A Practical Guide to Being Intolerant

During my day job, I meet a lot of people from different backgrounds. Most people have no problem being intolerant to others. Those who are not intolerant find it difficult to get along with others. Here is a guide for those, who want to be a part of the in-group.


There are some safety precautions you must follow lest you become tolerant. Foremost is to not think and reflect. Be lazy when you can. It always works like a charm. The second precaution is to always perpetuate stereotypes. They are there for a reason.

Technique 1: The funny ethnic joke

A recent dialogue between one of the participants at a training session:

Participant: “Sir, I want to tell you a joke.”

Me: “Please, go ahead.”

Participant: “Sir, when was Pakistan founded.”

Me: “1947”

Participant: “No”

Me: “How is that?”

Participant: “Sir, it came into being in 1940. It took them 7 years to decide who would keep Sikhs and who, Pashtuns.”

It’s such a convenient and lazy way to make others laugh. When short of humorous material, google ethnic jokes and voila!

Technique 2: The hell-bound fashionista

Overheard at malls and other public places is this oft-repeated sentiment that those who follow fashion and wear lots of make-up will end up in hell. Hidden in this statement is the assumption that modern looking people have shaky morals and they can sell their soul to the devil to buy a new branded shirt. Maybe they do! Branded shirts are expensive.

You can also add to this category the close-minded fundo, who is made fun of because of, yes, you are right, their physical appearance.

Technique 3: The ungrateful South Walay

Experienced again at a training session, when I told the participants the story of how treating my past as a burden always put me down, a participant said, “Sorry sir, South Walay hamaisha inferiority complex mein rehtay hain.” He added further, “Sir, I come from a village up North, but I am proud of my roots.” The point I was trying to make was completely lost and it became about the feud between North and South. Embellishing this technique even further is the honorable mention of the “Arrogant Central Punjab Walay.”

Technique 4: Burgers

The English-speaking crowd sits in their echo chambers and cannot empathize with the common man. They only eat at fancy restaurants and are a danger to the ideology of Pakistan. You could also add the ‘pan eating Karachi walay’ and ‘un-couth Punjabis’ to this category.

Technique 5: You are my ‘Nigga’

Not as pervasive as others, this technique also conveniently trivializes the history and travails of an entire race. Boys and girls who have just hit adolescence, find the most fun in it. It’s endearing how they use this word and there is even WhatsApp groups called “My Nigga’’ that have special friends on them.   

Technique 6: You are stupid for following PPP/PML/PTI/MQM

The most famous technique to be intolerant in Pakistan is to make ‘funny’ jokes on everyone other than your own favorite politicians. All of them are corrupt and they could not care less of their people. They deserve to be chastised till they don’t because that politician just joined your favorite political party from the rival camp.

Bonus Material

If you are bored with using the above, here is a much simpler technique: just look for how ‘different’ the other is from you. There is always physical features, dress, language and family backgrounds to make fun of.

Leader’s Toolkit

For too long, and rightly so, we have been ‘hooked’ to the ambient theories of motivation. Trying to understand the human psyche, aligning management tools to individual and group needs and make people work to get more out of each dollar, has been and is the cornerstone of research and study by social scientists and psychologists.

One such great thinker was Abraham Maslow who had a profound impact on how management was and is shaped. An American psychologist, Maslow was best known for creating the hierarchy of needs expressed in his 1954 book Motivation and Personality, a theory of psychological health predicated on fulfilling innate human needs in priority, culminating in self-actualization. He stressed the importance of focusing on the positive qualities in people, as opposed to treating them as a “bag of symptoms.” The five rungs of Maslow’s ladder are still taught at most universities; millenials are well aware of it, and organizations formulate their reward and recognition policies around it.

Times through these ages has repeatedly demonstrated that those who make it into history books and whose stories are told as inspirational legacies are ones who did not traverse the hierarchy of needs. They by-passed them and reached the top. The story of their journey begins in the last rung of actualization. That’s where the action happens. Prior to this, life’s rituals are around existence and survival; conditions that are not the prescription for human excellence. Think of the Nobel Prize winners; great musicians and painters; inventors and architects; nation-builders and astronomers; social workers and historians – spending decades of their life looking for that one molecule; an economic theory; a musical note that moves the soul; in quest of material to build; life in deep space; serving the ill and burying the dead – what makes them do what they do? Such tenacity, endurance and persistence is not the stuff of survival. There is more to life than filling the belly and a roof over the head. Human struggle is capable of by-passing these menial low-life form activities and launching straight into the rung of self-actualization.

Even in these travails, self-actualization is not the driving force; it is the unforeseen consequence. What is it that makes us capable of navigating past the bodily, safety, psychological and esteem needs to live a life of perpetual contribution?

