The Meaning of Tolerance

Liberal calls for “tolerance” are almost always hypocritical…

“So much for the tolerant left!” This retort, in all its various permutations, has become the right’s go-to response to the suggestion that bigoted, harmful views should be met with anything less than unanimous praise. It often shows up in response to organized boycotts, Twitter blockings or Facebook image removal policies, all things far beyond the reach of the First Amendment. Supposedly, the left must remain committed to a doctrine of pure non-judgment. In this worldview, tolerance is what leftists and liberals prize above all else. Marx wrote The Tolerance Manifesto, Eugene Debs was jailed for loving civil discourse too much, and Bernie Sanders is always shouting about how billionaires are hoarding all the tolerance.  But nobody should embrace a pure form of tolerance. For one thing, it’s impossible. And for another, it’s intolerant.

Any remotely functional notion of tolerance must include certain caveats by design. Herbert Marcuse’s 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance” argued that the liberal values of tolerance and free expression had, paradoxically, become a method by which the ruling class maintained its dominance. This was because the prevailing idea of tolerance included the toleration of ideas and policies that were brutal and repressive. Marcuse pointed out the impossibility of tolerating, for example, both the Ku Klux Klan and the civil rights movement, because tolerating the one means permitting the repression of the other. In his view, an attitude of pure tolerance naturally favors the continuation of the status quo by way of repressing dissent.

Marcuse was astute in diagnosing how the media reinforced particular dominant opinions in the name of tolerating ideological differences. In a passage that has aged impressively well, he said that “in endlessly dragging debates over the media, the stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one, the misinformed may talk as long as the informed, and propaganda rides along with education, truth with falsehood.” The election of Donald Trump confirmed Marcuse’s thesis: the media tolerated Trump’s brazen lies and gave him endless airtime and coverage, supposedly to rebut him or accuse him of indecency, but the rebuttals didn’t stick. The “marketplace of ideas” would sort it out, they said. It didn’t.

The liberal idea of tolerance is what inspires the modern media’s idea of objectivity: every perspective equal, no judgments made. But both are mythical, for the same reason: everything we do takes a side somehow. Every media organization, “Fair and Balanced” tagline or not, is always deciding which perspectives to present and deciding how much weight to give them.

After Trump’s victory, instead of confronting the biases inherent in any idea of objectivity, the media went in the opposite direction. The New York Times began actively searching for pro-Trump intellectuals to publish (unsurprisingly, no members of this oxymoronic group were ever found). Instead, in May, the paper began running a nauseating column called “Say Something Nice About Donald Trump,” in which the president would be praised semi-weekly by career pundit Michael Kinsley. Kinsley, whose prior résumé spans the worst entities in political media (Slate, The New Republic, and CNN’s Crossfire) began his first column with a plea to be nicer to Trump:

“[D]oes he deserve all of [the criticism]? Does he never do anything right? Say anything wise? Are all his schemes to reform this agency and abolish that regulation utterly misguided? … The venom, the obsession, the knife-twisting are hard to understand… Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, though, and even Donald Trump can’t be wrong all the time… we’re looking for a few positive words about the president, and we’re asking for your help. This is not about Trump the family man. It’s not another forum for debating the issues. It is a place to point out positive things Mr. Trump has said or done from the viewpoint of The New York Times and its readers.”

This deeply misguided call for niceness shows well how “tolerance” and “fairness” can become neither tolerant nor fair. The answer to Kinsley’s questions, of course, are “yes,” “no,” and “absolutely not,” respectively. The reason is simple: Donald Trump is a corporeal aggregation of all of humankind’s cruelest, dumbest, and most selfish qualities. Suggesting we appreciate the “positive things” he does is like suggesting we appreciate the positives of gonorrhea or infanticide. If Kinsley was about to be devoured by a ravenous wolverine, his last words would be “Well, I think before we kill the wolverine we should hear what it has to say and be fair to its point of view.” (Although in fact, to be fair to the wolverine’s point of view, devouring Michael Kinsley would be a service to both human- and animal-kind.)

Trump deports families. Do people not understand this? Consider the words of a disillusioned ICE agent interviewed by The New Yorker, on the changes Trump has brought to the agencies:

“I don’t know that there’s that appreciation of the entire realm of what we’re doing. It’s not just the person we’re removing. It’s their entire family… I’ve never seen [such] rampant [contempt] towards the aliens… The whole idea is targeting kids… [If you look] at the people in custody, it’s people who’ve been here for years. They’re supposed to be in high school… We seem to be targeting the most vulnerable people, not the worst… There’s just this school of thought that, well, we can do what we want.”

