The New Discourse on Tolerance

Tolerance is nearly unanimously lauded as a noble and transcendental virtue, a mode of conduct for dealing with various cultural, ethnic and religious differences. While this view of tolerance has a long standing tradition in classical and contemporary liberal thought, it often ignores the processes that develop, reproduce and create liberal social subjects, their speech, behavior, and conduct.

There is no single school of thought that has challenged this way of critiquing tolerance projects in a concerted manner, rather, there are a wide range of thinkers who offer distinct critiques from within the liberal tradition, as well as outside of liberalism. The way in which liberal theory has advocated and defended projects of tolerance has come into sharper question with the rise of larger social and political changes, most obviously being the rise of intensive ethno-political conflict, the academic and institutional spread of multiculturalism and the general decline of the enlightenment narrative.

This paper will focus on the role of liberal toleration in the contemporary milieu of the abandonment of political and solidarity-based social solutions such as the welfare state, and socialist projects. What Wendy Brown and Slavoj Zizek have argued, amongst others, is that this retreat of solidarity-based solutions has resulted in the depoliticization of civic life, and the “culturaliziaton of politics.” This often elusive linkage between the politicizing of culture and the depoliticizing of civic life has resulted in the subordination of equality and social justice projects into a new network of institutional forces that contribute to the depoliticization of civic life itself.

This paper will explore liberal toleration from two domains, firstly as a form of state power, or governmentality arising within a series of totalizing processes of power and disciplining of social life. The second aspect examined is the deployment of toleration as connected to a lineage of liberal theory itself, revolving around the management of particular identities in the realm of the universal. This paper is inspired by debate amongst a broad range of thinkers who critique the liberal political operation of toleration. Most of these critiques have fallen back on the Marxist symptomal critique most commonly waged against false universalism, or the idea that toleration is a strategy similar to imperialism connected to western liberal domination waged by the bourgeoisie in their cultural hegemony over the non western or liberal other. What this paper will argue is that false universality follows a particular logic, built into liberal theory itself, and that these internal tendencies further delude honest attempts on behalf of liberals to criticize tolerance as a form of false universalism and power. A recommendation to counter the deadlock of this logic is to create new civic strategies to counter the hegemonic societal and state-controlled modes of toleration that have arisen in the wake of post political society, as well as new civic institutional strategies.
Furthermore, a new and re-politicized engagement of otherness stripped of the ramparts of this power-laden discourse needs to be advocated. With the absence of liberal left wing projects, tolerance itself is transformed from a discourse imbued with a noble mode of conduct to one of an overall letdown feeling. This mode of tolerance has become imbued with a compromised and despairing discourse. Much work can be done at both the theoretical and the civic level to contest, challenge, and even renegotiate this discourse and ultimately repoliticize liberal ideas and society.

In its contemporary variation, tolerance as a discourse is triggered when privatization of difference cannot be maintained. By examining tolerance deployment through the lens of governmentality, we are exposed to tolerance from a vantage point that recognizes internal processes as more significant than external causes. Where tolerance formerly circulated via the state-church separation, it is now employed via civil society: schools, museums, neighborhood associations. This transfer of tolerance from the domain of belief into the domain of identity as mediated through institutions whereby ones beliefs and consciousness are assumed to generate from the inner truth of that individuals race, culture, religion or ethnicity is the primary phenomenon of tolerance as governmentality.

Tolerance as Governmentality

In his formulation of governmentality as a state-based strategy of biopower, Michel Foucault draws upon the relative decline of the enlightenment narrative that places man as a universal creature only contingently divided by ethnicity, culture or race. While more on this linkage will be explored below, it is important to incorporate governmentality as it operationalizes the inner machinations of tolerance deployment in civil society. The primary features of governmentality include the harnessing of individual, communal, and international civic forces that might otherwise be anarchic and self destructive. Thus, governmentality concerns the “conduct of conduct”. Governmentality is an appropriate concept for understanding the deployment of tolerance onto the civil realm as it discusses the multiple points of operation and application, from individuals to mass populations and from particular parts of the body and psyche. Far from being restricted to rule and law, governmentality works through a range of visible and invisible accountable social powers, of which the best example is pastoral power. It employs and infiltrates a number of discourses ordinarily seen as unrelated to political power, and masks them as a political tool. Foucault’s concern with governmentality is with how the state administers public life, and how that administration is externally linked to the knowledge’s and discourses that govern outside the rubric and purview of the state. Governmentality not only governs subjects, but it shores up the legitimacy of the state, and in so doing, expands state power.

