The Left and ‘Discriminating Tolerance’

The new cultural politics seeks to shut down debate and close minds.

With the rise of the new intolerance, American public life appears to be trying to exemplify Henry Adams’s claim that politics is “the systematic organization of hatreds.” A vast theoretical and rhetorical infrastructure supports contemporary rage chic. If we hope to understand and eventually defuse the politics of polarized anger, looking to the intellectual sources of this anger is a key step. Herbert Marcuse — academic, political revolutionary, and psychological theorist — holds an important place in the genealogy of outrage culture.

An immigrant from Germany who taught at a number of American universities, Marcuse was a member of the Marxist-influenced Frankfurt School, which wanted to deconstruct Western liberal capitalism. Though he opposed Fascism and contributed to the war effort during World War II, Marcuse believed that the industrialized capitalist democracies of the mid-20th century were themselves fundamentally repressive. He became one of the leading gurus of the New Left, the angry and at times violent Sixties radicals who were in many ways the progenitors of the current “progressive” power elite. Prominent New Leftists associated with Marcuse included the radical academic Angela Davis, and Michael Lerner, a former SDS member whose “politics of meaning” became a Hillary Clinton catchphrase during the Nineties. Marcuse’s students (and students of his students) can be found throughout American higher education today.

Much of modern ‘political correctness’ is really a New Left cultural politics that has made an uneasy peace with material prosperity.

If the agents of the new intolerance ever get around to “deproblematizing,” as they would put it, Mount Rushmore, they might consider adding the visage of Herbert Marcuse to the crags of the Black Hills. Much of modern “political correctness” is really a New Left cultural politics that has made an uneasy peace with material prosperity. (The trajectory of Al Gore — from youthful critic of consumerism to gray-haired centimillionaire — is instructive here.) Marcuse’s work is much more sophisticated and rigorous than the tweets of many of today’s outrage activists, but that only makes it more important to engage with his ideas in order to comprehend the foundations of the Newer Left’s cultural crusade — and to see why this crusade fundamentally fails.

A founding document of the new intolerance, Marcuse’s 50-year-old essay “Repressive Tolerance” levies a radical attack on the conventions of liberal democratic civilization. The main thrust of “Repressive Tolerance” is as follows: The whole of society shapes what is politically possible for each of us, so any discussion of politics must attend to society as a whole. However, from Marcuse’s perspective, Western society as a whole is thoroughly corrupted. His catalogue of horribles includes 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,” and many other things. Marcuse saw Western society as racially polarized, socially segregated, and economically divided. From his perspective, America in 1965 was addicted to war, exploitation, and cultural/sexual oppression. (In his 1955 Eros and Civilization, he considered the breaking of all sexual norms to be a key component of toppling the Western status quo.)

Unlike many of his disciples, Marcuse was frank about what this intolerance would mean: ‘Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.’

Marcuse argued that, because of the radical repressiveness of Western society, a tolerance for all viewpoints actually contributed to social oppression. A pervasive network of assumptions and biases implicitly privileges the viewpoint of the powerful, so that seemingly “equal” presentations of opposite opinions actually end up benefiting the viewpoint of the powerful. He offered the example of a magazine running a piece criticizing the FBI along with one praising the FBI. Fair and balanced? Not so fast, Marcuse said: “the chances are that the positive [story] wins because the image of [the FBI] is deeply engraved in the mind of the people.” Because of social programming, the inhabitants of a given society automatically favor certain values. The ideological playing field’s lack of levelness means that seemingly equal presentations of ideas are not really equal.

In the light of this situation, Marcuse made a rather cunning inversion (one that has been aped countless times since by cultural organs across the United States): The fact that society is so radically unequal means that we should be intolerant and repressive in the name of tolerance and liberty. He rejected what he termed “indiscriminate tolerance” — a tolerance that accepts all viewpoints — in favor of “liberating tolerance” or “discriminating tolerance.” Unlike many of his disciples, Marcuse was frank about what this intolerance would mean: “Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.” When many in the media junked the Bush-era refrain, “Dissent is patriotic,” and began to suggest that dissent during the Obama administration was a product of some unhealthy motivation (especially racism), they were putting into practice Marcuse’s theory of “discriminating tolerance.”

Elsewhere in “Repressive Tolerance,” Marcuse outlined some of the other “apparently undemocratic” tactics that partisans of a true democracy should use. This passage is worth quoting at length, not only because of its explicitness but also because of its prescience:

They would include the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc. Moreover, the restoration of freedom of thought may necessitate new and rigid restrictions on teachings and practices in the educational institutions which, by their very methods and concepts, serve to enclose the mind within the established universe of discourse and behavior — thereby precluding a priori a rational evaluation of the alternatives. And to the degree to which freedom of thought involves the struggle against inhumanity, restoration of such freedom would also imply intolerance toward scientific research in the interest of deadly “deterrents,” of abnormal human endurance under inhuman conditions, etc.

