RIGHT back to Brown:

“As a moral-political practice of governmentality, tolerance has significant cultural, social, and political effects that exceed its surface operations of reducing conflict or of protecting the weak or the minoritized, and that exceed its formal goals and self-representation. These include contributions to political and civic subject formation and to the articulation of the political, the social, citizenship, justice, the nation, and civilization. Tolerance can function as a substitute for or a supplement to formal liberal equality or liberty; it can also overtly block the pursuit of substantive equality and freedom. At times, tolerance shores up troubled orders of power, repairs state legitimacy, glosses troubled universalisms, and provides cover for imperialism… the concern of this study is to consider how, when and why these effects occur as part of the operation of tolerance, rather than to ignore them or treat them as ‘externalities’ vis-à-vis tolerance’s main project.” (p. 10)

Brown tracks some of the ways that tolerance houses and enables intolerance, then reminds us that, for all that tolerance is supposedly the motivating factor in many legal reforms, for example, tolerance itself remains something that is not legally binding. Here we see the tricky transition it allows from public to private and vice-versa:

“… [W]hile tolerance may be a state or civic principle, while it may figure prominently in the preambles of constitutions or policy documents and may conceptually undergird laws and judicial decisions concerned freedom of religion, speech, and association, tolerance as such is not legally or doctrinally codified. Nor can it be, both because the meaning and work of tolerance is bound to its very plasticity—to when, where, and how far it will stretch—and because its legitimating goodness is tied to virtue, not to injunction or legality. Virtue is exercised and emanates from within it cannot be organised as a right or rule, let alone commanded.” (pp. 11-12)

And here we see how and why tolerance is bound up with perpetuating a very peculiar kind of individualism, and why so many discussions about feminism, or racism, or homophobia, or transphobia, or discrimination against those with disabilities are continually reduced to the individual. “But I don’t do that!” cry men on feminist blogs (when ‘they’ aren’t threatening rape, murder and so on), and other forms of discrimination are responded to with “some of my bestest friends in the whole wide world are black/gay/disabled/trans/women.” And so on. In each case, the claim to the individual virtue of tolerance is taken to be a demonstration that, whatever the statistics say about prison populations, mortality rates, abuse rates, rape rates etc etc, public engagement with these issues is not merely unnecessary, but an attack on those who are tolerant.

“Conventionally, tolerance is adduced for beliefs or practices that may be morally, socially, or ideologically offensive but are not in direct conflict with the law. Thus, law constitutes one limit of the reach of tolerance, designating its purview as personal or private matters within the range of what is legal… [I]n each case, the negotiation is between what is deemed a private or individual choice appropriately beyond the reach of law (hence tolerable) and what is deemed a matter of the public interest (hence not a matter of tolerance)” (p.12)

It took a long long time for rape within marriage to be understood as something the law should step in to try to prevent. Interestingly, I think, domestic violence is a domain that retains its in-betweenness: the law officially stands against it, but it occurs in what is so strongly believed to be the private sphere that interventions into this space are perceived as problematic. This of course makes the issue difficult to negotiate.

Brown turns to the question of depolicisation next, by tackling the notion of a distinction between ‘tolerance’ (virtue/ethic) and ‘toleration’ (a practice). Both of these, I think, risk individualising again, but nonetheless.

“The distinction is between a personal ethic of tolerance, an ethic that issues from an individual commitment and has objects that are largely individualized, and a political discourse, regime, or governmentality of tolerance that involves a particular mode of depoliticising and organizing the social. A tolerant individual bearing, understood as a willingness to abide the offensive or disturbing predilections and tastes of others, is surely an inarguable good in many settings: a friend’s irritating laugh, a student’s distressing attire, a colleague’s religious zeal, the repellant smell of a stranger, a neighbour’s horrid taste in garden plants-these provocations do not invite my action, or even my comment, and the world is surely a more gracious and graceful place if I can be tolerant in the ace of them… But tolerance as a political discourse concerned with designated modalities of diversity, identity, justice, and civic cohabitation is another matter. It involves not simply the withholding of speech or action in response to contingent individual dislikes or violations of taste but the enactment of social, political, religious, and cultural norms; certain practices of licensing and regulation; the marking of subjects of tolerance as inferior, deviant or marginal vis-à-vis those practicing tolerance; and a justification for sometimes dire or even deadly action when the limits of tolerance are considered breached. Tolerance of this sort does not simply address identity but abets in its production; it also abets in the conflation of culture with ethnicity or race and the conflation of belief or consciousness with phenotype. And it naturalizes as it depoliticizes these processes to render identity itself an object of tolerance.” (pp. 13-14)

In other words, reducing tolerance to merely a personal ethic of ‘non-interference’ is deeply problematic. It covers over the productive and hierarchical operation of tolerance: that it tends to naturalise and/or essentialise identity, thus covering over the role that it plays in producing these identities (as tolerable, intolerable, or, most concealed of all, the tolerating). As can be seen by the slipperiness of ‘tolerance’ in the above, Brown is not suggesting that tolerance as an individual ethos is separable from the broader political forms of tolerance; indeed, the two are strongly related, and not least in the political marking of particular groups as bearing the privilege of being the tolerating.