The deployment of tolerance as governmentality by the state tends to happen in two primary instances. Firstly, it is deployed when the state suffers a diminished capacity to embody universal representation. Tolerance then masks the role of the state in reproducing the dominance of certain groups and cultural norms of the state, and it does so at a historical moment when popular sensitivity to this role and this dominance is high. If the state can no longer promise universal representation, if it can no longer pretend to a norm-free cultural standing, and if liberal values of assimilation secularism and formal equality are being called into question as a basis for nation state belonging, and as the best means to solve “differences” then state promotion of tolerance can serve to subtract from the losses and resurrect the neutrality of the state. As demands for equality are managed by the state, the circuitry goes from state to civil society to the individual back to the state.

This circuitry of an apparent loss of universal hegemony was apparent in the post 9/11 rhetoric of the Bush administration in its domestic treatment of Muslims and Arabs. The post 9/11 shoring up of American political power in the USA patriot act, the egregious expansion of unaccountable power: torture, surveillance, deportation and detention. The state, in this instance deploys tolerance as a means to divert the violations it makes as a state towards the citizenry. As President George Bush calls for greater tolerance of the Muslim and Arabs in our own midst, as stated in a meeting with Muslim leaders in Washington, DC on September 17th, 2002, “our nation must be mindful that there are thousands of Arab Americans.. who love their flag just as much as we do. And we must be mindful that as we seek to win the war that we treat Arab Americans and Muslims with the respect they deserve.” Once Bush was able to cast the Muslim population as identical to the state’s neutral values, the state was ostensibly deploring its people to be peaceful, and not use prejudice. This “prerogative power” of the state is able to mobilize the citizenry for the opposite practice. Since the state can abrogate its commitments to upholding civil liberties and to egalitarian enjoyment of these liberties by substituting a discourse of tolerance for a practice of equal protection or equal treatment, citizens are activated to be agents of the state.

In post 9/11 America, the phrase “if you are not with us your against us” seemed the rallying cry for citizens activated as agents of the state, organized by xenophobic fear. While this mentality is certainly a cliché, at its core is the desire to incorporate a plural sense of “we”, a category that was in actuality completely monopolized by the state. Tolerance as an ideal for the public citizenry to aspire to marginalized all dissent, including dissent arising within liberal society itself. Faced with the threat of an enemy conceptualized in civilizational, not subjective brackets, the deployment of tolerance strategies are in some way more fluid. As Samuel Huntington has pointed out, the west can only defeat radical Islam by valuing itself and developing global practices of civilizational tolerance.
These examples clearly show that tolerance as governmentality ends up eroding citizen solidarity and ultimately results in the thinning of public life itself. As a governmentality of reducing the political to policy and law, liberalism sets loose a depoliticized series of effects in civil society that produces subjectivated subjects. The thinning of public life results in a withdrawl into private identities and a perception of fellow citizens as tools or as obstacles to one’s private identities and leads to a perception of fellow citizens as socially estranged. Upon this retreat into private presupposed hostile identities, any genuine capacities for social powers constitutive of difference are eliminated from civic life.

Tolerance and the “Politicization of Culture”

The replacement of solidarity-based political struggles with the politicization of culture arises with the idea that culture, at the level of discourse is the primary civil solution to overcoming the inherent culture-crazed others fundamentally at odds with western liberal ways of life. In this version of the culture clash thesis, civil and political conflict is also explained as a culture clash, rendering the border between cultures as something that is inherently volatile, unless that culture exhibits “liberal tendencies.”

