Thoughts from a Forest of Fallen Trees : The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly Side of Existence

(If a philosopher falls in the forest who really cares?) Critical Theory, Deconstruction, Ethics, Religion and other such Things.

Thursday, August 17, 2006


The word tolerance is related to the Latin and Old English terms meaning "to lift up" and "to bear" "to put up with" or "to support". Based on its etymology tolerance can be understood in a negative or positive manner. Within a negative framework, tolerance is interpreted as a burden and partial acceptance of the other, whom we "put up with". Within a positive framework, tolerance can be interpreted as a supporting and fostering of otherness, plurality and diversity. In what follows, I want to examine the different types of economies which have emerged from the different approaches to tolerance. I want to argue that certain types of liberalism (represented by Locke and Mill) and certain types of communitarianism (represented by MacIntyre ) are restricted and intolerant.
The paper is structured as follows. In Section one, I shall disentangle a number of different conceptions of tolerance; a failure to distinguish them has meant a serious incompleteness in the arguments of those who have claimed that tolerance is either a communitarian or a liberal virtue. In Section two, I examine whether or not liberal and communitarian proponents violate the imperative of tolerance. In Section three, I argue that liberals must have a better defense of tolerance if they wish to retain the concept. Drawing on insights from the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, I develop a model for a "postmodern liberalism", which shares an affinity with Rawls conception of "political liberalism".


In a remarkable study, Preston King points out that "there is something intolerable about the concept of 'tolerance'. For King, the fundamental question concerning tolerance has to do with "the legitimacy of the advantage which the tolerator may enjoy"(T,9). Framed in this manner, tolerance does not promote equality, but inequality. According to King, "the proponents of tolerance...normally fall into two classes. On the one hand, there are the poor, the oppressed, the unfortunate, who, hard-pressed as these always are, beg for indulgence. On the other hand, there are the wealthy, the powerful, the fortunate, who, the better to protect their advantage, make marginal concession to those over against whom it is held"(T.9-10). For King, toleration is linked to the question of power. According to King, "toleration of an item presupposes some form of power over that item"(T.14). Mere tolerance is subversive because it protects the interests of the powerful who are content with their advantage over others. The means of tolerance is determined by those who hold power and decide what will be included in and excluded from their economies. This type of tolerance allows only those practices to flourish which do not threaten the internal purity of the system.
In his study, King examines the differences between three English nouns, namely, tolerance, toleration and tolerationism. King points out that the discussion concerning tolerance has ignored these grammatical distinctions. Rather than focusing on the distinctions between tolerance, toleration, and tolerationism, I want to emphasize the distinctions within the word tolerance. To this end, I will examine five definitions of tolerance.
The first definition of tolerance, is the action or practice of enduring pain or hardship. Here, tolerance is defined as putting up with that which we dislike. This definition presupposes that once we overcome the pain and hardship which is inflicted from the outside, things will be better.
The second definition of tolerance is the power acquired by becoming immune to the effect of large doses of active drugs or resisting the action of poison. This definition points out that the agent being tolerated can be harmful but not fatal; that a certain degree of immunity can be built up over a period of increased and controlled exposure to the "harmful" agent.
The third definition of tolerance is the small margin within which coins when minted are allowed to deviate from the standard. Here, the question of the model or form is brought into question. Only a small degree of deviation from the model is tolerated. Once the deviation exceeds acceptable limits, intolerance becomes "the norm".
The fourth definition of tolerance concerns the allowable amount of variation in the dimensions of a machine or part. In this instance, variation is allowed as long as it resembles the original.
The fifth definition of tolerance is allowing practices to take place without authoritative interference. This definition presupposes that an authority has already granted that diversity can exist, provided that these practices are acceptable to the authority.
All of the above definitions determine tolerance as a "negative virtue". Tolerance becomes the practices of "putting up with" what is not actually approved. As King points out: "In the tolerating conjuncture we discover elements both of objection (dislike/disapproval) and of acceptance...when we tolerate x, we accept it in the sense either that we associate with it or do not interfere with it in some limited sphere, in some limited degree."(T.52). According to King, there is a "tension internal to tolerance"(T.35). This tension occurs in that space where objection intertwines with acceptance. King points out that "the objection is... a matter of degree"(T,51). A total and comprehensive objection would signal the end of tolerance.
Tolerance understood as "putting up with" sketches a restricted picture of what it means to be human while outlining the kind of existence that is essentially good or virtuous for the human individual. Tolerance, in the restricted and negative sense of "putting up with", presupposes a moral high-ground for the person who is in a position to tolerate the other.
In each definition of tolerance, there is a source, standard or model, in relation to which something is judged to be tolerable or intolerable. Thus, the problem of tolerance is opened by putting into question the value of the arche (source, origin or center). The arche provides stability and unity at the expense of arresting the profileration of differences, such that a restricted economy ensures the arche is used to orientate, balance and organize its accounts, while limiting plurality. A restricted economy must prevent the profileration of differences in order to insure itself against loss or instability.

