Against “political tolerance.”

Today, en route to my badly needed noontime (i.e., crack of dawn) caffeine blast, I walked past one of those local crap newspapers, which had a headline blaring out as follows (I may not have it verbatim):

Tolerance in danger.

The subhead?

Yes on proposition 8 signs stolen.

My brethren, let us take a moment to silently contemplate the beautiful Orwellian twist there.





This, more than anything, is a sign that the jesusgoats are winning. The notion — the shameless, pig-ignorant, utterly contemptible notion that the side of any political debate that is resisting a law designed to take away rights from a discrete and insular minority is being, in any way whatsoever, the “intolerant” party — is conclusive evidence of as well as the highest manifestation of the complete end of rational discourse in this country.

Let’s be clear on some things. Sign-stealing is wrong. It is wrong because it impairs free political discourse.

Closed-mindedness is wrong. It is wrong because it deprives the closed-minded one of access to knowledge.

Treating one’s political opponents badly in economic life, personal life, etc., is wrong, because it is stupid: one’s political positions are generally irrelevant to whether one can be a good employee, business partner, friend, romantic partner, tenant, etc. (With some exceptions — I wouldn’t date a pro-lifer, for example, because that is relevant to whether or not I might get saddled with some kid.)

But neither sign-stealing nor closed-mindedness nor letting political positions bleed over into non-political arenas is wrong because one’s political opponents have any right to something called “tolerance.” The idea of tolerance is much stronger than of noninterference or nondiscrimination. The idea that advocates of “political tolerance” tend to push is that one should moderate one’s arguments against one’s political opponents — that one should not be “partisan,” that one should refrain from calling a spade a spade (or a mighty halberd of the soil a mighty halberd of the soil, whev.), or a simpering homophobic jesusgoat swine a simpering homophobic jesusgoat swine.

There is a sense of political tolerance in which it’s a perfectly fine principle. But that sense is about restraint in the use of state power, and is connected to political and liberal liberties — the idea being that the state ought not to censor those with whom it disagrees, or jail them, etc. I don’t think this is accurately described as “tolerance” at all, to be perfectly honest. It has nothing to do with the actions of private citizens, except insofar as those private citizens are organized into lynch mobs. And it’s definitely not the sense that it bandied around by the right in common political discourse, which seems to mean things like “don’t you dare boo John Yoo when he comes to talk.” It goes under the name “civility” too. That much stronger sense is obviously wrong, when one thinks about it for even a second. The stronger sense demands dishonesty, or at a minimum involuntary silence. It demands that I see a position, evaluate it as wrong, and then hold my tongue. It’s not a demand that power be checked, it’s a demand that criticism be checked.

The impulse, I think, is much the same as the impulse that leads some to call for “political diversity” in universities, as if right-wingers are a discriminated-against minority who are entitled to some kind of affirmative action. (Memo to right-wingers: when y’all are kidnapped from your native land, enslaved, lynched, and then systematically discriminated against in hiring, housing, law enforcement, lending, and basically everything else one needs to get by in this world, then we’ll talk about getting you guys some affirmative action, ‘k?)

In short, here I stand firmly with Brian Leiter on the question of whether we should moderate our political discourse, and on whether incivility, in the guise of “intolerance” or otherwise, is objectionable.

And the answer is no.

Back to proposition 8. Let’s be clear on some things. Those who support proposition 8 are either deluded or wicked. They have been running a campaign full of lies (like the ridiculous notion that schools will have to teach gay marriage, or that churches will be compelled to perform gay marriages) and hate. Those of us who have our heads somewhere other than way the hell up our asses need to whip them with fire and sticks and rage and passion and everything short of actually stealing lawn signs. They must be given no quarter. They must be defeated.

And, frankly, I don’t much mind if it’s gay people who are stealing the signs. Sure, it’s wrong, but I understand. If someone were trying to legislate against me (“multiracial curly-haired grad students aren’t allowed to marry”), I’d probably rip up the signs too. Can’t endorse it, but it’s understandable, and a sign more of the natural, human, and noble resistance to oppression than some kind of objectionable intolerance.


17 Responses to “Against “political tolerance.””

  1. Mike Says:

    The more I think about Prop 8 and gay rights in general, the less tolerance I become.

    As a thought experiment: If we had lived in the day of Jim Crow, would we have associated with Southern racists? Klan members. (You’re not white, but as a thought experiment, please imagine that you are.) How about during slavery…. Would we have associated with slave owners?

    I’d like to say, “No.” I’d like to say, “No, duh.”

    And yet, out of respect for “tolerance” or “civility,” I associate with anti-gay bigots.

    So I probably would have been good friends with slave owners and Klan members. When I think of the issue *that* way, I feel like a total coward for tolerating Prop 8 people.

    I think what motivates my behavior is cowardice. It’s okay to not tolerate racists, because everyone (well, most) knows that being racist is wrong. So telling people that being racist is wrong isn’t going to turn any heads. It’s the easy thing to do. Hell, it’s harder to be racist than non-racist.