Drawing from Freud’s work on Totem and Taboo, Brown and Zizek identify the possession of culture as the primary ground for a series of imaginary oppositions between the liberal and non liberal, e.g. we have culture while culture has them. We have culture while they are a culture. We are a democracy while they are a culture. This opposition turns on an imagined opposition between culture and individual moral autonomy, in which the former vanquishes the latter unless culture is itself subordinated by liberalism. While this essentialization process on behalf of liberal theory will be explored in more depth as it relates to Susan Okin’s feminist theory, the basis of this assumption towards group cultural identification is that each ethnicity, religion, and communal group is inherently at odds with each other. For the liberal, culture is then rendered extrinsic to the subject, and totally not constitutive of the subject. Culture, in this instance is positioned as the primary contingent for the non liberal and non contingent for the liberal subject, or something that the liberal can autonomously opt in or out of.
A second and related aspect of tolerance that perpetuates social subjectivity is indeed the central aim of tolerance deployment: to see people as individuals. This goal of course centers on moral autonomy, which as Bernard Williams and Susan Mendus have argued is one of the central grounds for how tolerance is waged. There is a paradox within the autonomy argument in that the liberal “good” that tolerance aims to promote can only be understood as that which can be generated by autonomous individuals, not by their fundamentalist nonliberal others. This division between the non liberal other who is incapable of autonomy versus the liberal autonomous agent is why, in part, tolerance is so effectively deployed in civil society and not as a legal-political instrument.

The first and most influential treatise on tolerance is John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration sought to privatize religion from the public sphere. Locke sought to render religion an individual rather than a common matter through the process of privatization. The often violent and absolutist truth claim of religious belief were subdued in Locke’s model to the public realm so as to protect that which is most important to the individual: personal belief. Similarly, in the classic social contractarian version of Rousseau’s The Social Contract, his effort is to “transform each individual, who by himself is entirely complete and solitary, into a part of a much greater whole, from which the same individual will then receive, in a sense, his life and his being”

Both the contemporary and historical modes of tolerance offer it as a tool for religitimizing liberal universalism and restoring the notion of the culturally unified nation at a moment when both are faltering. In essence, liberals need a certain “fundamentalism” to project themselves as free. As seen from the critique of governmentality, tolerance also requires that illiberal societies be reified as saturated with intolerance as a precondition. These processes internal to liberalism create several false polarities between the tolerant and the intolerant. This creates a sense of urgency on behalf of the governmentality in eager implementation of tolerance, which is why many have compared the new discourse on tolerance to a form of imperialism.

As Brown and Zizek have noted, those who portend the unraveling or decline of western civilization (Samuel Huntington, the neoconservatives and right wing Christians) converge ideologically with those who worry about tolerating non Western practices that are outside civilization’s pale such as feminist Susan Okin. For Okin, culture marks ways of life that are not conforming to liberal, enlightened, reason-based and secular modes of living. Okin admits that gender bias and inequality is subordinated to the private realm, but she seeks to deploy liberal tolerant strategies into the public realm, mainly tolerance. It is not the law that engenders sexual inequality; rather it is always evolving (as John Stuart Mill believed) out of patriarchy. Conversely, Huntington and the right argue that tolerance is the primary tool that the clash of civilizations should utilize.
What Zizek has questioned in this deadlock between liberalism and the right wing is the following dilemma: is the cause of this response to the fundamentalist other triggered by the other or is it constitutive of processes internal to liberal theory itself? Zizek argues in both Violence, “The Culturalization of Politics,” and other works that since liberalism is dependent on certain social norms, categories, and processes that are parts of the very architecture of liberalism itself, liberalism as a discourse is based on a desire to produce a fundamentalist, or a feminine other. In this reading, Okin is right in her skepticism of the multiculturalism project which seeks the establishment of pure autonomy, or the “tolerable other” but that subject in her reading is still limited to the subject reduced to one who has the freedom to choose liberal autonomy or not. To Okin, in this case, culture limits autonomy by limiting non liberal women’s autonomy. Thus, a woman who defends cultural practices cannot be thinking for herself. This divide between the multicultural and the right wing hinges on what Zizek characterizes an ideological allegiance to liberalism as a totalizing philosophy, whereby liberalism is favored even over capitalism, and as a consequence both the right and the left become indifferent to the effects of liberalism. What happens in this figuration of the non autonomous or non liberal subject is that liberalism itself is posited as the antidote to culture.

Managing the Eruption of the Particular from the Universal… When Tolerance is Withheld

When tolerance is posited as the solution to preventing violent conflict it ignores the discursive function of tolerance in legitimating the often violent imperialism of international liberal governmentality conjoined with neoliberal global political economy. It masks the cultural norms of democratic regimes and renders their status as universal cultural norms. Even when tolerance is deployed in the civilizational realm, according to Will Kymlicka, it succeeds in marking the other as barbaric without implicating the cultural norms of the tolerant by this marking. It suspends, Kymlicka continues, the “civilizational principle” in dealing with this other; which can be carried quite far, up to the point of making war with the other.