“Almost all objects of tolerance are marked as deviant, marginal, or undesirable by virtue of being tolerated, and the action of tolerance inevitably affords some access to superiority, even as settings or dynamics of mutual tolerance may complicate renderings of superordination and superiority as matters of relatively fixed status.” (p. 14)

Brown then argues that “tolerance as such is not the problem,” a position that I am unconvinced by, but she suggests that actually it is the way that tolerance is called for, and its disavowal of its role in the production and management of identity that is a problem. I’m not sure about this, but that’s primarily because I’m unconvinced that ‘tolerance’ can be separated out from a particular mode of engaging with difference, which tends toward the binarised. Actually I’m unclear about how separate this is from her position, but she refers to the patterning of privilege that occurs through the work of ‘tolerance’ as a “buried order of politics,” and this to some extent feels to me like a big-T Truth-seeking exercise, as if True identities were those that occurred without the effect of political power. That’s too crude to characterise her argument, really, and I am in total agreement as to the problematic role of tolerance talk in concealing its own role in the production of identities, so perhaps my disagreement will turn out to be nothing at all.

“[I]… analyze tolerance, especially in its recently resurgent form, as a strand of depoliticization in liberal democracies. Depoliticzation involves construing inequality, subordination, marginalisation, and social conflict, which all require political analysis and political solutions, as personal and individual, on the one hand, or as natural, religious, or cultural on the other. Tolerance works along both vectors of depoliticization-it personalizes and its naturalizes or culturalizes-and sometimes it intertwines them.” (p. 15)

This I think it interesting, because it demonstrates that tolerance plays an important part in constructing differences between groups or people as sources of conflict-that is, as requiring the intervention of tolerance to manage. It doesn’t do this alone, of course (because wow! the list of factors contributing to this particular configuration of difference goes on and on, informing the vast moiety of our discursive world). Now that this is bound up with depoliticization is important; much ‘liberal’ discourse tends to reproduce this particular configuration of subjectivity, not least through the evocation of things like ‘false consciousness’ (that’s what you have, but I have something else entirely – Da Troof!). As Brown describes:

“No matter its particular form and mechanics, depoliticzation always eschews power and history in the representation of its subject. When these two constitutive sources of social relations and political conflict are elided, an ontological naturalness or essentialism almost inevitably takes up residence in our understandings and explanations. In the case at hand, an object of tolerance analytically divested of constitution by history and power is identified as naturally and essentially different from the tolerating subject; in this difference, it appears as a natural provocation to that which tolerates it. Moreover, not merely the parties to tolerance but the very scene of tolerance is naturalized, ontologized in its constitution as produced by the problems of difference itself. (pp. 15-16)

This is interesting, I think, because often those who declare themselves ‘anti-essentialist’ also perpetuate this depoliticization, as I described above in the case of ‘false consciousness’. So the argument will go ‘I’m not essentialist, there’s no essence to (say) woman,’ and therefore, ‘because I’m critically aware of this fact, I’ve managed to find a space ‘outside’ social relations, power and history, my ‘true’ self, from which I make ‘true’ choices, that is, choices that are pure of that ideology.’ The guiltlessness of the individual in this appears to me remarkable. Interestingly, I think, this anti-essentialism is sometimes also deployed as a “well, you could be otherwise, given that you have no essence, so why don’t you?” In other words, why don’t you be like us? This kind of argument is used all over: from the homophobic (and often ‘tolerant) response to gay men and lesbians (‘it’s so much easier to be straight’); to even being a reproach for those who are resisting the ‘bringing of Freedom’ in, say, Iraq; or closer to home and most horribly (it makes me feel sick to think on) the legislation making that today made its way through the Senate at the moment in Australia which will attempt to ensure that Indigenous people and particularly the ‘innocent children’ in whose name these horrors are being perpetuated, have ‘every opportunity’ to be otherwise than what they already are: to be more ‘normal,’ implicitly, ‘more white.’ I guess my point is that the naturalization of the white, Western, ‘free’ ‘individual’ enables him/her to be understood as history-and-thus-ideology-free, thus both naturalising the Other (naturally challenging to the hegemonic) and denaturalising him/her in the sense of suggesting that this difference cannot possibly be the ‘truth’ of that subject. Mmm.

And then Brown totally makes me a fan by actually talking about the role of suffering in this depoliticization. Is it narcissistic to dub those whose work dovetails with mine ‘totally rockin”? 😉

“In addition to depoliticizations as a mode of dispossessing the constitutive histories and powers organizing contemporary problems and contemporary political subjects-that is, depoliticization of sources of political problems-there is a second and related meaning of depoliticization with which this book is concerned: namely, that which substitutes emotional and personal vocabularies for political ones in formulating solutions to political problems. When the ideal or practice of tolerance is substituted for justice or equality, when sensitivity to or even respect for the other is substituted for justice for the other, when historically induced suffering is reduced to ‘difference’ or to a medium of ‘offense,’ when suffering as such is reduced to a problem of personal feeling, then the field of political battle and political transformation is replaced with an agenda of behavioural, attitudinal and emotional practices. While such practices often have their value, substituting a tolerant attitude or ethos for political redress of inequality or violent exclusions not only reifies politically produced differences but reduces political action and justice projects to sensitivity training, or what Richard Rorty has called ‘an improvement in manners.’ A justice project is replaced with a therapeutic or behavioural one.” (p. 16)

