A good moment to reflect on tolerance

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

Did you know that 16 November is the ‘International Day for Tolerance’? This year, more than ever before, let’s take a moment to contemplate.

Talk of openness and inclusion may appear quaint in a world dominated by hate and harshness. Who wants to “respect and recognise the rights and beliefs of others” – as the United Nations would like us to do on Wednesday – when there is so much fear to spread, and so many angry ‘strong’ men and women to elect?

Life is just too short to be polite. People want tough leaders, not more soppy political correctness. Let’s leave softies like Canada’s Justin Trudeau to fight injustice, oppression, racism and unfair discrimination. The rest of us have better things to do.

Actually, we don’t.

Being mean and nasty can be exhilarating for a naughty moment. There is a thrill in breaking taboos, hurling insults and breaching red lines. Building walls and fences and deporting immigrants can sound like great fun.

But the excitement won’t last. And a permanent state of hate and anger is not a recipe for societal well-being. Living together – even without ‘them’, just among ‘us’ – requires a degree of courtesy and polite interaction.

Being mean and nasty can be exhilarating for a naughty moment… but the excitement won’t last

Taming the demons of racism, nativism and populism unleashed by America’s president-elect Donald Trump during his election campaign – which may be cultivated over the next four years – will not be easy. But here are six ways can be done.

First, let’s remember that millions of Americans did not buy into Trump’s toxic rhetoric. While the Electoral College certainly voted for Trump, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton secured a majority of the popular vote.

In other words, those who embrace pluralism, tolerance, inclusion – and who reject the nightmare version of a new Trumpian world order – cannot be easily shunted to the side lines. Their voice will continue to count. It may become even louder.
Second, it’s more important than ever to craft an inspirational narrative to counter and outsmart Trump’s European wannabes in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

As elections in these and other countries draw closer, instead of pandering to the ‘Populists International’, mainstream political parties in Europe must reach out with more conviction and passion to the majority of Europeans who believe in an open and tolerant Europe. Their voices are currently drowned out by extremists and ignored by others.

This is no time for old, wishy washy slogans and bland speeches. It’s time to fight fire with fire.

Third, underlining the principles of liberal democracy – as German Chancellor Angela Merkel did in her message of congratulations to Trump – is a good first step. But it will mean very little unless EU leaders take tougher action against those inside the EU – including Hungary’s Viktor Orban and the Polish government – who violate these very values.

Fourth, even as they lecture Trump, Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on human rights, EU leaders should make sure that they practice what they preach at home and that their own treatment of minorities – as well as migrants and refugees – is above reproach. For the moment, it isn’t.

Not so long ago racism and discrimination in Europe led to wide-spread devastation, death and destruction – history should not be allowed to repeat itself

Fifth, even seemingly small things matter. Christmas traditions like ‘Black Pete’ in the Netherlands may seem harmless to white Dutch people but they send a harmful message of exclusion to the country’s many black citizens.

Offensive language, of the kind European Commissioner Gunter Oettinger used recently when speaking of his Chinese counterparts, sends the wrong message to European citizens and a watching world.

Last, let’s debate and discuss the reasons for Trump’s success, the rise of populists, the flaws of liberal democrats and the pros and cons of globalisation. As with Brexit, there are important topics to analyse and reflected upon.

For the moment, the killing fields of the 21st century happen to be far away, in Afghanistan, Africa and the Middle East. But not so long ago it was here in Europe that racism and discrimination led to wide-spread devastation, death and destruction.

History should not be allowed to repeat itself.

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