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I am thinking about this because I am so often accused of being intolerant of other's ideas.  And I often am.  One of our heroes in the 1960s movement was Herbert Marcuse.  His essay Repressive Tolerance  Made a big impression on me.  Let me share some ideas from it with you.  First of all, let's think about where we may be experiencing it right now.  I don't think you have to look too far?   I'll not put ideas into your head but rather ask you to read on below to see how much these ideas from the 1960s have relevance now.

Marcuse worries that by being tolerant of things that are clearly oppressive and unjust we misuse the idea and produce the opposite effect that we intend.  I have seen many variations on this idea expressed here but it is always good to look back to a scholar who really worked at understanding it.  He begins:

THIS essay examines the idea of tolerance in our advanced industrial society. The conclusion reached is that the realization of the objective of tolerance would call for intolerance toward prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions, and the extension of tolerance to policies, attitudes, and opinions which are outlawed or suppressed. In other words, today tolerance appears again as what it was in its origins, at the beginning of the modern period--a partisan goal, a subversive liberating notion and practice. Conversely, what is proclaimed and practiced as tolerance today, is in many of its most effective manifestations serving the cause of oppression.

     The author is fully aware that, at present, no power, no authority, no government exists which would translate liberating tolerance into practice, but he believes that it is the task and duty of the intellectual to recall and preserve historical possibilities which seem to have become utopian possibilities--that it is his task to break the concreteness of oppression in order to open the mental space in which this society can be recognized as what it is and does.

 In other words we are are being had with the modern notion of tolerance.  Given that we are making headway as we fight for civil rights, etc., we are doing so with a handicap.  The very value we wish to achieve has been so badly distorted that it often works against us.  Do you have examples in mind?  How about "religious freedom", "2nd amendment rights", "the freedom to exclude people who are different", "the rights of a fetus", etc.  Why are we progressives so intolerant?  Marcuse goes on to say
Tolerance is an end in itself. The elimination of violence, and the reduction of suppression to the extent required for protecting man and animals from cruelty and aggression are preconditions for the creation of a humane society. Such a society does not yet exist; progress toward it is perhaps more than before arrested by violence and suppression on a global scale. As deterrents against nuclear war, as police action against subversion, as technical aid in the fight against imperialism and communism, as methods of pacification in neo-colonial massacres, violence and suppression are promulgated, practiced, and defended by democratic and authoritarian governments alike, and the people subjected to these governments are educated to sustain such practices as necessary for the preservation of the status quo. Tolerance is extended to policies, conditions, and modes of behavior which should not be tolerated because they are impeding, if not destroying, the chances of creating an existence without fear and misery.

     This sort of tolerance strengthens the tyranny of the majority against which authentic liberals protested. The political locus of tolerance has changed: while it is more or less quietly and constitutionally withdrawn from the opposition, it is made compulsory behavior with respect to established policies. Tolerance is turned from an active into a passive state, from practice to non-practice: laissez-faire the constituted authorities. It is the people who tolerate the government, which in turn tolerates opposition within the framework determined by the constituted authorities.

     Tolerance toward that which is radically evil now appears as good because it serves the cohesion of the whole on the road to affluence or more affluence. The toleration of the systematic moronization of children and adults alike by publicity and propaganda, the release of destructiveness in aggressive driving, the recruitment for and training of special forces, the impotent and benevolent tolerance toward outright deception in merchandizing, waste, and planned obsolescence are not distortions and aberrations, they are the essence of a system which fosters tolerance as a means for perpetuating the struggle for existence and suppressing the alternatives. The authorities in education, morals, and psychology are vociferous against the increase in juvenile delinquency; they are less vociferous against the proud presentation, in word and deed and pictures, of ever more powerful missiles, rockets, bombs--the mature delinquency of a whole civilization.

