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Education for Tolerance: Sustainable Dialogue for Human Dignity 

                                       Ghelawdewos Araia

Human beings are good by nature because they are essentially humane, although from time to time the ‘monster within us’ afflicts our goodness. The monster, however, is neither permanent nor insurmountable. It can indeed be overcome by effective education for tolerance and a conscious and deliberate application of sustainable dialogue in order to achieve mutual understanding, mutual respect, peaceful resolution of conflicts, and ultimately the assurance of human dignity.

This article, in essence, is broad range because it will touch upon broad themes such as prejudice, ethnicity and ethnic cleansing, race and racial discrimination, bigotry and anti-Semitism, inter-religious and intercultural dialogue, and diagnosis and prognosis of all of the above.

I have written repeatedly and extensively essays pertaining to tolerance, some of which are the following: “Ethiopian and Eritrean Conflict: The Dilemma of Contemporary African Politics” (African Family, January 1988), “Ethiopia and Eritrea: Together Let US Sweetly Live” (Ethiopian Commentator, September 1994), “The Curse and Blessing of Nationalism in Africa” (African Link, Vol. 4, No. 4, 1994), “Putting the Cart Before the Horse: Race Relations in the United States” (African American Chronicle, CUNY, Vol. 1, No. 4, 1999), “The Philosophical and Historical Roots of Racism” (African Link, Vol. 8, No. 3, Third Quarter, 1999), “Strategies for A Democratic Culture” East African Forum, January 27, 2000, “Shades of Black and White: Conflict and Collaboration Between Two Communities,” (book review, African Link, Vol. 9, No. 2, 2000), “The Exigency of National Reconciliation and Legitimate Consensus in Ethiopia,” East African Forum, March 2001, “Ethnocentric Politics and Reinforcing Psychology in the Ethiopian Context” (www.ethiomedia.com/release/ethnocentric_politics.html February 25, 2004), “Designing Continuum to Enrich Ethiopian Educational Discourse and Debate Culture” (www.africanidea.org/designing.html September 7, 2004) , “Humanizing the Ethiopian Political Culture” (www.africanidea.org/humanizing.html October 15, 2005), “Political Culture in the Context of Contemporary Ethiopian Politics” (www.africanidea.org./political_culture.html November 22, 2005).

In May 1998, a certain diplomat called my house and informed me that Eritrean tanks have invaded the Badme environs of the Shire area in Western Tigray.” I listened to the diplomat with disbelief and shock because, as per my article mentioned above (‘Let Us Sweetly Live Together’), I had a dream that Eritrea and Ethiopia will peacefully coexist. After I hang up the phone, I started drafting a peace proposal in Tigrigna and Amharic, entitled Selam Yi’hayish and Selam Yi’bejal (Peace is Worth Trying) came out in a one page two folios flyer and was distributed in public places including restaurants, where most Ethiopians and Eritreans hang out. They were my target audience and I had hoped that they would take collective initiative to prevent war and save a fraction of humanity in the Horn of Africa. Despite my wish, however, there was negative response to the memo on peace I have written and the audience from either side was extremely charged and furious, and sadly they subordinated reason to their whims and emotions.

Adding insult to injury, a week after Selam Yi’bejal was issued out for public consumption, a self-appointed emissary called my house and to my chagrin he told me that “it is too late now.” With dismay, I responded, “what do you mean by it is too late,” and he responded by saying “war is imminent.” After our telephone conversation ended, I contemplated with melancholy and speculated that the conflict could have a far-reaching adverse consequence. And several months after the phone encounters, I was invited by Columbia University School of International Affairs to attend a speech by Susan Rice, the under secretary for State Department. I found myself in the middle of relatively enlightened and rational audience that included several African ambassadors at the UN Mission, the former mayor of New York David Dinkens, and many academics. Professor George Bond presided over the discussion forum and I had the opportunity to forward a question to Ms. Rice. I said, “why is it so difficult for the United States to implement the US-Rwanda Plan [initiative to broker peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea] and bring about peace to the Horn region?” The answer was simple, “we are trying our best, but it is up to the two governments to decide and bring about peace.”

Susan Rice response to my question was justified if carefully pin pointed, but it was not satisfactory to a person like myself who was turning all stones in an effort to influence public policy and prevent the scourge of war. My dream was shattered and my fear came true: the cost for the Ethio-Eritrean war was the demise of 70,000 combatants on either side.

Was it really necessary to witness carnage of such proportions when in fact border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea could have been settled through dialogue and round table negotiations? Human beings are smart; in fact, we are the paragon of animals but we often do stupid things tainted with malice, avarice, hate, and destruction. And it is precisely this package of psyche that gave rise to the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis against European Jewry, ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the Pol Pot Killing Fields in Kampuchea, and the Somali/Congo civil strife.

Sometimes the ‘monster within us’ dominates our psyche and tears apart our humanity and, in turn, we violate the human dignity of our fellow beings. But we tend to forget that the moment we violate other people’s dignity, we also violate our own humanity. We don’t seem to understand that we all suffer if a part of humanity suffers due to the collective guilt that we could be charged of. The torturer does not understand that he or she would ultimately denigrate its human worth when they torture helpless prisoners; when the oppressor humiliates the oppressed, as for instance the Hutus calling the Tutsi “cockroaches” or forcing the Jews in Europe “to set up their booths in the Bruhl, a pestilent swampy marsh,” (Howard Sachar), it is the oppressor that is depraved of human qualities. We must also understand that the gas chambers of the Nazis, where millions of Jews perished, are directed against all humanity! By the same token, all forms of genocide, torture, and bigotry wherever they take place must be viewed as crimes against humanity.

