The Tyranny of Tolerance

October 23, 2008

The Tyranny of Tolerance

Contemporary liberalism claims open-ended tolerance as its guiding principle. The claim is an odd one, since every social order accepts some patterns of conduct but not others. Otherwise it would not be a social order at all. It should not be surprising that on examination the claim turns out to be false.

In theory, of course, values can be freely chosen in liberal society. In practice, however, some are disfavored. Sometimes the favoritism seems arbitrary, as in the case of the suppression of tobacco but not alcohol. In general, though, it comes about because some values are at odds with a regime that needs all values to be treated as interchangeable. It is thought a pathology to take love, loyalty, integrity, religion, or community affiliation seriously as standards that trump the right to choose. To do so casts doubt on the principles of tolerance and equal freedom, because it suggests that some person, group, status, relationship, or goal has a special position that trumps immediate personal preference.

In fact, liberal tolerance does not expand the range of goods or ways of life that are available. It suppresses some while favoring others in the interest of establishing a comprehensively rationalized system. That system calls for a particular human type and way of life in which a combination of rational self-interest, emotional self-expression, and political correctness is the proper basis for social relations. Such qualities promote a tolerant outlook, and the demand for tolerance profoundly affects what ways of life are permissible. Tolerance thus becomes intolerant.

Choice, the basic principle of liberalism, can be free and equal for everyone only to the extent it relates to things that can be supplied interchangeably. Otherwise, the choices of some get in the way of those of others. Burger King’s “€œhave it your way,”€ the right of each to choose absolutely independently among preset choices that the established system finds equally easy to provide, is the model of individual self-rule in advanced liberal society. Even the members of pierced and tattooed youth subcultures, who claim to reject the established order but in fact are thoroughly formed by it, show their allegiance to accepted understandings by identifying their pursuits simply as “€œalternative”€ and thus just another item on the menu.

The attempt to make human goods independent and interchangeable within a universal rational system of production, consumption, and governance makes career and consumption the central modes of participation in social life. Career allows people to offer themselves as interchangeable productive units within the system, while consumption lets them choose among the kinds of enjoyment the system finds convenient to provide.

Those two modes of social participation become the decisive dimensions of freedom and identity. They give us our dignity: I shop, therefore I am. To lack customary consumer goods is to be denied human dignity, and to have a career is to make something of oneself and realize one’s dream.

The advanced liberal state emphasizes freedoms relating to individual indulgence, granting them generously and indeed making them almost absolute. Such freedoms, along with those relating to career and consumption, correspond to the human goods liberalism recognizes, and they aid the operation of the system by keeping the people occupied and away from public affairs. The promotion of private forms of pleasure and expression not essentially connected to the concerns of others, and so readily commercialized and otherwise made manageable, becomes basic public policy.

Such an arrangement is not new: the Roman state kept the proletariat quiet with bread and circuses. Prosperity, electronics, and social complexity have expanded the menu of diversions and soporifics but the principle is similar. If we have career opportunities, counseling, television, fast food, and pornography, the thought is, people will get what they want, their desire for adventure can be satisfied by visits to casinos, they will not get involved in pogroms or the Ku Klux Klan, and those who know better will be able to run the system efficiently and in peace.

Freedom thus becomes a matter of private license, while self-government disappears. Governing the people by encouraging them to be self-involved and self-indulgent even generates its own justification, since it makes them less able to rule themselves and so makes it more necessary for government to act as their custodian. The strategy draws support not only from experts, educators, and welfare-state administrators on the left, but also from businessmen on the right, who after all have no objections to careerism and consumerism. Since those groups dominate the main political parties, serious political opposition is minimal. Occasional populist revolts may be triggered by violations of what the populace believes“€”as we see, from time to time, among evangelical Christians”€”but these are soon extinguished by a system that gives them what they most immediately and reliably desire: consumer goods and lifestyle freedoms.