Many philosophers, most notably John Rawls in Law of People’s discuss the conditions when tolerance is to be withheld to the nonliberal other , the state is able to further entrench the power of tolerance as a sign of the free that configures the right of the civilized against a barbaric opposite that is both internally oppressive and externally dangerous, neither tolerant nor tolerable.
What this situation of civilizational tolerance develops is two mutually exclusive truth claims within liberalism itself. In the “antinomies of tolerant reason,” playing off of Kant’s euthanasia of reason, Zizek discusses the emergence of a superego paradox whereby the more tolerant you are of the other, the guiltier you are as a social subject. The hidden “disavowed core” of one’s subjectivity is foisted onto the other, and the only one way to escape the deadlock of liberal tolerant reason, is to reformulate the way in which liberalism manage particularity and universality.

In liberalism’s internal discourse, the only way to resolve the deadlock of the inevitable particularity of culture arising in the realm of the universal is to split the individual into both universal and particular. Since the individual herself is universal, the site of universality is protected in so far as she extricates herself from the shackles of her local oppressive culture. The private sphere then is posited as the nation-state and family, whereas the public is the economy. In liberalism, culture survives but only in the private realm, and not in the public realm of norms and rules. The Kantian autonomous self is posited as the tool to uproot the self from the oppressive shackles of culture – this process reveals how one’s tradition appears to be no better than others when the individual has the rational sense to move apart from the confines of their original cultural position. The Cartesian cogito is the primary source of this view, and it was developed in most clarity with Kant’s autonomous individual. Starting with Descartes, the liberal individual’s ethnic roots and nationalism were not a category of truth at all, and as such, any exercise of reflection onto ones roots is always a use of one’s “private” sense of reason. Because we negate the domain of public universal reason when we connect with one’s particular culture, participating in the public sphere one’s particularity is extracted from communal identification.
The most pertinent example of this irreconcilability of the particular-universal divide is of the Muslim woman who willingly chooses to wear a veil. As long as the women is given the choice to veil and she chooses to in order to realize a source of spiritual pride, then her “choice” to veil must be subordinated to the private realm as a matter of idiosyncratic choice, and not as solidarity with the Muslim community. If she were to claim her choice had to do with belonging to a cultural group of the global Muslim community or whatever, then her choice would be rendered fundamentalist. Fundamentalism, then in this context works as a naturalizing and or essentializing historically conditioned trait of the liberal individual.
Liberals such as Michael Walzer advocate different models, or regimes of tolerance within liberalism, an argument that not only supports the furthering of tolerance via institutions, but one that develops a hierarchy of value within each regime of tolerance. Any furthering of tolerance on behalf of the governmentality of the state, as Brown argues, ends up rationalizing the oppressive third world choices of female genital mutilation or stoning, as practices their culture chooses to practice. As such, liberals hold a double standard when exporting tolerance to a “well-ordered hierarchical society” by presupposing that if a nonliberal society is open to tolerance, then it implies it is also free to choose. Forms of rule within a WHS such as culture and religion are dethroned by the subject and replaced by the self rule of men presupposed to be autonomous when in actuality they can only be made autonomous via maintaining the universality of liberalism as explained above. Culture, is then positioned as the very background of the subject, something that one may opt into or out of. The role of religion in the nonliberal culture in the case of the WHS ineligible of tolerance imagined to disappear with the autonomous individual, rendering the realm of religion as an autonomous sphere. Where the individual reigns, religion as violence and terror is meant to be a religion of choice, moral guidance and nourishment, where individualism does not reign, the violent extremists are ruled by religion.

In On Tolerance, Walzer points to five primary historical and contemporary regimes of tolerance: firstly, one accepts the other in a resigned acceptance, secondly, one benignly accepts the other, a third is a stoic form of acceptance where the other is able to exercise their rights in an unattractive way, a fourth way is an expressive openness of others and the final way to tolerate the other is to endorse difference outright and celebrate it. Walzer, similar to John Rawls in the Law of People’s seems to argue for an explicit and promotional use of tolerance both within liberal and nonliberal societies. While both thinkers seek to promote tolerance for the same philosophical reason, mainly as stated above that liberalism is best promoted in a non foundational manner (as in Kant and Mill’s variations), and rooted in the belief that liberalism can be equally supported by different comprehensive doctrines in the society of the WHS. Yet, as Kok Chor-Tan points out, international society itself is a model of toleration, not of anarchy, as the influential realist school of international relations argue. Liberal toleration in Rawls and Walzer’s international dimension is focused on individuals who are conceived as citizens and then as members of a group second. While Walzer’s progressive spectrum places emphasis on building capacity and autonomy, it is Rawls’ influential model of tolerance in the Law of People’s that seems lowest on Walzer’s spectrum, caught in the same deadlock that Zizek argues infects all of liberalism itself.