This means the ruining of lives. It means people being torn from their homes and sent to countries they have no connection with. It means mothers being taken from their kids, grandparents disappearing into vans. It means sending women who have fled physical abuse back to face their abusers. It means that children who have been sent to the United States so they may escape gang violence will be sent back to be shot to pieces. Decent people’s lives are destroyed by Trump’s actions.

Donald Trump is a demented bigot who admitted on tape to sexually assaulting women. To ask us to “say something nice” about him is not being “fair” or “even-handed,” because it’s actually minimizing the seriousness of the harm. It’s taking the attention off the people who Trump’s policies hurt; it’s precisely the kind of “tolerance of repression” that Marcuse warned was embedded in liberalism. You can say “Well, even a murderer does things other than murder people,” and that’s technically true, but it’s probably the murders that should consume our attention. This is the same reason why it’s not “fair-minded” when Ellen DeGeneres pals around with George W. Bush on television, or Michelle Obama gives him a hug. To tolerate Bush is to tolerate and minimize the deaths of 500,000 Iraqis. By treating war criminals the same way you treat everyone else, you tolerate war crimes.

The Kinsley column did not mark the end of the New York Times’ efforts to elevate the right. In April, the paper poached columnist Bret Stephens from The Wall Street Journal. Stephens is a conservative of the “respectable” NeverTrump sort, and Times opinion editor James Bennet said he was “thrilled” to have Stephens as part of a “collegial debate among brave, honest journalists with very different points of view.” In response to outcry over Stephens, Bennet said that if “all of our columnists and all of our contributors and all of our editorials agreed all of the time, we wouldn’t be promoting the free exchange of ideas, and we wouldn’t be serving our readers very well.” (Given that their columnists do, in fact, agree nearly all the time, and that they neither promote the free exchange of ideas nor serve their readers very well, Bennet’s statement was truer than he realized.)

In the case of Stephens, the “point of view” that the Times was “thrilled” to have paid for included opining that anti-Semitism was a “disease of the Arab mind,” denying climate change, fretting about “thuggish elements” in Black Lives Matter, and claiming that “what Trump, Erdogan, and Black Lives Matter have in common” is “a fake victimization narrative.” Sure enough, immediately upon joining the Times, Stephens used his allotted space for, among other things, a call to overthrow the North Korean government and a tongue-in-cheek column called “Only Mass Deportation Can Save America” (the joke being that it should really be native-born Americans who see their loved ones thrown into cages, because the native-born are actually less efficient servants of capitalism. Hah!)

Stephens’ infamous debut column was titled “Climate of Complete Certainty” and followed the “just asking questions” model of reinforcing public doubt about climate change. Stephens asked why, after the liberal press turned out to be so wrong about Hillary Clinton’s sure path to victory, we should put our trust in the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change. (The answer to which is “for about a dozen reasons,” including the fact that the science is based on decades of hard data rather than a few months of landline polls; that climate change is not just a future prediction, but a phenomenon readily observable in the uptick of natural disasters and back-to-back hottest years on record; and, most importantly, no one in the field of environmental science is as disastrously stupid as Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook or the members of America’s prophesying punditocracy).

It was unclear what Stephens was ever supposed to add to the New York Times op-ed page; his particular niche is already well-filled by David Brooks and Ross Douthat. But the Times has taken seriously the conservative charge that there is not enough diversity in liberal institutions. That’s not “diversity” in the traditional, not-being-overwhelmingly-white sense. 11 out of 12 regular op-ed columnists are white, in a majority non-white city, something that the columnists themselves would find scandalous if they actually took any of their stated values seriously. Rather, what’s sought is “ideological diversity,” which means the breadth of the Times opinion page expanding a few millimeters to the right.

Again, we can see just how the concepts of “tolerance” and “fairness” mark a distinct lack of both. Expanding the spectrum of opinion means adding a climate change denier. It does not mean adding, say, a Hispanic person. It certainly does not mean adding a leftist. Paul Krugman is as radical as the Times’ progressivism gets, and he spent good chunks of 2016 screeching about BernieBros and Vladimir Putin. “Ideological diversity” stretches all the way from the mid-center to the far-right. Over 12 million people voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, only a few million less than voted for Clinton. Yet there was hardly a word of support for Sanders among the Times op-ed columnists.