In contrast to serious matters like career, the pre-rational and unchosen connections and commitments that once defined who a man is”€”family, religion, historical community”€”become lifestyle options, consumer goods like any other. To treat them otherwise would be to threaten the social order, and so to discredit oneself and become subject to various sanctions. Discussions of women’s roles make the view now established clear: to be a mother and housewife is to be oppressed, self-indulgent, useless, or socially nonexistent. In both Britain and the United States, it is actually illegal for a guidance counselor to suggest to a female student that she may prefer a career as a mother and homemaker to one in the formal public workforce.

Even religion, to be legitimate, must transform itself so that it simply restates established egalitarian, rationalist, consumerist, and careerist values. Its public face and authoritative principles must be decided by experts and emphasize tolerance, inclusion, and equality. Anything more concrete, particular, and at odds with a regime of centrally managed egalitarian hedonism must remain purely private. In particular, no religion can claim superiority over any other religion or over irreligion. Each must understand itself as an optional pursuit, and thus as not a religion at all.

To some extent, the resulting form of society conflicts with the liberal principle that substantive goods should be treated equally, since it favors worldly ambition and material goods over the joys of fraternity and the simple life. However, the contradiction troubles only a few antimaterialist hippies and other highly idealistic members of the liberal coalition. The brute fact of material self-interest is enough to keep most people from noticing the problem, and in any case prosperity and choice can always be presented as all-purpose goods usable for any goal, even the simple life. Just as Marie Antoinette played shepherdess at the Petit Trianon, yuppies can spend their extra dollars on ecotourism and free-range chickens.

Book Cover

An unavoidable issue raised by the liberal project of social rationalization is the treatment of traditional and informal arrangements that compete with the bureaucratic and market institutions liberalism favors. Traditional institutions that rely on ties and distinctions liberalism rejects, such as family, sex, religion, particular culture, and historical community, order human life in basic ways. They create the connections by which men normally live (and live normally), and they establish common habits, understandings, and loyalties that guide social functioning and facilitate networks of trust and cooperation. They are the basis of a natural form of society that pre-exists any attempt to impose a consciously invented pattern.


Nonetheless, such arrangements put some people at a disadvantage. No society or institution is egalitarian. Patterns of cooperation depend on connections and distinctions that are intrinsically unequal. People would not consider career so important if a CEO and a mail clerk were treated the same. In the case of liberal institutions such as the market, the state, and certified expertise, the inequalities, however radical, are integrated with rationally organized functions and can be justified as necessary for the liberal system to operate. In the case of other institutions that is not so, at least from the liberal point of view. Advanced liberalism therefore demands that the distinctions and expectations on which traditional institutions rely, which it considers irrational as well as unequal, be made irrelevant to everything of practical importance. That is what it means to say that it opposes stereotyping and discrimination.

As an application of liberal principle such a demand has great force. Once basic physical needs have been satisfied, our relations with others, including how they regard and treat us, are what most of us care most about. Liberalism insists that systematic inequalities regarding such things be justified in liberal terms, so that the only distinctions allowed to matter are clearly definable distinctions liberal institutions rely on, such as wealth, bureaucratic position, and educational certification. All others must be abolished, at least in their effects. That insistence is now considered a matter of basic social morality. Persons of every race, ethnicity, nationality, lifestyle, religious background, disability, sex, and sexual orientation must be able to participate equally in major social activities, with “€œability to participate”€ measured by their achievement of roughly equal status, rewards, and respect. Conversely, every significant activity and institution must include such persons in rough proportion to their presence in the population. If it does not, at least when those excluded can point to a social disadvantage from which they suffer that suggests the exclusion may be discriminatory, the disproportion is considered a serious wrong that disparages the equal humanity of those disadvantaged, and it must be rectified by all necessary means.

It is hard to overstate how radical such demands are. Sex, religion, historical community, particular culture, and the like, which are the inequalities targeted by measures such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, have always been fundamental to social organization. Such traditional connections determine almost inevitably how people understand themselves and relate to each other. While the state and other public institutions often have good reason to ignore particularities, less formal arrangements such as friendship, love, and family life notoriously discriminate on just such grounds. The enforcement history of the Civil Rights Act as well as simple reflection shows that any serious general attempt to do away with such connections as social organizing principles must quickly become aggressively radical.