This happens a lot… a lot a lot! I’m just going to use the ‘physical difference’ thing to explore it for a moment. Now obviously I, and most people, think that the response to suffering is desperately important, but almost automatically these days, the response to such suffering is to resolve it here and now for this individual. And so we have cosmetic surgery which is supposed to (though often enough fails) cure suffering, up alongside human growth hormones and limb-lengthening surgery which deals with shortness, and intersex ‘corrective’ surgery for straightening-out the ‘ambiguously’ sexed. Yet in offering these kinds of therapeutic remedies for suffering (which I am not suggesting we should withhold), what is covered over is that this suffering is not caused by the physical ‘difference’ of this individual person, or not simply at any rate; it’s the result of a political construction of that body as deviant. Deviance (from norms and ideas of the normal) often (though trust me, by no means always!) seems to dovetail with suffering in ways that this ‘individualised’ model of ‘care/cure’ covers over. Worse, the therapeutic relief of suffering in this ‘normalising’ fashion reinforces the notion that normal=happy, thereby reiterating the very characterisation of difference which contributed to their suffering in the first place. My point in this is that the ‘simplest’ and ‘most ethical’ way of dealing with this suffering, understood as individual, emotional and personal, is to offer normalisation; this depoliticization ensures that there is never a point at which the political sphere needs to engage with this injustice (and those that result from it: the extraordinary exclusions of those with disabilities, for example). Often, worryingly, this characterisation of suffering as an individual responsibility is exacerbated by, say, a Little Person’s refusal to undergo limb-lengthening surgery: ‘well, you chose to be different,’ says the political and, also problematically, social world. Both the political and the individual realms, then, are made innocent of any role in suffering.

Much of the remainder of the chapter engages more specifically with the American tropes which contribute to the depoliticization which she’s marked tolerance as partially responsible for: liberalism (freedom shifts to ‘rights, equality to equal standing before the law), individualism (the right ‘tudes will produce justice), market rationality (all subjects made consumers with ‘naturally occurring’ desires), the culturalization of politics (where ethnicity, race, religion and culture are made interchangeable, permitting slides from, for example, ‘Islamic extremists’ to ‘racial and ethnic profiling’ as a threat-management technique). I’ve already talked about these throughout (given my apparent indignation with the cheerful assertion of the transparent goods of individualism and liberalism!) so I won’t repeat myself. I should mention, though, that towards the end of this chapter, Brown marks liberalism as kind of rescue-able. This may be convincing, or, better, desirable for some (especially for America, whose investment in liberal individualism seems quite substantial)-understanding liberalism not as acultural, but as the specific culture of the USA would certainly help!-I suspect that the shifts she suggests would happen by ‘culturalizing’ liberalism entail a substantial undermining of liberalism’s key terms.

“This book… contests the culturalization of politics that tolerance discourse draws from and promulgates, and contests as well the putatively a-cultural nature of liberalism. The normative premise animating this contestation is that a more democratic global future involves affirming rather than denying and disavowing liberalism’s cultural facets and its imprint by particular cultures. Such a affirmation would undermine liberalism’s claims to universalism and liberalism’s status as culturally neutral in brokering the tolerable. This erosion, in turn, would challenge the standing of liberal regimes as uniquely, let alone absolutely, tolerant, revealing them instead to be a self-affirming and Other-rejecting as many other regimes. It would also reveal liberalism’s proximity to and bouts of forthright engagement with fundamentalism.

The recognition of liberalism as cultural is more than a project of debunking its airs of superiority or humiliating its hubristic reach. Rather, insofar as it makes explicit the inherent hybridity or impurity of every instantiation of liberalism, it underscores the impossibility of any liberalism ever being ‘only liberalism’ and the extent to which both form and content are potted, historical, local, lived. It reveals liberalism as always already being the issue of miscegenation with its fundamental Other, as containing this Other within, and thus as having a certain potential for recognizing and connecting with this Other without. In this possibility may be contained liberalism’s prospects for renewal, even for redemption, or at the very least for more modest and peaceful practices.” (p. 24)

I suppose, in the end, my situatedness in this regard comes quite strongly into play here: my concern is much less with the stability of the political system, I guess, and more with ensuring justice. In this regard, this seeking of redemption for liberalism makes me scrunch up my nose—I guess in the end I’m not sure it’s worth saving (watch my intolerance!), though by the same token, making impure the forms of liberalism that already exist appeals to me not least for its potential effectiveness and my usual affection for deconstructive engagements. Okay, clearly I’m disagreeing with myself already, here, so I am not making any great claims. I am just not sure what a liberalism stripped of its universality, its rampant individualism, its market rationality and so on, would look like… would it look like liberalism?

I’m going to leave this post here: it’s already very long, and I have a billion and one other things to do. Nonetheless, there will be more!