 It is interesting to ask as you read his words: "How much has changed since then?"  The answer kind of makes his point.  Read the whole essay.  Here's how he ends:
  In any case, John Stuart Mill, not exactly an enemy of liberal and representative government, was not so allergic to the political leadership of the intelligentsia as the contemporary guardians of semi-democracy are. Mill believed that 'individual mental superiority' justifies 'reckoning one person's opinion as equivalent to more than one':

Until there shall have been devised, and until opinion is willing to accept, some mode of plural voting which may assign to education as such the degree of superior influence due to it, and sufficient as a counterpoise to the numerical weight of the least educated class, for so long the benefits of completely universal suffrage cannot be obtained without bringing with them, as it appears to me, more than equivalent evils.[5]

'Distinction in favor of education, right in itself', was also supposed to preserve 'the educated from the class legislation of the uneducated', without enabling the former to practice a class legislation of their own.[6]

     Today, these words have understandably an anti-democratic, 'elitist' sound--understandably because of their dangerously radical implications. For if 'education' is more and other than training, learning, preparing for the existing society, it means not only enabling man to know and understand the facts which make up reality but also to know and understand the factors that establish the facts so that he can change their inhuman reality. And such humanistic education would involve the 'hard' sciences ('hard' as in the 'hardware' bought by the Pentagon?), would free them from their destructive direction. In other words, such education would indeed badly serve the Establishment, and to give political prerogatives to the men and women thus educated would indeed be anti-democratic in the terms of the Establishment. But these are not the only terms.

     However, the alternative to the established semi-democratic process is not a dictatorship or elite, no matter how intellectual and intelligent, but the struggle for a real democracy. Part of this struggle is the fight against an ideology of tolerance which, in reality, favors and fortifies the conservation of the status quo of inequality and discrimination. For this struggle, I proposed the practice of discriminating tolerance. To be sure, this practice already presupposes the radical goal which it seeks to achieve. I committed this petitio principii in order to combat the pernicious ideology that tolerance is already institutionalized in this society. The tolerance which is the life element, the token of a free society, will never be the gift of the powers that be; it can, under the prevailing conditions of tyranny by the majority, only be won in the sustained effort of radical minorities, willing to break this tyranny and to work for the emergence of a free and sovereign majority - minorities intolerant, militantly intolerant and disobedient to the rules of behavior which tolerate destruction and suppression.

 I maybe intolerant in other's eyes but there is some stuff I will not eat!


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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (8+ / 0-)

    An idea is not responsible for who happens to be carrying it at the moment. It stands or falls on its own merits.

    by don mikulecky on Sat Feb 09, 2013 at 07:50:55 PM PST

  •  Don't like people tolerating my existence. (3+ / 0-)

    That's quite minimal and just feels downright demeaning.

    I'd much rather I encountered people who celebrated my difference and supported my striving for equal rights.

    •  Not just demeaning, it's still a position where (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      noway2, don mikulecky, rserven

      someone can do a great deal of intentional damage.

      After all, toleration just requires someone to allow you to exist in the same world as them. Says nothing about being able to even ask for acceptance, or even anything at all beyond basic tolerance.

      And toleration still allows for inter-group hierarchies in a way acceptance starts to move away from.

      I know of more than a few people who will tolerate me as an asexual... so long as I don't claim I've ever been oppressed or am willing to call it 'things that happened to me because someone thought I was a lesbian' instead of what it was (even if there's no way anyone involved considered me 'not-straight' at the time, and yes I have heard that exact argument about how oppressive asexual women who were correctively raped were for calling it anti-asexual in nature).

      It still counts as tolerance of a sort because it isn't in and of itself an attack, but that argument? Usually comes from people who should KNOW that tolerance and acceptance are different things. That argument doesn't come from heteronormative people, ever. It comes from people who are other minority sexual orientations and vocally so.

      (And that's actually an oversimplification and brightening of the nastiest stuff I've run into so far... which was thrown in the faces of people like me because someone decided claiming oppression was an oppressive act itself. And don't get me started on the 'are aces queer?' debate because the concept of tolerance is nowhere to be found where THAT comes up....)