To say that distinctions of sex and sexuality should have no significance, for example, is in effect to say that the family should have no settled nature, that it should not be a social institution surrounded by definite standards that support and guard it and enable it to function effectively and reliably, that it is just a name for any sort of domestic partnership.

When so understood it no longer makes sense to tie the family to serious obligations. It must be replaced in important matters by formal education, childcare agencies, fast-food restaurants, the welfare system, and so on. To say ethnicity should have no significance is to make a similar point about historic community and particular culture: all the expectations, assumptions, habits, attitudes, memories, standards, and loyalties that connect those who share an inherited community and culture must be made irrelevant to all aspects of life that have public significance. Multiculturalism”€”the comprehensive effort to detach social life from particular culture and inherited community”€”is a necessary consequence of the anti-discrimination principle.

Since public life under liberalism must be based strictly on liberal principles, it can only be organized by money, bureaucratic position, and certified expertise. It is difficult to arrange things in such a way. Even if the difficulty of abolishing the effect of basic social connections and the damage likely to result from making them nonfunctional is ignored, discrimination is often quite rational in particular cases and for that reason continually reappears.

Human beings differ, as do their affinities to one other and their ways of cooperating. Enough differences are related to characteristics such as sex and ethnicity for free dealings to lead to a degree of social differentiation even in the absence of intentional discrimination. Where such differentiation arises, the habits, social expectations, and ease of cooperation it engenders accentuate it, and when such things become self-aware they turn into full-fledged discrimination of a kind now considered intolerably invidious. Discrimination perpetually re-creates itself if there is no comprehensive supervening force constantly at work to ferret it out and suppress it.

The attempt to ensure that every type of person, belief, habit, and preference is included equally in all important settings requires comprehensive measures that continuously counteract the way people naturally view and deal with each other. All significant institutions must adopt inclusiveness and diversity as fundamental commitments justifying constant efforts at reeducation, and all human activities must be continuously supervised for compliance. As David K. Shipler notes in A Country of Strangers (1997), “€œThis is the ideal: to search your attitudes, identify your stereotypes, and correct for them as you go about your daily duties.”€

That may not be a severe requirement in the case of liberal activist groups, neutral rational bureaucracies, and purely profit-seeking enterprises. It is likely to reduce their efficiency somewhat, and may make them rather alienating as places to work, but their fundamental commitments can remain much as before. However, it places a serious strain on educational and cultural institutions that are concerned with substantive noneconomic goods. If such institutions are allowed to function on their original principles, they will almost surely engage in discrimination based on cultural attachments and ultimate commitments, and thus effectively on class, ethnicity, and religion. At a minimum, they will be more welcoming to those of some backgrounds than others, and they will violate the requirement that the terms and conditions of employment be made equal”€”and thus the workplace equally hospitable”€”for those of all backgrounds.

Educational and cultural institutions must therefore be transformed and their fundamental purposes radically altered so that they can be inclusive. Schools that once taught the liberal arts must abolish particular cultural connections and emphasize diversity above all else. Drama companies must emphasize “€œnontraditional casting,”€ while art museums must get rid of connoisseurship, which depends on the acceptance of particular cultural standards, in favor of multiculturalism, left-wing social history, and confrontational pieces that subvert traditional standards. Here and abroad lawmakers increasingly require Catholic organizations to hire atheists, place adopted children with homosexual couples, and provide contraceptives to employees. In the name of freedom and diversity, all institutions must be forced to adopt similar goals, standards, and practices that may be wholly at odds with their reason for being.

