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Real Leaders Shun Intolerance

May 2, 2021

The 20th Century will go down in history as a violent one. As British historian Niall Ferguson has expressed, we experienced a “War of the World”, stretching from the early 1900s to the end of the Cold War. While a controversial concept, Ferguson’s premise is based on the clash of fading and rising empires.

Yet the 20th Century also had its share of advancements for human kind, spawned by those who displayed leadership at all levels. Examples include the end of America’s segregationist Jim Crow laws in 1965 (dating back to 1890 and specific to the Confederate states); allowing women and indigenous peoples to vote in Canada and the United States; and legislation protecting the rights of homosexuals and those with disabilities. Many more positive improvements occurred, such as taking hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty in developing countries due to the lifting of trade barriers and the globalization of work.

The 21st Century is young – a mere child at this juncture. However, the past 21 years have not been anything to brag about. The media’s obsession with terrorism, albeit a serious concern requiring focused attention by political leaders; the trivial activities of celebrities; and the lurid details of violent crime help undermine society’s further advancement. Instead of playing the more substantive leadership role of objective investigator to world events, we’ve witnessed the media’s tendency to take sides on issues and to go for the superficial.

Witness the vicious backlash from media commentators to anyone who offered other perspectives post-911. Politicians and the general public were equally guilty. This type of emotional shoot-from-the-hip reaction has continued since 9/11, though as the FBI warns America’s real problem is domestic terrorism, driven by white males and their affiliation to supremacist and militia groups. One of the casualties has been law-abiding Muslims getting smeared with the terrorist brush. In Canada, boring and pacifist as it may seem to the world, intolerance has escalated, though the twist has been racism aimed at Asians and sparked more recently by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Canada’s treatment of its indigenous peoples has been shameful since long before Confederation in 1867. First Nations peoples were not allowed to vote without fear of losing their status until 1960. It was only recently that Canada’s revolting Indian Residential Schools system was finally shut down in 1996 (photo, circa 1940).

This anachronism of the 1876 Indian Act was funded by the federal government and managed by churches, most notably the Catholic Church. Young Indian children were torn from their homes and sent to far away “schools” where many suffered physical and sexual abuse. As Justice Murray Sinclair, himself First Nations, stated in his 2015 report from the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Canada’s residential school system was tantamount to cultural genocide. Strong words but accurate.

Through various liberal and conservative federal governments over the decades, there has been a lot of talk and promises made but little action, especially during Stephen Harper’s decade as prime minister which ended in November 2015. Unfortunately, Canada’s current prime minister for the past six years, Justin Trudeau, has not delivered on his promises to address the desperately urgent needs of the country’s indigenous peoples.

Canadians’ intolerance of First Nations and Inuit peoples over many generations is not only the darkest time in Canada’s history but it has never ended. When the light will shine on Canada, as one of the world’s richest nations, in how it doesn’t just tolerate its indigenous peoples but actually embraces them and includes them as important contributors is likely a long way off.

Intolerance extends past racism to what was historically seen as benign political correctness. However, this has changed in the past few years where anyone or any segment of a campus group who goes against the grain on almost any issue stands the chance of being ridiculed or shut down. Student protests against an invited controversial speaker have frequently led to that event’s cancellation. Yet this is occurring in what has been perceived as the last bastion of free speech: university and college campuses where contrary thought and ideas are instrumental to the education of young people.

Society, in the end, benefits from diverse views.

Consider what has been dubbed the “new intolerance of student activism.” One story will leave you bewildered on how could something as dumb as this happen on a university campus. A husband and wife who are Yale professors came under fire from students in the fall of 2015. The students wanted them fired. Their crime? When students began complaining to the University about its suggestions on appropriate Halloween costumes, the two professors suggested via an email that perhaps an intelligent conversation on the issue would be the best way to proceed. This benign and constructive proposal enraged the students who went to war against the two professors.

North America doesn’t have the monopoly on intolerance. It’s happening across the Atlantic Ocean in Great Britain. At Cardiff University, American feminist Germaine Greer had to cancel a lecture because students had protested that she was promoting misogynistic views towards trans-sexual women. At Oriel College (part of Oxford University), students demanded the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes, the founder of Rhodesia. The students argued that the statue was a monument to racism and colonialism. As one of the protesters stated: “There’s a violence to having to walk past the statue every day on the way to your lectures.”

Intolerance is sweeping in scope. Whether it’s the current near-hysteria in North America about Muslims wearing hijabs and especially niqabs, Canada’s centuries-old intolerance of its indigenous peoples, or misogyny inflicted by male university students against their female peers, intolerance is pernicious in its impact on human dignity.

Real leaders shun intolerance. Whether the context is the public service, a corporation or at the community level, when intolerance raises its ugly head, leaders shut it down immediately. By leaders, this may be at the employee level where people step up when they see peers on the receiving end of offensive cultural remarks. Or the head of a company, who rather than sweep under the rug office talk of a manager who’s prejudiced against certain races, takes immediate action to investigate, discipline and educate all the company’s managers and staff on diversity.

Shunning intolerance is a shared responsibility by all of us. Be ever vigilant and stop it in its tracks when you see it. JT

To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.
– Nelson Mandela

Connect with Jim on Twitter @jlctaggart and LinkedIn

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