The diversity and tolerance conundrum

It seems to me that in recent times, we are becoming less and less tolerant of difference, and we are becoming less and less empathetic to the issues facing people with difference. From racist shootings of black people in America, to trolling of women with an opinion on social media, to abuse of people in LGBT community, to the unexplained incarceration of individuals based on their religion, there are simply far too many incidents of such activities.

I just don’t understand any of it.

If the workplace is a reflection of society, then what we should be observing is a more tolerant society. But while blatant discrimination may be a lesser form that we observe, this doesn’t mean that we are becoming any better at accepting difference and appreciating the value of others. Why do I say we should be observing a more tolerant society? Because, allegedly, the workplace is meant to be a more diverse and inclusive environment. We’re all required to complete equality and diversity training of some sort – regardless of its efficacy – and we’re all expected to display collegiate behaviours at work.

But there are too many daily occurrences of people just not being these appreciative and inclusive beings.

I just don’t understand it.

A lot of what we believe and think is shaped by the media. When we hear our politicians describe certain populations in certain ways, it influences what we think about the same. When we hear ‘celebs’ make outrageous statements, it influences what we think about the same. When the news tells us about attacks on certain communities, it influences what we think about the same. If anything, our capacity for tolerance is greatly reduced because we’re being hit too much too often with opposing views.

Messages of compassion, inclusion and of tolerance only seem to come from those bleeding heart lefties, or those with difference themselves. There are too many times I hear comments from people who simply haven’t taken the time to understand and appreciate.

But in truth, we don’t have the time for this. We’ve got our own shit we’re all dealing with, our own pressures and our own ambitions. It’s always been this way, and the use of social technology doesn’t help – there’s just more and more pressure to live up to the expectation of what’s being shared on the social web.

As individuals, though, we’re fully capable of better thinking and being empathetic with individuals. We don’t need to solve the world’s problems, we just need to better support those we come into contact with. Strangers, people we don’t know, those facing harm, they’re all sharing their stories – how many of us are listening to them? How many of us care?

There’s an affliction we have in the modern age, and that’s to provide commentary on everything we come into contact with, provide advice on how to make it better, and be the expert of all the known problems in the world. Everyone is an expert on everything all of the time. If you don’t accept the words of wisdom, you’re seen as not needing the help, and of being more in wrong because you haven’t done what you were told to do.

So I come across daily articles about things like:
– a woman who is being trolled by a man just because she expressed herself (and not like Katie Hopkins who purposefully seeks to provoke and be offensive)
– a black person who receives racist behaviour for no other reason than they’re black
– a transgender person who is facing difficult transition because well-meaning people are being unwittingly offensive (and just because you’re being unwittingly offensive, doesn’t mean you’re not being offensive)

And I just don’t bloody understand any of it. How are there so many people with such a lack of tolerance of difference? How are there too many people just not saying anything in support of others when they face abuse? How are we turning a blind eye to what’s happening around us?

So I’ve had enough of it all. I’m going to share more examples of people being dicks because turning a blind eye isn’t enough.

At the same time, I’m going to be sharing more examples of stories of understanding and good stories of inclusion because they help provide balance and insight into what this looks like.

Is there an organisational, learning and development angle to any of this? Of course there is. And this is aimed squarely at all HR/L&D professionals. You know all that equality and diversity training we put all our staff through? You know all that training on biases and prejudices managers go through? You know all that self-awareness training we make available for people? You know all those case studies on companies with great inclusion activities? For the most part, it’s ineffectual and not causing behaviour change. For the most part it’s teaching people how not to be obviously offensive. And that’s not the same as being inclusive. That’s just being lazy.


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

6 thoughts on “The diversity and tolerance conundrum”

  1. You hit the nail on the head, Sukh. Many of us, as L&D professionals, can use our influence to help our client organizations to become more aware of the problems of intolerance and exclusion. But why are our efforts “ineffectual and not causing behaviour change”? My experience is because diversity training is most often implemented as a remedy to a situation where clear discrimination has taken place. People feel they’re being “corrected” by being sent to such trainings, rather than seeing the new awareness as an opportunity for mutual benefit. This leads to resentful cautiousness rather than enthusiastic inclusion. Laziness? More like fear, anger and avoidance.

    1. I really liked the last paragraph, resonated with me that we can fall into the trap of teaching tolerance but not understanding. It’s kind of like saying we teach people to ignore the differences rather than understand them and then work together to bring out the best in both people. So much of diversity training that I have seen is simply compliance… With a fancy name… It’s not really looking to enact change. Okay challenge set!!

      1. I agree with what has been said about D & I training and I have experienced some pretty shocking examples which do just tick a box and nothing more! For people to understand rather than ignore the differences is the challenge and I would love to hear about a positive experience which fosters understanding and true empathy and where being ‘tolerant’ turns to a deeper understanding. I believe it will always depend on the individual and how open they are to seeing things from a different perspective and therein lies the real challenge.

  2. I too have been pondering this recently. I’ve been appalled at the sewer of hate and bile that are the comment threads on almost any newspaper article that touches on politics, refugees, equality, foreign policy, etc. The level of intolerance being shown to people who hold a different opinion is horrendous. It seems that not only are people becoming less tolerant, but are busy demonising, to the point of caricature, those of differing opinion.

    I am far from getting to the bottom of it, but it does seem that adversity polarises people, and I think this all hinges on shrinking tribal empathy.

    My theories go something like this…

    Individuals identify with lots of tribes; these numerous and include: family, religion, race, nationality, town of birth, company of work, sports team supported, etc. Some tribes are very restrictive (e.g., family) and some are very expansive (e.g., nationality). Some tribes might be expansive but hold a strong identity (e.g., religion). Each tribal identity holds a different strength of bond for an individual – people generally have strong ties to family, but weaker ties to co-workers.

    Empathy stretches to those you identify with but those you identify most strongly with get the lion’s share. People only hold a finite ‘volume’ of empathy – in times of plenty, where there’s not much suffering, the occasions when one has to exercise one’s empathy are few and far between, so we can devote more of it to those we identify with.

    However, in times of adversity, when suffering is more widespread, we need to exercise it more often, but consequently there is less to go around. It’s then that we start subconsciously prioritising the targets of our empathy. Those we identify least with are the first to be sacrificed and have our empathy withdrawn. For those whose immediate strong-ties are suffering, there might not be any spare empathy to share beyond the immediate family.

    This is why people were generally ambivalent to the suffering of Syrian refugees until there was a picture of a dead child on a beach to focus on – the suffering of faceless millions was abstract and largely meaningless – they were hard to identify with, but most people identify with children in some way (as either siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, etc) and the suffering was immediately brought home to most people.

    Along with hardship comes with anger and a need to blame ‘others’ for their hardship. We don’t target those we empathise with (my mum didn’t cause the financial crisis) – I don’t know if this is an empathy thing (i.e., a willingness see the good in someone we empathise with) or because we know people or groups that we identify with better. But venting anger via blame seems to be a strong mechanism of self defence, certainly for relieving stress, but probably from a social-tribal-survival standpoint too.

    So, this shrinking prioritisation of empathy, and need to apportion blame for suffering, leads to increasing factionalisation of society, thereby creating and deepening divisions which weren’t there (or weren’t as evident) during times of plenty.

    That’s my theory anyway. It’s a work in progress and I’m open to critical analysis, but there it is.

  3. This made me think of the modern practice of photographing the family valuables to aid in identification if they should be stolen!Somehow I wasn’t entirely surprised that such a magnificent volume should be created for the Habsburg dynasty – the family of the Holy Roman Emperor (i.e. empire builders to a man).

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