Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Trouble with Tolerance

Stanley fish reviews a new book, Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity iand Empire in theThe Chronicle of Higher Education.
This has been going on for a long time, at least since Locke declared (in A Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689) that "every Church is orthodox to itself" and concluded that, in the absence of an independent mechanism for determining which among competing orthodoxies is the true one, toleration is the only rational policy. Locke then asked, What about the churches and orthodoxies that value tolerance less than they do the truth and political supremacy of the faiths they espouse? Do we tolerate them? The answer he gave is still being given today by the guardians of Enlightenment liberalism: "No opinions contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society, are to be tolerated."

But the question of which opinions are "contrary to human society" does not answer itself, for if it did, if there were universal agreement on what views were simply beyond the pale, tolerance would be unnecessary. The category of interdicted opinions must be established by an act of authority and power, an act Locke performed later in the tract when he made his own list. He thus made it clear that in the liberal tradition he initiated, tolerance, rather than being a wholly benevolent and inclusive practice, is an engine of exclusion and a technology of regulation.

The triumph of toleration as the central liberal value, and the attendant inability of liberals to see the dark side of their favorite virtue, is the subject of Wendy Brown's insightful and illuminating new book, Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire (Princeton University Press). Brown sets out to understand "how tolerance has come to be such an important justice discourse in our time." The "conventional story," she reports, goes this way: "[T]he combined effects of globalization, the aftermath of the cold war, and the aftermath of colonialism have led to the world's erupting in a hundred scenes of local and internecine conflict, roughly rooted in identity clashes, and tolerance is an appropriate balm for soothing those conflicts." In a world where difference seems intractable and irreconcilable, parties are always poised for conflict (Brown notes the Hobbesian antecedents of this picture), tolerance appears to be a "natural and benign remedy"; natural because, given what men and women are (irremediably) like, it seems the only way to go, and benign because while it reins in differences, it accords those difference a space in the private sector. You know the commonplace aphorisms and slogans: Live and let live, different strokes for different folks, can't we all just get along?

Sounds good, but Brown isn't having any. Her critique of tolerance challenges the common assumption that the differences the sharp edges of which tolerance is supposed to blunt "took their shape prior to the discourse called on to broker them." No, she insists, those differences are produced by a regime of tolerance that at the same time produces a status quo politics built on the assumption that difference cannot be negotiated but can only be managed. When difference is naturalized, she explains, it becomes the mark not of an ideological or political divide (in relation to which one might have an argument), but of a cultural divide (in relation to which each party says of the other, "See, that's just the way they are"). If people do the things they do not because of what they believe, but because they are Jews, Muslims, blacks, or gays, it is no use asking them to see the error of their ways, because it is through those same ways — naturally theirs — that they see at all. When President Bush reminds us of '"the nature of our enemy,"' he is, in effect, saying there's no dealing with these people; they are immune to rational appeals; the only language they understand is the language of force.
Interesting ... Fish finds Brown's arguments compelling, but they break down when she tries to come up with a real alternative. I'm no expert in any of these areas, least of all philosophy, but I wonder if any use is made of the natural law tradition and the idea of universal reason at all. It's what the Pope seems to be talking about more are more (most recently, for instance, at Regensburg) ... Interesting read nonetheless.

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