A Primer on Tolerance

A Primer on Tolerance

If you are wanting a concise and provocative “entrance ramp” onto recent debate on the idea of tolerance, you could not do much better than The Power of Tolerance: A Debate.  As the title states, the book’s contents are a record of a 2008 debate in Berlin between two of the leading political philosophers in the Western world on the idea of tolerance:  Wendy Brown (out of UC-Berkeley) and Rainer Forst (out of the Goethe University, Frankfurt am Maine).

The book’s title is creatively sneaky:  it suggests that the concept of tolerance is extremely powerful–but in what ways and for what purposes?  The reader, then, should hardly assume that both Brown and Forst regard tolerance as inherently a good thing.  In the epilogue two other contributors–Luca Di Blasi and Christoph Holzhey–discuss the debate, titling their discussion “Tensions in tolerance.”  They state that the central aim of the debate was to discuss “the connection between power and tolerance, or to use Brown’s formulation, ‘the complex involvement of tolerance with power.'”  They continue:

“Forst is just as aware and critical as Brown of the different possibilities inscribed in the notion and discourse of tolerance to veil, reproduce, and stabilize inequality and domination…. Hierarchical power relations indeed seem inevitable when someone (a superior power, a majority, etc.) is granting someone (an inferior power, a minority, etc.) certain rights. Even when this form of toleration is understood as a self-limitation of power, it remains problematic:  toleration is a ‘presumptuous word’ (Kant) or even an ‘insult’ (Goethe).”

For this reason, Wendy Brown, as evident in the debate, “remains sceptical about any positive potential of tolerance for emancipatory projects.”  That is, tolerance cannot bring its promised exodus from the Egypt of “bigotry” or “fundamentalism” or “narrow-mindedness.”  Di Blasi and Holzhey cite Brown’s (excellent) work Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in an Age of Identity and Empire:

“Tolerance […] emerges as part of a civilizational discourse that identifies both tolerance and the tolerable with the West, marking nonliberal societies and practices as candidates for an intolerable barbarism that is itself signaled by the putative intolerance ruling these societies. In the mid-nineteenth through mid-twentieth centuries, the West imagined itself as standing for civilization against primitivism, and in the cold war years for freedom against tyranny; now these two recent histories are merged in the warring figures of the free, the tolerant, and the civilized on one side, and the fundamentalist, the intolerant, and the barbaric on the other.”

The danger of the rhetoric of tolerance is its pretense of neutrality.  As quoted above, such rhetoric serves only to “veil, reproduce, and stabilize inequality and domination.”

Forst is more optimistic, and in the debate he tries to argue that there can be a “non-repressive” form of tolerance, if we can simply distinguish between what is rational and what is faith-based in our political discourse.  Brown attacks this strongly, saying to Forst:

“[T]here is so much that I can’t go with in your argument. I can’t understand, first of all, how we could develop a consensus on where the line is between the rational and the faith-based. I cannot imagine arriving at a consensus on that. I also can’t imagine that we could then have a discourse of tolerance that didn’t get re-engaged with stratifications of power, in which what become objects of tolerance are not just minorities but truly non-normative objects, deviants, toward whom, indeed on whom, tolerance will always therefore be a hegemonic operation.” 

Brown’s critique is deeply encouraging to me.  She recognizes, I think, the impossibility of neutrality, the impossibility of a naked, values-free public rationality.  In truth, all rationality is enculturated and embedded in someone’s values and allegiances.  This isn’t to devalue rationality; it is, rather, to call it what is and so save it from being hijacked by any self-pronounced “objective” and “rational” person.  The goal, then, isn’t to make our rationalizing value-free (as if that were even possible).  It is, rather, to be able to identify the values and allegiances embedded in our rationalizing and then to ask, “Why have I adopted these?”  As a Christian, my rationality is to be embedded in the values of and in a singular allegiance to Jesus of Nazareth, who is arguably, the most selfless–and, therefore, the most trustworthy–authority in human civilization, whose adherents are more ethnically, nationally and geographically dispersed than any other religion or ideology today.

