On Tolerance

Western Liberalism and the Art of Oppression

By Conrad Jacober

The concept of tolerance pervades the social, political and ideological realm of our society, but its current form is a denigration of the hopes and possibilities of tolerance. Tolerance has been emptied of its content. In our enlightened Western society, we tolerate oppression, repression, violence, apathy and the reigning powers that be. We do not actively tolerate these, but rather passively so. In tacit acceptance of a government and ruling order that executes oppression and violence both domestically and internationally, we passively tolerate and accept the structures of domination that leads to the widespread misery of mankind.

In Herbert Marcuse’s essay, “Repressive Tolerance,” he states that “the toleration of the systematic moronization of children and adults alike by publicity and propaganda…[is] the essence of a system which fosters tolerance as a means for perpetuating the struggle for existence and suppressing the alternatives.”

This is the core of tolerance in our society. Tolerance necessarily calls for an amount of intolerance, in that one can not be tolerant of two opposites. In tolerating free speech, we are intolerant towards its opposite, that being the suppression of speech. Similarly, by being tolerant of the dominance of the ruling order, we find ourselves intolerant of radical alternatives that would overturn that ruling order. As Marcuse says, this tolerance perpetuates human misery and suffering whilst necessarily suppressing alternatives to this ruling order.

To ground this in something more tangible, note the state of our society. We tolerate massive numbers of civilian casualties resulting from wars born of economic interests, the structural violence and decrepitude of stark poverty and rising inequality, hideous amounts of wealth wasting in the hands of a select few, military spending that dwarfs the programs that would foster the lives and lessen the misery of large swathes of our own people, and a host of other global ills. We are not a tolerant society. A truly tolerant society would call for intolerance of oppression and the degradation of mankind and the planet. Our ideological tolerance serves oppression of the masses by a select few who benefit from that oppression. Whereas tolerance should be viewed as an end in itself on the same level as the end of human emancipation, we find tolerance as a means to sequester and silence alternatives and opposition to the status quo.

Tolerance should not be a passive state whereby one is tolerant of the evil that surrounds ones daily life; it should be an active state whereby one is involved in a constant struggle against that evil of violence and oppression which rears its head in the structures and infrastructure of our neoliberal society. We must fight the sort of tolerance in which, as Marcuse states, “the stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one.”

We see this tolerance toward gross misinformation and absurd relativism all throughout our society. Organs of a corporate propaganda machine that call themselves “news” sources are well-known examples. Tolerance in our society claims to be relative, fair and value-free. Contrary to this dogma, there is nothing value-free in the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in unjust wars or in the starvation and misery of billions of impoverished people at the hands of neoliberal organs like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, both of which serve wealthy investors in extracting as much wealth from third-world developing nations as possible. Do we really tolerate? No, we suffer. We suffer not only these miseries but an ingrained ideology that fights against questioning and struggling for possible alternatives. Occupy Wall Street is laughed at and crushed by police raids. The very possible is made impossible. Alternatives are strangled and starved of air while the status quo triumphs. The language of “another world is possible” withers.

We must radicalize tolerance. Just as we are intolerant of the destruction of the Unity House flags, so must we be intolerant towards those who hawk for unjust and unnecessary wars, those who support structures of violence and poverty and those who spread misinformation and propaganda. Tolerance must not be passive and apathetic, but active and diligent in its strides for justice and human emancipation. Tolerance is a useful concept. We must reclaim it and redefine it from its current supposedly value-free state to that of an admittedly partisan goal — one engaged in an active struggle for alternatives and human emancipation.

Herbert Marcuse’s essay “Repressive Tolerance” can be found here.

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