Upon intense closer reflection, deep inside the last rung of self-actualization, there is another journey. This is one way of how it can be expressed:

leaders toolkit

Pride in what you do lends a firm and robust identity constituted by an unshakable ideology. This pride is augmented by a sense of service, prayer and faith. It is a spiritual experience that fills the belly, intrigues the mind and corroborates the heart. People/societies without an identity are too busy finding one; looking around to compare their own with others, falling into the trap of arrogance if theirs is better, or inferiority complexes, if worse. There is no anchor in such mental quandaries for intelligence to begin its search into the unfamiliar.

What you have pride in, you will care for. This care is ‘respect’ – the ability to repeatedly ‘see’ from the other’s perspective. There is empathy for another and kindness for the environment and resources. This state gives dignity, self-value; beyond mere self-esteem. Without this ability to ‘see’, one is stuck in self-serving traditions.

Empowerment is to recognize one’s power to think, feel and do. With the immense faith imbibed by the previous two stages, this power has to be used, resulting in a heightened state of trust – that molecule has to be studied; this music note says it all; galaxies, million light years away, must be investigated. The enormous trust in oneself is realized and trust in others (people and matter) becomes normal. Without trust, the individual is ensnared in a victim mentality.

The lens of trust makes the eye seek and unravel the unseen. Such a mind enters its veiled realms and creates, designs, scripts and formulates the new, the unknown, the fresh dimension leading to growth in character and progress. Looking at and living in the past is the reality of those not having arrived here.

The individual arrives at the locus of inspiration – everything and every moment is wonder-ful. Being awestruck becomes the natural condition that drives the order. Time and space become immaterial, resulting in tremendous contribution to uplift and unfold the mysteries that are ours to discern.

Pain and pleasure are the proclaimed motivators. Whatever we do is supposed to be guided by our instinct to seek pleasure and avoid pain. This P&P principle drives us at both levels – the physical and the spiritual. The outcomes are different. The physical levels are the same as of animals, and remain the motivations of survival. The spiritual P&Ps are the human reality burgeoning what religion, philosophy, mysticism, aesthetics, ethics and morality prescribes for us to be.

The Power of Questions

Most often, we do not allow our children to think. Have you ever given a case study to a three-year old? If you do, you’ll be surprised at the speed with which they answer, the quality of the response and the number of alternatives they can come up with. Ask children for their opinion on any matter, and they will have one – but no one is asking. Every question you ask a child builds their repertoire, or the mental muscle. As exercise builds physical health, stamina, resilience and strength, questions are exercise for the brain. If questions are about Math, History, Science etc, i.e. the syllabus in school, the brain will respond accordingly. Similarly, if questions are about life, the brain will answer. These answers make the “unfamiliar familiar,” constructing ever-new mental models. The more the mental models, the more the perspectives, the lesser the problems and stress and the richer the life. This positive state of being can trigger the “reward” neural circuitry, building the fortunate habit of self-rewarding, instead of being dependent on others or a system to validate or reinforce.

Similarly, at the workplace, are you asking your juniors questions or giving them instructions? Even if you have the answer, asking questions is a people-development leadership style that enables people to think for themselves. Else, they will remain dependent on you – which, of course, secures your job, but doesn’t do much for your promotion or your team’s empowerment.

We are born with the capacity to do wonders. Every child is a genius in her own way. When this capacity, or potential, as it is often called; is developed, many a times through questions, the child/person becomes able. That’s when capacity transforms into capability. The word ‘capability’ is two words, capacity and ability. When one is capable, then can we be responsible.

The brain makes up 2% of the body weight but consumes 20-25% energy. To conserve energy and be efficient, it builds neural pathways. The human brain is estimated to have 100 billion neurons which can connect in trillions of ways. The richer the exposure, the more the connections as there will be greater associations from the past to compare the new and be more empathetic toward receiving and accepting it, instead of rejecting the unfamiliar and losing opportunities. It’s these unconscious habits that directly affect our ability to make choices and decisions from the higher brain. The narrower the choices, the more we fear. Fear leads to stereotyping people and situations, narrowing opportunities to what is “acceptable.” The larger spectrum of choices provides internal psychological safety, making the individual more secure and confident. A person with a narrow spectrum will rely on external safety stimuli and will remain psychologically insecure.

Such a condition of internal uncertainty puts the mind in a state of constant conflict, mostly about the question, “Who am I?” Since the mind has not learnt to think, there is only a prescribed answer – the one we have been brought up with.

Having observed parents and how they react to their children’s behaviours, it is more often that parents are not nurturing children. Mostly they are conditioning them, that too with fear and shame; while the rest of the upbringing involves indoctrination. This psychological doctoring centers around ages-old social norms and customs of what is acceptable behaviour. The curriculum is different for girls and boys; for different economic strata; varies geographically and prescribed by religious and personal belief systems. And so the child acquires a pseudo personality, complying with what is acceptable. Others become the source of acceptability and respect, to validate the self. Thus, we get rid of the confusion and conflict aroused by the annoying question, “Who am I?”

