“… this tolerance cannot be indiscriminate and equal with respect to the contents of expression, neither in word nor in deed; it cannot protect false words and wrong deeds which demonstrate that they contradict and counteract the possibilities of liberation. Such indiscriminate tolerance is justified in harmless debates, in conversation, in academic discussion; it is indispensable in the scientific enterprise, in private religion. But society cannot be indiscriminate where the pacification of existence, where freedom and happiness themselves are at stake: here, certain things cannot be said, certain ideas cannot be expressed, certain policies cannot be proposed, certain behavior cannot be permitted without making tolerance an instrument for the continuation of servitude.” — Herbert Marcuse, “Repressive Tolerance” (1965)
In my recent discussion with a dean at a law school, the issue of the difference between a “welcoming environment” and a “comfortable environment” on our campus came up. The dean argued that college campuses are places where students should encounter perspectives, ideas and identities with whom they may disagree. Such an academic environment of universal tolerance encourages the process of learning and urges students (as well as faculty, administration, and staff) to grapple with people and ideas that previously existed outside the groups with which they are familiar– and, therefore, comfortable. Such an environment of free speech, as long as it is respectful toward all members, allows for personal and communal growth. The dean, speaking from the perspective of a white, heterosexual, cisgender man, stated his view persuasively.
An argument that could be made against the dean’s view (which seemed valid) is that such an environment of “one-size-fits-all” tolerance toward opposing views only strengthens the existing oppressive structures which make this environment possible. If the issue is liberty and self-determination (such as “free speech”), then universal tolerance of all views simply perpetuates the rule of the existing society– a society that limits the freedom of oppressed identities at their various intersections. In other words, “free speech for the sake of free speech” simply validates the existing system of power whose violence, cruelty, and inhumanity are destructive to the intersecting identities of colonized Africans (Black people), indigenous and other minoritized people, women, transgender and genderfluid individuals, the disabled, and the poor.
Concerning the current system, Herbert Marcuse writes,”Tolerance is extended to policies, conditions, and modes of behavior which should not be tolerated because they are impeding, if not destroying, the chances of creating an existence without fear and misery.”
Marcuse continues: “… within a repressive society, even progressive movements threaten to turn into their opposite to the degree to which they accept the rules of the game.”
The “rules of the game,” as established by European imperialist capitalism, are that all ideas, all identities, and all perspectives become equally valid; that is, there is “indiscriminate tolerance” of all ideas, even those that limit the freedom of oppressed identities (such as colonized Africans) whose source of oppression is the system which makes this tolerance possible.
“Generally, the function and value of tolerance depend on the equality prevalent in the society in which tolerance is practiced. Tolerance itself stands subject to overriding criteria: its range and its limits cannot be defined in terms of the respective society. In other words, tolerance is an end in itself only when it is truly universal, practiced by the rulers as well as by the ruled, by the lords as well as by the peasants, by the sheriffs as well as by their victims. And such universal tolerance is possible only when no real or alleged enemy requires in the national interest the education and training of people in military violence and destruction. As long as these conditions do not prevail, the conditions of tolerance are ‘loaded’: they are determined and defined by the institutionalized inequality (which is certainly compatible with constitutional equality), i.e., by the class structure of society. In such a society, tolerance is de facto limited on the dual ground of legalized violence or suppression (police, armed forces, guards of all sorts) and of the privileged position held by the predominant interests and their ‘connections’.”
Under the existing system of European imperialist capitalism, it is a demonstrable fact that “truly universal” tolerance is not practiced by the rulers (corporations, politicians, the police, media, university administrators etc.). That is, “the conditions of tolerance are ‘loaded.'” Wealthy, white, cisgender, heterosexual men, who dominate the ruling class, have “legalized violence” in their own interests and from the “privileged position” of their identities.
