‘The Power of Tolerance: A Debate’ reviewed by Tony Lack

The Power of Tolerance: A Debate

Edited by Luca di Blasi and Christoph F E Holzhey, Columbia University Press, New York, 2014. 104pp., £10.50 / $15 pb
ISBN 9780231170192

Reviewed by Tony Lack

About the reviewer

Tony Lack is a Professor of Humanities at Alamo College in San Antonio, TX. He received his Ph.D …


This book is a record of a debate between Wendy Brown, professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, and Rainer Forst, professor of political theory and philosophy at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt. It was held in December 2008 as part of the Spannungsűbung (tension exercise) at the Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry. This debate is a very useful and insightful condensation of ideas covered more comprehensively in Brown’s, Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire (Princeton, 2006) and Forst’s, Toleration in Conflict: Past and Present (Cambridge, 2013).

After a glance at the title of this volume, one might expect an uncritical discussion of the liberating effects of tolerance, or an exhortation to give tolerance a chance. Although that may be one underlying goal, the authors remind us that there is much critical work to be done before we begin waving the flag of tolerance.

They both claim that tolerance is not an unqualified social good or an unimpeachable political goal. Brown and Forst also extend the debate on tolerance beyond the limits of classical liberalism, wherein tolerance is conceived of as an issue of demarcating the boundaries of power, which is conceived of as an external threat or force that intrudes upon people’s right to believe and act as they wish. Both theorists underscore the ways that power relations, social and political marginalization, and cultural imperialism, are intrinsic aspects of tolerating individuals and groups. As Brown states, they are both well aware of the ways that tolerance, as discourse and political practice, can be paradoxical. Tolerance can simultaneously proffer emancipation and subjection. It can reify identities and reduce, reinforce, and caricature historically vibrant and multifaceted cultural practices and belief systems in ways that do more harm than good. When secularists in the West speak of tolerating a certain form of Islam, for example, how do their acts of tolerance help to reinforce stereotypical notions of that belief system?

Brown builds upon these important reservations about tolerance. Her critique has to do with the way that the discourse of tolerance functions as part of a discourse of subjectivity wherein the subject position assigned to the tolerated person or group constrains their identity and freedom, or stigmatizes them as victims or recipients of special rights, while simultaneously reinforcing the power of those who extend this tolerance. Brown is also concerned with the ways that acts of tolerance, official or otherwise, conceal their ideological function as part and parcel of the reproduction of a regime of power. “In short, I’m concerned with the ways that contemporary discourses of tolerance comprise a set of normative operations that often hide themselves as such” (20). She pays careful attention to the “persistent Manichaeism in moral and political life” (42) that encourages us to see tolerance as neutral or good in light of the negative effects that it helps to assuage. Her point is that although tolerance is often preferable to intolerance, it is not, by that measure alone, free of power or mixed motives. Although tolerance and equality are conceptually distinct, Brown points out that tolerance can often substitute for equality. In practice, and in the popular mind, equality and tolerance are not so easy to untangle. If what one demands is satisfaction of a social or political need to be acknowledged, respected, or empowered, then what is supplied may take the form of tolerance or economic justice. The response to the demand will be framed and satisfied by those with power to do so. If social tolerance is the price to pay for continued economic exploitation, then tolerance will often be extended.

Although Brown does not formalize the issue in this manner, one can note a hermeneutic circle at work in discourses of tolerance. First, the discourse of tolerance constitutes the society or political form, the “identity of the west as a tolerant civilization” (18). Second, it constitutes the individual identity and situates it along an evaluative continuum – ranging from desirable to grudgingly permissible – if only because it is not apparently harmful to others. The limit case here, as in classical liberalism, would be the point where extending tolerance encroaches on other people’s projects of self-realization and pursuit of goals associated with the good life. Third, discourses of tolerance may constitute and reify the identity of the group as a vehicle for realization of self-identity. The tolerance of traditional religious and cultural practices may be reluctantly extended if they are seen as necessary to sustain individual identities. This form of tolerance can morph into discussions about group rights or territorial claims to a homeland viewed as an integral part of group identity. When this occurs, the purported benevolence of the dominant society becomes apparent, as does the possibility of substituting tolerance for equality, in the form of symbolic concessions or token gestures.

Forst is interested in tolerance as a political concept that functions in rational discourses. Following Preston King, he claims that tolerance contains three components that comprise a dialectic of tolerance. First, there must be an objection component. When people object to something, they find it wrong or misguided, ugly or bad. According to Forst, if one does not have an objection against what one tolerates, if one is simply indifferent, uninterested or open to difference, that is not toleration. One must have reasons to claim that a belief or practice is wrong. Second, there is an acceptance component. One must accept that there are reasons why a belief or practice could be viewed as right by others. Third, there is a rejection component, wherein, after rational consideration, one gives reasons for rejecting a belief or practice. The issue of what to tolerate is decided when one asks whether one’s initial objections to a belief or practice hold up after rational consideration. That is, when the rejection can be rationally justified.

