On Intolerant “Tolerance:” How To Play The “My Liberalism is Bigger Than Yours” Game

One cannot deny the importance of tolerance in the modern political landscape. In the last quarter century since the civil rights movement and the inauguration of the post-1960s neo-liberal theory, tolerance has become a preeminent political value – an essential rhetorical saber. Now, all politic thinkers are convinced that we need “it” – and probably more of “it” – but, like so much political dissent, we aren’t in agreement about what “it” actually is.

What incited me to write this essay was a realization of the obvious; that the anointed “open-minded,” the self-styled tolerant, most of whom exist on the political left, are amongst the least tolerant group I have ever encountered. In fact, they are resoundingly, plainly and unflinchingly intolerant. They haven’t a modicum of tolerance for those who are epithetically labeled “closed-minded” – for the “intolerant,” “judgmental” “religious right.” They engage in duplicitous moral classification; batting startling epithets like “Nazi” around with the casualness of a backyard badminton game. They regularly shout conservatives, and conservative-minded people, off of stages and out of debates. Myself and many others can speak of numerous personal encounters of this sort, not to mention the more famous and public brouhahas experienced by the likes of Dinesh D’Souza, Linda Chavez, Thomas Sowell, Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, and many more. They will not tolerate challenges to their orthodoxy. In short, they can tolerate anyone except for people who cannot tolerate them.

Having experienced this attitude for essentially my entire life – having fought high school teachers and college professors for grades and respect, having been shouted at and demonized at casual parties and bars, having lost friends – I have naturally wondered about this irony for some time. Sociologist Daniel Bell has said that it is not “the ideas held by individuals but the way they are held” that is of central importance. This is certainly true. Radicals and extremists on all sides of political issues have a way of being mocking, angry, and intolerant whenever dissent is encountered. These people certainly have problems of temperament that go hand in hand with their ideas, whatever those ideas are.

But, I believe that there is more to it than “temperament.” The crux of this essay is simple; tolerance is a moral position. This is probably exceedingly obvious to many. However, for the “tolerant” and the “open-minded,” the people whom stroke these self-adulations with masturbatory fervor, tolerance is not seen as a moral position, but rather a position that is about moral positions. Others have moral positions, be they Christian, Islamic, new age, Scientologist, animistic or hedonistic. The world is fraught with competing moral ideas, it is the job of The Tolerant to accept all of these positions – to not naysay, countermand and tell others that they are wrong. “Who are they to say who is wrong?” In this interpretation, tolerance doesn’t compete with, say, Christianity, it supersedes it, overrides it. And, because tolerance isn’t in competition with other moralities, no argument is needed and dissent has turned into heresy. The result is a special brand of elitism. Through this combination of ideas tolerance has become a mantra, an ideological idol-worship. In this form, however, tolerance is just a Golden Calf.

But having said this about one form of tolerance I am left with the onus of defining a workable form of a highly desirable value. Make no mistake, I am completely for tolerance. I believe that the growth of toleration by the western world is one of the most incredible achievements of modern society. But, I also believe that the modern left, the “closed-minded liberals,” whom are the self-appointed guardians of an open-minded society of acceptance, have become that society’s biggest enemies.

How Did We Get Here?

Tolerance. I run into the concept constantly, as if my life was lived in a house with low door frames that I occasionally slam straight into without looking. Usually I am “intolerant,” but occasionally I am “too tolerant.” Either way, I seem to walk a gossamer thread strong across a minefield of epithets.

Being on the political right clearly doesn’t help. Like plague infected bodies catapulted over medieval battlements, “intolerant,” or better yet “closed-minded,” are monikers that are always launched across the political ramparts and quickly infect all surrounding warriors. Political epithets work that way – they cross-infect and spread like contagions. Being identified as on “the right” leads me to spend most of my time fending off epithetic diseases originally contracted by the likes of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. It grows quite tiresome.