The “privileged position” of the white ruling class is based on the colonial exploitation of Africans and all other oppressed peoples, both in the U.S. settler colony and throughout the world. The institutions and structures created by European imperialist capitalism (based on unequal material conditions resulting from Europe’s invasion of Africa and the majority of the planet) are the issue for colonized peoples, not simply the equal tolerance of ideas (“free speech”) on college campuses and in other public spaces: the system itself destroys the freedom of exploited peoples and robs them of their self-determination. And such a system of violence should not be tolerated by any individual who values freedom, truth, equality and humanity.
White people, from our “privileged position,” may feel that our freedom of speech is being threatened by the efforts of colonized peoples to create safe spaces on college campuses. Yet it is not our individual liberty which is endangered by their activism, but, rather, our collective material advantage which has been gained unjustly through imperialist aggression. Our call for “universal” or “indiscriminate tolerance” is, in reality, a defense of an intolerable system of oppression, from which white people benefit at the expense of Africans and all other colonized nations.
Marcuse writes, “Tolerance toward that which is radically evil now appears as good because it serves the cohesion of the whole on the road to affluence or more affluence.”
If our aim as a society is to eliminate all forms of systemic oppression– that is, if liberty is our goal– then, it follows, we cannot tolerate a system which limits this liberty, particularly when it does so through “legalized violence.”
“Tolerance is an end in itself. The elimination of violence, and the reduction of suppression to the extent required for protecting man [sic] and animals from cruelty and aggression are preconditions for the creation of a humane society. Such a society does not yet exist; progress toward it is perhaps more than before arrested by violence and suppression on a global scale. As deterrents against nuclear war, as police action against subversion, as technical aid in the fight against imperialism and communism, as methods of pacification in neo-colonial massacres, violence and suppression are promulgated, practiced, and defended by democratic and authoritarian governments alike, and the people subjected to these governments are educated to sustain such practices as necessary for the preservation of the status quo. Tolerance is extended to policies, conditions, and modes of behavior which should not be tolerated because they are impeding, if not destroying, the chances of creating an existence without fear and misery.”
If tolerance is tied to ending all forms of systemic oppression in a society, then “such a society does not exist” at this time anywhere in the world. Tolerance certainly does not exist on college campuses which are built on land stolen from indigenous peoples. Tolerance does not exist among the white ruling class for the identities and ideas of colonized Africans. Instead, “tolerance is extended to policies, conditions, and modes of behavior which should not be tolerated because they are impeding, if not destroying, the chances of creating an existence without fear and misery.” If tolerance is the aim of a society, then we should not tolerate the material conditions of capitalist oppression which are the basis for white life- at the expense of Black lives. For this reason, when we value humanity, we do not say “All Lives Matter.” Furthermore, we do not say “All Ideas Matter.” All speech is not the same, for some speech prohibits the advancement of freedom:
“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 [sic].” (Marcuse)
Malcolm X famously said, “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it.” I’d like to see the context of this quotation, because it’s usually unwise to disagree with anything Malcolm X said (one runs the great risk of being terribly wrong).
But it seems to me that it does matter who “tells it.” That is, who is saying something is as important as what is being said. For who has been empowered to say this thing? What are the material conditions from which they are speaking? How have they even survived to the moment where they are able to say this thing? When a rich white man with a full stomach, warm clothes and a safe house says this thing, it is not the same as when this thing is spoken by a working class African, whose food has been stolen from their plate by the white man, and whose very ability to live has been impeded by the white man’s system, and who has not created the “rules of the game.”
For instance, when Lyndon Johnson drawled “We Shall Overcome” to a white Congress in front of the cameras of the white media, these words held a different meaning than the one they held when Dr. King said, “We Shall Overcome.”
Words and ideas do not exist in a vacuum, free from the human material element, whose life is supported by the resources of the world. Objective words and ideas pass through this conduit of the subjective individual, and their meaning depends on the individual’s class and other systemic conditions. Therefore, “indiscriminate tolerance” within a system which tolerates the material oppression of the colonized, by the colonizer whose life is sustained through this parasitic relationship, is in fact “the preservation of the status quo”— which is unjust and inhumane.