      You can tolerate one group more than another and still be tolerating all of them well enough to claim it. And you can tolerate a group and still keep them Over There where you don't have to do anything but just leave them alone and not think about what other people's actions or your own inaction are doing to them. True acceptance is a LOT more even in application and requires a lot more listening.

      Prayers and best wishes to those in Japan.

      by Cassandra Waites on Sat Feb 09, 2013 at 11:26:12 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I know I heard the logical loop growing up that (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    antirove, noway2, don mikulecky

    liberals (this was a Southern Baptist of the modern sort talking) weren't actually being tolerant because they weren't being tolerant of SBC-type Christians being intolerant of [insert weekly target of choice here, usually gay people].

    And for some people, that ends up being a fairly workable self-justification for not tolerating anyone outside their own 'tribe' - in this case, a very specific sort of Baptist.

    Make the focus on acceptance and put some sort of loose limit on it based on harm to others or some such, and that logical argument would cease to be useable.

    Prayers and best wishes to those in Japan.

    by Cassandra Waites on Sat Feb 09, 2013 at 11:42:25 PM PST

    •  who's MORE intolerant: antifundie libs or the SBC? (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      don mikulecky, Cassandra Waites

      That's what it boils down to for me.  I can justify selective intolerance of persons, groups, and institutions that are themselves intolerant and specifically intolerant to a much greater degree: willing to impose harsher restrictions on many more people.  When bigots are the only people complaining about bigotry, that's not something we as individuals or as a society need to worry about.  Why should we care what bigots think?

      It also helps me to walk that line to recognize that entities like the SBC have a very egocentric definition of intolerance: the only intolerance is intolerance of the SBC, while the SBC's own intolerance is magically transformed into "God's love".  Liberal "intolerance" is much less egocentric: we can be intolerant on behalf of others - be intolerant of intolerance that would not victimize us personally - and in fact we are some of the least willing to stand up for ourselves.

      Something's wrong when the bad guys are the utopian ones.

      by Visceral on Sun Feb 10, 2013 at 10:46:27 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  To answer your question, "it really depends on (3+ / 0-)

    your frame of reference."

    "repressive tolerance" is a phrase made up of two components. Liberal thinkers, people who can conceive of many variables to any reality, are likely to see the first word as modifying the second -- making "tolerance" more specific and defining the context. They might also mentally form an emotional response as a result of perceiving the tolerance as less than total, or not a neutral attitude. They may even mentally assign a function to an attitude. In that sense, "repressive tolerance" is an oxymoron. The adjective cancels out the noun.

    The binary brain, which perceives reality as composed of antagonistic forces, would not think of an oxymoron. That the two words represent a conflict is a given. Indeed, in their world, which is largely focused on exercising control, restricting everything outside themselves, tolerance is a negative that is properly repressed. In other words, the antagonism between repression and tolerance is a good thing because tolerance is bad. How can tolerance be bad? If one is a person whose "mission" in life is to dominate, then the "devil may care" attitude which contradicts dominion is obviously bad.

    See, it all depends on one's preconceived notions. I prefer that term to "prejudice," a single word that says the same thing, because "prejudice" has taken on an antagonistic stance. There's no emotional context attached to "preconceived notion," as yet. We may think that people ought not to approach new ideas with prior information, but that's just not how our brains work. Brains accumulate information and develop a preference for what fits with what they already know. The familiar feels good; the unfamiliar is different. I suspect we have to develop a taste for change.

    People who are into dominion, presume a right to direct the behavior of others. To tolerate is, indeed, to assert such a claim. Absent the impulse towards dominion, the other is simply ignored. To tolerate is to put up with and posit an imposition, which also implies a point of resistance or repression.
    To tolerate crabgrass in your lawn is to posit a right to rip it out, consistent with man's dominion over all creation. It is saying, "I am the lord and master." Is that hubris or verification of the fact that man created god in his own image -- what man imagines himself to be? If the latter, then does that not suggest man as a being who does not know itself? An image, after all, is a superficial reflection and does not get at the essence of a thing.
    Images are not tangible and that may be the key. People who rely on superficial optics may do so because their tactile sense is dull. The sense of touch tells them nothing about their environment. So, they exist in a bubble of reflections, enlightened but not aware.

