… this easy tolerance, which amounts not to a celebration of human variousness but to a refusal to attend to how various other people really are or were.
Kwame Anthony Appiah, ‘Thick Translation’
Although most of this piece was written in response to neo-Nazi rallies in St Kilda in January this year, it is not hard to draw a straight line towards the terrorist attack in Christchurch committed by a white supremacist against Muslims on March 15. Along with mourning, resistance, solidarity and deep self-reflection, Christchurch and all its precedents force us to re-consider how thick our multiculturalism is. Tolerance is a building block in (neo-)liberal multiculturalism, which plays no part in the important work necessary to prevent violence and foster genuine cross-cultural communities. That politicians can spout tolerance and enable this violence, as most Australian politicians have undoubtedly done, is one among many signs of its moral and political failure.
The politics of tolerance is a deeply inadequate response to discrimination and cultural difference alike. It is full of nationalist sentiment, reinforces the paternalistic, hierarchical divide between ‘us’ (tolerant) and ‘them’ (tolerated), and contributes to liberal ideology’s strategies of de-politicisation. When far-right nationalists rally and murder, politicians unfurl tolerance as though to say, ‘My Australian flag is bigger than yours.’ Responding to the conflagration of racists at St Kilda foreshore, for instance, the Prime Minister heaved up the word ‘racial’ – like a cat heaving fur he has licked from his own back – and wrote: ‘Intolerance does not make Australia stronger.’ The best he could do after Christchurch was limply blame social media and then summarily fail to condemn or retract his own Islamophobic racism. In so doing, he showed liberal tolerance in all its deceptive allure, calling for ‘coexistence’ at exactly the same time as he erased any possible recognition of difference and continued to defend violently exclusionary policies.
Then opposition leader Bill Shorten recycled similar words in response to the St Kilda rally, claiming that ‘Australia won’t achieve any of what our nation’s great destiny can be by pulling the racist lever’. The chauvinist language of both main parties made it seem as though if racism would help the national interest, they’d sign up for it. The corrosive effect of continuous anti-immigration rhetoric and continued attempts to erode the Racial Discrimination Act (18C) make a hypocritical mockery of multicultural ‘tolerance.’ As former Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane points out, the last Coalition government wasn’t a a friend of anti-discrimination laws. Nor was it supportive of ‘multiculturalism’ in either principle or practice.
The most representative figures of tolerance at rallies are the police. They stand between groups, enforcing separation, quelling politics on the street so that it continues unchanged in parliament, the boardroom, and online. Incredibly, the racists at St Kilda were not billed for the police presence necessary to protect them because their little Seig-heiling party was not deemed to be ‘commercial in nature.’ The police are a blue-clad foam membrane enfolding everyone in a coercive imperative to stay separate and secure.
A genealogy of multiculturalism under tolerance
Understanding the pernicious liberal ideology of tolerance requires examining the way tolerance is deployed for nationalist, hierarchical and discriminatory ends that reify cultural difference at the same time as denying the significance of that difference for politics. In the enduringly insightful White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society (2000), Ghassan Hage notes that John Locke’s seminal A Letter Concerning Toleration and the Toleration Act of 1689 were coeval with ‘a whole series of discriminatory practices’ to uphold the security of the state. Tolerance becomes a way of enforcing liberal bourgeois values. The pearl of difference is merely an irritation to the capitalist nation state, premised on the assumption of abstract units acting on self-interest in transactional exchanges.
Wendy Brown shows, in her exemplary and decisive Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire (2006), how tolerance ‘operates from a conceit of neutrality that is actually thick with bourgeois Protestant norms.’ Tolerance is applied on questions of religious difference, as well as matters of sex and gender in order to enforce Christian bourgeois norms. Society is willing to ‘tolerate’ homosexuality (not queerness) only on the basis of it maintaining the model of a ‘heteronormative nuclear family’, as Joan W. Scott points out in Sex and Secularism (2017) and was displayed in the same-sex marriage survey. In the same breath, this ‘tolerance’ of liberal sexuality was leveraged for self-righteously racist politics.
In response to the far-right rally in St Kilda, John Pesutto fatuously quoted Nelson Mandela’s dictum that ‘People must learn to hate’. Equally, Hage argues, Australia had to be ‘taught’ tolerance to temper its jingoism for pragmatic purposes rather than eliminate it, as the White Australia policy slowly gave way to an immigration strategy designed to keep the national market competitive in the global economy.
After the nation was ‘liberated into good feelings’ by its performance of benevolence (the ‘indifferent inclusion’ Russell McGregor appropriately coined in his 2011 book on Indigenous assimilation), Elizabeth Povinelli emphasises that the aspiration to multiculturalism was directly intended to ‘acquire the economic and social productivity necessary to political and economic hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region’. In her book The Cunning of Recognition (2002), Povinelli argues that people were taught tolerance in the effort to inculcate ‘economic rationalism’. This was based on the view that culture is not an efficient business enterprise and constitutes resistance to the economic order. Culture needed dilution before it could gain entry to the market.
As though to concede that the government had no interest in legislating against discrimination, the Victorian government introduced the Religious and Racial Tolerance Act in 2001, that auspicious year of the ‘Enduring Freedom’-enforcing foreign war. The usurpation of discrimination by tolerance signified the impoverished state of the demand for equality and recognition.