As we have seen, the word tolerance is caught up in a chain of significations. In "An Early Essay on Toleration", Harriet Taylor, argues that toleration "implies the existence of its opposites" Taylor points out that " while we can be conscious that we tolerate there must remain some vestige of intolerance... not to be charitable is to be uncharitable" (EET.116). I want to argue, that it is inadequate to conceive of tolerance as arising out of a that series of oppositions; that is cannot simply be assigned a site which is understood in terms of those oppositions. In order to rethink the economy of tolerance in a liberal society, we must prevent ourselves from trying to comprehend tolerance on the basis of opposition. As King argues,
one cannot praise an individual, sub-group or government simply because they are tolerant. They may be tolerant of cruelty and genocide. Nor can one condemn agents simply because they are intolerant. They may be intolerant of cruelty and genocide. In this sense, therefore, everything must turn, not around tolerance and intolerance, but around the objects of tolerance and intolerance, and the consideration whether they are properly objects of the one rather than of the other(T.68).
Herbert Marcuse argues that tolerance is of two kinds, namely passive and active. Passive tolerance, according to Marcuse is in fact partial to "entrenched and established attitudes and ideas even if their damaging effect on man and nature is evident". Tolerance, on the other hand is active in that "it refrains from taking sides"(RT.85). This type of tolerance may still be a form of prejudice because through its neutrality, it "actually protects the already established machinery of discrimination"(RT.85) (e.g. "tolerance" of minorities by means of segregation or assimilation). Marcuse correctly points out that "when tolerance mainly serves the protection and preservation of a repressive society... then tolerance has been perverted"(RT. 111). Instances of this distorted tolerance occur both in the liberal and communitarian traditions, (e.g. ignoring the specific needs of minorities). According to Marcuse,
the tolerance which is the life element, the token of a free society, will never be the gift of the powers that be; it can, under the prevailing conditions of tyranny by the majority, only be won in the sustained effort of radical minorities, willing to break this tyranny and to work for the emergence of a free and sovereign majority-minorities intolerant, militantly intolerant and disobedient to the rules of behavior which tolerate destruction and suppression(RT.123).
The question of tolerance becomes relative once we examine, who is tolerating what. Normally, neutrality has been thought to be the foundation upon which tolerance could exist. Taylor links tolerance with neutrality, by arguing that "to tolerate is to abstain from unjust interference, a quality which will surely one day not need a place in any catalogue of virtues"(EET.116-117).
In The Restoration of Tolerance, Steven D. Smith raises the issue of neutrality and tolerance and argues that the choice which faces a liberal society is not between intolerance and neutrality, but between tolerance and intolerance. Smith argues that "the prevailing conception of liberalism, which is committed to the ideals of neutrality and equality, is incapable of supporting a viable liberal community" . I share Smith's views that a state which is committed primarily to neutrality can be repressive, stagnant or even impotent insofar as it wants to neutralize change itself. According to Smith,
a healthy political community must stand for something. If it does not, then it becomes a mere aggregation of jarring individual atoms; politics and government becomes a battleground... A community's values, especially in a pluralistic society, may not constitute a unitary or cohesive philosophy. But a state which asserts that in principle it is simply neutral among competing values, like an individual who denies that he believes in or is committed to anything, is not likely to command one's respect.. Thus, the liberalism of neutrality in fact impoverishes the very community that it promises to enrich (RT.328, 329).

Smith argues that neutrality is not an alternative to intolerance, and I agree that neutrality can be co-extensive with intolerance. However, I disagree with Smith when he argues that the true alternative to intolerance is tolerance. As we shall see, tolerance defined as "putting up with" is in fact intolerant because it suppresses differences. The choice, as I see it, is between two types of tolerance, namely, tolerance as "putting up with" and tolerance as "supporting or fostering otherness".


