Social Justice Usage
Source: Marcuse, Herbert. Repressive Tolerance, 1965.
THIS essay examines the idea of tolerance in our advanced industrial society. The conclusion reached is that the realization of the objective of tolerance would call for intolerance toward prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions, and the extension of tolerance to policies, attitudes, and opinions which are outlawed or suppressed. In other words, today tolerance appears again as what it was in its origins, at the beginning of the modern period—a partisan goal, a subversive liberating notion and practice. Conversely, what is proclaimed and practiced as tolerance today, is in many of its most effective manifestations serving the cause of oppression.
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, second edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2017, p. 224.
If we consider other kinds of texts (e.g., school history textbooks) we can see the effects of omitted or obscured truths which give us an incomplete picture of our histories. In order to gain a more complex understanding, we must be able to tolerate alternative accounts that challenge the familiar stories that have shaped our national identities. This process unsettles what we think we know, and also the rituals that may have deep meaning and importance for us, such as how we celebrate Columbus Day or Thanksgiving.
New Discourses Commentary
The concept of tolerance—being willing to allow that which one disagrees with—seems to be central to the Theory of Critical Social Justice and its activism, but when encountered by liberals in that context, it seems to appear with a peculiar double-standard that seems both justified and unjustifiable. This double standard appears to excuse and encourage abject intolerance against members of dominant groups and of ideologies, people, and perspectives that disagree with Critical Social Justice (see also, conservative, status quo, hegemony; liberalism, meritocracy, individualism, universalism, equality, and human nature) and to demand absolute tolerance for the ideologies, people, and perspectives of those who promote it, all in the name of tolerance of difference (see also, diversity, equity, and inclusion). The basis for this double standard is that intolerance plus power causes more harm whereas intolerance plus oppression creates less and may effect liberation.
For example, expressing genuine intolerance against white people as an “antiracist” project, genuine intolerance against men as a feminist project, and genuine intolerance against straight and straight-passing homosexuals as an “anti-heteronormative” project are all considered perfectly acceptable and are, in fact, encouraged by critical race Theory and whiteness studies, feminism and gender studies, and queer Theory, respectively. Meanwhile, even “microaggressive” “intolerance” against any “protected class” is deemed utterly unacceptable and policed and enforced vigorously and sometimes violently (see also, call out, cancel, and anti-fascism). This double standard is disorienting to many liberals (including those on the left). It can be explained by recognizing that the Theory of Critical Social Justice subscribes to a particular view of tolerance that arises from Critical Theory, namely the “Repressive Tolerance” of Herbert Marcuse (see also, Neo-Marxism, New Left, Frankfurt School, radical, and liberationism).
In brief summary, Repressive Tolerance as a concept suggests that one cannot be tolerant of that which is repressive (or oppressive) and thus must be proactively repressive of that which is repressive (or oppressive). Indeed, failing to actively resist oppression is, under similar theorizing, taken to be complicity with that oppression. This is because oppressive power has both the motive and the means to repress anything that could potentially upset it (see also, disrupt and dismantle), and thus it cannot be tolerated. The Neo-Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse described repressive tolerance as a form of discriminating tolerance, in that it chooses what should be tolerated and not tolerated. (This appears in an essay bearing that title, which went on to form a chapter of a book titled A Critique of Pure Tolerance, 1969.) In a 1968 postscript to the original “Repressive Tolerance” essay, Marcuse noted:
I suggested in “Repressive Tolerance” the practice of discriminating tolerance in an inverse direction, as a means of shifting the balance between Right and Left by restraining the liberty of the Right, thus counteracting the pervasive inequality of freedom (unequal opportunity of access to the means of democratic persuasion) and strengthening the oppressed against the oppressed. Tolerance would be restricted with respect to movements of a demonstrably aggressive or destructive character (destructive of the prospects for peace, justice, and freedom for all). Such discrimination would also be applied to movements opposing the extension of social legislation to the poor, weak, disabled. As against the virulent denunciations that such a policy would do away with the sacred liberalistic principle of equality for “the other side”, I maintain that there are issues where either there is no “other side” in any more than a formalistic sense, or where “the other side” is demonstrably “regressive” and impedes possible improvement of the human condition. To tolerate propaganda for inhumanity vitiates the goals not only of liberalism but of every progressive political philosophy.