    Well, being anti-gay is wrong, too. Yet, since everyone doesn’t know that yet, society won’t tolerate us not tolerating the bigots. If a person at dinner made a pro-Prop 8 argument, and I stood up, saying, “I don’t eat with Klan members, or anti-gay bigots, either,” *I’d* be the bad guy. Yet if someone said, “Whites and blacks shouldn’t marry, the table would get silent. If I got up, everyone would understand.”

    So are we really tolerating the bigots because it’s the right thing to do; or because we know that we’d alienate a lot of people if we treated bigots the respect they treat gays?

  2. gradmommy Says:

    With some exceptions — I wouldn’t date a pro-lifer, for example, because that is relevant to whether or not I might get saddled with some kid.)

    I’m not understanding how this would not be the case with a pro-choicer. Is it just because of an issue of certainty? Or are you assuming a pro-choicer would choose to have an abortion, therefore leaving you unsaddled?

    Nice post BTW.

  3. Paul Gowder Says:

    It’s more like a risk minimization thing. The probability of accidental pregnancy + unwanted kid is obviously going to be higher with a partner for whom the abortion option is off the table than with one for whom it’s on…

  4. gradmommy Says:

    got it.

  5. Daniel Goldberg Says:


    this comment

    Treating one’s political opponents badly in economic life, personal life, etc., is wrong, because it is stupid:

    and this one

    In short, here I stand firmly with Brian Leiter on the question of whether we should moderate our political discourse, and on whether incivility, in the guise of “intolerance” or otherwise, is objectionable.

    And the answer is no.

    imply which of the following:

    (1) that you believe that “tolerance” is a poor justification for civility in political discourse;


    (2) that you do not believe there exists a good justification for civility in political discourse.

    I’m reasonably confident you endorse (1) and not (2). This matters to me because I believe quite firmly that one of the central problems in American discourse (ignoring that such a phenomenon doesn’t exist in such monolithic terms) and even more so in academic discourse is the general lack of civility.

    Being a graduate student in the humanities, I tend to find that the classical emphasis on the related virtues of humility and civility are sorely lacking in both kinds of discourse, and fervently believe as they did that a polis which treasures and values these virtues is preferable to one which does not.

    One of the things I loathe most about academic discourse is the marked lack of civility I perceive.

  6. Paul Gowder Says:

    I’m definitely committed to (1), but I’m willing to say that (2) is the case for some debates as well.

    Let’s distinguish two kinds of political discourse: the kinds where reasonable people could disagree (“should we have single-payer health care?) and the kinds where reasonable people cannot disagree (“should we deny rights to gay people?” “should we teach creationism in the schools?”). Brian seems to have it right on the second sort of case: civility gives those who advocate the wrong position on the second case too much respect. If I see a homophobic asshole, it will require a pretty compelling argument for me not to call him/her a homophobic asshole.

  7. Daniel Goldberg Says:

    Given my general distaste for rationalistic schemas, you can probably guess that my standard for arguments on which reasonable people can disagree and yours probably differs by a large margin on some questions.

    But more so, I’m a student of rhetoric, and of the idea that certain kinds of persuasive modalities are likely to be more or less effective based on the audience. To be sure, some interlocutors are assholes, and are not interested in having an honest conversation. Most, perhaps?

    Sadly, I find far too many of the latter among those whom I hold to a higher standard because they ought to be committed to such method as a part and parcel of the life they have chosen to lead (i.e., an academic one).

    While I suppose one might be justified in labeling members of the latter class assholes, I’m not sure what that actually accomplishes. If they are assholes and don’t wish to engage in intellectually honest discourse, then we have little basis for discourse at all. In that case calling them an asshole accomplished no rhetorical ends other than making me feel better. But doing so also degrades the practice and habit of civility I try to cultivate.

    If, on the other hand, they are adopting a patently offensive position but are willing to actually entertain conversation with those of opposing viewpoints, then terming a holder of an opposing viewpoint an asshole — even if such a position is “assholish” — very definitely undermines virtuous rhetorical ends, in my view.

    Bear in mind, none of this is really intended as an attack on your perspective, but more as a clarification of why I personally tend to work on avoiding such rhetoric.

  8. Paul Gowder Says:

    Yeah, this is another manifestation of those perennial Paul and Daniel disagreements, isn’t it?

    I agree that if someone who takes an assholish position is amenable to reason, that it’s better to try to reason with them (although noting that in many cases it’s unreasonable to put that burden on a specific person — imagine telling black people that it’s their job to patiently argue with all racists, or women that it’s their job to patiently argue with all misogynists).

    So let’s take the other case. Someone is an asshole, and they’re immune to persuasion (let’s say they’ve been really strongly indoctrinated by their church to think that gay people are going to drag society to hell or something).

    What does calling them an asshole achieve?
    - Well, there is the cathartic effect, which counts.
    - But there’s also… well, let me put it in Brian’s words:

    Bear in mind that we know relatively little about how persuasion in general works. It may well be that the specter of an educated person giving the back of his hand to the mass-media-sanctioned wisdom of the moment is, in fact, much more persuasive than dry, disapassionate argument. Who knows for sure? In any case, my goal in posting on various political topics is simply to alert like-minded readers to ideas and evidence and arguments which help strengthen their convictions regarding the truths they’ve already understood or glimpsed, as well as to give some expression to our collective outrage and dismay.