With this comfortable formula that the brain acquires of getting respect from others and having the neural pathways conserve energy and work efficiently with this habit, we lose our ability to self-respect; or rather, that never quite develops. This ‘hanging on’ to others for one’s self-concept and identity breeds outward-looking mental models, on which we rely for reward and acknowledgement and turn into a ‘complaint’ society. Such peoples often are followers of the dictates of others.

This state of being can spread through society making most of us depend on each other for our self-esteem. Since ‘each’ has not much to ‘give’, as that ‘each’ is looking for it in the ‘other’, the alternate becomes to ‘take’. To take away from the other. I’ve seen grown men celebrate, clap, cheer when the other looses. These cheering men did not win, but they find solace in the loss of others. That is a glaring sign of a hollowness typical of a pseudo existence. Backbiting is another good method of pulling the other down so as to self-aggrandize. This becomes the neural pathway for reward.

Through history we can see such societies and even civilizations carrying on for hundreds of years in this state of survival. Many self-destruct, where the ego (the embodiment of selfishness), becomes all consuming. Such emphasis and focus on appeasing the form and neglect of the spirit, shrivels the soul, causing the entity to implode. Where are the great Greek, Roman and Mughal empires?

An indicator of fear and shame-centric societies is that they are consumers. Research and development and invention, innovation require a high level of patience, faith and perseverance, an elevated state of service for the larger good.

How can we come out of this downward spiral and become what we ought to be? Just for one day, ask questions. This requires you to acknowledge that others, too, know, and may know better. This vulnerability makes you powerful and them stronger. Be patient with their answers – remember you are facing generations of indoctrination. You cannot break neural pathways by asking once only. Keep at it. Results may not happen in your lifetime, but the transformation has begun.

The Habit to Think

Though it is an old phenomenon, of late, its severity has approached disturbing limits. The impulse to act supersedes the intellectual discipline to think. Even when time is allocated for planning, i.e. thinking through how a project or task will be done, it is used sketchily with little concern for detail and least to visualize the process and its result. Getting into the activity or implementing instructions takes precedence. Picturing the end goal – what form, shape, feel, quality it should have – is a sweeping thought taken over by confusion. With this limited clarity on the outcome, most often the process backfires and the result is unexpected with wasted resources and demoralized people. Even then, when probed to assess their performance, these people will grade themselves high. When asked, why so high, they mention the appeasing and trivial rationale of having made the effort to attempt.

Cultivating minds that think

In search of reason for such behaviors, several insights connect the dots. In childhood, parents have a ready blueprint by which their children have to live their lives, just as was done by their own parents. There is little or no thought behind the age-old prescription scripted by society to earn esteem. This blueprint gives confidence of a ‘respectful’ (izzatdar) life, to acquire an honorable status, a decent job, an attractive marriage proposal and, hence, to breed children who will be respected, will get into good schools, get good jobs, and so on. The scene is set. Having worked with the extremely underprivileged to the mentally and physically impaired, I have observed that the family’s’ desire for a white collar job surpasses the need to have any job for the sake of the dignity of being self-reliant. The same holds true for the economically middle to affluent ones. The vision to educate a generation to uplift a community or the country is far from personal reality. It is considered fanatical, idealistic and impossible. As long as the first three rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are fulfilled, life is well-spent.

Even if the naturally-inclined-to-idealism youngster wants to plan a self-professed future, hammered down upon them is the guilt of deciding contrary to their parent’s wishes. At times, they will first study as per parents’ demands, then pursue their own interests, if the luxury of time and money allows. 8 in 10 youth with depressive problems that I have counseled suffer due to compulsions by parents, mostly in matters of deciding their careers or their choice of a life partner. These youths are martyrs of their parent’s inexorable but unfulfilled dreams.

Going back to circumstances earlier in life, hardly any parent involves their children in discussions pertaining to making a plan for a picnic, a family celebration, redecorating the house, the menu for a dinner party, a shopping trip, what they would like to wear on Eid and, most importantly, the ‘why’ of all of these situations. No parent I’ve interviewed has ever asked their son or daughter “What is your opinion…..?” to enable them to connect to their ability to think, analyze, reason and express. Then we condemn the media for feeding into our minds – when the minds are empty, anything will fill it. The tremendous intelligence Pakistanis are blessed with is diverted to justifying and rationalizing why something ‘cannot be done’ and blaming others who have ‘supposedly’ not done it, instead of using it to stimulate the intellect to inspire growth.

