In Praise of Intolerance
“The Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”
What’s happened to good citizenship lately?
Andrew Shirvell, a paid state official during off hours, calls a gay student body president a racist elitist liar who is Satan’s representative. He doctors a photo to put a swastika over a gay flag next to the student’s face. All the while, even as Shirvell (on personal leave) must face a disciplinary hearing (when he returns), those who label him a bigot are said to themselves be intolerant of Shirvell’s religious views and first amendment freedoms.
The university president called his behavior reprehensible and said in a statement, “As a community, we must not and will not accept displays of intolerance.” Shirvell’s boss, attorney general Mike Cox, said earlier this week that Shirvell had a right to express his opinions outside of work even though his actions were “offensive.”
Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers freshman, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after a roommate streamed an intimate gay encounter onto the Internet. While cyber-bullying has no bounds, the blend of public humiliation and sexual orientation is especially deadly:
A survey of more than 5,000 college students, faculty members and staff members who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender published last month by the advocacy group Campus Pride found that nearly one in four reported harassment, almost all related to sexual orientation and gender identity.
Warren J. Blumenfeld, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at Iowa State University and an author of the Campus Pride study, also conducted a smaller survey of 350 nonheterosexual students between the ages of 11 and 22 and found that about half of the respondents reported being cyberbullied in the 30 days before the survey, and that more than a quarter had suicidal thoughts.
Dan Savage, the syndicated Seattle sex columnist, pulls no punches. When a Christian reader calls him a prejudiced hypocrite and pleads harmed innocence — “I have never in my life know (sic) someone who loved the Lord who wished ill will on other people and certainly not death…” Savage responds, F**k your feelings:
Gay kids are dying. So let’s try to keep things in perspective…
The religious right points to the suicide rate among gay teenagers—which the religious right works so hard to drive up (see above)—as evidence that the gay lifestyle is destructive. It’s like intentionally running someone down with your car and then claiming that it isn’t safe to walk the streets.
Which is why I argued that every gay teen suicide is a victory for the religious right. Because, you see, your side does use those suicides to “perpetuate [your] agenda.” Tony Perkins and all those other oddly effete defenders of “Christian values” and “traditional marriage” will point to this recent spate of gay teen suicides to argue against gay marriage, anti-bullying programs, against allowing gay people to serve in the military—basically, they’ll gleefully use these tragedies to justify what they like to call the “Christian, pro-family agenda.”
But right now Tony Perkins is being strangely silent. Why is that? Could it be that even Tony Perkins has a conscience? Nah, couldn’t be that. He must be away on vacation.
Savage isn’t calling for the two young people accused of streaming the video to be punished. Rather, he sees the incident as a symptom of a far wider problem that society is unwilling to deal with — the deadly consequences of a pervasive homophobia that infuses our society. He sees the mob mentality going after “a couple of stupid teenagers who should’ve known better but didn’t” as a coverup for the real guilty parties, those “adults and institutions that knew better but didn’t care.” (Emphasis his.)
I see his point. And I want to take it one step further. I want to explore why society hasn’t come to the full rational conclusion as expressed in law and political commentary that homophobic bigotry is prima facie hateful and wrong. I will suggest that the elevation of tolerance to the most highly valued social principle — over, even, liberty and justice for all — has provided cover for those adults and institutions that Savage says should know better. And I will suggest that tolerance immobilizes those of us who do know better.
My thinking on this subject is triggered by Wendy Brown’s Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire. A small book, it’s a long dense read, and you and she may not agree with the conclusions I draw from it. In the first chapter she observes that once the call was for “liberty and justice for all.” Now, instead of calling for “equality,” we call for “tolerance.”
Brown sees tolerance as an engine of exclusion and a technology of regulation. Here’s Stanley Fish writing in a 2006 review of Brown’s book for The Chronicle (now behind a paywall):
Locke declared (in A Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689) that “every Church is orthodox to itself” and concluded that, in the absence of an independent mechanism for determining which among competing orthodoxies is the true one, toleration is the only rational policy. Locke then asked, What about the churches and orthodoxies that value tolerance less than they do the truth and political supremacy of the faiths they espouse? Do we tolerate them? The answer he gave is still being given today by the guardians of Enlightenment liberalism: “No opinions contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society, are to be tolerated.”
But the question of which opinions are “contrary to human society” does not answer itself, for if it did, if there were universal agreement on what views were simply beyond the pale, tolerance would be unnecessary. The category of interdicted opinions must be established by an act of authority and power, an act Locke performed later in the tract when he made his own list. He thus made it clear that in the liberal tradition he initiated, tolerance, rather than being a wholly benevolent and inclusive practice, is an engine of exclusion and a technology of regulation.