Generally, I expect to contract such shibboleths and thus try to preemptively vaccinate myself against them. This usually takes the place of opening provisos; “I’m not a racist but…,” or the ever-present “I am not intolerant but…” I am reminded of the famous Seinfeld “Not that there is anything wrong with that” episode. I suspect these are the kinds of overly tactful headings that one should begin every sentence spoken to Jesse Jackson.

When it comes to believing others are wrong, or any level of non-acceptance, we have come to a point where we perpetually abstain. This is at least true with the current generation whose youthful exuberance is typified by the idealistic liberalism that the youth of any time constantly exude. However, this time around – this post civil-rights, post-Vietnam, post-sexual revolution, post-1960s radicalism age – we find that youthful liberalism is of a different ilk.

Classical liberalism has been traded in for multicultural “tolerance.” For many current “liberals” history demanded this change. It was “Classical Liberalism,” the belief in the sanctity of individuals’ rights to dissent from orthodoxy and the existence of positive rights such as the freedom of speech – the liberalism promoted by Locke, Rousseau, Mill, and others – that had perpetuated the injustices of U.S. history. Within this view, Classical Liberalism was simply conservative intolerance dressed to the nines. Something new was needed.

The emergence of the new left in the 1960s from the ivy walls of college campuses created this new view of “tolerance” – the one that has now become central to modern politics, the one that cannot be challenged without a fury of name-calling, the intolerant “tolerance.”

It isn’t a coincidence that the emergence of critical, revisionist histories and its subsequent fusion with current educational pedagogy arose concurrently with the new preeminence of tolerance. Since the 1960s American history has been redressed and re-stylized. Don’t get me wrong, much of the wave of revisionist history has certainly shed light on essential facts. We certainly do have a dark history of racism, bigotry, sexism, classism, etc. However, with this class of radical new leftists emerging from the campus and talking over Hollywood and journalism the wheels of the hegemony machine began turning in their favor. Heterodoxy became orthodoxy. Intolerant “tolerance” became the new liberalism.

The 1950s – the decade immediately preceding the miraculous, enlightening, civilizing, illuminating, and spontaneously consciousness-raising (how many words do I have to use before my facetiousness is clear?) 1960s – now carries with it a whitewash of general condemnation. As much as the 60s are praised, the 50s are lambasted – as if there is no connection and that the two decades only happen to be sequential.

In many ways, the 50s exist as the paradigm of conservatism in the popular mind. In the 50s we were innocent, ignorant, intolerant and patriotic – just how those damn conservatives want us to be. Our dogs saved us from the perils of the ol’ abandoned mine, kids responded to sudden shocks with phrases like “gee whilikers!”, and an entire nation watched a character named “the Beaver” parade across their televisions without any hint of stifled chuckles. Men and women knew their places; Mom prepared dinner in her finest high-heels and pearls whilst Father donned the starkest, most understated conservative suit and hat to bring sustenance home to his happy brood. Good and evil were clear as black and white. Blacks and Whites were as clear as evil and good. No one was hungry, poor or discriminated against.

This is what conservatism is. This is what it wants – Dean Martin crooning while teenagers slow-dance with their hips apart. Doris Day, Fess Parker and John Wayne. A world where Rock Hudson is a chiseled-jaw All-American man, not a life-long closet homosexual who died of AIDS. I am certainly being hyperbolic here but clearly speaking some level of truth. If you are a leftist and reading this you most likely, somewhere in your head, have somewhat equated these images РRepublicanism/conservatism with the iconic imagery of the 1950’s.

This was the yolk Classical Liberalism had given us. A new liberalism was needed.
Where they were wrong we would be right. Where they were ignorant we would be enlightened. Where they were conservative we would be liberal.

Way liberal. Hugely liberal. Magnanimously liberal. The kind of liberalism that makes you want to throw your arms around the world and give it a huge kiss on the lips – possibly with some tongue. “You think you’re liberal? Wait till you see me. My liberalism is so much bigger than yours.” And so the game was set.

Where We Are Now

I like to call them “closed-minded liberals;” although this classification is obviously biased. Also, this classification is clearly stretching for a paradoxical bon mot; a witty irony playing off the “well-known” fact that to be liberal is to be open-minded (of course!) and to be conservative is to be closed-minded (of course!). It is unfortunately true, however, these simplistic and reductive qualifications receive all too much credence.