The cause for human suffering, in almost all cases is the psychological makeup of people (individuals and groups) manifested in the form of ideological fanaticisms, jingoistic nationalism, religious bigotry, anti-Semitism, racism, and ethnocentrism. These manifestations are, by and large, reflections of what we call prejudice. The phenomenon of prejudice occurs as a result of ignorance and/or misunderstanding, but it is not simply a psychic dimension that is enveloped within the minds of individuals or groups; it is rather a developmental social process that breeds hate directed against a certain group of people, and once it is ingrained in the ontological fabric of society, it could become dangerous. At this stage, prejudice could be obsession [nal] and could foment paranoid politics at state level.             

In order to minimize prejudice and counter all other negative psychological make-ups, we have no choice but to counter-attack the negative attributes and reverse adverse social processes via education for tolerance. However, being tolerant to ones own detractors or enemies does not imply ‘turning the other chick’ or unwarranted concession. It is rather an attempt to maintain ones soul, humanity and dignity and trying to save humanity from sinking further into the abyss of the monsters.           

Our best bet, therefore, is to cultivate a culture of tolerance via our own schools and higher institutions of learning, governmental (inter-governmental, non-governmental), institutions, the media and other public forums. The United Nations was at the forefront in fostering ideas of tolerance and combating intolerance. The Preamble of the UN Charter states, “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, …to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, …and for these ends to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors.”  Moreover the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” (Article 18), “of opinion and expression” (Article 19) and that education “should promote understanding, tolerance, and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups” (Article 26).

Despite the good intentions and conventions of the United Nations, however, humanity still encounters intolerance, racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, exclusions of minorities etc.  Tolerance should be part of the curricula and taught in schools and promoted in the media and all forums should begin with a definition of the concept.  When I wrote Strategies for a Democratic Culture on January 2000, I adapted the ‘Oxford Companion of Philosophy’ definition: “toleration requires people to co-exist peacefully with others who have fundamentally different beliefs or values. Arguments for tolerance include the fallibility of our beliefs, the impossibility of coercing genuine religious beliefs, respect for autonomy, the danger of civil strife and the value of diversity.”

In a similar vein, the UNESCO Final Report on the United Nations Year for Tolerance (A/51/201) presents the ‘Meaning of Tolerance’ (Article 1.1) as in the following: “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 war by culture of Peace.”

Article 2.1 of the Final Report, in part states, “tolerance at the State level requires just and impartial legislation law enforcement and judicial and administrative process.” Similarly, Article 2.2 states, “in order to achieve a more tolerant society, States should ratify existing international human rights conventions, and draft new legislations where necessary to ensure equality of treatment and of opportunity for all groups and individuals in society.”

As stated above, however, what is to be done if governments or heads of states (especially in dictatorships) are intolerant, don’t respect rule of law and don’t’ give weight to the UN Year of Tolerance. It is also difficult to realize tolerance at state level when in fact the state itself sanctions laws of intolerance or proclamations that don’t encourage tolerance. A good example of the latter is the US Supreme Court decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson that segregated the United States society in 1896. In 1954, the same Supreme Court (now relatively tolerant) decided to make segregation unconstitutional in Brown vs. Board of Education.

Tolerance at state level is indeed important but change of attitude or behavioral modification at all levels is crucial in order to meaningfully employ tolerance as part of respective cultures. Some schools in the United States are promoting multicultural curricula and celebrating the cultures of various ethnic groups. As reported by Tolerance.org, diversity and tolerance is shown by ‘Mix It Up at Lunch Day’ in Philadelphia, and “more than 6 million students in 15,000 schools took part in the nationwide Mix It Up at Lunch Day on November 15th this year, up from 4 million students in 2004.”  ‘Mix It Up’ is simply an all-inclusive tolerant program that can bring about a revolution in the thinking of the present generation of students with respect to tolerance. It is a very promising agenda that reinforces the UN motto of tolerance but its impact will have to be measured by the response and appreciation of the larger society that is expected to change with the times.

As students perform ‘mix ups,’ in the United States and hopefully elsewhere in the world, educational institutions all over the world should replicate the teaching of tolerance in accordance with their respective cultures and should encourage open forum and dialogue for intercultural and inter-religious interaction and networking. All major religions preach tolerance but they don’t all worship together. Tolerance will create proximity and understanding among various religious groups and sects and ultimately lead to world peace, the precondition for coexistence and the beginning of new era for human dignity. Our schools should provide platform for intercultural and inter-religious dialogue and while they must make sure that every school children carry a brochure of ‘education for tolerance’ in his bag pack, governments must observe November 16, the UN Tolerance Day as part of their public holiday.

Even after a sound curriculum to enhance tolerance and government efforts to implement legislation for the same purpose, humanity will continue to countenance intolerance, bigotry, and the clouds of war. But we should remain optimistic! After all, human beings are good by nature, and even under very difficult circumstances, we witness characters as in Shindler’s List and Hotel Rwanda, individuals who were the embodiment of compassion and who tried to save a fraction of humanity!