Unlearning Intolerance – And Tolerance Too

By Michele M. Vella, MS, MA, Med., edited by Jim Luce

New York, N.Y. United Nations Academic Impact (UNAIPrinciple 10 commits to inter-cultural dialogue, understanding and the unlearning of intolerance through education.  What does it mean to unlearn intolerance?  Is intolerance, tolerance, inside out?  If so, is tolerance enough?  How do UNAI member institutions engage Principle 10 and strive towards greater multicultural competence?

On May 5, Undersecretary General Kiyo Akasaka, Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri, Former President of India R. Venkataraman’s daughter Lakshmi Venkatesan, a distinguished panel of inter-generational Indian literary scholars, and UNAI representatives participated in the 8th U.N. Department of Public Information (DPI) Symposium Series “Unlearning Intolerance” at U.N. Headquarters.

Throughout the discussion, the audience was reminded of the symbiotic relationship between academics and member states – academics informing the political landscape, the political landscape driving scholarship.

The United Nations Academic Impact hosted a panel on unlearning of intolerance.


Symposium moderator, filmmaker Muriel Peters, opened up the discussion with a poignant reflection question for panelists: “Do you have a personal incident of intolerance that you would like to describe to the audience?”

Most panelists answered the question through a meditation on how their artistic form strives towards equity and captures lived inconvenient truths with words, language, and imagination.  “Literature promotes a creative intolerance towards injustice and oppression… the dreaming of a new society where human beings can live as human beings,” said poet and critic Dr. K. Satchidanandan.

Poet, fiction writer, and translator Meena Kandasamy spoke of literature as transformative for both the individual writer and the community she or he represents.  Writing against the caste system, female oppression, and linguistic nationalism, Kandasamy’s writing is a reaction to the oppression and intolerance codified in texts of dominant/majority groupings.  As a writer, she celebrates the use of language without compromise, the questioning of pathologies justified in the name of culture, the ability to generate dialogue as a foundation for social mobilization, and the power of words to “make the revolution irresistible.”


With excerpts from texts of international religionists and philosophers, author, government representative, and academic Dr. Aziz Hajini noted that cultures converge in their reverence for the word as a vehicle for enlightenment.  If literature is a reflection of the divine, then “divinity and intolerance can never go together” said Hajini.

The final panelist, professor and writer Dr.Bharati Mukherjee directly responded to the opening question of moderator Peters describing how painful memories and experiences of discrimination are to the individual life.  As an immigrant woman with intersecting identities, Mukherjee recalled how personal experiences of discrimination inspired her writing of the essay “An Invisible Woman” (1981).  Writing about experiences of intolerance, occasions the reader to transcend dichotomous thinking, blurring the lines and neat categorization of victim and victimizer in an intolerant/oppressive society.  Mukherjee affirmed that literature jumpstarts the dialogue of “peace through provocation.”


Is tolerance merely enough?  Does UNAI Principle 10 transcend the realm of tolerance and ask its members to enter into the uncomfortable yet honest territory of personal biases and stereotypes, the ingredients creating intolerant systems?  After the symposium, I started to see literature almost as the mirror that an individual, a reader, a society holds up to itself.  The reflection that glares back in the mirror is full of the imperfections of what is but maintains the faith and imagination necessary to envision what we would like ourselves, and the world, to become.

To view a virtual recording of the symposium “Unlearning Intolerance: Can Literature Effect Change” please use this U.N. link.


Michele M. Vella, MS, MA, Med. is a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at Lehigh University with a research interest in domestic and international mental and physical healthcare disparities in ethnic and racial minority populations with a special emphasis on psychological adjustment and resiliency in environments affected by war/poverty/disaster.  Michele is an intern with UNDPI, lead writer and facilitator of the 55th Session on the Commission of the Status of Women’s Girl’s Statement, and an American Psychological Association Minority MHSAS Pre-doctoral Policy Fellow.  She holds an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia, an M.A. in Spanish from CUNY, and a M.Ed. in Counseling and Human Services from Lehigh.  Michele also serves as Global Advisor to the International University Center Haiti (Uni Haiti), which is a member of the United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI).

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