Marcuse’s case for repression — of thought, conscience, speech, and science — in the name of the “right” ideas has apparently persuaded many powerful American cultural organs today. Prominent public figures call for the criminal prosecution (even, potentially, imprisonment) of those who dare to question anthropogenic “climate change”; a person who publicly dissents from some prevailing orthodoxy is to be assailed by online mobs and demonized by major media voices; and government agencies target dissenters with impunity (whether by leaking damaging information about them, unleashing the IRS, or using other means).

Following Marcuse’s lead, our current PC politics is simultaneously collectivist and personal. It is collectivist insofar as belonging to certain collective identity groups grants one ethical privileges denied to others. But PC politics is also personal in that the new intolerance exacts a tremendous personal price from dissenters. It is not enough to argue with ideas: Those who espouse heretical ideas must be destroyed; they must lose their jobs, their reputations, and their places in the public square. The notion of “shaming” to the point of personal destruction seems a principal modus operandi of PC politics.

As a corollary to its collectivist emphases, PC politics also attempts to eliminate the space for ethical debate through fetishizing the idea of identity. One of the major innovations of current advocates of “discriminating tolerance” is the attempt to classify alternative ethical approaches as exercises in animus rather than good-faith attempts to find the truth and to live well. Thus, dissent from the sexual ethics du jour (and the mandarins of the new intolerance have used sexuality as a cultural battering ram) is viewed not as an alternative account of how we should direct our erotic energies but instead as atavistic bigotry. Classifying as bigotry the teachings of, say, the Catholic Church places them beyond the realm of respectable argument. However, trying to silence debate with the cry of “Shut up, you despicable bigot” does not stop with the Catholic Church, owners of small businesses, or the Republican party — as some on the Left are now finding to their chagrin.

In recent months, leftist writers have expressed increasing worry that the mobs of intolerance could target members of the Left. In January, Jonathan Chait wrote a major story for New York magazine warning about the excesses of PC culture. While many on the Left attacked Chait for daring to utter these thoughts (and perhaps thereby illustrated the accuracy of his concerns), others agreed with him about the intellectual dangers of the new rage. Edward Schlosser’s recent viral essay “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me” describes some of the ways in which the new intolerance suppresses the free exchange of ideas on college campuses. Writing from a center-left perspective, Kirsten Powers offers, in The Silencing, a book-length inquiry into the excesses of the far Left. (Guy Benson and Mary Katharine Ham’s The End of Discussion covers this topic from the Right.)

Left-wing cultural politics can dissolve into a (metaphorical) circular firing squad.

The possibility that left-wing cultural politics can dissolve into a (metaphorical) circular firing squad is not some bizarre perversion of “discriminating tolerance” but is a logical extension of it. Under the paradigm of “discriminating tolerance,” only “the Left” is allowed freedom of expression, which causes this kind of tolerance to be highly unstable in practice (and likely in theory, too). After all, who defines what “the Left” is? For a broad-minded democratic politics, who defines the Left remains an interesting intellectual exercise, but the stakes are far more immediate for practitioners of “discriminating tolerance.” For them, defining the Left and the Right determines not just who has political power but who is even allowed to express political opinions.

Marcuse was aware of the need to establish criteria for who is and who is not tolerated. However, his answer in many ways came down to the refrain adopted by many in the “reality-based community”: because science! He found that deciding who gets to speak is “not a matter of value-preference but of rational criteria.” He insisted multiple times that it is possible to determine empirically exactly what counts as sufficiently “progressive.” Those who are sufficiently “rational,” Marcuse implied, ought to use their power to harry, suppress, and attack those who are not similarly elevated.

It is telling here that “Repressive Tolerance” combines two of the central tendencies of the contemporary Left: incendiary cultural politics and a technocratic presumption of certainty. One of the foundational myths of the modern “progressive” culture war is that “progressives” have determined the course of moral history and therefore have the right and the duty to crush any dissenting “reactionaries.” The PC culture war applies to cultural affairs the technocratic will to power: Cultural mandarins in universities, think tanks, and the legacy media will decide how we should speak and how we should conceive of ethics, and the benighted citizenry should follow their enlightened commands.

Technocratic principles reinforce this cultural zealotry. Marcuse chose the rhetoric of science instead of “value-preference” because value preferences are up for debate — science isn’t (well, science! as a political totem isn’t up for debate; real science is all about debate). And the goal of PC politics is to shut down debate.