No usable way of limiting such requirements has been proposed. In fact, the extent of these demands is often ignored or obfuscated, and the convention that what is called diversity be treated as a great and unalloyed good makes it difficult to discuss and criticize them. To the contrary, these requirements continually become broader, so that the list of protected characteristics gets longer and forbidden discrimination comes to include toleration of disproportionate outcomes. If you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem”€”that is the meaning of expressions like “€œinstitutional racism.”€

Everyone is required to participate enthusiastically in a never-ending and all-embracing campaign for inclusiveness and against that acceptance of the reality of human differences which is now called hatred. The totalitarian character of such a campaign is unavoidable, given its premises. By its nature it requires a comprehensive control over social life restrained by neither popular consent nor traditional limitations on the role of the state. It requires “€œaffirmative action”€”€”quotas and equivalent measures”€”since the only way to verify proper motives and eliminate structural inequalities is to look at results. Reeducation programs, sensitivity training, speech codes, and other forms of thought control become a permanent necessity, since the purpose of any serious antidiscrimination program is to prevent people from acting and making decisions in ways that seem natural to them unless their habits of thought are constantly put in question and reformed.

“€œPolitical correctness”€ has drawn attention as an eccentric excess, perhaps because it has to do with words and it is natural to talk about words. In fact, political correctness is simply that aspect of inclusiveness which deals with the purification of language, symbols, and images, and as such is necessary to the effort as a whole. The specifics are of course infinitely varied. Writers and public speakers must use “€œinclusive”€ language”€”for example, they must avoid using “€œman”€ and “€œhe”€ to refer to human beings in general”€”and otherwise use the terms chosen for protected groups by their most vocal spokesmen. Athletic teams must be renamed and illustrations in books and periodicals loaded with women and racial minorities in non-traditional and often improbable roles.

Such matters become a matter of bureaucratic routine: committees meet, decide on guidelines, and incorporate them in style sheets and other authoritative standards. The rules often become petty and burdensome, as in the case of other rules relating to inclusiveness, since their purpose is to interfere quite comprehensively with the details of day-to-day life. Nonetheless, a desire to avoid constraint in matters that seem minor cannot, from the advanced liberal standpoint, justify the perpetuation of the oppression implicit in informal customary arrangements. If using “€œA.D.”€ instead of “€œC.E.”€ suggests the social authority of Christianity and so puts Buddhists at a disadvantage because of who they are or the preferences they live by, it is hard, from the standpoint of equal freedom, to view forbidding the term as oppressive.


The demand for inclusiveness becomes most intense when cast as opposition to the things now referred to as “€œbigotry”€: racism, sexism, homophobia, and the like. Such opposition is treated as self-evident and so rarely discussed analytically, but as a view accepted as fundamental to social morality and legitimate public policy it nonetheless has specific content.

As such, it holds that there are definite things classifiable as “€œbigotry”€ that are backed by power and constituted by hatred and contempt for those who differ, and but for which relations among groups would be harmonious”€”if indeed differences were noted at all. Bigotry is thought to have no legitimate function whatever. It is pure pathology, like smallpox, and it transforms everything it touches. It turns insults into crimes and makes even atrocities more ghastly. The crimes of leftist regimes, which are not thought bigoted in their basic nature, are considered no more comparable to Nazi outrages than is a botched surgical operation to an ax murder.

Bigotry is seen everywhere, with or without specific evidence. As long as some groups are collectively unequal to others, the world is racist, sexist, homophobic, and otherwise bigoted, and the harder it is to find an explanation that can be presented without offending minority sensitivities and interests, the more fundamental and pervasive the bigotry is presumed to be. And since bigotry is presumed to be everywhere, accusations of it always stick, at least a little, and however reckless rarely hurt the accuser. Even false accusations are thought valuable, because they draw attention to issues that can never be overemphasized. If nothing else, they demonstrate that someone feels marginalized and excluded”€”a situation that can never be ignored, accepted, or blamed on the victim.

The emphasis on bigotry as a supreme evil that must be fought in every way possible is a surprisingly recent growth that demonstrates a transformation of moral life. It first became important, and still is strongest, with respect to race. Emphatic opposition to racism, and the belief that it is pervasive and almost supernaturally monstrous, give the “€œrace card”€ extraordinary potency. Any tinge of racism is now thought to discredit a man, practice, or institution. Nonetheless, the word racism apparently did not exist in English before the 1930s, the 1968 convention was the first the Democratic Party held without whites-only delegations, and one of the first Roman Catholics to identify racial segregation as a sin died just a few years ago. In earlier times, particular instances of racial oppression were recognized as wrong, but they were wrong in the way and for the reasons other oppression was wrong. Taking ethnic attachments into account in the ordinary affairs of life, when choosing associates for example, was not considered to be a radical moral evil simply as such.

