The Euthanasia of Liberal Tolerance: The New Discourse on Tolerance in the Age of Terror

This paper seeks to make an intervention into this new discourse on tolerance from two theoretical standpoints, the Foucauldian theory of governmentality, and a critical analysis of the theory of false universality from the Marxist tradition. By combining these two perspectives, tolerance will be seen as a social and governing process that develops, reproduces, and creates liberal and non-liberal social subjects: their speech, behavior, and conduct. Four core theoretical arguments within the new discourse on tolerance are addressed. Firstly, 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 deployments, occurring 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 that incorporates tolerance. Secondly, tolerance discourse in the inter-civilizational sphere is dependent on a series of imaginary oppositions, based on liberal autonomy and non-liberal culture, i.e. a division that designates the non liberal other incapable of autonomy versus the liberal autonomous agent who is the only subject capable of assuming the “good.” Thirdly, the theory that tolerance functions – similar to human rights – as a form of “false universality” may have a basis of truth, but it misses the crucial internal logic inherent to the discourse and deployment of tolerance. The logic of universality within liberalism is itself intimately linked to violence and this is built into liberal theory, stretching back to Descartes as based on the preconditions for participating in the universal, which entails a violent uprooting of the individual from their ethnic, cultural, or religious contexts. The fourth argument is that liberalism’s irreconcilability of the ‘particular-universal’ has a direct impact on the way that choice operates for those citizens that are perceived to be non-liberal, problematizing associations between tolerance and any notion of ‘universal’ human rights.

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, …