The triumph of toleration as the central liberal value, and the attendant inability of liberals to see the dark side of their favorite virtue, is the subject of Wendy Brown’s insightful and illuminating new book, Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire (Princeton University Press). Brown sets out to understand “how tolerance has come to be such an important justice discourse in our time.” The “conventional story,” she reports, goes this way: “[T]he combined effects of globalization, the aftermath of the cold war, and the aftermath of colonialism have led to the world’s erupting in a hundred scenes of local and internecine conflict, roughly rooted in identity clashes, and tolerance is an appropriate balm for soothing those conflicts.” In a world where difference seems intractable and irreconcilable, parties are always poised for conflict (Brown notes the Hobbesian antecedents of this picture), tolerance appears to be a “natural and benign remedy”; natural because, given what men and women are (irremediably) like, it seems the only way to go, and benign because while it reins in differences, it accords those difference a space in the private sector. You know the commonplace aphorisms and slogans: Live and let live, different strokes for different folks, can’t we all just get along?
Sounds good, but Brown isn’t having any. Her critique of tolerance challenges the common assumption that the differences the sharp edges of which tolerance is supposed to blunt “took their shape prior to the discourse called on to broker them.” No, she insists, those differences are produced by a regime of tolerance that at the same time produces a status quo politics built on the assumption that difference cannot be negotiated but can only be managed. When difference is naturalized, she explains, it becomes the mark not of an ideological or political divide (in relation to which one might have an argument), but of a cultural divide (in relation to which each party says of the other, “See, that’s just the way they are”). If people do the things they do not because of what they believe, but because they are Jews, Muslims, blacks, or gays, it is no use asking them to see the error of their ways, because it is through those same ways – naturally theirs – that they see at all.. It legitimizes, and even demands, the exercise of intolerance, when the objects of intolerance are persons who, because of their overattachment to culture, are deemed incapable of being tolerant. Live and let live won’t work, we are often told, if the other guy is determined to kill you because he believes that his religion or his ethnic history commands him to. Liberal citizens, Brown explains, will be tolerant of any group so long as its members subordinate their cultural commitments to the universal dictates of reason, as defined by liberalism…Tolerance, then, is a virtue that liberal citizens or those who are willing to act as liberal citizens are capable of exercising; and those who refuse to exercise it cannot, by this logic, be its beneficiary.
It’s ironic that the levers of power in this liberal state, the United States of America, have been wielded by conservatives for nearly forty years now. For most of those years that conservatism was dominated by, branded by, a fundamentalist Christian orthodoxy. Ironic, too, that the liberals’ “favorite virtue,” tolerance, is wielded so deftly against them.
Despite the dominance of that conservative Christian orthodoxy, it was in the last forty years that LGBT people progressed the most, working for and earning a high moral and social standing equal to that of any heterosexual grouping. Still, that high moral and social standing has neither been equally recognized nor codified in law.
It legitimizes, and even demands, the exercise of intolerance, when the objects of intolerance are persons who, because of their overattachment to culture, are deemed incapable of being tolerant. Live and let live won’t work, we are often told, if the other guy is determined to kill you because he believes that his religion or his ethnic history commands him to. Liberal citizens, Brown explains, will be tolerant of any group so long as its members subordinate their cultural commitments to the universal dictates of reason, as defined by liberalism…Tolerance, then, is a virtue that liberal citizens or those who are willing to act as liberal citizens are capable of exercising; and those who refuse to exercise it cannot, by this logic, be its beneficiary.
Nor, according to Brown, are the regulating and stigmatizing effects of tolerance limited to a nation’s relations with foreign states and actors; the liberal state does the same thing to its own citizens, at least to those citizens who, by being identified as the appropriate beneficiaries of tolerance, are at the same time marked as deviant and potentially dangerous. If it is “a basic premise of liberal secularism that neither culture nor religion is permitted to govern publicly,” Brown says, then those Americans who refuse to leave their sectarian beliefs and convictions of core identity at home when they venture into the public sphere – fundamentalist Christians, Orthodox Jews, strongly observant Muslims, gays and lesbians, etc. – must be made to understand that only by relaxing the hold of those personal commitments and promising to act as liberal citizens (rather than as Southern Baptists, Hasidic Jews, or citizens of the Queer Nation) in public spaces will they be welcomed into the fold. Should they resist the requirement to live a double life – apostles of individualism, progress, profit, and secularism in the courthouse and the ballot box, devout upholders of religious and cultural imperatives at home – they will either be tolerated and marked as “other” (the Amish) or made the objects of surveillance and profiling (anyone wearing a turban or a burkha) or detained and perhaps deported.