We probably all know a “closed-minded liberal,” if not two or three. Passion and idealistic fury float around them like mist around a waterfall. Snide under breath comments, sounding like a whisper but feeling like a shout, are subtly peppered into the conversation. These responses can be elicited by saying the president’s name, invoking a reverence for Christ, commenting on abortion, or perhaps for no discernible reason at all. Mention the new Wal-Mart that is be built down the street and you may get a full out diatribe. They are often staunch activists; “cause-heads” who latch on to any protest, picket, sit-in, rally, walk-for, run-for, or wear-a-ribbon issue that demonstrates their moral stature.

But they are open-minded. To think that any part of their mind is closed, that any line has been drawn that cannot be crossed, that any possible person is morally wrong, is to seriously jeopardize their self-image. They are tolerant and kind, not intolerant and hating like the “religious right.”

They treat the world’s religions with a conciliatory pomposity. Rather than treating the theological debates as actual and giving difference in religious belief the gravity it deserves, they ride rough-shod over the differences in the name of some ill-conceived new-age quasi-Unitarianistic philosophy.

They ride over and above all of this relativistic conflation because they are not judgmental. “Who am I to judge?” To be judgmental is to be closed-minded (of course!). They, as previously stated, are open-minded (of course!). They hold the curious moral belief that nothing is wrong except to believe other people are wrong.

Eventually they become engaged in a toleration-arms-race; a game of constant moral one-upping called “My Liberalism is Bigger Than Yours.” During this arms race the only thing guaranteed all the players is the mutually-assured-destruction of moral-supremacy – the inevitability that they will continue to “grow” their liberalism, continue to move to the left, and eventually have only a small coterie of like-minded friends surrounding them.

This is, of course a description of only a small group of leftists. But, due to my youth and circle of friends, it is a group that with which I am quite familiar. However, mainstream liberals share much of these qualities. Whenever any conservative uses the word “evil” the entire Democratic Party goes into a paroxysm of relativistic rage. They decry the simplicity, ignorance and intolerance of anyone who would so flippantly use such a starkly critical word.

So, What is Tolerance?

As I previously stated, tolerance is a moral position. Therefore, like all moral positions, “tolerance” is in competition with other moral positions, not shooting above them in a flying buttress-like arch that supports the entire structure. Moral positions are only coherent and meaningful insofar as they write people into the wrong. This type of mandate must be embraced, not eschewed in the name of taking the moral high-ground.

What truly distinguishes tolerance is one‚Äôs ability to deal with those whom you starkly disagree. By this measure such closed-minded liberals severely fail the test. Conservatives, Republicans, religious quasi-theocrats such as Jerry Falwell are the test for the tolerance of the “open-minded” left. Trying to understand such disputants, why they are wrong and you are right, can only build your respect for them. Respecting a contrary opinion, despite believing it to be incorrect, is the high-water mark for toleration.

I have spent a very large amount of time trying to understand the positions of those with whom I disagree. Centrally, this includes Leftism and Christianity. My research has only solidified why I am right and “they” are wrong. But it has also strengthened my respect and appreciation of the beliefs and the believers.

Egalitarianism is a presupposition of competition. You compete with those whom are on the same level – at least in a broad sense. Division 1-A colleges play other colleges from the same level. Although the teams may be wildly unequal in talent the supposition of equality remains essential. The view accompanying intolerant “tolerance” – the view that tolerance isn’t a moral position like other moral positions but rather is a position about other moral positions – is a non-competitive, non-egalitarian view. The job of the truly tolerant person is not unlike the job of two opposing football teams: strengthen your side, understand the other side, and meet on a level playing field in which both sides respectfully play according to the rules.

To continue this analogy: the intolerant “tolerant” do not see themselves as a competing team, but rather a league administrative body overseeing the competition. And, as Mike Williams and Maurice Clarett proved, you can’t fight the league. Through my numerous encounters with “closed-minded liberals” I have also discovered that you can’t fight them, they won’t put up with it. But, in the question of moral positions, there is no league, just competing theories and ideas.