John Rawls describes toleration as "liberalism's own principle" and Will Kymlicka characterizes tolerance as "one of the fundamental liberal values" . On the other hand, Glenn Tinder, argues that "where there is full community, no tolerance is necessary". Both the liberal and communitarian traditions operate according to a certain level of tolerance and charity. Liberals claim to be tolerant in theory, but based on individual and egalitarian principles, liberal societies have, in practice often suppressed differences, i.e. have been intolerant. Communitarians on the other hand, think that a homogeneous community does away for the need of tolerance, which, of course, can come dangerously close to tyranny, dictatorship or fascism. In this section, I want to mark out the limitations of both liberalism as represented by Locke and Mill and communitarianism as represented by MacIntyre. By examining liberal and communitarian positions we will be able to determine whether or not liberal and communitarian proponents violate the imperative of tolerance and charity. In this manner, the dangers of a certain kind of liberalism represented by Locke and Mill and a certain kind of communitarianism, represented by MacIntyre, will become apparent.
In A Letter Concerning Toleration, John Locke argues that, "those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. According to Locke, the " liberty of conscience is every man's natural right equally belonging to dissenters as to themselves and that nobody ought to be compelled in matters of religion either by law or force" (LT.47). Locke goes on to argue, "it is not the diversity of opinions, which cannot be avoided; but the refusal of toleration to those that are of different opinions, which might have been granted, that has produced all the bustles and wars, that have been in the Christian world, upon account of religion"(LT.52). The gist of Locke's argument is clear. While variation in belief is not immoral and should be tolerated, those who hold no theistic beliefs (i.e. atheists), should not be tolerated because they are immoral. Ironically, Locke failed to recognize that intolerance was only an issue for those who believed in a deity and not for those who rejected theism.
John Stuart Mill also develops a puzzling attitude towards tolerance. In the opening section of On Liberty, Mill argues that some people may be more fit for despotism than liberty. Mill argues that "...Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end may be their improvement..." . In this instance, tolerance towards the barbarian does not apply. The other is already described as a "barbarian" who must be improved by becoming "a good European" perhaps. While restricted liberals like Locke and Mill argue for tolerance, their interpretation of "tolerance" rests on intolerance and a denial of otherness. As we shall see, communitarians like MacIntyre do not seem to provide an alternative position. It is clear that, within the restricted liberal and communitarian paradigms, those who are tolerated are only those individuals who belong to a specific group. Those outside the group, who hold radically different beliefs(i.e. deviate too far from the standard), are not to be tolerated.
A certain form of tolerance exists within the communitarian tradition . I agree with Steven D. Smith, who points out that "tolerance is a virtue in Alasdair MacIntyre's sense insofar as it is a prerequisite to the kind of cooperation that marks members of communities"(RL.339). MacIntyre argues that the liberal individual " is a citizen of nowhere, an internal exile where he lives... Modern liberal political society can appear only as a collection of citizens of nowhere who have banded together for their common protection". According to MacIntyre the liberal individual is isolated and egoistic,
To cut oneself off from shared activity in which one has initially to learn obediently as an apprentice learns, to isolate oneself from the communities which find their point and purposes in such activities, will be to debar oneself from finding any good outside of oneself... our pluralistic culture possess no method of weighing, no rational criterion for deciding between claims based on legitimate entitlement and against claims based on need (AV.240,229).
In order to combat liberal isolation, MacIntyre tells us, that what we need, " is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us"(AV.245).The type of community envisioned by MacIntyre, is a community in which the other is avoided and in which the stranger is excluded or exploited. Such exclusion is not only characteristic of communitarianism but shares an affinity with restricted versions of liberalism.
Liberals may argue that the comminitarian principles of unity and coherence play an unnecessarily exclusionary, repressive role. Maurizio Passerin d'Entreves argues that,
community is a term associated with strong identities, fixed by custom and tradition and rooted in history and/or collective memory. Tolerance, on the other hand, suggests more flexible identities, less rooted in history and collective memory and more open to the acceptance of difference, of plurality and of alternative lifestyles.... in the modern age it would seem, therefore, that those who uphold the principle of tolerance have little in common with those who uphold the principle of community. How is it possible to defend tolerance if one is a bearer of an identity rooted in history and fixed by tradition, afraid of being assimilated or displaced by other identities ?