    Can people who depend entirely on superficial optics perform meaningful functions? Do they ever have enough information to act? I suspect not. Which may account for why so many of the drone strikes go awry. And why John McCain crashed four planes.

    We organize governments to deliver services and prevent abuse.

    by hannah on Sun Feb 10, 2013 at 12:35:38 AM PST

  •  "Too much of anything,... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    don mikulecky

    ...Lieutenant, even love, isn't necessarily a good thing"
    - Captain James T. Kirk

    Exactly the thing with tolerance.

  •  "Discriminating tolerance" is the key phrase, (3+ / 0-)

    I believe, or perhaps we could agree on "discerning tolerance", since "discriminating" can be rather negatively loaded.

    As Marcuse points out, tolerance is not and should not be ideological. I believe tolerance is a principle more than anything else. It is the readiness to at least listen and engage seriously. If it turns out that what is being listened to and engaged is non-sensical, a reject of it is not intolerant, it is reasonable. If what is being listened to and engaged is sensible (in the sense that it makes some kind of sense), it may still be unreasonable, therefore a rejection of it is not intolerant, it is reasonable.

    The goal we're seeking is, I believe, consensual, not pluralistic and that takes a lot of listening, a lot of engaging and a lot of discernment; that is, being tolerant.

  •  See also the "Paradox Of Tolerance" (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    don mikulecky, Wednesday Bizzare

    Karl Popper and John Rawls

    There’s always free cheddar in a mousetrap, baby

    by bernardpliers on Sun Feb 10, 2013 at 07:47:11 AM PST

  •  theoretical vs. applied morality (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    don mikulecky

    To the extent that tolerance can empower people who are themselves intolerant, greater tolerance in theory can result in less tolerance in practice.  Which is worse: the selective repression of people who'd rather not repress at all, or the broad repression of people who are positively eager to repress?  To the extent that democracy can empower undemocratic people and ideas, greater democracy in theory can result in less democracy in practice.  Which is worse: an imperfect democracy that denies meaningful participation to enemies of the system as a whole (versus a "loyal opposition" that only challenges the product, not the process), or an "illiberal democracy" which is de facto mob rule or a oligarchy's rubber stamp?

    This is not to say that tolerance and democracy are bad in toto, but that there is an inflection point where more paradoxically creates less.  Laws and regulations exist to constrain the behavior of those entities that will not restrain themselves.  Reduce or eliminate external controls in deference to the discipline and morality of people who have strong internal controls, and people who do not have internal controls will also be set free.  Develop the laws and the enforcement power and the people who have strong internal controls are only going to be forbidden to do things they weren't going to do anyway.

    A double standard might be the only way out: "Our intolerance is justified because we refuse to tolerate greater intolerance than our own.  Their intolerance is unjustified because they refuse to tolerate greater tolerance than their own."  We liberals have a very hard time with double standards.  We think that it's inherently unjust and immoral to hold one person to a higher (or lower) standard than another, and in fairness, double standards in history have served the interests of the rich and powerful few.

    I imagine that this is also unappealing since it leaves key decisions in the hands of weak and selfish people rather than dictated by a comprehensive and objective code external to any person, but one of the functions of people is to serve as a manual override of our systems.  People have the ability to say: "No.  It doesn't matter what the law says.  That's wrong and it needs to stop."  We liberals have a very hard time with that too.  We think that a well-designed system shouldn't need a manual override.

    Something's wrong when the bad guys are the utopian ones.

    by Visceral on Sun Feb 10, 2013 at 10:34:30 AM PST

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