Powers of Visualization

We are visual beings. Children are told fairy tales to spark their imagination. If this unique-to-humans quality is not stimulated, the present physical world becomes the reality forever, with all its limitations and body-centric demands. We end up living a life only placating our senses, just like any animal. With a healthy imagination, we can look far, far into the future and determine what it should be. We can build a thousand bridges over rivers and oceans of conflict, strife and struggle, and raise a civilization to the higher level it must evolve to, to avoid extinction. With imagination, combined with the mind’s other faculties of 1) Common sense, 2) Thinking, 3) Values, and 4) Memory, we are able to fight nature’s default entropic condition and advance our special inborn states of leadership and mastery.

This same milieu continues in schools, with children placed on an assembly line of regurgitating text and teachers churning out report cards. Discovering the aptitude of a child, let alone nurturing it, lies outside the realm of ‘education’. Aptitude – this God-gifted ability to be distinct – is sacrificed on the altar of subject-specific focus to get into college to, yet again, land a ‘good’ job, where ‘good’ implies status, money and security.

Thus, the muscle of visualization, and intellectual capacity to think shrivels and becomes limp. As adults, this disability plays out in most sectors of society, whether Public, Corporate, Social, Education, or as citizens. In the Government, committees plan forever, every time bringing in one more resource who may have the magic wand. Discussion is good but too much dependence and delayed decisions further adds to the limp. Whenever there is planning, too much weightage is put on the past evils and how to fix them instead of fresh creative ideas for rebirth.

Survival of the Smartest

Centuries of human history have proven that those in the survival mode will survive, while those who thrive are a different breed: they think differently. Every invention is preceded by a question. It is the quality of this question that determines the size and impact of the outcome. The human brain became powerful under conditions where thinking and motion were a constant. There are two ways to beat the cruelty of the environment: You can become stronger or you can become smarter. Humans chose the latter. It seems most improbable that such a physically weak species could take over the planet not by adding muscles to our skeletons but by adding neurons to our brains. We moved from the 2,000 who inhabited the earth to the 7 billion by:

  • Giving up on stability
  • Not beating back the changes
  • Stopping to care about consistency within a given habitat – not an option
  • Adapting to variation itself

We took on the entire globe. We didn’t become stronger; we became smarter. We learned to grow our fangs, not in the mouth but in the head. Those unable to rapidly solve new problems or learn from mistakes did not survive. We are hardwired to be flexible.

Our brains are so sensitive to external inputs that their physical wiring depends upon culture. The adult brain, throughout life, retains the ability to change its structure and function in response to experience. This throws any excuse to not change out of the window, yet puts great focus on the forces in the environment. Whereas the brain is predominantly (instinctually) oriented toward ALFAL (Appetite, Laziness, Fear, Anger, Lust), it has the higher power to construct newer civilizations by altering the information it seeks and creates. The quality of this information generates physical energy, which, in turn, encodes a relationship with the self, others and the environment. It’s the number of door handles on the entrance to information that determines the content, i.e. my personal meaning of myself (my identity and, therefore, my narrative and meaningfulness); the timing at which this occurs, i.e. more useful when youthful; and the environment that encourages me to express it to build positive associations.

Let’s extract our courage from our construct – the material we are made of. Predominant in forming our nature are mirror neurons, which are: 

  • Remarkably subtle
  • Scattered across the brain
  • Self-corrective; predict error; retrospectively evaluate input for errors
  • Perceive unfavorable circumstances and call for a change in behavior

The job of the mirror neurons is to:

  • Reflect their surroundings
  • Replicate reality
  • Imitate behavior

Tied with this constant (the mirror neurons), is the immense power of curiosity.

  • From birth starts the ability to discover, which brings immense joy and is an addictive drug
  • Exploration creates the need for more discovery so that more joy can be experienced
  • An in-built reward system that, if allowed to flourish, will continue for life
  • As children get older, they find that learning not only brings them joy, but it also brings them mastery
  • Expertise through discovery breeds confidence to take intellectual risks
  • If not in the emergency room, these may end up with a Nobel Prize*

We as parents, educators, managers, and leaders are responsible for forming an environment where the mind’s natural need and urgency to evolve is facilitated. How come the Apples, Googles and the Facebooks of the world are shaking a whole industry? How come Wal-Mart tops the Fortune 500 list, above the petroleum giants, when so many others sell shampoo, meat and clothing? How come teams of researchers tirelessly and passionately, for decades, sift through atoms to maybe discover one more healing drug? What does it take for some to look up at the stars and see the galaxies beyond, to build means to get there? Or those who can see deep into the core of the earth even if it is to extract its heat to warm a home?

Yes, exactly that – ask questions. Ask, and thou shall receive. You aren’t getting because you haven’t asked. Children are natural askers of questions, and then we kill this superior ability. Thanks to those parents who guide their children at home and leaders at work who provoke their teams to remain on a quest for answers and solutions, we can look forward to next generations building their tracks on thinking, enquiry and adventure.

* Extracts from ‘Brain Rules’ by John J Medina