The question of tolerance cannot be reduced to a simple either/or equation. d'Entreves seems to be saying that community is hostile to the principle of tolerance because it takes difference as something that exists only outside the (homogeneous) community . On the other hand, the heterogeneity of individualism, would, according to d'Entreves, provide a space for tolerance. Both classical liberals such as Locke and Mill and communitarians like MacIntyre, want at all costs to maintain the boundary line between the inside and the outside. I want to argue that the questions of tolerance will never be answered if it is simply reduced to a choice between either community or individuality. In both cases, tolerance can be understood merely as "putting up with" the other, rather than "supporting" and fostering the alterity of the other.
In the next section, I will attempt to make a case for a new tolerance which escapes the confines advocated by communitarians such as MacIntyre and liberals such as Locke and Mill. Drawing on the insights of Jacques Derrida, I argue that liberals must have a better defense of tolerance if they are to retain the concept.
It is important to note that the synonym of tolerance is charity. Charity engages the question of the relationship to the other. Within the context of our discussion, charity refers to the individuals approach to that which confronts him. How does one welcome a friend or stranger? The attitude which the individual adopts in addressing friends, strangers or enemies who wish to seek admission into our economy reflects our interpretation of the call to embrace a positive tolerance and to be charitable towards the other. The concept of charity, its cognates and their genealogies, comport a plethora of antithetical senses. Charity is a cognate of the Latin caritas, suggesting dearness, costliness, high price(the cost of a gift), and carus dear, valued, esteemed, beloved. The concept of charity is also affiliated with the Sanskrit word kama, the old Irish world caraim (love) and the Slavic word kamata which means both debt and the interest payment calculated on a loan. Construed in the light of its etymology, charity, resonates with significations of not only giving gifts but it also of being indebted to the other.
I want to suggest that tolerance should be rethought on the basis of charity. The charity which is being described here is a complex charity that cuts across differences . Rethinking tolerance on the basis of charity will allow us to leave behind the negative definition of tolerance as "putting up with" and adopt the positive definition of tolerance as supporting or fostering diversity.
As we have seen, liberals such as Locke and Mill and communitarians such as MacIntyre, call for a denial of otherness, that is, a denial of alternative perspectives which fail to cohere within their own conceptual schemes. Within the restricted liberal and communitarian schemes, the existence of alternative practices, world views, or ways of life are incomprehensible and hence candidates for intolerance. Restricted liberals and communitarians fail to cultivate the power of the question. Their unnecessarily restrictive paradigms of unity, close off the possibility of questioning. Subscribers to both restricted liberalism and communitarianism are guided by the demand for a unified horizon and are mandated to develop an interpretive posture which fits with, rather than breaks from, the story told by their traditions. Both operate according to an exclusionary policy. Alternative positions which depart too far from the story that the tradition tells, positions which simply fail to cohere with the dominant paradigm or model, are swiftly excluded from consideration.
Postmodern liberalism should seek an alternative approach which will overcome the unnecessary, reductive properties of both restricted liberalism and communitarianism. I am aware of how startling the phrase" postmodern liberalism" might seem here. Postmodernism and deconstruction are usually associated with a destruction of ethical values. Richard Rorty argues that while deconstruction is important on a private level it is "pretty much useless when it comes to politics" and is "largely irrelevant to public life and political questions" . In a recent interview Ronald Dworkin expresses the view that postmodernism "is silly, indeed incoherent".
I interpret postmodernism as an event which revises the restricted understanding of ethics and the relation of self and other. The task of postmodern liberalism calls the citizen forth with a radical responsibility and tolerance which is based on charity. Postmodern liberalism will permit hitherto excluded positions to be heard. It will offer an alternative to unequivocal hegemony of one unified metanarrative over other narrative.
A postmodern liberalism will interrogate those forces that have made dominance and intolerance a central part of their agenda. Postmodern liberalism will reveal that within the codes and rules of restricted moralities, there has always been an intolerance. A postmodern liberalism will cultivate plurality and alterity, rather than suppress it.
The postmodern liberalism which I am developing here, shares an affinity with Rawls conception of political liberalism and justice as fairness, which is not metaphysical . Rawls argues that,
the aim of justice as fairness as a political conception is practical, and not metaphysical or epistemological. That is, it presents itself not as a conception of justice that is true, but one that can serve as a basis of informed and willing political agreement between citizens viewed as free and equal persons... in a society marked by deep divisions between opposing and incommensurable conceptions of the good, justice as fairness enables us at least to conceive how social unity can be both possible and stable.

