Monday, May 1, 2017

Tolerance Discourse by Wendy Brown

In the modern West, a liberal discourse of tolerance distinguishes “free” societies from “fundamentalist” ones, the “civilized” from the “barbaric,” and the individualized from the organicist or collectivized. These pairs are not synonymous, are not governed precisely the same way by tolerance discourse, and do not call up precisely the same response from that discourse. Yet, they do assist in each other’s constitution and in the constitution of the West  and its Other. Whenever one pair of terms is present, it works metonymically to imply the others, in part because these pairs are popularly  considered to have an organic association with one another in the world. Thus the production and valorization of the sovereign individual are understood as critical in keeping barbarism at bay, just as fundamentalism is understood as a breeding ground of barbarism, and individuality is what fundamentalism is presumed to attenuate if not deny. But there is a consequential ruse in the association of liberal autonomy, tolerance, secularism, and civilization on the one hand, and the association of group identity, fundamentalism, and barbarism on the other. This chapter seeks to track the operations of that ruse.

Tolerance as a political practice is always conferred by the dominant, it is always a certain expression of domination even as it offers protection or incorporation to the less powerful, and tolerance as an individual virtue has an asymmetrical structure. The ethical bearing of tolerance is high-minded, while the object of such high-mindedness is inevitably figured as something more lowly. Even as the outlandish, wrong-headed, or literal outlaw is licensed or suffered through tolerance, the voice in which tolerance is proffered contrasts starkly with the qualities attributed to its object. The pronouncement  “I am a tolerant man” conjures seemliness, propriety, forbearance, magnanimity, cosmopolitanism, universality, and the large view, while those for whom tolerance is required take their shape as improper, indecorous, urgent, narrow, particular, and often ungenerous  or at least lacking in perspective. Liberals who philosophize about tolerance almost always write about coping with what they cannot imagine themselves to be; they identify with the aristocrat holding his nose in the agora, not with the stench.

Historically, and philosophically, tolerance is rarely argued for as an entitlement, a right, or a naturally egalitarian good in the ways that liberty generally is. Rather, one pleads for tolerance as an incorporative practice that promises to keep the peace through such incorporation. And so the subterranean yearning for tolerance –for a universally practiced moderation that does not exist, a humanity so civilized that it would not require the virtue of tolerance –sits uneasily with the normative aspect of tolerance that reaffirms the characterological superiority of the tolerant over the tolerated.

Attention to the rhetorical aspects of tolerance suggests that it is not simply asymmetrical across lines of power but carries caste, class, and civilizational airs with it in its work. The dual function of civilizational discourse, marking in general what counts as “civilized” and conferring superiority on the West, produces tolerance itself in two distinct, if intersecting, power functions: as part of what defines the superiority of Western civilization, and as that which marks certain non-Western practices or regimes as intolerable. Together, these operations of tolerance discourse in a civilizational frame legitimize liberal polities’ illiberal treatments of selected practices, peoples, and states. They sanction illiberal aggression towards what is marked as intolerable without tarring the ‘civilized’ status of the aggressor.

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