Monday, October 12, 2009
The pitfalls of tolerance posted by Richard SeymourEvery now and again, I read something like this and have to stop and consider why it is inherently ridiculous and offensive. The Tories are lauded for adopting a new attitude of 'tolerance' toward homosexuals, and one feels an immediate pressure to partake of this cosiness, this idea that something uncomplicatedly benign is happening. Increasingly, moreover, one is apt to hear 'tolerance' name-dropped in respect of racial problems in the UK, in which the absence of 'tolerance' is either a euphemism for racism, or an attitude ascribed to supposedly self-segregating minorities. And in its function as part of a martial ideology, 'tolerance' is what NATO troops defend against 'native fanaticism'. The word and its various significations do a lot of ideological work, obscuring and inverting crucial social relations, and smuggling in a patronising attitude to the subjects of said 'tolerance'. Given this problem, I just wanted to clarify my thoughts by arranging them into a number of simple arguments, as follows:
I. There is a crucial distinction between the narrow terms of religious toleration, a doctrine elaborated in an attempt to manage Protestant schisms in early modern Europe (though the Ottoman Empire's 'millet' system could also be cited as an instance of toleration), and the broader terms of 'tolerance'. The toleration of religious belief is not on the same ontological plane as tolerance for ascriptive attributes. In its ultimate Lockean variant, the former asserted not merely the separation of church and state, but the privatization of ethical belief as such, the decoupling of religious or moral statements from social context. Alasdair Macintyre has useful commentary on this, but it is separate from the contemporary issue of 'tolerance'. The latter implies a model of political communities in which different groups and individuals experience one another as a burden that they have to put up with. It implies a fundamentally competitive model of human behaviour, whose excesses are avoided through tolerance. In this respect, it is deeply misanthropic.
II. Tolerance is an alternative to equality rather than an expression of it. Toleration in its old sense was compatible with bourgeois ideas of equality but, although 'tolerance' has a soft and generous texture to it, it bears a political freight of inequality, subordination and hierarchy. Thus, when American rightists are asked about gay marriage, their answer is that they are prepared to tolerate homosexuals but not dilute the 'sanctity of marriage' by allowing same-sex partners to wed. Even Clinton's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which banned known gays from serving in the military, would serve as a 'tolerant' alternative to legal equality, since it says that homosexuality can be tolerated as a private, or rather secret, affair of the individual.
III. Tolerance displaces social justice, and as such depoliticises intensely political questions. It became a dominant discursive tool in the 1990s precisely in such a way as to displace questions of power, discrimination and social justice. This was a novelty - in previous periods, anti-racist liberals and leftists were fully aware of the basically reactionary nature of racial 'tolerance', especially in US politics where northern elites would contrast their supposed tolerance with southern bigotry. That has to do with the success of the right in parlaying such questions into 'culture wars', in which - say - segregationist schools could assert their right to practise discrimination not by defending principles of white supremacy, but by defending local or indigenous cultural practises against an intrusively egalitarian state. They demanded tolerance for down to earth Christian folk, and railed against what they called 'reverse discrimination'.
IV. Tolerance is an expression of resentment. Historically it has been an attitude that dominative majorities adopt toward oppressed minoritiesm, and so it remains. To be the subject of this tolerance, one must have already been designated a worthy object of aversion by the majority, at best to be indulged on account of the magnanimity of those with power. To be the subject of this tolerance, one must already have been deemed normatively aberrant. That means that some sort of idea of what organically belongs and does not belong to a given political imaginary (community, nation, etc.) has already been stipulated: thus white rule, patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc. are often asserted in the very gesture of 'tolerance'. The subject of tolerance does not really belong, is foreign, and might easily be rejected by a much less tolerant host. As such, should the basis for this maganimity be undermined or threatened, tolerance can easily lapse into its opposite: "zero tolerance".
V. Tolerance has long had an imperial and colonial dimension which is greatly in evidence today. The Dutch empire has been lauded for its supposed tolerant attitude toward colonial subjects, in contrast to Spanish and Portugese rivals. Of course, said 'tolerance' was a pragmatic decision that made more commercial and colonial sense for the Dutch than trying to convert local Islamic sultanates to Calvinism. Puritan settlers in the New World practised 'tolerance' toward heathen Native Americans when they weren't busy wiping them out. Similarly, the British Empire tended to express its own cultural domination over the natives in terms of what may or may not be tolerated under British rule. Thus, William Bentinck, governor-general of the East India Company, wrote in 1829 on the practise of sati that the sole basis upon which it may be tolerated would be if such an attitude were necessary to conserve the many improving influences of the British empire as a whole. The discourse of Anglophone rule in South Africa was also framed in terms of tolerance: Cape Town, the centre of British commercial dominance, was lauded for the 'racial tolerance' practised there, in the context of racist imperial rule. Even when the labour practises of British capital began to stratify workers by race, from the Glen Grey Act onward, the dominant tone of colonial discourse remained that of 'tolerance' of the natives. And it was in stark contrast to the incoherent 'native fanaticism' that contrived false grievances against the empire, and persisted with intolerant cultural practises despite the attempts at education and racial uplift. In the contemporary Huntington/Lewis/Ignatieff school of imperial thought, tolerance is once more a peculiar attribute of Euro-American states, noticeable for its absence in the Orient. 'We' are tolerant because we have mastered our cultural biases, our instinctive narcissism and hostility toward others. We have assayed them and submitted them to the rule of reason. Instead of romantic nationalism and religious devotion, we have civic nationalism and belief constrained by inquiry. 'They' are intolerant because their cultural biases dominate them. Their alleged hostility and self-involvement, their desire to speak their own language and wear their own religous garb, is a sign of their fanatical rejection of tolerance.
All of which is to say that when we hear about tolerance, and it comes with a certain amount of self-congratulation (think of Blair and Major blissfully eulogising about a modern, tolerant England, relaxed and at ease with itself), its more sinister dimensions should come to mind and caution us against luxuriating in that sense of warmth and humanity that the term exudes.