RIVKA T. WITENBERG Promoting Tolerance and Acceptance through Education

The role of education is to encourage moral and socially moral/ethical individuals who develop a robust sense of fairness, justice and empathy which will influence tolerance and acceptance.

In the middle of the worldwide pandemic, where most people are thoughtful and caring, the ugly head of prejudice and discrimination has raised its head. This has been directed towards people from Chinese/Asian backgrounds, as well as Jewish people. The Victorian Premier reported (22/4) that there have been several despicable attacks on innocent people of Asian backgrounds including a doctor. The SBS 6:30 news has commented on a number of anti-Chinese/Asian attacks in Australia as well. The Anti-Defamation Commission (ADC) website also reports on horrible and troubling antisemitic attacks during this period. What is the role of education to promote acceptance of others as equals?

The recent attacks on people from Chinese or Asian backgrounds is very disturbing. The history of Australian’s anti-Chinese prejudice from about 1850 to early twentieth century was full of smears, insults and negative stereotypes. In more recent times, research published in the Conversation shows that Asians who live in Australia still experience forms of prejudice based on health and housing. The Covid19 has unleased another form of prejudice based on the idea that if you look Asian or Chinese, you could be infectious and that Chinese people are responsible for the epidemic. On talk-back radio people ring to express their distress at being attacked simply for being Chinese.

The old enmity and hatred against Jewish people, particularly from the far right, have also emerged using the Covid19 as a tool to demonise them. Prejudicial cartons, images and similar material of the most horrible kind are being circulated on the internet This material emulates the old practice of caricatures depicting Jewish people as nasty, greedy and blaming them for the outbreak of the Covid19 with the usual intentions so often found in these kinds of anti-Jewish propaganda spanning the ages. The 21/04/2020 was Yom HaShoah or Holocaust Memorial Day and it seems that somewhere, the lesson of such a horrendous time has bypassed the propagators of such material. A Zoom conference in Germany for the Holocaust Memorial Day was infiltrated by agitators who posted Nazi propaganda material and shouted antisemitic slogans.

Simplistically presenting his philosophy, the French philosopher Alain Badiou argues that moral principles or ethics that govern our personal behaviour should be positive in nature. He promoted the idea of indifference to difference. Badiou argues that when we have to deal with a multiplicity of identities, we should all consider a policy and an exercise of indifferent to difference. That is what education about human diversity ought to be about too.

However, educational programs about the promotion of tolerance to human diversity and acceptance of others have a tendency to concentrate on how to eliminate prejudice and discrimination with the idea that acceptance of others will emerge out of these encounters. Jane Elliott’s “blue eyes-brown eyes” approach to eliminate prejudice is a well-recognised exercise used with students as young as 8 years of age. In brief, students are divided into groups contingent on the colour of their eyes. They are then informed that people with brown eyes are superior to people with blue eyes. Students with brown eyes put paper armbands on the students who were blue-eyed. This is but one example of the numerous programs that operate on the same principle of curbing prejudice and discrimination with the assumption that they encourage tolerance and acceptance. In my mind, these kinds of programs emphasise difference.

A search on the internet will confirm the numerous programs using this method where the emphasis is on eliminating prejudice. While undoubtedly, to some degree they are useful educational tools, one of the criticisms of such programs is that they draw unnecessary attention to difference, particularly with young children and that they are problematic in classrooms with diverse student populations of colour, creed and culture. Today there are few places in the world from Melbourne to Stockholm and beyond where classrooms are not diverse.

However, there is an alternative way to approach the education and promotion of tolerance and acceptance. Tolerance in this case is not forbearance or “putting up with” but full or indiscriminate acceptance of others irrespective who they are. It can also be seen as a moral value. Research which I conducted with colleagues and students shows that beliefs in fairness (justice, equality and equity) empathy (sympathy, compassion and care) and reason (logic and open-mindedness) underpin tolerance. My contention is that programs teaching and encouraging fairness/justice, empathy/compassion and reason/open-mindedness do not need to teach directly about either prejudice or perhaps even tolerance and acceptance to human diversity.

This is particularly important with young children and younger adolescents, since tolerance and acceptance can be taught and promoted indirectly by fostering a strong sense of a fair and justice world, empathy and compassion towards others irrespective of colour, creed or nationality. Encouraging reason and rationality, bypassing altogether the highlighting of differences – the source of prejudice and discrimination. The understanding and consideration of acceptance and tolerance should emerge not through a process of didactic or instructional teaching but through the participatory involvement by students and their teachers.

The role of education is to encourage moral and socially moral/ethical individuals who develop a robust sense of fairness, justice and empathy which will influence tolerance and acceptance alongside the capacity to reason Moral values, such as justice and empathy, are shared, if not universal values, relevant to dealing with human diversity. Hopefully such an approach will encourage more indifference to difference and where difference becomes irrelevant.

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Dr Rivka T Witenberg is an academic and writer focusing on moral development and tolerance. Latest publication: The psychology of tolerance: Conception and development

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1 Response to RIVKA T. WITENBERG Promoting Tolerance and Acceptance through Education

  1. Avatar Evan Hadkins says:

    I’m for valuing (some) diversity i.e. this is not nihilism.

    I don’t think it is authoritarian to make a case for fairness, empathy and reason. Though there are important debates to be had about enforcement.

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