Rawls concedes that although political liberalism is "neutral in aim" it may "affirm the superiority of certain forms of moral character and encourage certain moral virtues"(PL. 194). The virtues which Rawls enumerates are "the virtues of fair social cooperation such as the virtues of civility and tolerance, of reasonableness and the sense of fairness"(PL.194).
In Force of Law, Derrida describes that deconstruction, "operates on the basis of an infinite idea of justice". This deconstructive justice is "owed to the Other before any contract."(FL.965) Deconstructive justice is committed to responsibility and to Otherness. Derrida argues deconstructive justice "always addresses itself to singularity, to the singularity of the Other"(FL.955). Deconstructive justice examines the phenomena of injustice that has oppressed, marginalized and excluded the Other. A deconstructive justice exposes the violence inherent in all restricted economies. Within a restricted economy, the metaphysical blanket protected dominant forces, while systematically smothering and eliminating Otherness. A restricted economy operates according to a metaphysical(i.e. comprehensive) and totalitarian metanarrative, that formulates laws in order to suppress Otherness. In short, a restricted economy employs a resistance to Otherness, whose final aim is the total elimination of Otherness.
A restricted economy, has always been threatened by the forces that have upset its order. The response to these "threats", has been to contain them in one place, i.e. the clinic, the prison, the "safe haven" or the concentration camp. A restricted economy maintains purity by excluding difference. Such exclusion is based on intolerance.
A restrictive tolerance which merely "puts up with the other" maintains its oppressive dominance. The tolerance of postmodern liberalism, on the contrary, should be linked to charity and should adopt an openness to Otherness. Otherness is cultivated, rather than suppressed. A postmodern liberalism would provide a sobering account of the intolerance of certain restrictive communities to intrusions.
Restricted liberal and communitarian strategies for containing undecidability, shelter individuals from options that might otherwise appear. Postmodern liberals recognize that decisions must be made in the face of a set of equally compelling alternatives.
Plurality increases both the difficulty and liberty involved in decision making. Postmodern liberalism allows for a series of rival divergent choices. In giving individuals more options and no independent basis for ultimately selecting from these options, postmodern liberalism calls for an increase in responsibility. In Derrida's words, " each case is other, each decision is different and required an absolute unique interpretation, which no existing coded rule can or ought to guarantee absolutely"(FL.947).
According to Derrida, "undecideability is always a determinate oscillation between possibilities... These possibilities are themselves highly determined in strictly defined situations (for example... political, ethical, etc.) They are pragmatically determined". The task of the postmodern liberal is to invigorate these highly determined contexts in order to open up more possibilities than would otherwise be generated by the restricted liberal or communitarian program.
A postmodern liberalism will support the imperative of stating and maintaining the liberty of the question. Maintaining the liberty of the question allows individuals to choose between various forms of life without protest or interference. The deference to the demands of coherence excludes other world views and reduces the liberty of the question. Tolerance as political, incorporates a responsibility both to the other and to the liberty of the question. Maintaining the liberty of the question, to borrow Kymlicka's words, "is the first step in starting a dialogue" .
A dialogue involves an interplay between self and other. How we respond reflects the tolerance we show toward the Other. Our response towards any question can take the form of "yes"or "no". As Derrida points out, " One always has, one always must have, the right not to respond, and this liberty belongs to responsibility itself, that is, to the liberty that one believes must be associated with it. One must always be free not to respond to an appeal or to an invitation- and it is worth remembering this, to remind oneself of the essence of this liberty"(PO. 15, my emphasis).This responsive "no" recognizes a limit to what is "tolerated". David H. Jones, argues that,"citizens with liberal civic virtues must recognize limits to tolerance and that their loyalty to liberal institutions will sometimes require them to repudiate and even combat some of the more robust forms of illiberal community"

A postmodern liberalism will be attentive to the question of what kind of community will emerge from the new tolerance. Will it be "a community that builds on the resources of difference and diversity that begin to emerge with pluralism" or a community which "sets out to annihilate the communities that do exist". (ML.179) In examining the question of tolerance, Susan Mendus asks," what are the requirements of toleration... does toleration require more than merely letting alone? Does it require assisting and nurturing?" (TLL,17). We are now in a position to answer, that tolerance does require more than "merely letting alone". The tolerance which is being outlined here answers Cain's question with a "yes". Tolerance understood in terms of charity is a supporting of the other. But this support is not without criticism. The citizen who dwells in the polis is one who responds, questions and criticizes responsibly.
Let us recall that tolerance relates to the question of the toll. A toll is a fixed charge to travel across a bridge or road. This question engages the discussion of customs, debts and borders; of admission and who is allowed to enter; of what is allowed to cross over of what is acceptable; of what and who is allowed to pass over to the other side.
Ultimately, the meaning of tolerance is found in the relation that I have with the Other. and the demand that is placed upon me by the other. Tolerance is a "problem of human relations"(T.21). Tolerance is a question of how we meet the Other. Do we meet the Other with the charity of the open hand or the imperialism of the closed fist and of the equally closed mind ?