That is, clearly, Marcuse’s intention was that anything that can be used to support the (unjust) status quo has on its side an unjust balance of power and thus should not be tolerated if it can oppose liberation from oppression. This he explicitly indicates requires restraining the liberty of the Right (see also, conservatism) and acting repressively against the freedoms and statements of movements that oppose progressive aims. In the main body of the essay, Marcuse rails upon the liberalism of English liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill, considering his view that some opinions might be superior to others—specifically educated opinions or otherwise expert opinions—for a kind of “elitism” that works against progressive aims because education simply trains people to be prepared for “existing society” rather than for changing their “inhuman reality.”
Thus, within Critical Social Justice, by virtue of the critical roots it possesses, tolerance means tolerating their opinions, views, and causes while being absolutely intolerant of anything that opposes those, whether for good reasons or not. This disposition keeps perfectly with the central role that systems of power, hegemony, dominance, and oppression play in Theory: power always works to sustain itself and thus must be disrupted and dismantled, typically by using methods and means that are rejected by the system itself (see also, master’s tools and revolution). It is also the ultimate roots of the behavior of the radical and anarchist “anti-fascist” group Antifa, which, as it exists today, is a direct descendant of the precise New Left activism and politics pioneered by Marcuse with essays like “Repressive Tolerance” in the mid-to-late 1960s.
As many memes shared by progressives on social media have indicated (see also, good white), the roots of this view of tolerance do not begin in the Frankfurt School specifically but rather with the famous philosopher Karl Popper, who is most famous for his philosophy of science (specifically, falsifiability). Here, it is Popper’s “Paradox of Tolerance,” which appears in a footnote in his 1945 book, The Open Society and Its Enemies. This book was obviously written in the context of the rise of Nazism. There, the full text reads:
Less well known (of Plato’s paradoxes) is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.
Thus, the allegedly anti-fascist activists of Antifa claim the right to act “self-defensively” against the very existence of ideologies they believe meet these criteria: being unwilling to listen to rational argument, teaching to answer arguments with violence, and holding and encouraging violent or genocidal intention. They take Popper’s words about claiming the right to suppress them “if necessary even by force” very much to heart in those contexts. One will immediately realize, however, that their interpretation, like Marcuse’s, is, in fact, highly subject to interpretation about several things at once and requires quite the trick of mind-reading about the intentions of those espousing the ideologies they resist under a branding of fascism (Antifa) or repressive or regressive (Marcuse).
Liberal societies have adopted a different standard of tolerance, which is that any and all speech should be tolerated up until the point where there is the emergence of violence or the imminent threat of violence (as judged by a reasonable-person standard, should it go to court). This follows the 1971 refinement of Popper’s suggestion by the liberal philosopher John Rawls, in his Theory of Justice, in which he said that intolerance of intolerance (i.e., repressive tolerance) should only be exercised in cases where “the tolerant sincerely and with reason believe that their own security and that of the institutions of liberty are in danger.” This liberal understanding, which is argued to be what Popper intended, depends upon the existence of strong liberal and democratic institutions, which should be used by overwhelming preference in such societies while they exist. It also depends on a narrow understanding of the concept of violence. The Theory of Critical Social Justice rejects literally ever facet of this, taking an explicitly anti-liberal stance, rejecting the existence of any reasonable person (even in principle), preferring a highly interpretive understanding of the nature of oppressive and repressive power dynamics (like fascism, white supremacy, patriarchy, racism, sexism, misogyny, and so on), and adopting a similarly highly interpretive, subjective, and expansive understanding of violence.
Some of this is due to the original critical influence, as can be read clearly in Marcuse, for example. Marcuse is quite clear that the capacity of systems of power to repress that which threatens their power and to oppress those people it wishes to marginalize, disenfranchise, or otherwise silence and ignore. This obsessive focus on the effects of imbalances of social and cultural power—not merely abuses of state power (though Marcuse clearly saw these as intrinsically intertwined)—creates and rationalizes the double standard, including calls to meet repression with violence. This owes to a long development in “Repressive Tolerance” that casts repression of that which liberates the oppressed as a form of violence itself:
In terms of historical function, there is a difference between revolutionary and reactionary violence, between violence practiced by the oppressed and by the oppressors. In terms of ethics, both forms of violence are inhuman and evil—but since when is history made in accordance with ethical standards? To start applying them at the point where the oppressed rebel against the oppressors, the have-nots against the haves is serving the cause of actual violence by weakening the protest against it.
In the Theory of Critical Social Justice more specifically, this view is expanded further due to the influences of postmodern Theory. The postmodern influence here holds that societies are the results of the discourses and systems of knowledge and language that structure them (which were established and are maintained by the elites who have power and do not want to lose it). This dramatically strengthens the imperative in Critical Social Justice to repress undesirable forms of speech and promote activist ones (which are often, in fact, intolerant except in Theory). Thus, an expansive view of discourse as violence (see also, discursive aggression) makes its way into Theory.