Protesters in Chicago, who have gathered in the streets following the release of a video showing the public execution of a Black man by a police officer, are urged to remain peaceful. The protesters in Chicago, most of whom are Black, presumably have individual rights which are guaranteed by a Constitution (created by and for the white ruling class), such as the freedom of speech and the right to assemble. Yet the protesters in Chicago (as elsewhere) are urged by the preservers of the status quo (most of whom are white) to remain nonviolent; that is, the protests of Black people, who are being murdered on a daily basis in the United States, are tolerated by the ruling class only to the extent that a system which is violent is not seriously challenged. In this case, whites are not concerned with universal free speech and the rights of all people; we are concerned that a system from which we benefit no longer will be tolerated by those whose liberty this system prevents. Telling Black protesters to be nonviolent is telling them to tolerate a violent system which prevents their own freedom, and whites do this under the guise of universal tolerance toward all people, when, in fact, our goal is to preserve, validate and expand this system.
Marcuse writes, “Universal toleration becomes questionable when its rationale no longer prevails, when tolerance is administered to manipulated and indoctrinated individuals who parrot, as their own, the opinion of their masters, for whom heteronomy has become autonomy.”
How “free” is our “free speech” in the United States when the individual uses it indiscriminately in order to perpetuate a system which limits the freedom of so many people? How “free” is our “free speech” when we are simply parroting the voices of the “masters” whose material interest is to preserve their colonization of Black people?
If the end (telos) of tolerance is truth, how can the individual tolerate a system which manipulates and indoctrinates them with the irrationality of colonial violence? How can they tolerate such falseness, even if the individual materially benefits from this system of exploitation? For, at this point, the individual has lost their “autonomy.” As Gore Vidal wrote, “For the average American freedom of speech is simply the freedom to repeat what everyone else is saying and no more.” And how is this true liberty? While white people enjoy the spoils of European imperialist capitalism, the cost of this material advantage (for us) is the collective consciousness of the individual agency that each of us possesses. Instead, we are forced collectively to tolerate a system of exploitation, while each of us– individually- is free to repeat what the rulers tell us. Free speech becomes complicity, our tolerance compensated by the blood money of white supremacist colonialism.
Marcuse writes, “It is the people who tolerate the government, which in turn tolerates opposition within the framework determined by the constituted authorities.”
Such an oppressive government will not be tolerable to the people once we oppose the “framework” itself– the “constituted authorities” who guarantee the rights of opposition only up to the point where the opposing force threatens to break the frame.
“Under a system of constitutionally guaranteed … civil rights and liberties, opposition and dissent are tolerated unless they issue in violence and/or in exhortation to an organization of violent subversion. The underlying assumption is that the established society is free, and that any improvement, even a change in the social structure and social values, would come about in the normal course of events, prepared, defined, and tested in free and equal discussion, on the open marketplace of ideas and goods.”
Yet Ella Baker said:
“In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become a part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning—getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.”
If the telos of tolerance is truth, then society must understand the “root cause” of systemic oppression, and not tolerate ideas which prevent an understanding of this limit on our liberty. In order to create a society which values humanity over profits, those ideas that preserve the status quo cannot have the same value as the ideas that oppose the “social structure” which makes those former ideas possible.
Falseness and lies should not be tolerated, particularly when they lead to violence against oppressed groups. Ideas which promote falseness do not get the same value in a society which pursues objective truth over subjective self-interest. European imperialist capitalism is a system which preserves itself and expands through repeated lies and through the manipulation of the “free” opinions of capitalism’s white beneficiaries. Bertrand Russell stated, “If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it’s still a foolish thing.” Even if the overwhelming majority of whites in the U.S. possess the “free speech” to repeat a capitalist lie, it’s still not the truth. It’s just as much a lie as ever. No matter how many times we freely say otherwise, capitalism “does not lend itself” to the “needs” of the people.
If the telos of tolerance is truth, we should only tolerate those ideas which lead to the people “devising means by which” we “change that system” of white supremacist capitalism which “does not lend itself” to our “needs” as a society which values liberty and equality.