Jesus made no pretense of neutrality, and neither should we.  He stated plainly, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” (Luke 11.23).


4 thoughts on “A Primer on Tolerance

  1. It makes sense that tolerance cannot provide the so-called exodus from bigotry because we only tolerate things we do not believe or fully support. I have trouble articulating the popular notion of “tolerance,” but I imagine it’s something along the lines of “ignore.” That is, if you don’t like what I’m doing, ignore it. Or, more strongly, maybe even tacitly support all endeavors that proceed from personal liberty because the ethical pillar of “the mob” in the West is personal liberty and autonomy. Tolerance is an attempt to unburden ourselves from the awkwardness of defending our own beliefs and demonstrating why the beliefs of others may be wrongly held or applied. Rather than discuss it, we just tolerate it because tolerance allows for greater maximization of personal liberty (so we might think).

    It’s interesting, also, that you mention a superior granting an inferior rights. I think one dangerous result from the belief that we have no natural, or inherent, rights is that, if all rights are granted (rather than recognized, like in the Declaration of Independence), then all rights can be revoked. The idea of tolerance can support this line of thought because it grants more power to the powerful and less to the powerless. As you’ve said before, it maintains the status quo.

  2. 1) “The danger of the rhetoric of tolerance is its pretense of neutrality”, I’m not sure I understand this. It seems as if tolerance, or at least some of its forms, would emerge from the recognition that an epistemic agent cannot be neutral. Can you explain this further?

    2) Does Brown address any forms of tolerance that go up the hierarchy? For example, if a minority religious group collectively agreed to endure persecution from an emperor, would this be tolerance in Brown’s view or something different? I don’t know if it would change her position since she could simply say that by this group doing nothing they are enabling the oppressor yet it stills seems to have a different flavor than the idea of tolerance she discusses.

    1. 1) I’ll give it my best: at the popular and political levels,the rhetoric of tolerance is generally employed as a call to be more accepting, to stop “judging”–i.e., to no longer apply one’s own normative standards within a certain sphere, so as to (supposedly) keep that sphere neutral or free from any particular value system, so that everyone “can all just get along” or “CO-EXIST.” But the notion of a value-free sphere is altogether deceptive: someone’s values are holding sway–to the inevitable exclusion of someone else. In the debate Brown gives a powerful example:

      “I’m interested in how the Netherlands managed to make the tolerance of nudity and gay sex into a threshold of citizenship for its Arab immigrants.”

      She continues:

      “I cant see how even the respect conception isn’t operating within dramatic power differentials that are already subject-constituting and in which the language of tolerance adds a new colour to that. Let us stay with the gay marriage example: if what we’re trying to do is persuade somebody who objects to homosexuality and in particular to homosexuals taking the mantle of marriage for their own – if we try to persuade them that they should have tolerance towards a set of practices or aspiration that they object to, I wonder where the mutuality is in that.”

      2) Wow, GREAT question. I’ve got to run. I’ll get back to you on this….

      1. Back to your second question: From both the debate and from what I’ve read from her book Regulating Aversion (which is most of it), Brown doesn’t discuss this. To speculate: I suspect that she might not conceive of enduring intolerance as a form of tolerance, though to the extent that there is a volitional component–i.e., to the extent that a non-tolerated minority chooses to accept that non-toleration, this could be seen as a form of toleration. Hence, as you say, this would be “something different.” And that something different could be very close to Jesus’ command to his followers to “love your enemies and to pray for those who persecute you”, “to turn the other cheek”, etc. So I think I agree with you: this is a different flavor, one that (I suspect) would still involve a reverse hierarchy (the oppressed minority is now “tolerating” behavior it disapproves of), and, hence, it is an assertion of power, whether for good (“loving one’s enemies”) or for bad (as you say, “enabling the oppressor”).

        Hope that helps?

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