American antiracism, which is now understood as basic to American identity, reflects profound changes in the nature of American nationality under the influence of liberalism and related trends. Americans began as overseas Englishmen, and thus as a traditional ethnic people defined by ancestry and inherited habits and loyalties. As John Jay, writing in The Federalist, observed, “€œProvidence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people”€”a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs.”€

Independence distinguished Americans from their one-time compatriots, and their national identity became tied to the political theory that justified separation. The ideological component of American identity has since become ever more important, as immigration diluted common ancestry, secession and its bloody failure weakened and discredited local particularism, technology and economic development separated men from their roots, and American national institutions became more dominant and for their own purposes emphasized the universalistic aspects of American life.

The result today is that mainstream white Americans have come to understand ethnicity as something others have. They view themselves much more as free and independent individuals who are Americans because they accept ideals and institutions they understand as universally valid. More and more, for an American to return to his roots as an American is to become radically individualist, universalist, and anti-ethnic.

Antiracism as it actually exists is a messianic version of the refusal to recognize distinctions based on particular culture and historic community, and as such it has become part of an Americanism that has replaced more particular identities as a focus for political and social attachment. Remnants of older and more particularistic understandings have become incomprehensible and give rise to guilt feelings that redouble antiracist zeal.

The evolving character of American nationality has foreshadowed broader changes in the world at large, as America has become less exceptional. The movement against bigotry has generalized and spread throughout the world as other countries have joined in the battle against discrimination, and as that battle has expanded from antiracism to opposition to sexism, homophobia, and other new offenses. The fundamental principle”€”the demand for the abolition of distinctions that relate to social arrangements other than markets and rationalized bureaucracies”€”remains the same, while its application has grown from the suppression of connections and distinctions related to historical community to the suppression of those related to yet more fundamental institutions such as the family.

Today, resolute opposition to what counts as bigotry is no less a principle of the EU”€”and indeed all respectable institutions everywhere”€”than of America. That opposition is clearly not a pure matter of high ideals. Big business, finance, academia, and government, all intensely unequal and hierarchical, support the eradication of traditional distinctions and connections less because they love equality than because they want their own forms of inequality”€”financial, professional, or bureaucratic”€”to prevail. For a universal rational order based on global markets and transnational bureaucracies to dominate social life without resistance, populations must be transformed into aggregations of human resources and purchasing power lacking the cohesion, complexity, and noneconomic interests that might complicate the system and make it less manageable and efficient. As in other settings, moralism here distracts attention from obvious self-interest.

The strength of anti-bigotry is not, however, simply a matter of institutional self-interest. It is tied to broader changes that weaken family and community generally. Community normally involves historical, cultural, sexual, and similar nonrationalized ties that precede the specific choices men make. Such ties are at odds with the modern tendency to question things and demand plain answers, and to take them apart for reassembly, packaging, and sale. As a result, standards of behavior not freely chosen by individuals have come to be thought oppressive, and rejection of whatever transcends the concerns of particular men has become a moral norm. Even a man’s own culture, the understandings and habits he was born to that make him what he is and connect him to those around him, now seems an imposition.

Under such circumstances bureaucracies and markets can be defended as neutral rational ways of aggregating and coordinating individual preferences, but sexual distinctions and inherited and cultural ties are incomprehensible. The relation of the sexes combines biology, psychology, tradition, and social function in ways that are very difficult to unravel. Historical and cultural ties are a mix of history, early upbringing, habits, attitudes, connections, and loyalties that are more easily felt and acted on than defined. They are social facts that do not reduce without remainder to individual characteristics or conduct. That should not be surprising, since social setting precedes individual qualities and choices. That is how it becomes part of what makes us what we are and connects us durably to others.