Tolerant politics is politics tolerated
As Eliane Glaser writes, modern tolerance carries a ‘coercive undertone. Indeed tolerance bears a growing resemblance to intolerance.’ This is not a departure from an originally pure virtue, either. In The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), Karl Popper wrote that we must be ‘prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant … We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.’ By contrast, in Culture in a Liquid Modern World (2011) Zygmunt Bauman argues that, while the notion of rights ‘lays the foundation, at the very least, for mutual tolerance; it categorically does not, however, go so far as to lay the foundations for mutual solidarity.’ And perhaps, as Lana Tatour and Na’ama Carlin have written, solidarity just isn’t enough.
Tolerance is a solvent against solidarity, by which I mean the attempt to form genuine cross-cultural communities. The regime of tolerance precludes cultural contact, except that kind sanctioned by an exchange of money or made in a language of the infinitely flexible, culturally vacuous neoliberal subject. Only once we have shed our commitments, and stopped trying to talk to one another do we need tolerance. As GK Chesterton quipped, ‘tolerance is the virtue of the [person] without convictions.’
Wendy Brown argues that tolerance participates in a larger process of neoliberal de-politicisation. Liberal ideology focuses on an individual’s ‘relentless responsibility for itself’ in order to ‘eliminate from view various norms and social relations – especially those pertaining to capital [class], race, gender and sexuality.’ De-politicisation acts against anyone making political claims that target injustice at a structural level. Discrimination occurs at both structural and individual levels, but by making the structural level invisible, liberal ideologues make discrimination the individual fault of whoever suffers it. (This is also one of Mark Fisher’s persistent points.) Legal scholar Mari Matsuda wrote in 1989 that ‘Tolerance of hate speech is not tolerance borne by the community at large. Rather, it is a psychic tax imposed on those least able to pay.’ Hollow and sterile, the call to tolerance compounds discrimination by enforcing complicity in liberal values. We are asked to ‘tolerate’ this state of affairs, as though discrimination and inequality were individual failings or the (natural) result of cultural difference.
Brown fits tolerance into a ‘convergence with other sources of discursive depoliticisation’, including ‘the diffusion of market rationality’ achieved by the
‘saturation of every feature of social and political life with entrepreneurial and consumer discourse.’ The deleterious effects of de-politicisation are compounded by ideological liberalism, its attendant individualism and what Mahmood Mamdani calls the ‘culturisation of politics’ that ‘analytically vanishes’ any aspect of material or symbolic history such as ‘colonialism, capital, caste or class stratification. ’ These are replaced with a generic, essentialised notion of ‘culture’ applied only to non-white, non-middle-class ways of living as though to mark them as supplementary (‘lifestyle choices’) to ‘real’ political and economic life, subjected to market rationality and liberal individualism.
The de-politicising effects of tolerance not only dissolve the foundations of solidarity and aim to render illegitimate any political claims against systematic inequality – they also have an affective cost. When white people ‘buy’ multiculturalism with their tolerance, the cultures from which they gain what Ghassan Hage calls ‘enrichment’ suffer and can become commodified. The liberal hegemony copes with diversity only in the forms from which it derives vampiric pleasure, forcing ‘other’ cultures to bow to bland market rationality in order to gain recognition and legitimacy. In the hands of the white middle class, ‘diversity’ means occasionally purchasing a non-traditional meal, or consuming a ‘product’ of another culture. Rarely does it mean a deep form of human contact somewhere to the side of market rationality.
Tolerance is not democratic, it’s just (neo)liberal ideology
For Wendy Brown, ‘the retreat from more substantive visions of justice heralded by tolerance today is part of a more general depoliticisation of citizenship and power and retreat from political life itself.’ It is a form of ‘anti-politics’, a strategy used by the right to discourage substantive action against inequality. Her condemnation is decisive, linking tolerance with a culture of liberalism that relies on the ‘double ruse’ of distinguishing itself from ‘culture – on the one hand, casting liberal principles as universal’ and on the other hand, ‘privatising culture [which] ideologically figures liberalism as untouched by culture and thus as incapable of cultural imperialism.’ But liberalism is a culture, one that favours and fertilizes austere economic rationalism and individualism. Moreover, liberalism is not synonymous with democracy, for the latter requires equal power and substantive participation.
What we need is a fuller acknowledgment of the messy variety of cultural and political forms that recognises the differences between them even when it doesn’t suit us. It also involves resistance to the aggressively individualist empire of neo-liberal economics and politics. As Mary Zournazi writes in her 2002 compendium Hope, ‘‘tolerance’ is not really the right word’. She explains:
This is about a kind of mutual acceptance and it is not about tolerance. I think it is really a mutual acceptance – that you can actually live side by side in a community, as neighbours and as friends and as work colleagues or whatever, with people who don’t necessarily share the same ethical and moral code.
Tolerance is a counterweight against political discussion or genuine cultural contact. It maintains the polite, banal civil order and ensures that the business of de-politicised globalization forges on unimpeded. It’s time to ditch the pretense of multiculturalism created by tolerance that reassures us that we’re multicultural without creating actual cultural contact. Moreover, these attitudes – as we continually fail to learn – conceal the fact of racist politics politically unacknowledged parts of white culture. We will have to work to shed the liberal individualism and neoliberal market rationality that scaffolds all this, but I, like Mary Zournai, have hope that people will – as they always have, to the side of the market, against ideology, forgetting the poor excuse for politics that is parliament – meet and share food and literature, music and dance, ways of life, homes and spaces, traditions and knowledge, love and disagreement.
Image: ‘What is tolerance?’, Flickr