    - and another of Brian’s point from the same post: “Respectful, dispassionate treatment dignifies them, legitimates them, gives them a foothold in the space of reasons.” I think this is compelling, especially in extreme cases. Suppose one is confronted with a neo-nazi. It doesn’t seem appropriate to dispassionately address their arguments — they don’t have arguments, and treating what they say as an argument serves as a signal that what they have to say is worth even that slight regard.

    On the other hand is what you describe as “the practice and habit of civility.” This is where I have to leave you again for the usual reasons — I’m not sure I buy the Aristotlean idea that one can shape one’s character this way — it seems to me that I can be civil to people who deserve civility and uncivil to people who deserve incivility, full stop.

  9. Daniel Goldberg Says:

    I don’t agree that we know relatively little about how persuasion works. There’s an enormous literature on the psychology of communication. Having spent years trying to learn how to advocate (appellate), I disagree pretty seriously with that claim.

    Calling people names — even if justified — is an exceedingly poor rhetorical technique, and I am reasonably confident there is a plethora of evidence one could draw on to substantiate that assertion.

    I have great respect for Professor Leiter, but one of the most basic tenets of rhetoric is that dry, dispassionate argument is frequently ineffective as a persuasive modality. Logic often fails to convince people; stories, for example, are much more compelling. I’ve studied the theory on this and seen it in practice as an attorney (doing pharmaceutical litigation — causation is virtually impossible to prove as a matter of logic, but sometimes plaintiffs win because they have great narratives and their attorneys are skilled storytellers).

    I am certainly not suggesting that civility in discourse requires dry, dispassionate argument. But with the neo-Nazi whom is actually interested in intellectually honest discourse, I suspect there may be means of engaging that interlocutor effectively that do not imply resort either to incivility or dry logic.

    Re the aretaic idea, yes, that was more an explanation of why we differ than a clash with your argument. But nevertheless, it is deeply important to me.

  10. Paul Gowder Says:

    Daniel, you are going to flip out with joy when you see the paper I’ve been working on. The phrase “virtue of a citizen” is used like 20, 30 times.

  11. Daniel Goldberg Says:

    Is this the one you’ll be presenting at the (online) public philosophy forum?

  12. Paul Gowder Says:

    Also, when I quoted Brian on persuasion, I meant it to be about persuading third parties (which is also, I take it, how he meant it) — spectators, really — and in the context of the interlocutor who is immune to argument personally.

    What do you think about that point in that context? It seems like he’s right that one way that third parties might be persuaded is by the spectacle of sensible people hearing some barbarian yawping about, e.g., gays destroying marriage and just contemptuously dismissing it.

    Huh, but what do I know? All my knowledge of the psychology of persuasion comes from Charlie Nesson’s evidence class.* If you have any handy-dandy refs (survey articles?) I’d love to see ‘em.

    * speaking of whom: CHARLIE, NOOOOOO!!.

  13. Daniel Goldberg Says:

    Still don’t find it very convincing — the example I gave (pharma litigation and juries) expressly involved persuasing a third party as opposed to a second person interlocutor. We know quite a lot about the psychology of communication; which surely doesn’t mean we have it all figured out, of course. I’ve heard some extremely successful plaintiff’s lawyers try their cases, and I don’t believe for one second that they don’t know much about the psychology of communicating with third parties.

    I’ll try to get some of the evidence together and email it to you . . .

  14. Paul Gowder Says:

    Yep, that’s the paper.

    I’m a bit skeptical about equating pharma litigation with confronting racists/sexists/homophobes, but will reserve judgment.

  15. Mike Says:

    I think you’re both right. Leiter (and Paul) are discussing people who hold truly irrational views, and who are not open to reason. Their views are formed due to emotions like bigoted feelings towards others. Or due to brain washing. (It took me decades to rid myself of religious nonsense, due to the stories of Hell I was flooded with from the beginning of consciousness).

    Heck, take a benign example. What are the odds that a given person will be mugged on X Street. Even if it’s low, do you think someone who was mugged on X Street last name is open to reason? Or do you think that person is going to take a different way home?

    So there are certain “deep” irrational views people hold that are next to impossible to rid them of. Persuading bigots is incredibly hard; and we do know very little about persuading them.

    As far as persuading non-biased people….. Yeah, there’s a lot of great literature on that.

    And persuading third parties when dealing with a biased party? Gerry Spence teaches a “soft cross-examination.” Instead of screaming at the hostile witness, you handle him gently. This moves jurors more than just screaming at the guy.

    Also, if someone holds an extreme view, and you have an audience, often the best thing to do is make that person’s view look more extreme, by being nice. Members of the audience who associate themselves with the bigot will often feel shamed. And thus they are amenable to persuasion.

    But it’s emotion, not logic, that is moving people away from these deeply-held views.

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