However, the modern outlook is too narrowly analytical to deal with such things. It finds sexual distinctions and inherited community and culture lacking in any clear content and ultimately comprehensible only as the fear of freedom, a will to dominate, or hatred for those who differ. To make matters worse, moderns, who are fond of logical simplicity, interpret such things in the most extreme sense possible. Common sense can only be the sense of a community constituted by tradition, so to be fully modern is to be incapable of good sense and moderation. Doubts about one thing become identified with insistence on its opposite, and a rejection of simple comprehensive equality with the promotion of unlimited oppression. Hence the stereotypes of the “€œracist,”€ “€œsexist,”€ and “€œhomophobe”€: in the attribution of any significance at all to traditional non-rationalized connections and distinctions, moderns see limitless violent oppression.

Such changes in life and in social and political ideals correspond to a shift in basic philosophical understandings. Liberalism and modernity generally involve the denial of whatever transcends particular purposes. Such a denial implies that we create distinctions rather than find them, and that they matter only to the extent we make them matter. It brings about a setting in which classifying is simply an exercise of the will of the classifier, and attribution of stable character a manifestation of obsessiveness.

In such a setting, extreme sensitivity regarding what is called bigotry is inevitable. If things do not have stable natures that precede our actions and purposes, classification is intrinsically oppressive; escaping it becomes essential to personal dignity. Since distinctions have no objective basis, the obvious motive for making them is the construction of one’s own identity by arbitrary exclusion. To construct oneself as superior one need only treat others as inferior, and to make the distinction serious one enforces it violently. Classifying others thus becomes, from the modern anti-transcendental point of view, a kind of conceptual apartheid that leads directly to Nazism.

The contrast with previous understandings is striking. Universals were once understood to allow participation in the order of the world. To be a man, a peasant, or a king was to live in accordance with the innate order of things, to take part in the world made by God, nature, and history, and thus to have dignity. To be English or Thai carried with it a web of loyalties and standards that made possible a rewarding life in common. Even to be a beggar gave a man a recognized place. Such definite qualities gave reality and weight to things. They enabled men to escape the degradation of continual change and the nothingness of abstract characterless individuality. Stability meant life: change, decay, and death.

All that has changed. If we deny universals, to be a king is to be imprisoned by the social expectations surrounding kingship. To have a particular IQ is to be defined as suitable for certain roles in the social machine, and so to be reduced to an implement to be used by others for their own purposes. Life and meaning lie in the escape from determinate being, in transition to something other than what one already is”€”the less definable the better. Like sex, drugs, ambition, and violence, change and diversity are this-worldly substitutes for transcendence. Anything, even change for the worse, is better than here-and-now reality and the requirements imposed by a specific community and way of life.

The movement against bigotry has come far and fast because of the crystallization of the conditions and understandings upon which it depends. Public recognition of the transcendent has collapsed. Even the churches, to the extent they remain socially respectable, have abandoned it in favor of this-worldly concerns, tolerance and inclusiveness first and foremost. The enormous growth of government social expenditures since the Second World War has brought radical centralization and bureaucratization to social life generally. Family forms and the relation between the sexes have become too indefinite for reliance, and children are now largely raised by a combination of electronic entertainment and government functionaries. Cheap transportation and electronic communications have powerfully enhanced globalization.

Each of us today is constantly confronted electronically and in print with a heterogeneous assortment of persons and things presented by media functionaries or the Internet. We look at them not from the standpoint of our own concrete or inherited experience but from an artificial universal standpoint constructed by a perpetually shifting web of text, sound, and images. From that standpoint, the articulated distinctions that have constituted social order become baseless assertions. In particular, the social functions of traditional ties and distinctions vanish from sight. Instead, these ties appear to be a source of conflict, chaos, and oppression within a system functioning on wholly different principles.

James Kalb is an attorney who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has appeared in Telos, Modern Age, and other publications. He authors a blog, Turnabout, focused on politics, culture, and traditional Catholicism.

This essay has been adapted from The Tyranny of Liberal: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command by James Kalb, recently published by ISI Books.

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