Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

A Tolerant Fish


The Chronicle’s November 10th issue features a fine Stanley Fish review of Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire by Wendy Brown. Brown advances a Marcusean argument about the systems often unconsciously undergirded by the regime of liberal tolerance. Fish provides an interesting elaboration of the necessary corollaries of “tolerance” that Brown establishes: 

And, she adds, it [“tolerance”] does more than that: 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. But once a group has rejected tolerance as a guiding principle and opted instead for the cultural imperatives of the church or the tribe, it becomes a candidate for intolerance that will be performed in the name of tolerance; and at that moment any action against it — however violent — is justified. 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.
 Yes, all true and interesting, and Fish is approving. The regime of “tolerance” poses conundrums, and necessarily devalues some methods of public discourse. When Brown moves on to solutions, Fish is more critical, and rightly so. His thoughts seem particularly relevant within university spheres, where efforts to resist prevailing conventions tend to be most marked. Are these really steps towards higher tolerance, free from Liberal-Imperialist-Individualist taint? Brown, like so many advocates for novel definitions of tolerance, declares that “we can contest the depoliticizing, regulatory, and imperial aims of contemporary deployments of tolerance with alternative political speech and practices.” Why, surely. Sounds great! Fish provides an elegant unpacking of what this actually entails: 
Alternative political practices are always a possibility, but they will not be generated by the realization that the practices you oppose are regulatory and imperial. Rather, they will be generated by the realization that the regulations and the imperialism now in place take forms you dislike; and the alternative practices you urge will bring new regulations that are similarly imperial; the difference is that they will be yours.


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