False Universality in Capitalism Too?

The classic leftist response to the management of the particular in the realm of the liberal universal comes in the Marxist “symptomal” critique. The argument against tolerance is waged as that against imperialism: the use of tolerance is like a blind and biased cover of human rights promotion, or for the protection of individual rights and freedom. These aggressive impositions into non liberal cultures present an immediate justificatory response based on a false universality rooted in the overriding obligation to individual autonomy. As Zizek has pointed out, many have taken the false universality critique as a neo imperial continuation of the colonial Christian male dominance, while others argue that universality is rendered operative as the preferred rights of bourgeois males.

The more important question a la Zizek’s critique is not how abstract universality is deployed, rather, how does abstract universality become a form of life? This is the basis of Marx’s commodity fetishism. In a society that is dominated by the exchange of commodities, what I am, my very social existence is contingent and objectified. Any object that can satisfy my desire is experienced as purely contingent since my desire is conceived as an abstract formal capacity indifferent to the multitude of other objects that might, but never do satisfy it . What this critique is able to reveal is the forms of capitalist alienation based on commodity fetishism present forms of abstraction far more severe than that of uprooting one from their culture to participate in the universal liberal project. Thus, capitalist abstraction becomes a form of social life itself. Universality then becomes for-itself in the Hegelian sense when individuals no longer identify the kernel of their being with a particular social situation. Similar to the uprooting of one’s particular social/ethnic and religious identity, the mode of appearance of any abstract universality is also intimately tied to violence.

The French philosopher Alain Badiou in his work on universal ethics points out that this rise of universality out of the particular is the key moment to any ethical or political act. The violent rupture occurs when a “for-itself” emerges out of the universal and is directly experienced as universal. The solution remedying the Marxist symptomal reading should be supplemented by an opposite reading: particularity can indeed mask universality . In this reading of universality, it isn’t that each universality is haunted by a particularity that it has to strip itself from; rather it’s that every particularity is haunted by a universality that automatically undermines it. What’s more significant than the false universality of uprooting one from their particular ethnic/cultural context is capitalism as a form of false universality generating intrinsic to itself as well. Capitalism is the form of the universal that effectively destroys all particularity; and in a Hegelian sense provides the negative force that actively destroys all particularity. Capitalism is thus a neutral symbolic-economic matrix of social relations able to envelop all cultural particularities into its vortex.

This paper has sought to identify four key points within the new discourse on tolerance, firstly that tolerance discourse in the civilizational realm is dependent on a series of imaginary oppositions, based on moral autonomy and a division between the non liberal other who is incapable of autonomy versus the liberal autonomous agent who is the only subject capable of the “good.” Secondly, that tolerance as governmentality not only governs subjects, but it shores up the legitimacy of the state, and in so doing, expands state power. This process is possible via a series of state to civil society and back again deployments mainly when the state is suffering a diminished capacity to embody universal representation and a loss of nation state hegemony, e.g. the Bush administrations war on terror rhetoric. The third point argued in this paper is that the Marxist critique of “false universality” misses the point inherent to the discourse and deployment of tolerance. Rather, tolerance follows an internal logic, built into liberal theory itself. The mode of appearance of any abstract universality is intimately tied to violence, because the violent uprooting of the individual from their ethnic, cultural or religious contexts is an inherently violent act. Fourthly, I have concluded the paper by showing that there are false universalities within liberalism and capitalism that consist of violent uprooting of oneself from a particular ethnic/cultural context.

In conclusion, the implications of this internal logic of tolerance as a discourse ought to be transformed into a new series of civic strategies that seek to counter these hegemonic liberal social and theoretical processes. Furthermore, a new and re-politicized version of otherness-engagement stripped of the power-laden tolerance discourse should be advocated.


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