33rd Annual Conference
Instructor of Government
Northern Essex Community College
IN DEFENSE OF INTOLERANCE
The title of this paper may seem very strange. If you bear with me, however, I think you'll see that it's not as harebrained as it first appears. Like the organizers of this conference, I see tolerance in and of itself as a good thing. Like many other Americans, I see the present Administration as intolerant of ideas and practices that differ from their own, whether of the so-called "Axis of Evil" or of critics of the Iraq war. And like trade union leaders, civil rights activists, and antiwar marchers, I see the struggle for democratic rights and liberties -- which includes the idea of tolerance of different values and beliefs -- as key to the restriction of corporate domination, which threatens to turn this country into "America, Inc."
There's another side to tolerance, however, that I would like to explore. (I'm indebted for some of what follows to a celebrated 1965 essay by Herbert Marcuse, "Repressive Tolerance.") The problem, in a nutshell, is that the principle of tolerance was developed as a critical concept to be used against the arbitrary power of despotic government. Though it may seem neutral, it was not: it involved taking a stand against undemocratic forces that were most intolerant of revolutionary ideals. The French Revolution, for example, adopted the motto of "liberty, equality, fraternity." These ideals were directly linked to the notion of citizenship, which meant that all Frenchmen (and women) were to exercise their natural rights in a public arena. While not as radical as his French counterparts, Thomas Jefferson adopted some variant of this philosophy. And the leaders of the American and French revolutions believed in the idea that the citizen was, or could be, rational, that is, capable of intelligent and informed public discussion of the important issues of the day.
Conditions obviously have changed since Jefferson's day. In place of the gentleman farmer, we have the corporate CEO. In place of the ideal of equality (which admittedly was not realized in 18th-century America either), we have an adaptation of Orwell's famous slogan, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." And in place of the citizen, we have the American as consumer. Our role is not to engage in public discussion so much as to buy enough products to keep the economy going. We vote for politicians not because we agree with them but because we like them (Reagan is a good illustration of this point). We may or may not engage in political discussion, which may or may not be rational. Obviously a good deal of the blame for this state of affairs must be laid on the media, which, as Noam Chomsky and others have pointed out, set the parameters within which discussion can take place. Anything seen as too far to the left tends to be marginalized, trivialized, or excluded outright.
Given this picture, my first point would be that tolerance is applied selectively in present-day America. The right and center are tolerated, even encouraged, while the left often assumes a pariah status. The solution to this problem would seem relatively simple: make tolerance universal by opening up the airwaves to radical points of view. I don't disagree with that, but the problem of tolerance is more complicated.
Take the issue of Holocaust denial. As you may know, this is a crime punishable by a jail sentence in France and Germany. Is this defensible? The idea of universal tolerance would seem to rule out punishing someone simply for his or her ideas. Let me set aside the issue of jail, since I happen not to believe in prisons, and ask: should Holocaust denial be tolerated? My feeling -- and here I respectfully disagree with one of my intellectual heroes, Noam Chomsky -- is that it should not be. (In the famous Faurisson affair, Chomsky defended the right to hold even ridiculous views like Holocaust denial essentially on free speech grounds.) In an extremely controversial case some years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union defended the right of American Nazi Party members to march in uniform in Skokie, Illinois. I now want to extend the discussion to an equally sinister group, the Ku Klux Klan. Should they be tolerated?
Going back a number of years, the pioneer director D.W. Griffith made a film in 1915 called The Birth of a Nation, in which, as many of you know, the KKK were heroes. Interestingly enough, just one year later Griffith made a four-part film called Intolerance, excerpts from which I would like to show you now. (These are from Martin Scorsese's Personal Journey Through American Movies, which I highly recommend as a general introduction to cinema.)
A powerful plea for tolerance, wouldn't you say? But there is a fatal contradiction here, since Griffith would extend this tolerance (and more) to the KKK, who were themselves most intolerant of blacks, Jews, Catholics, and God knows who else. Similarly, the Weimar Republic was quite tolerant of the Nazis before they came to power. I would like to argue that in both instances, tolerance was not appropriate. But I'm hardly establishing intolerance as a universal principle. I simply want to refuse it to groups or individuals preaching racial hatred or similarly irrational ideas, or who would use the means of democracy to destroy it.
At this point I must play devil's advocate and point out the danger in my own position. After all, this country went through a period of McCarthyite "witch hunting" in the 1950s. In terms of my argument, wasn't it right to refuse to tolerate Communists?
My answer essentially is no, because Communists -- whatever you might think of them -- believed in racial equality and did not (at least in theory) believe in antidemocratic principles. True, the Soviet Union was not democratic, and Communists defended it, but they did so based on their illusion (or delusion) as to what the Soviet system was all about. (Needless to say, socialists and anarchists did not make this particular mistake, and I'm not excusing the people who did.) Contrary to the anticommunist propaganda films of the '50s, they did not advocate a one-party dictatorship for the United States. (Check out Invasion of the Body Snatchers for a science-fiction view of what a Communist America might look like.)
My second point, then, is that diversity of opinion may not be enough to foster the atmosphere of rational thought and discussion which is essential if democracy is to flourish in America. Something like Marcuse's prescription may be necessary:
" ... 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 [today he would no doubt include gender and sexual orientation], or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc." (Wolff et al, A Critique of Pure Tolerance, Beacon Press, 1965, p. 100.)
This is the aspect of my position that would appall strict civil libertarians. Interestingly enough, however, some of them are no longer so strict. Alan Dershowitz, formerly an unswerving admirer of the Bill of Rights, now favors legalized torture in certain situations. Leaving that aside, Marcuse's idea seems impossible to implement. For one thing, who would decide which policies are rational and which irrational? Do we want to have a philosopher-king, as Plato favored? Such an extreme move may not be necessary. I would like to suggest that Rousseau's concept of the general will may provide the answer. (On Rousseau, see Ernst Cassirer's The Question of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.)
For Rousseau, the general will is essentially a combination of the popular will and the general interest. It is what people would will if they were rational and public-spirited. To put it another way, it represents their real interest as opposed to their apparent interest. In principle, this interest is ascertainable. Just as a doctor can figure out what the patient needs for optimal health, so the people can determine -- if they are not subject to the kind of indoctrination that exists at present -- what the optimal condition of the body politic is. They would then be in a position to implement legislation (for Rousseau, the ideal situation is one of direct democracy) in which the general welfare is realized. As a corollary, one might argue that groups or individuals advocating race hatred or aggression against other countries should not be tolerated.
Finally, it should be noted that given our addiction to nuclear weapons and to at least tolerating aggressive military adventures, the American people would need to confront their own complicity in the war machine. Their intolerance would then extend to aspects of themselves that further these policies. But don't we recommend that alcoholics not tolerate drinking or cigarette smokers withdraw from smoking? It seems that tolerance of everything is not a wise policy. Obviously universal intolerance would be just as bad, if not worse, but that's not the only alternative. If we can agree on nothing else, let's come together around the idea that Americans should refuse to tolerate our reliance on weapons of mass destruction. This may mean going into the depths of what Freud referred to as Thanatos (or the so-called "death instinct"), but so be it. If Freud was correct, not every aspect of ourselves should be tolerated. We rightly impose a taboo against incest, for example, meaning that we don't tolerate it. We should impose a taboo against mass extermination, but unfortunately we tend to do so only against others and not ourselves. Nevertheless, if we tolerate and support what Freud referred to as Eros (the "life instinct") and become intolerant of Thanatos, we will be in a position to restore to the idea of tolerance the liberating character it assumed in the great revolutionary movements of the past.