In praise of tolerance
In praise of tolerance
The period between the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the Second World War was by and large in Europe at least one of optimism. There was a feeling that progress in science and education would gradually make people aware of their civic and moral responsibilities, both in their national communities and in the world at large. Those hopes were dashed when the whole of humanity became engulfed in the most devastating war in history a war triggered by an ideology of exclusion and intolerance that emerged in one of Europe's most advanced and cultured nations. Optimism retreated and gave way to a far more scceptical, circumspect and vigilant attitude.
The creation in 1946, in the aftermath of that war, of an organization such as UNESCO, dedicated to the construction of lasting peace through education, science and culture, was in part a reflection of this new concern. The tensions between groups, nations and regions in the last forty-six years have amply demonstrated how farsighted UNESCO's founding fathers were. Peace and understanding between peoples are by no means the inevitable outcome of progress in the various spheres of human activity. No society can be safe from the temptation to practise exclusion and intolerance unless it shows constant determination and vigilance.
Even societies which at certain points in their history may have been openminded and receptive to others are not immune to the risk of lapsing into rigid intolerance. The past has shown only too often that no society, whatever its system of values, can claim to be intrinsically endowed with the virtue of tolerance; conversely, no society can be accused of being permanently intolerant.
Doubtless human beings feel the need of firm convictions. But when required, as they are today, to live in ever closer contact, they should beware lest their convictions lead to bigotry. They must realize that, while they are all equal in dignity, they possess different talents and convictions, and that this difference is a source of enrichment for every one of them, and for civilization. Provided, that is, that everyone accepts a nucleus of universal values.
The challenge facing us both now and in the future is to accept that each of the five and a half billion human beings living on the planet today can have his or her own ideas and preferences, and, without denying those ideas and preferences, can admit that those of others are just as worthy of respect. It is by relentlessly striving to practise what the British philosopher Bernard Williams calls this "awkward virtue" that we shall really begin to work for peace.
Consultant for this issue