most of that is what we pick up as young children for the rest of our lives. It’s the messages we are receiving from other people, in the media, and so on. But there is also this older part of our brain, and we just have to recognise that…
Finally, we put Costi’s comment to Marc Angel, a social democratic Luxembourger MEP who is also co-chair of the European Parliament’s LGBTI Intergroup. What would he say?
The issue is about stereotypes, and stereotypes are learned, they are not born. Our stereotypes are formed by our entourage, our education, and our school. Stereotypes are learned, and tolerance must be taught. I don’t think you are born tolerant, I think you have to learn it. Therefore, wiping out stereotypes is so important.
Is tolerance born or learnt? Are children taught to be intolerant of diversity by society and their parents? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!