Times opinion page editor James Bennet, in hiring Bret Stephens, admitted that the perspectives allowed in the paper operate within certain boundaries. Taking the goal of diversity seriously, he said, “doesn’t mean letting any opinion into the discussion.” After all, there’s “no place for bigotry or dishonesty in intelligent discussion.” In defending Stephens after the climate change column appeared, Bennet said that the column didn’t fall “outside the bounds of reasonable discussion.” In doing so, Bennet affirmed that speaking about “diseases of the Arab mind” doesn’t constitute “bigotry,” and trying to mislead the public about the scientific certainty of climate change doesn’t constitute “dishonesty.” Bennet’s defense did helpfully illustrate that even the disciples of “ideological diversity” acknowledge that there must be limits to the discourse.

Soon after Stephens’ hire, climate change activists and scientists began lambasting the Times for including him in the “reasonable discussion,” with many threatening to cancel their subscriptions. It didn’t take long for the scientists to be accused of “intolerance.”  “Really didn’t expect otherwise smart climate advocates to go the way of Berkeley protesters on the NYT,” CNN’s Dylan Byers tweeted. Times editor Jonathan Weisman scolded liberals for unsubscribing, calling it a “liberal embarrassment.” Mark Hemingway of the neoconservative Weekly Standard compared canceling a Times subscription to the Cold War practice of blacklisting (though it was somewhat puzzling to see a neoconservative suggesting blacklisting was a bad thing). One commentator said the objections “reflect[ed] a growing narrow-mindedness and illiberalism on the Left” while another said that it showed a “growing rigidity of thought among American liberals.” Stephens himself responded to criticism by positioning himself as a victim of vicious online harassment by the closed-minded left, his prime example being a tweet by user “CrochetJanet” that asked “When is the Times going to get rid of you?” (Answer: alas, probably never.)

“11 out of 12 regular op-ed columnists are white, in a majority non-white city, something that the columnists themselves would find scandalous if they actually took any of their stated values seriously.”

These commentators suggested that unsubscribing from the New York Times in response to their hiring decisions was “illiberal,” out of keeping with classical liberal value of open-mindedness. On that view, even refusing to hand money to one’s ideological enemies violates the principles of the Enlightenment. Somehow, the demands of “liberalism” mean that it’s necessary to pay for whatever the tastemakers at elite publications foist upon the public. Once the boundaries of “reasoned discussion” have been declared, one is obliged to subscribe to them.

These notions of liberalism and tolerance, then, are both offensive and illogical. They’re offensive because they deem it illegitimate to hold a different notion of what constitutes “reasonable discourse” (i.e. one that excludes climate change denial and anti-Arab racism). And they’re illogical because they have no clear definition of what the boundaries of debate should be. It’s not a violation of tolerance for a paper to exclude leftists and brown people from the ranks of its columnists, but it is a violation of tolerance if a layman refuses to fork over money for their racist hackwork.

This hypocrisy consistently pervades “free speech” and “open debate” advocacy from both conservatives and liberals. “Blacklisting” is an illiberal horror if newspaper readers stop subscribing when the paper becomes full of unscientific bunk, but when it’s used to keep pro-Palestinian professors like Steven Salaita or Norman Finkelstein from getting academic jobs, it becomes unobjectionable. When a racist pseudoscientist like Charles Murray is kept from speaking on campus, it means the left is “intolerant,” but when Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is forced to cancel her Black Lives Matter talks after receiving dozens of death threats from Fox News viewers, the “hear all sides” types fall strangely silent.

This misuse of “free speech” rhetoric by right-wing commentators is precisely what Marcuse warned of: “When tolerance mainly serves the protection and preservation of a repressive society, when it serves to neutralize opposition and to render men immune against other and better forms of life, then tolerance has been perverted.” If an “open forum” is confined to a certain set of ideas acceptable to political and economic elites, its vision of tolerance is a repressive lie. If the Times truly did believe in a “diversity of ideas,” the ranks of their columnists would look very different; they would certainly have to hire a socialist, and yes, maybe even a Trump supporter. Anything else, after all, would be illiberal. 

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