In order to be tolerant you must understand that you will not and cannot accept everyone. As many philosophers have noted (i.e. John Rawls in Political Liberalism and numerous of the founding fathers in writings such as the Federalist Papers) this is one of the central challenges of a liberal society. These eminent thinkers also showed that you do not solve this problem by being intolerant; you solve it by having a better argument.

But, in the end, this essay will have little effect on any person of the sort it is written about. If they have made it this far they are probably fuming mad; prepared to write acerbic fusillades in the commentary section. “You aren’t tolerant you ignorant f**k, you are just another stupid Republican trying to justify a world where the Rich and the White rule over the Poor and the Black. Your long winded bullshit makes me sick.” I expect as much. In doing so, the subjects of this essay suddenly come into plain view. Such diatribes only serve to buttress the point of this essay – a more fitting closing than I could ever write.

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5 Responses to On Intolerant “Tolerance:” How To Play The “My Liberalism is Bigger Than Yours” Game

  1. Friend says:

    If I agreed I would have to reconsider everything … so I’ll disagree.

    Most people on the left are irritating, no doubt. Why? Most people know jack about squat. They can’t tell their Isaih Berlin from their Noam Chomsky. Of course they attempt debate and the whole thing becomes rather messy.

    However, the Republicans and their friends the Neo-Cons are shouted down by anyone who claims to support any notion of ‘democracy’ because these are currently the people who advocate a ‘democracy or die’ situation. Capitalism or the grave. Some may feel that is not a bad thing. Fine. I’m not judging.

    If you want to come back and say ‘some republicans did not supprt the work on Afghanistan or Iraq’ it simply won’t work as the diatribe you so neatly typed up a) homogenises the tolerant to an ‘intolerant ‘tolerant” b) we are talking about a general consensus, i.e. more than 50% of republican’s are keen on the war in Iraq.

    Having said that I still have to say that I think that you are more than correct to pick up on the intolerance of the supposedly tolerant. However, the points you make are mundane beyond belief. Furthermore, to pick up on the inconsistencies, idiocies of others does not, ipso facto, make you right.

    I think there is a lot to be said about the supposedly liberal and tolerant who have now created a ‘tolerance industry’: week breaks in africa to help children with AIDS, fairtrade tea -pay an extra 1 cent and you can have a caffeine hit with a clear conscience -, the fact that they can confront the other only as victim never as an equal … plenty more to be said but I don’t feel this is the forum.

    I am slightly surprised also by how completely defensive you are about being on the right (quite a bit to the right as well!). Remember, the right has a mandate in the USA now. You Yanks didn’t have enough of it in the 80s and early 90s with Reagan bombing the hell out of anything remotely resembling a South American, Bush senior and Dan Quail (how do you spell potatoe again?), you will now have 8 years of Bush junior. So what’s the persecution complex about. You and your right wing buddies have an even bigger network of right wing buddies to join.

    I think if you feel persecuted being a republican thank the lord that you are not black or brown, then you might have a real reason to feeling persecuted!

  2. Thank you, I appreciate your comments. They were perceptive.

    A few things:

    First, I am not a Republican, (although I do vote that way but that has to do with the realities of American politics) I am a libertarian. This may quibble over conflated details to you, but the distinction is important to me. I am, in no way, socially conservative. I would describe myself as “right wing” economically, but I do not think that term applies to me in general. The term and those whom fall under that umbrella are quite unlike me. But, to each his own on these classifications. The reference is certainly relational. I may be “right wing” to you.

    Second, the problem I wrote about is much much bigger than the current “war on terrorism” in Iraq and elsewhere. In fact, I can honestly say that such issues didn’t enter my head when I wrote the article. These issues are more endemic to the New Left and its reaction to the so-called Neo-cons. This reaction has been going on for quite some time.

    Third, I am sorry if my comment were mundane. It was not meant to be a piece that would break the bank of political/social theory; it was designed to be a readable, personal and interesting discussion of something I have wondered about for some time.

