The Degradation of Tolerance

In his 1965 essay, “Repressive Tolerance,” Herbert Marcuse critiqued systems which foster “tolerance as a means for perpetuating the struggle for existence and suppressing the alternatives.”

“Tolerance toward that which is radically evil now appears as good because it serves the cohesion of the whole on the road to affluence or more affluence. The toleration of the systematic moronization of children and adults alike by publicity and propaganda, the release of destructiveness in aggressive driving, the recruitment for and training of special forces, the impotent and benevolent tolerance toward outright deception in merchandizing, waste, and planned obsolescence are not distortions and aberrations, they are the essence” of such “delinquent” societies.

Marcuse’s quick word on dialectics: “According to a dialectical proposition it is the whole which determines the truth–not in the sense that the whole is prior or superior to its parts, but in the sense that its structure and function determine every particular condition and relation.”

Marcuse on the intellectual function: “(I)t is the task and duty of the intellectual to recall and preserve historical possibilities which seem to have become utopian possibilities.”

On the basis of the humane society: “Tolerance is an end in itself. The elimination of violence, and the reduction of suppression to the extent required for protecting man and animals from cruelty and aggression are preconditions for the creation of a humane society. Such a society does not yet exist.”

On the limits of tolerance: “indiscriminate tolerance is justified in harmless debates, in conversation, in academic discussion; it is indispensable in the scientific enterprise, in private religion. But society cannot be indiscriminate where the pacification of existence, where freedom and happiness themselves are at stake: here, certain things cannot be said, certain ideas cannot be expressed, certain policies cannot be proposed, certain behavior cannot be permitted without making tolerance an instrument for the continuation of servitude…

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. This pure toleration of sense and nonsense is justified by the democratic argument that nobody, neither group nor individual, is in possession of the truth and capable of defining what is right and wrong, good and bad. Therefore, all contesting opinions must be submitted to ‘the people’ for its deliberation and choice. But I have already suggested that the democratic argument implies a necessary condition (violated as) the democratic argument for abstract tolerance tends to be invalidated by the invalidation of the democratic process itself.”

Marcuse proceeds to critique the democracy-undermining impact of oligopolistic media in capitalism:

“Other words can be spoken and heard, other ideas can be expressed, but, at the massive scale of the conservative majority (outside such enclaves as the intelligentsia), they are immediately ‘evaluated’ (i.e. automatically understood) in terms of the public language–a language which determines ‘a priori’ the direction in which the thought process moves… Self-validating, the argument of the discussion repels the contradiction because the antithesis is redefined in terms of the thesis. For example, thesis: we work for peace; antithesis: we prepare for war (or even: we wage war); unification of opposites; preparing for war is working for peace…Consequently, persuasion through discussion and the equal presentation of opposites (even where it is really, equal) easily lose their liberating force as factors of understanding and learning; they are far more likely to strengthen the established thesis and to repel the alternatives…(I)n a democracy with totalitarian organization, objectivity may fulfill a very different function, namely, to foster a mental attitude which tends to obliterate the difference between true and false, information and indoctrination, right and wrong…if a newscaster reports the torture and murder of civil rights workers in the same unemotional tone he uses to describe the stockmarket or the weather, or with the same great emotion with which he says his commercials, then such objectivity is spurious–more, it offends against humanity and truth by being calm where one should be enraged, by refraining from accusation where accusation is in the facts themselves. The tolerance expressed in such impartiality serves to minimize or even absolve prevailing intolerance and suppression…For the facts are never given immediately and never accessible immediately; they are established, ‘mediated’ by those who made them; the truth, ‘the whole truth’ surpasses these facts and requires the rupture with their appearance. This rupture–prerequisite and token of all freedom of thought and of speech–cannot be accomplished within the established framework of abstract tolerance and spurious objectivity because these are precisely the factors which precondition the mind against the rupture.”

Marcuse’s critique of JS Mill’s discourse on toleration, where Mill poses oppositional, dissenting violence, or the threat thereof, as intolerable:

“The underlying assumption (in Mill’s view) is that the established society is free, and that any improvement, even a change in the social structure and social values, would come about in the normal course of events, prepared, defined, and tested in free and equal discussion, on the open marketplace of ideas and goods.[2] Now in recalling John Stuart Mill’s passage, I drew attention to the premise hidden in this assumption: free and equal discussion can fulfill the function attributed to it only if it is rational expression and development of independent thinking, free from indoctrination, manipulation, extraneous authority.”

Who is incapable of dissent without violence in a society with power? The less powerful. What happens to their nonviolent dissent?

“The laborer, whose real interest conflicts with that of management, the common consumer whose real interest conflicts with that of the producer, the intellectual whose vocation conflicts with that of his employer find themselves submitting to a system against which they are powerless and appear unreasonable. The idea of the available alternatives evaporates into an utterly utopian dimension.”

Thomas Frank & Matt Weiland followed up with “Commodify your Dissent” (1995), to wit:

“What we understand as ‘dissent’ does not subvert, does not challenge, does not even question the cultural faiths of Western business. What David Rieff wrote of the revolutionary pretensions of multiculturalism is equally true of the countercultural idea: ‘The more one reads in academic multiculturalist journals and in business publications, and the more one contrasts the speeches of CEOs and the speeches of noted multiculturalist academics, the more one is struck by the similarities in the way they view the world.’ What’s happened is not co-optation or appropriation, but a simple and direct confluence of interest.”


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