I had the rare pleasure of attending a debate with two excellent speakers on “The Power of Tolerance” last night. Wendy Brown, author of Regulating Tolerance, and Rainer Forst, author of Toleranz im Konflikt [Tolerance in Conflict], two political theorists/philosophers who have obvious respect and liking for each other discussed discourses and conceptions of tolerance, the normative premises involved and the possibility of reframing or drawing positive use from the term. [Update: a video of the evening should be online soon. The third Spannungsübung – thanks Sara for the link.]

Both were keen to point out their shared perspectives, agreeing, for instance, that the term tolerance operates on a field of power, that it constitutes subjectivities, and that a critical view of the discourses involving tolerance is necessary. Given their intellectual backgrounds and their books on the concept, they strove (successfully) to avoid reducing the debate to, in Brown’s words, a “tired” Foucauldian (Brown) vs. Habermasian (Forst) argument. And they aimed (again successfully) to avoid turning the debate into an anti-tolerance (Brown) vs. pro-tolerance (Forst) argument.

What instead ensued at Berlin’s ICI was a sophisticated, subtle exploration of the two approaches to studying the term. I could never do justice to their arguments here. Nevertheless, what I can do is firstly, briefly outline their comments, and note that although I do still find Wendy Brown’s perspective more convincing, I wholeheartedly agree with her comment towards the end that she now more fully understands what Rainer Forst’s project is about.

Basically, he divides “tolerance” into a “permission” conception and a “respect” conception. The first is what is often criticised; you can only tolerate something if you are operating from a position of power and dominance. Giving someone permission to do something (examples used frequently this evening were gay marriages or wearing a headscarf in public office), if you are in a position of domination over them. It means no longer persecuting thyat group but also not giving them equal rights. At the same time, however, Forst foregrounds the dynamic of an emancipatory dimension of tolerance when it functions as a strategy to resist domination. If minority groups claim their (equal) rights through invoking tolerance, they invoke a respect conception of tolerance.

In a second move, he delineated three components of tolerance.

  1. Objection (we can only say we tolerate something, e.g., homosexual marriage, if we think it is wrong. If we think it is good, we would not speak of toleration; if we think it is interesting but strange, we would also not speak of toleration).
  2. Acceptance (if we can provide proper rational, reasoned justification for why this something should be tolerated)
  3. Rejection (if we can provide proper rational, reasoned justification why this something goes beyond the limits of tolerance, e.g., racism, homophobia)

From a discursive perspective there are a number of tensions within these arguments. Where do the power relations figure in this analysis? Who decides what is ‘proper’ justification or defines the limits of ‘rationality’? If the concept of ‘tolerance’ already constitutes the candidate for tolerance (the homosexual, the female Muslim teacher) as deficient, deviant, wrong, then how can it have the positive twist which Forst gives the respect conception? Is the discourse of tolerance not operating instead as one element which (re)produces liberal democracy, secularism, etc. as today’s hegemonic formation; the contemporary horizon of intelligibility and justifiability?

Brown made all of these and more arguments, while repeatedly stressing that her project is simply different from Forst’s, rather than contradictory. And she gave an imposing list of what interests her about ‘tolerance’; about the normative discourses of tolerance:

  • how do discourses of tolerance constitute political identities (the West as a civilisation; the homophobe who is “against gay marriage” but “for tolerance”)?
  • why did the New York Times declare the election of Obama a “triumph of tolerance”?
  • how does that utterance discursively resubordinate the object that it claims to free?
  • how have openly Zionist museums of tolerance managed to steal the mantel of tolerance for their explicit project of sanctifying Israel and demonizing Palestinians?
  • why would most Europeans today normally associate tolerance with the “problem” of immigrants?
  • how does tolerance discourse manage to fuse culture and religion and to render culture and religion ontological, i.e., something to be tolerated at the very level of being?
  • how did the Netherlands manage to make tolerance of nudity and gay sex into a threshold of citizenship for its potential Arab citizens?
  • how and why are individualism, secularism, enlightenment, civility and tolerance linked in civilisational discourse, such that western liberal democracy becomes identical with tolerance (despite fascism, slavery, etc)., whereas Islam becomes identified with intolerance?
  • how was tolerance deployed to justifiy the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan?
  • what do the operations of discourses of tolerance reveal about contemporary liberal democracy?
  • why has the notion of tolerance had such a renaissance in the last 15-20 years?
  • how is it ontologising the differences that it claims only to negotiate?
  • to what extent does this discourse figure contemporary societies as inherently riven by these naturalised differences?
  • what happens when tolerance shifts from belief as its object to identity as its object?
  • what happens when police, schoolchildren, social workers, etc, are taught tolerance as a way to negotiate their encounters with one another as transgender, Muslim, Jewish, homosexual?
  • how does tolerance substitute for equality while claiming to be the same as equality — or to be at least supporting equality?
  • how does tolerance subtly stratify and abject certain people?
  • how does tolerance today recentre certain hegemonic norms (e.g., when someone speaks of tolerance towards Arabs, immigrants, etc, what norm of nationality is being recentred)?
  • how do contemporary discourses of tolerance comprise a set of normative operations that often hide themselves as such?
  • how do contemporary discourses of tolerance manage challenges to cultural hegemony by construing those challenges as naturalised (antagonistic) differences or deviations?
  • how is tolerance a dimension of multicultural governmentality?

This focus is — unsuprisingly given this blog’s name — far more plausible for my perspective and interests. It felt like a large part of the audience also shared this view. In fact, a good deal of the evening was spent deconstructing Forst’s arguments. Nevertheless, precisely through his subtle and reflective responses to this deconstruction, he has in turn deconstructed the straw man of Habermasianism which is quite often wheeled out by theorists of a discursive colour.

And he pointed — albeit implicitly — to one strong advantage of his position. He offers tangible, feasible, immediate, pragmatic, reflective, contextualised tools for political actions and even policy-making. For example, working up the ‘respect’ conceptualisation of tolerance in specific discussions and policies rather than the ‘permission’ conceptualisation would by making a first step towards equal rights.

Where does discourse theory leave us (or where does it take us) with respect to political action? This is a question I have often been asked: what actions — what actual political change — does/can my discursive research lead to? Is it enough to answer that it opens the discursive terrain to reflection and critique? That by paying close attention to hegemonic formations — to struggles for power and hegemony, to the emergence and destabilizaiton of discourses, to the contingency and situatedness of identies and truths — analysis opens the terrain for a more de-essentialised, de-naturalised engagement with political issues? A sometimes unsatisfactory answer and a still open question.



One Comment to “Tolerance”

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