tolerance in the late age of deliberation

I started this post about a month ago. Unsurprisingly, concerns with in/tolerance have not subsided. It was just two weeks ago that the shooting of Republicans during a baseball practice inspired a response that political rhetoric needed to change. As you probably recall, at the time Trump said “We may have our differences, but we do well in times like these to remember that everyone who serves in our nation’s capital is here because above all they love our country… We can all agree that we are blessed to be Americans. That our children deserve to grow up in a nation of safety and peace. That we are strongest when we are unified and when we work together for the common good.” Of course this week the news again is occupied, maybe preoccupied, with Trump’s viscous ad hominem Twitter attacks. We hear from the First Lady that when her husband is attacked, he hits back ten times harder. So we find ourselves once again in a situation where all we can promise one another is an escalation of violence. This recent circus is only a sideshow in the context of health care legislation where the Republican strategy of shutting down any possibility for deliberation quite clearly puts the lie to Trump’s earlier platitudes. They self-evidently have no interest in working together.

So what’s the point of tolerance anyway? Toleration is a firm political virtue in the West and globally, enshrined in such documents as UNESCO’s “Declaration of Principles on Tolerance,” which says “Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. It is fostered by knowledge, openness, communication and freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Tolerance is harmony in difference. It is not only a moral duty, it is also a political and legal requirement. Tolerance, the virtue that makes peace possible, contributes to the replacement of the culture of war by a culture of peace.” (I suppose this includes tolerance of comma splices.) In making tolerance a “duty” and “requirement,” it clearly points out that tolerance does not tolerate intolerance. So, in short, those who do not have “respect, acceptance, and appreciation” should not be tolerated.

Here’s a conservative perspective on the matter from the National Review, Fred Bauer’s analysis of “The Left and ‘Discriminating Tolerance,'” which focuses largely on Herbert Marcuse. Though I disagree with Bauer in many respects, his basic summary of Marcuse is fair. The idea is that you can’t proceed with tolerance in a society that is unequal and unjust from the start. As I see it though, this is really just saying that one must oppose the intolerance which is inherent in Western society–racism, sexism, etc. However this is not an exclusively Leftist argument. Certainly it has been the argument of the Right, especially the alt-right, that leftist politics were/are intolerant of their views. I think Bauer does have a point that leftist politics has the danger of becoming a kind of circular firing squad, but the same thing is true on the right. Bauer points to an earlier concept of tolerance as a solution in the work of 17th-century Puritan Roger Williams. Bauer writes, “Because we do not have absolute knowledge of God’s plan and because of the inherent value of each person, Williams called for a broad cultural tolerance, in which all creeds would be welcomed into the public square. This tolerance would not be moral nihilism (it is not, after all, denying the legitimacy of moral truths) but rather the cultivation of a sense of modesty and mutual respect.” But again this simply begs the question of what “moral truths” might be. In that respect it is no different than UNESCO’s assertion that one cannot tolerate intolerance. When it comes down to it, as a society, we do not agree on what constitutes morality, justice, or intolerance, so saying that we should tolerate each other within certain limits is problematic.

Of course that’s the point of deliberation. Deliberation is how we get together and agree upon these boundaries. The open question is whether or not we have the desire or ability to do so. Toleration is easy, one might even say unnecessary, when the other has not effect on you. It’s when the other’s actions do affect you that you have to tolerate them. Toleration is also pragmatic. I don’t have to tolerate the fly annoying me. The Republicans might be believe they do not need to tolerate Democrats if they can pass their legislation without them. With no need to tolerate the other there is no need to deliberate. An the other hand, when we do perceive a need for others then tolerance works temporarily, as a ceasefire, until the process of deliberation can hopefully produce a result that is more than tolerable. Where the new conditions do not put such pressures on the community that calls for toleration must be continually made.

However, I think we live in a late age of deliberation, meaning not that the capacity for deliberation is ending, but that we talk a lot about the limits of deliberation and the possibility of deliberation becoming impossible. That’s what we are continually seeing from Washington, the White House in particular, as well as from media pundits across the political spectrum. It’s the inability or unwillingness to deliberate and the assertion that we cannot or should not deliberate. I wish I could say that figuring out how to deliberate will solve our problems. Maybe, like Trump, you think that at the end of the day we have common values across the spectrum in things like “safety and peace” or the “common good,” but those are empty platitudes. We don’t agree on what they mean. It seems fairly obvious that what might make people of color or in the LBGTQ community feel safe is quite different from what might make many Trump supporters feel safe. One might even go as far as to say they are opposite, that these groups cannot all feel safe simultaneously.  Deliberation isn’t about a compromise where we all agree to feeling less than safe, where we are all walk away unhappy, as the cliche about compromises goes. It is about coming to a consensus about what safety is, based upon empirical understanding of threats and a careful deliberation of how to meet them.  The result should be that we all walk away with a better understanding of what a “nation of safety and peace” should look like for Americans. But who’s willing to do that now?