Sunday, May 26, 2013

Repressive tolerance and free speech.

The term 'repressive tolerance' was coined by Herbert Marcuse in his 1965 essay of the same name (available free online [here]).  The essay argues that liberal tolerance and free speech which once undermined the ruling class and established religion, has now lost it's radicalism and become a tool for maintaining the status quo and the current class power structure through 'taming' opposition movements.

The essay is often labeled as disturbing and I can understand why.  Recently I witnessed strike action which consisted of a dozen people holding signs and shuffling in a circle under the rather bored gaze of a police officer. At the time I was struck by just how docile and ineffective the strike seemed.  Likewise, with mass demonstrations.   People are shuttled to Dublin to stroll down a few streets having first sought and secured permission from the authorities before returning to their homes. 

As Marcuse puts it :

This sort of tolerance strengthens the tyranny of the majority against which authentic liberals protested. The political locus of tolerance has changed: while it is more or less quietly and constitutionally withdrawn from the opposition, it is made compulsory behavior with respect to established policies. Tolerance is turned from an active into a passive state, from practice to non-practice: laissez-faire the constituted authorities. It is the people who tolerate the government, which in turn tolerates opposition within the framework determined by the constituted authorities.

Marcuse argues tolerance which enlarges the range of freedom is an end in itself but was always partisan and intolerant toward the protagonists of the repression status quo. The issue is only the degree and extent of this intolerance.

This appears contradictory but Marcuse reminds us that liberals have always placed limitations on liberty and tolerance. John Stuart Mill for example argued "Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion" and that "despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end".   From this Marcuse concludes:

Tolerance of free speech is the way of improvement, of progress in liberation, not because there is no objective truth, and improvement must necessarily be a compromise between a variety of opinions, but because there is an objective truth which can be discovered, ascertained only in learning and comprehending that which is and that which can be and ought to be done for the sake of improving the lot of mankind.

I have heard this argument used by Muslims to justify blasphemy laws: because slander is childish and harmful to search for truth, we should legally ban blasphemy for the common good and instead 'reason as men'.

This condition for tolerance is also essential according to Marcuse. Free speech and tolerance is only of useful  when it is rational and serves the development of independent thinking, free from indoctrination, manipulation, extraneous authority. Repressive tolerance on the other hand denies truth and assume all positions are equal, so society cannot progress :

Within the affluent democracy, the affluent discussion prevails, and within the established framework, it is tolerant to a large extent. All points of view can be heard: the Communist and the Fascist, the Left and the Right, the white and the Negro, the crusaders for armament and for disarmament. Moreover, in endlessly dragging debates over the media, the stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one, the misinformed may talk as long as the informed, and propaganda rides along with education, truth with falsehood. This pure toleration of sense and nonsense is justified by the democratic argument that nobody, neither group nor individual, is in possession of the truth and capable of defining what is right and wrong, good and bad. Therefore, all contesting opinions must be submitted to 'the people' for its deliberation and choice.

But what is to be done?  After all repressive tolerance is comparability mild when compared to institutional torture by dictators. Is the risk worth taking?

Marcuse argues that is it.  We can pragmatically weigh "the costs involved in the perpetuation of an existing society against the risk of promoting alternatives which offer a reasonable chance of pacification and liberation". How exactly we manage this weighing is not made clear. Who should perform this calculation however is: 

The question, who is qualified to make all these distinctions, definitions, identifications for the society as a whole, has now one logical answer, namely, everyone 'in the maturity of his faculties' as a human being, everyone who has learned to think rationally and autonomously.

Unfortunately how we identity those who can think rationally and autonomously is not again not made clear. But Marcuse does assert that a democratic society of individuals capable of thinking rationally and autonomously does not yet exist.  We must however remove tolerance the political Right (and presumably those who disagree with Marcuse):

Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left. As to the scope of this tolerance and intolerance: ... it would extend to the stage of action as well as of discussion and propaganda, of deed as well as of word.

This privileging and protection of radicalism on the Left is justified on historical grounds: left leaning revolutionary movements are driven 'from below' by the masses in a fight against injustice while  radical right movements are drive from above by the ruling classes and only result in further repression and control.

In summary, classical liberal tolerance was in pursuit of the improvement of mankind and is only of  value when mankind has become capable of being improved.  Our current understanding of tolerance as a tolerance of all ideas serves to maintain the power of the ruling classes by closing the mind of the masses.  Discriminatory intolerance and reeducation is then needed to reopen minds for the improvement of mankind.

My own thoughts are that the risks involved are too high. I think democracy is a means for achieving consensus between widely different views, not a search for the truth.  Nor am I convinced that mankind can be improved.  Repressive tolerance is acceptable to me.


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