    Fourth, “Furthermore, to pick up on the inconsistencies, idiocies of others does not, ipso facto, make you right.” This is absolutely true. The article tried to point out such inconsistencies in the first part, and was therefore an argument against the position stated. No argument against a position makes another position true, unless the two positions are clearly and distinctly mutually exclusive – that there is no alternative except the two in question. However, seeing how the real world is filled with almost no instances of such “two alternative” situations this rarely happens. In the latter part of the argument I try to explain a positive, constructive view of my attitude toward tolerance. True, this discussion could merit a more complete, philosophical and analytical treatment but I chose not to do so here.

    “I think there is a lot to be said about the supposedly liberal and tolerant who have now created a ‚Äòtolerance industry‚Äô”

    I like this comment a lot. If you ever feel like saying more about this on this site, feel free to do so.

    Finally, I wouldn’t say that I am “completely defensive” about being on the right. However, since the piece was, in some measure, about being attacked I was naturally on the defensive. Furthermore, if you could read some of the vituperative comments lumped onto some of my past essays you may understand my desire to be preemptively defensive. Also as I have tried to state, my youth, my circle of friends and some of the “scenes” I am involved in (i.e. hipster, indierocking musician types) lead me to be somewhat defensive about my politics. Hell, I also attended CU Boulder, which isn’t exactly Bob Jones University.

    Again, thanks, hopefully I will “see” you around the site.

  3. Friend says:

    Firstly, I find the distinction between economics and politics problematic. In economics there is always a politics and politics has always had an economy. Things are interdependant.

    Secondly, is there anything bigger than the ‘war on terrorism’? I think not. The point Bush makes is that in one form or another everyone is implicated in this war. Even the Congon pygmie bushmen. But i think it’s claim to universiality is what renders it utterly meaningless. But I don’t think there is a point outside the war on terror. Bush has been reading his continental theory and realises that power has a macro and much more importantly a micro-physics. I.e. it’s everywhere.

    It was mundane in the sense that there are plenty of idiots on the left and plenty on the right and plenty who chose not to categorise themselves. For me it is interesting to note not only the inconsistencies and lunacies of a group but to look at some of the damage they have commited. The left is no less guilty than the right. Go to any poor country and note the NGO invasion, companies like Shell and BP are increasingly becomming less and less of a problem, it’s your NGOs that are increasingly the killers. They deplete nations of their most valuable assets (i.e. promising ‘natives’) and have no idea of the practicalities of a country, for example. A big heart is all it takes. Supposedly.

    I think the right in general have been much more on the defensive since Mr Moore became the great patron saint of all morality and goodness. But I believe the right has always been on the defensive. The fear of the ‘black man’, has that actually gone away? not at all. Now the brown man is the devil. At every point since WW2 the right has always had something that was threatening ‘their way of living’. The Communists, the South Americans, the niggers, the muslims, the man down the street who sells carpet. The world is a scary place but I think most Americans forget how much more terrifying a place the world is because of it. The policies that enrage vast populations around the world, currently, are those fashioned and produced by the right (neo-cons!). It’s rather tough to be sympathetic to a right that in general is unsympathetic, full-stop.

  4. Rob Shew says:

    The right being on the defensive is more a think with fanatics no matter what their ideology. Communist fear the capitalist, Islamic fundamentalist fear the US, Michael Moore fears conservatives and Ann Coultar fears liberals. It probably makes a fanatic swallow even more of their ideology. You can probably pick any large country at any period and find some scape goat common enemy uniting people. Racism, Nationalism and any other fanaticism are far from being just American right wing qualities.

  5. Rob Shew says:

    I forgot to include this but: I date a girl that was into the art sceen crowd and me being a fun loving laid back guy, or from her friends view a “redneck”. I can defenitly feel where Trevor is comming from. I voted for Bush and I don’t like being stereotyped, I don’t hate gays and I don’t think Iraq was that great of an idea. If I say something like “I like guns,” it would usually be assumed I am a homophobic warmonger. So I usually stay quiet about things and may be defensive too.

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