Forst then describes a second level of conceptual distinctions, defining a “permission” conception and “respect” conception. When it takes the form of permission, tolerance is bounded and limited by those who extend it. This type of tolerance is granted as a sort of reluctant concession by those in power. His example is the Edict of Nantes, wherein the Catholic majority in France clearly specified “what Huguenots are allowed to do and what they’re not allowed to do . . . where they can have churches and whether the churches can have entrances from the front street, and so on” (25-6). This is the form of toleration that constitutes, reifies, and controls identities. People or groups are not persecuted but they are not treated as equals. In practice of course, this asymmetry has usually resulted in mistreatment, since equal treatment ultimately requires equal respect. In the respect conception, tolerance is formulated as a basic political right. As such, in the appeal to a higher political principle, demands for tolerance are demands for justice and equal treatment. They alter the stakes so that one is not asking for a favor. This also opens the space for the expansion of claims to identity by those who possess the identity. The subjects of toleration no longer occupy a reified and demarcated space where they ask, “please accept me, even if you don’t respect me,” the demand is, “get used to the fact that I am your equal”.

It is important to note Forst’s conceptual moves, because they highlight the justice and equality framework and attempts to undermine the asymmetry of the positions and power between those who tolerate and those who are tolerated.

The assumption is that when one says, “I do not tolerate X” this ought to trigger a rational discussion, the outcome of which may lead to acceptance, rejection, or reformulation of the framework through which the issue is viewed. The parallels to Habermas’s Discourse Ethics are apparent. When one says, I tolerate or I do not tolerate, this can, and ought, to generate a rational discussion, the outcome of which is a reconceptualization of the norms that comprise the foundations of tolerance. “The art of toleration is an art of finding proper reasons that can be presented to others when you think that they should conform to a norm that they don’t agree with in their practices and beliefs. It consists in distinguishing your reasons for objection from mutually justifiable reasons for rejection. The latter have a higher threshold of justification” (31).

Professor Brown isn’t certain that these two conceptual distinctions exist in the practical operations of tolerance. Her rejoinder is that “tolerance does not operate as a conception, it operates as a discourse”, which means that it is a form of power that masks its operations as a form of power. Forst’s theoretical solution appears all too theoretical. Forst claims that “A certain form of toleration is already implied in order to engage with those with whom you have major differences” (36). This echoes Habermas’s notion of solidarity, a concern for the well-being of others which forms a starting-point for discussions of justice. The idea seems designed to solve the same problem: how to get people into the right frame of mind before discussing tolerance. The paradox is evident, but unavoidable. Tolerance is one solution to intolerance, but we must be somewhat tolerant before discussing how to be more tolerant.

Is Forst too optimistic about the use of freedom and reason in modern liberal societies? If one is committed to disagreement or dominance, and if one uses his freedom and reason to pursue these ends, wouldn’t that be an equally valid reason for them to ‘engage with’ others?

If, for example, we consider the way that the discourse about tolerance would operate, with its dialectic of objection, acceptance, and rejection, we might see that the danger here is twofold. First, what would prevent the use of tolerance as a means to refining our abilities to defend a view that might be harmful, racist, sexist, and so forth? We the participants in this discussion know that we benefit from the tolerance granted to get the discussion off the ground. We’ve been invited to talk and to share. We have more power, more social backing, and feel we can persuade others to go along with us. So we use this tolerance to discuss, debate, and refine our views. Second, what if, after the discussion we claim that there can be no consensus on an issue, and that it must remain a matter of personal conviction or faith? Have we not then reinforced the line between public issues and private troubles, while at the same time helped the racist to discover good, publically justifiable reasons for holding private racist private views or convictions? What motivates people to adopt the goal of mutual understanding and fair discussion in the first place? If I am intolerant, why should I seek rational, mutual, understanding? Does my intolerance demand self-justification? If not, why is the value of rational understanding so great that it should be preferred to cruel intolerance, indifference or smug self-satisfaction with my own views? Of course, Forst cannot solve the problems of moral motivation or bad faith, nor should he be required to do so. The point is that a description of a formal process with clear conceptual distinctions is a necessary, but not sufficient part of making the respect conception work.

Contrary to Forst, Brown keeps her concepts to a minimum. Brown helps us to understand that the basis of the subject’s identity is the relentless operation of the discursive constellations of power-knowledge regimes, including discourses of tolerance. She seems unwilling to articulate and defend a normative position to which an emancipatory position on tolerance could appeal, probably because that too can become part of the machinery of domination. She seems intent on maintaining a position of skeptical resistance to terms and concepts that could render the subject of tolerance too visible, and hence potentially chained to an identity. To this reader, it was unclear how one could distinguish between forms of domination and modes of resistance, which are fundamentally different processes. Finally, although Brown states explicitly that she wishes to avoid the tired debate between Habermasians and Foucaultians, it is fair to suggest to the initiate in this area that this debate covers that theoretical terrain, albeit with many genuine innovations. We can gain much from reading and discussing this slim, insightful book.

9 December 2014

Make a comment

Your email address will not be published.