Herbert Marcuse advocated “discriminating tolerance,” a concept that I critiqued at National Review Online in June 2015. Only some viewpoints should be tolerated, Marcuse contended. This “discriminating tolerance” would, as he put it, “mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.” For the sake of true tolerance and of liberation of the human spirit, tolerance would be withdrawn from viewpoints that Marcuse considered harmful. His work and that of other members of the Frankfurt School has been greatly influential in politically correct culture and campus politics. The unrest at Middlebury College last week might be seen as a violent apotheosis of the teachings of “discriminating tolerance.”
In a recent issue of the academic journal New Political Science, Bryant William Sculos and Sean Noah Walsh take issue with my (and others’) critique of Marcuse, offering a Marcusian defense of student protests at Rutgers, the University of Missouri, Yale, and elsewhere. Their essay, “The Counterrevolutionary Campus,” is an instructive example of the application of Marcuse’s argument to recent campus controversies, and it provides a helpful lens for viewing both the limits of his model of tolerance and the stakes involved. (To be clear: Sculos and Walsh wrote their article before the events at Middlebury and do not comment on them.)
Defending Marcuse’s “discriminating tolerance,” Sculos and Walsh argue that “conservative and reactionary elements have distorted” it by characterizing it “as a categorical attack on free speech,” the views of conservatives and “reactionaries” being “frequently predicated on aggression, sexual repression, and discrimination.” The authors take issue particularly with my claim that Marcuse’s approach to tolerance makes a “case for repression — of thought, conscience, speech, and science.” What’s striking about their argument is that, to refute my claim, they use the same passage from Marcuse that I used to justify it. Discriminating tolerance, that passage reads,
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.
Sculos and Walsh try to discount the anti-liberal implications of this viewpoint by arguing that Marcuse here is calling for the repression only of “those thoughts and words that promote destruction, bigotry, racism and deprivation. Any science repressed is that which is geared toward developing technologies of war, environmental catastrophe and human exploitation.”
However, Marcuse’s criteria for repression may be far broader, and far more open to abuse, than Sculos and Walsh might think. After all, the question of which “thoughts and words” really promote “destruction, bigotry, racism and deprivation” is itself a topic for debate. Many opponents of abortion, for instance, might argue that support for legal abortion is a movement in favor of the destruction of human life. Conversely, feminist defenders of abortion might argue that opposition to abortion is a form of bigotry against women. Or take racial preferences. Some might argue that state-sponsored racial preferences extend racism and bigotry; others see contemporary racial preferences as an anti-racist remedy to the legacy of racism.
To note these disputes is not an invitation to nihilism or a suggestion that there are no right answers to the questions. But the controversies do suggest that, on many important issues, there is not an immediately obvious, universally agreed-on viewpoint. Serious people have taken diametrically opposed positions on significant moral issues. A repression of science that leads to technologies with military applications could also be quite broad; a huge range of technologies can be put to military use, and many military technologies have profound civilian applications. So a suppression of technology that could be used for martial ends would risk radically limiting technological research in general.
And so Marcuse’s model of “discriminating tolerance” can easily lead either to chaos or to mandarinism. In the former case, all public debate breaks down because groups with radically different worldviews justify not tolerating the viewpoints of their philosophical opponents. So supporters of legalized abortion would try to shout down, and otherwise withdraw toleration from, opponents of it, and opponents would do the same to supporters. Society would divide into tribes and have self-righteous screaming as a constant soundtrack.
For all Marcuse’s criticism of ‘authoritarianism,’ his ‘discriminating tolerance’ could lend itself to rule by technocrats, who would determine which viewpoints should and should not be tolerated.
In the case of mandarinism, an elect sect would determine what viewpoints promote destruction, bigotry, deprivation, and so forth. The contrary, “liberated” viewpoints, held by the Marcusian elite, would be formulated at the commanding heights of culture and disseminated downward. For all Marcuse’s criticism of “authoritarianism,” his “discriminating tolerance” could lend itself to rule by technocrats, who would determine which viewpoints should and should not be tolerated. There are technocratic resonances in Marcuse’s own argument that there are purely “rational” and “empirical” criteria for determining the bounds of “tolerable” expression.
Marcuse’s model of discrimination might be contrasted with the expansive view of a figure like Roger Williams, who championed tolerance for all viewpoints. Expansive tolerance has its grounding in intellectual modesty and personal charity — in the recognition that different people might arrive at different answers to central ethical questions. This model of tolerance enables people to avoid rabid acrimony and rule by technocrats; recognizing the legitimacy of a diversity of views makes disagreement a cause for debate rather than denunciation. Expansive tolerance is inherently decentralized because it resists the claim of a narrow worldview to determine what should and should not be tolerated. This tolerance does not deny the legitimacy of deeper ethical principles but recognizes human limitation in understanding them.
The violence at Middlebury underlines the importance of an expansive model of tolerance. One longstanding goal of education is to foster in students an awareness of their intellectual limitations so that they can know what they do not know and can recognize the limits of their own perspective. If the university is to be a place of rigorous debate, it cannot afford an intellectual model in which those who hold dissenting viewpoints are immediately deemed deplorable and excommunicated. To shout down a speaker is one way to use freedom of speech, but it is directed toward an illiberal end: drowning out the expression of an individual. Such an effort is at odds with the kind of serious debate that used to be considered an ideal for higher education. Fortunately, a declaration of intellectual principles signed by many faculty members at Middlebury shows that the ideal has not been entirely forgotten.
A further practical point is worth raising. Many who attend schools like Middlebury are scions of wealth and privilege. The median family income of a Middlebury student is $244,300 a year. Many students at Middlebury and other elite institutions are being groomed for positions of great power in the United States and across the globe. Those who aspire to power should learn how to tolerate those with whom they disagree. An elite populated by members swaddled in self-righteousness is more likely to abuse and disregard the weak and less likely to govern well, because it will block its ears to rigorous debate and dissenting opinion. Any institution that purports to educate the future leaders of America has an obligation to inculcate modesty, curiosity, and tolerance in its students.
Ironically, Marcuse argued for “discriminating tolerance” because he believed that the social-cultural deck was stacked in favor of certain powerful forces: A set of interlocking beliefs and practices reinforce their power, and so, for the liberated minority to be heard, those viewpoints that support the dominant paradigm should be discriminated against. However, if the objective is to craft vehicles of resistance to authority, teaching wealthy college students at prestigious universities to shut down their ideological opponents seems a counterproductive tactic. Within a few years, some of these students will themselves be in positions of influence. It is unwise to train them in the habits of grinding down dissenters. Self-interest is a powerful force, and a mind trained in crushing those who disagree is one that can use that skill not for the achievement of noble ideals but for egotism, vanity, and avarice.
The current crisis in our public debates is a sign that we need to return anew to the virtues of charity and modesty. That recovery will entail the deferral of utopian schemes and a recognition of the way the human condition combines great dignity with real limitation. We need a model of tolerance that recognizes that simultaneously exalted and fallen state. For that task, Marcuse’s “discriminating tolerance” falls short.