With this machinery of pseudo-science, PC cultural politics has, like Frankenstein, created a monster it cannot control. Originally, many on the Left used “discriminating tolerance” to harangue those accursed cultural and political conservatives, but political debates are intramural as well as intermural. Factions jockey for power within a given political group, and various factions within the Left can and do use weaponized intolerance against one another. PC politics pits feminist against genderqueer activist, ethnic group against ethnic group, and one economic class against another. The politics of terror is inherently unstable, because every group and every ambitious person within each group will have an incentive to excommunicate others from respectable society. Moreover, the powerful as well as the weak can carry the banner of selective intolerance, so that cultural politics often leads not to rigorous critique but instead to the greedy consolidation of power.

This fundamental incoherence casts light on how modern PC culture manages to be both extremely bland and excruciatingly paranoid. For instance, campus angst activists seek to turn our universities into zones where everything from Ovid to Huck Finn is verboten. Social shaming sites like Your Fave Is Problematic inveigh against dreadlocks, literalize satire, and tremble at cross-cultural tattoos. The fact that some believe that Your Fave Is Problematic may be satirical only further illustrates the dead end of shame culture; even outrage advocates can’t quite tell where parody begins and ends for their politics.

People across the political spectrum have increasingly come to recognize the narrow-minded viciousness of the new politics of intolerance, shame, and opprobrium.

If everything but self-important criticism becomes problematic, we are left with either an all-against-all culture war or endless cultural Muzak. Elevator music has no profanity, does not offend, and demands little attention. But a musical universe incorporating Mozart, Stravinsky, Charlie Parker, and Regina Spektor is far richer and more exciting. Since, in a PC world, the virtuous have the right to make the fallen shut up, and those who run afoul of the ever-shifting standards of the righteous risk having their lives destroyed, a roving fear anesthetizes culture and leaves us with tedious sermons rather than serious artistic creation or searching cultural dialogue. Cultural philistinism is not the sole province of the Left, of course, but left-wing philistines have had more cultural influence than right-wing ones in recent years.

Postmodern “discriminating tolerance” makes our public affairs more acrimonious because it suggests that an authentic debate is illegitimate. This kind of politics asserts that history has only one direction (ever to the left) and that the only valid kind of conversation is one that goes in that direction. But a one-way conversation isn’t really a conversation, and the attempt to flatten the richness of human life to a single directional arrow leads to a caricature of justice.

People across the political spectrum have increasingly come to recognize the narrow-minded viciousness of the new politics of intolerance, shame, and opprobrium. A shift to a more inclusive and expansive kind of tolerance could be a way out of the cul-de-sac of political rage. This alternative cultural politics would recognize human partiality and inherent dignity. It would say that we should be free to challenge opinions and values, but that we should be wary of visiting punishment on individuals because of their opinions and values. Inclusive tolerance would invite rigorous debates about ethics and human nature as a way of enriching our understanding of ourselves.

This alternative approach has a long pedigree in the Anglo-American tradition. The 17th-century Puritan Roger Williams, for instance, appealed to the idea of tolerance out of a respect for human limitations and a recognition of inherent individual dignity. In The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, Williams argued that each person has the right to follow his or her own creed and that using force to compel individual conscience was a form of “soul rape.” Because we do not have absolute knowledge of God’s plan and because of the inherent value of each person, Williams called for a broad cultural tolerance, in which all creeds would be welcomed into the public square. This tolerance would not be moral nihilism (it is not, after all, denying the legitimacy of moral truths) but rather the cultivation of a sense of modesty and mutual respect.

This form of tolerance would not resolve our public disagreements for us. Questions about economic structures, sexual ethics, personal identity, and political participation would remain very much up for grabs. Rather than the authoritarian imposition of self-righteous assumptions, inclusive tolerance would pave the way for a more integrated and enriched public square. Because it is based on the inherent legitimacy of the individual, this mode of tolerance would not lose its way in the fray of collectivist identity politics. Inclusive tolerance supports a person’s freedom of conscience not because that person belongs to a given group — but because he or she breathes.

The Left has no monopoly on weaponized intolerance, and the recent heightening of cultural intolerance is another instance of the way that those who thirst for power also often crave the ability to ward off critiques of their use of power. As the history of the 20th century shows, programmatic perfectionistic agendas often try to crush those whose ideas complicate the pristine vision of utopia. A politics of tolerance would recognize the messiness and imperfections of our lives in this world, but it would also allow us to search for and to defend virtue, justice, and happiness.

— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.



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