The state preaches tolerance, but because it has identified tolerance with those who have a certain set of (liberal, secular) beliefs, those who do not display such beliefs and the practices they subtend will be regarded with suspicion and become the “natural” subjects of intolerant actions: From roundups, detention, and deportation of illegal aliens to racial profiling in airport security searches, the state “engages in extralegal and prosecutorial actions toward the very group it calls upon the citizenry to be tolerant toward,” Brown says. Moreover, as she sees it, that is not a contradiction of the tolerance the state proclaims, but an inevitable result of a tolerance that cannot itself tolerate persons or practices that do not respect the boundaries and distinctions – between secular/religious, public/private, mind/body – it presupposes. […]
[T]olerance is the technology or governmentality (a word Brown borrows from Foucault) of an ideology that privileges some values – individual will, autonomy, choice, procedural (not substantive) justice, rationality, freedom of expression, freedom of markets – and stigmatizes or marginalizes others – group loyalty, religious obedience, the law of God, tribal traditions, the national ethos, blood, culture.
Thus we have arrived at a place where — for LGBT people, their friends, good citizens or even the “objective” press — to call ugly hateful homophobia what it is, “bigotry,” is a sign of intolerance. Liberals hoisted on their own petard wielded by conservative Christians.
But what Christian conservatives have to fear is the plain fact that what is now a majority public opinion will soon become a majority political opinion. When that happens their moral view will come to be recognized as immoral and they will be subject to the same hateful abhorrence masked by impossible thinking — “love the sinner, hate the sin” — that has victimized LGBT people for so many years.
A 2007 review from Munira Mirza of London’s Institute of Ideas (not behind a paywall):
From the highest institutions, to the micro-interaction of every day life, Brown’s shows how tolerance has become a regulatory practice that reifies differences and encourages groups to compete for special protection. To practice tolerance of a minority or cultural sub-group is to proclaim one’s own civilised credentials, whilst maintaining that group’s separation and distinction from onself. When tolerance moves from the realm of private virtue to the political stage, it becomes a recipe for intolerance.
…for Brown it is driven by the state, which pursues tolerance as a form of legitimation, at a moment when naked assertion of its own values is near impossible. Brown asserts that this virtue becomes a legitimation practice for the state to enforce its own cultural and legal norms in the guise of liberalism, without ever allowing the normative foundations of such regulation come under scrutiny. Tolerance acknowledges the beliefs and ideas of another group as things to be protected, whilst at the same time distancing them from the norms of the mainstream. Their difference is ‘cultural’ and lacks rational foundation, hence, it is something to accept but not to engage with.
Again, Brown emphasizes tolerance as a tool of the state and, again, I emphasize that the state has been dominated in all of recent memory by culturally conservative forces even as a clear cultural majority has embraced LGBT people. Characters on television and in the movies, in politics and community life, friends, neighbors and colleagues, all evidence the embrace. Court decisions and politicians’ reluctance to act in ways that a clear majority of citizens support evidence the conservative Christian takeover of tolerance. DADT is the clearest recent example; same sex marriage, to a lesser extent, is another.
Mirza on Brown and the circular seductiveness of tolerance:
About midway through the book, Brown’s writing lifts from the dry prose of a political theorist, to a more passionate and lyrical style. She hits a particularly good riff by chapter four, when she discusses the way differences and inequality have become depoliticised in modern society:
The thinner that public life and citizens’ experience with power and difference grows, the more citizens withdraw into private identities and a perception of fellow citizens as tools or obstacles to their private aims, and the more we appear in need of tolerance as a solution to our differences – a solution that intensifies our estrangement from one another and from public life as a field of engagement with difference.
War and conflict are reduced to people’s intolerance, rather than political divisions borne of social relations. Differences are not to be engaged with, challenged or transcended, they are merely to be tolerated and hence left to exist outside the social order. By the same token, Brown points out that tolerance talk undermines a social analysis of why ideas and convictions emerge. People’s views are treated in an essentialist way – as cultural or even natural, and therefore beyond change and debate.
With that I conclude that the framework of tolerance protects a lingering, ugly and loathsome homophobia from full social sanction. Tolerance allows bigots to see themselves as simply exercising the rights and obligations of good citizens. Tolerance helps the largely Christian minority that wants to prevent the extension of full legal and political rights to LGBT people. Worse, it perpetuates hateful, legal discrimination; bullying; and, yes, even the death by suicide of young LGBT people. Tolerance kills. LGBT people don’t need tolerance. What they need, what they want, is liberty and justice for all.