Letters with Allen Wood (1): Against Chaos
Letters with Allen Wood (3): Against War

Letters with Allen Wood (2): Tolerance

In Part I: Against Chaos the conversation focussed upon Professor Allen W. Wood’s arguments against my association with liberal movements and chaos. In this second part, the discussion switches to tolerance, and the political implications of intolerance.

The Canary Test - Levels of Tolerance Allen: I resist your criticism of intolerant tolerance [in Chaos Ethics]. Tolerance is a virtue, but by its very nature, it must have limits. Tolerance is the willingness to permit what you regard as dubious or even wrong to go on unhindered. Clearly there have to be limits to this, and good judgment is required in deciding what may be tolerated and what not. One obvious limit is that practices that make tolerance itself impossible cannot be tolerated. Unlimited tolerance leads only to chaos, which is bad. Tolerance must be intolerant of some things or it is not only not a virtue, but it is nothing at all (it is even self-undermining).

Chris: Here I am indebted to Isabelle Stengers, and probably should not fight her corner. But her point, that I support, is that there is a risk with 'tolerance' that we have not fully appreciated, an ability to destroy the hope of equality by dismissing other people's practices for living as 'mere belief'. In doing so, we are saying 'we know better' and in so doing the conditions for the Realm of Ends are lost because autonomy is undermined. As a Kantian, even a heretical Kantian, that is too great a price to pay.

Allen: Tolerance implies disagreement. It is like forgiveness, which implies grounds for blame. If you think the other should not blame you, you will be insulted if you are forgiven. Analogously, if you think the other is required to agree with you, you will reject their tolerance. But I think we should take it for granted that people disagree, that what some do or think will not be accepted by others. And then tolerance is what we should hope for. To disagree is, in one sense, to put yourself above the other, since you must think you are right and they are wrong. But we have to accept that others will think this too about us, and (always within limits) that it is OK for them to think that. To be tolerant is to invite tolerance in return. Those who are offended because you are tolerant (and therefore think you are right and they are wrong) are already being intolerant. Unless your position here is intolerable, that puts them and not you in the wrong.

Chris: Yes, perhaps I wasn't clear that 'intolerant tolerance' is a specific risk – it is not necessarily inherent to tolerance, although whenever people relate to each other through toleration rather than mutual respect, the risk can manifest as a kind of bigotry.

Allen: I find it odd to contrast ‘mutual tolerance’ with ‘mutual respect,’ since I think tolerance is precisely the way you do show respect for those with whom you disagree. How else could you show respect for them except by tolerating them? I think the cases you are thinking about (where "tolerance" becomes problematic and begins to look objectionably intolerant) are those in which there is something important going on that is well beyond the question of disagreement and tolerance. If an economically, politically and militarily dominant colonial power is engaged in minority rule over a foreign population, with different beliefs and practices, it may describe its attitude toward them as 'tolerant'. But in such cases that may be a euphemism, distracting from the real issue. If the colonial power is imposing its way of life on the native majority, and says it "tolerates" it (but only at those points where its capacity to dominate has given out), then this is not an admirable or even an acceptable attitude. (I don’t think it is even a form of genuine tolerance, though it may feel like it from the self-deceptive standpoint of the dominators.) It masks the unjust domination that is really the basic fact about the situation.

Chris: This is an extremely salient perspective on the issue I am raising, although it applies not just in the colonial situation – it can happen anywhere that there is a power imbalance, which is to say, everywhere. The intersectionality critique within feminism is an example of coming to terms with what I am calling 'intolerant tolerance'; the gradual recognition that in fighting for 'women' the feminists have inadvertently been enforcing ideals of white, middle-class women in developed nations. The clearest and most disturbing sign of this for me was those feminists willing to support war in Iraq on the grounds that the military action would be 'liberating' Muslim women... To my knowledge, none of the politically active women's groups in Islamic nations asked for war – nor, it might be added, was it wise to think that liberty could flow effortlessly from the barrel of a gun.

Allen: I think before I can decide what you or Stengers object to is something I would defend, I would need to know which cases you are talking about in particular, and I would have to decide what I think about those specific cases. I think if our only choices are tolerating the abuse of women and invading (with the aim of dominating) other cultures, then so far we have been offered no acceptable alternative.

Chris: This is undoubtedly a wise response, and both Stengers and I have somewhat different targets, although we are working on similar ideals and our goal is little more than to invite a pause, a hesitation, a scruple, whenever we are tempted to place our values and culture above those of others whose actual values and experiences we know very little about beyond our own ragged assumptions. This is what she calls 'the curse of tolerance', which is very close to what I mark by 'intolerant tolerance': the risk that our toleration is actually masking an unrecognised attempt to have power over others, to pre-empt the discourse or respect necessary for equal partnership, because we are sure that 'we know' and others 'merely believe' (i.e. are mistaken).

Allen: I think the issue we are now discussing illustrates a point I tried to make earlier. It is always a mistake to turn your justified reaction to common rhetorical abuses of certain moral concepts or principles into a general objection to those concepts or principles. This is what I fear may be happening in the case of your objections to tolerance.

Chris: Although I may oversell this point in the first chapter [of Chaos Ethics] for dramatic effect, I am not arguing against being tolerant. I am only trying to warn that we are unable to fairly judge whether we are tolerant when the only people we speak to share identical values to us – and even more so when the only people we will accept as part of our world are those who share our values. That, in essence, is the risk.

This discussion continues in the final part: Against War. The opening image is The Canary Test: Levels of Tolerance by (and copyrighted to) Nicola Moss, and is used with permission. I found it on her website, Layers of Life.

Chris’ first book of moral philosophy, Chaos Ethics, is out now from Zero Books, while Allen Wood’s twelfth on the subject, The Free Development of Each: Studies on Freedom, Right, and Ethics in Classical German Philosophy is out now from Oxford University Press.


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