Additionally, postmodern Theory, like Critical Theory, would reject the idea that we live in a properly democratic society, as the power dynamics society is subject to prevent any possibility of that being the case. (The primary difference between the postmodern and Critical views here would be the loci of power and means by which power is applied.) Further still, postmodern Theory, in believing that we are all inexorably removed from objectivity due to profound cultural biases and, later, the biases of our privilege (i.e., access to elite status), would reject the very concept of a “reasonable-person standard” in principle (see also, reality and truth). Instead, it would see a “reasonable person” as one who has internalized dominance or oppression and who is willfully ignorant to the ways that this support for the status quo causes oppression (see also, false consciousness). Thus, in the Theory of Critical Social Justice, we end up with an extremely expansive, interpretive, and ultimately subjective understanding of repression, oppression, and even violence that is rooted in the Theory-laden interpretation of one’s lived experience of one’s reality (see also, authentic).
As a result, the Theory of Critical Social Justice, which is as a rule hypersensitive to any perceptible or imaginable application of “unjust” power dynamics, has a very repressive view of tolerance. It is, in fact, so repressive a view of tolerance that it is readily identifiable as being anti-liberal, repressive, regressive, aggressive, and, at times, genuinely violent, in the usual sense of the word. This anti-liberalism is something it adopts enthusiastically and in the name of a “progressivism” that would reorder society (see also, revolution) according to its narrow and unrealistic understanding of what constitutes oppression (i.e., never any oppression it engages in for “justice”). When advocates of Critical Social Justice ask people to be more “tolerant,” then, what they mean is to take on a particular form of self-serving intolerance that acts in service to their radical and revolutionary agenda, which is rooted in Critical Theory and which they call “Social Justice.”
Antifa; Anti-fascism; Antiracism; Authentic; Bias; Call out; Cancel; Complicity; Conservative; Critical; Critical race Theory; Critical theory; Difference; Discourse; Discursive aggression; Dismantle; Disrupt; Diversity; Dominance; Equality; Equity; False consciousness; Fascism; Feminism; Frankfurt School; Gender studies; Genocide; Good white; Harm; Hegemony; Heteronormativity; Human nature; Inclusion; Identity; Ideology; Individualism; Injustice; Internalized dominance; Internalized oppression; Justice; Knowledge(s); Liberalism; Liberationism; Lived experience; Man; Marginalization; Master’s tools; Meritocracy; Microaggression; Misogyny; Nazi; Neo-Marxism; New Left; Objectivity; Oppression; Patriarchy; Postmodern; Privilege; Progressive; Queer Theory; Racism (systemic); Radical; Realities; Reality; Revolution; Science; Sexism (systemic); Silence; Social Justice; Status quo; Straight passing; Subordination; Structural; System, the; Systemic power; Theory; Truth; Universalism; Violence; White; White supremacy; Whiteness studies; Willful ignorance
Source: Marcuse, Herbert. Repressive Tolerance, 1965.
Withdrawal of tolerance from regressive movements before they can become active; intolerance even toward thought, opinion, and word, and finally, intolerance in the opposite direction, that is, toward the self-styled conservatives, to the political Right—these anti-democratic notions respond to the actual development of the democratic society which has destroyed the basis for universal tolerance. The conditions under which tolerance can again become a liberating and humanizing force have still to be created. When tolerance mainly serves the protection and preservation of a repressive society, when it serves to neutralize opposition and to render men immune against other and better forms of life, then tolerance has been perverted. And when this perversion starts in the mind of the individual, in his consciousness, his needs, when heteronomous interests occupy him before he can experience his servitude, then the efforts to counteract his dehumanization must begin at the place of entrance, there where the false consciousness takes form (or rather: is systematically formed)—it must begin with stopping the words and images which feed this consciousness. To be sure, this is censorship, even precensorship, but openly directed against the more or less hidden censorship that permeates the free media. Where the false consciousness has become prevalent in national and popular behavior, it translates itself almost immediately into practice: the safe distance between ideology and reality, repressive thought and repressive action, between the word of destruction and the deed of destruction is dangerously shortened. Thus, the break through the false consciousness may provide the Archimedean point for a larger emancipation—at an infinitesimally small spot, to be sure, but it is on the enlargement of such small spots that the chance of change depends.
Revision date: 5/8/20