30 years ago, when the counter-culture was Left, it asked of the Establishment, “Who are you to impose your values?” Now that the Left has become the Establishment, it is busy imposing its values with a zeal that would make a Puritan blush. The list of taboos is different but the impulse is the same.
In Malign Marcuse David French writes about a vital piece of the intellectual underpinnings of that project: Herbert Marcuse’s 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance.”
To get to know the modern campus radical is to lose respect for him. When you’re face to face and he’s screaming, there’s a certain strange gleam in his eye. It’s something beyond moral certainty. Anyone who has spent time around the “most religious” person in church has seen that look. No, it’s moral certainty linked with ignorance, combined with an odd kind of pain, and culminating in a kind of feral desire to hurt you, to cause as much pain as he can.
I saw it in my worst “arguments” (if you can call them arguments) during my time at Harvard Law School in the early 1990s. This was the time between the violent campus unrest of the 1960s and the “intersectional” unrest of the 2010s. This was the time when campuses actively and proudly discussed implementing “speech codes,” when the in-class shout-down was a favored tactic of the radical Left, and when your own colleagues and classmates would do their best to ruin your career if they found you sufficiently odious. …
(T)o greater or lesser degrees we all [owe] our plight to the ideas of one man, captured succinctly in one 1965 essay that rocketed around the Left during his time and that today afflicts the body politic like a recurring cancer. The man is German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse. The essay is “Repressive Tolerance.”
I make no pretension to being a scholar of Marcuse or of the so-called Frankfurt School of critical theory. Others can write (and have written) about the malignant effects of critical theory on the American academy. I want to focus instead on a simple idea of his that still resonates with the Left today — unleash the forces of censorship and repression for the sake of the new tolerance to come. It is good (necessary, even) to be intolerant in the name of tolerance. There is no virtue in what the mainstream culture defines as “tolerance” if that tolerance will preserve the status quo. Instead, achieving true, new tolerance will require driving out the old. Here’s how Marcuse began:
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.
What followed was a dense and wordy exploration of a few central themes. Among them: Toleration of free speech is empty if there is intolerance of revolutionary action. That toleration of free speech ends exactly when speech contradicts or inhibits revolutionary goals:
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.
Critically, Marcuse also believed that the “distinction between true and false tolerance” could be made “rationally on empirical grounds.” Grounding his ideology in rationality meant that Marcuse saw his opponents as inherently irrational. Labeling opponents as irrational makes it all too easy to reach his conclusion, that liberating tolerance means “intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.” …
Whether explicitly conscious of Marcuse or not (likely not; you can read any number of modern apologetics for campus censorship without seeing his name), the concept of intolerance for the sake of true tolerance had struck, and if the Constitution meant that public agencies, including state universities, couldn’t be instruments of “liberating tolerance,” then private citizens and private corporations most certainly could.
A university may be unwilling to fire a dissenting professor, but how many dissenting professors are willing to stay at jobs where they may face — as Nicholas and Erika Christakis did at Yale when Ericka had the audacity to defend the right of adult college students to wear the Halloween costumes of their choice — screaming gangs of furious students demanding that they leave the school? In corporate America, how many conservatives are willing to risk their mortgage or their kids’ college tuition to raise even the slightest objection to uniformly orthodox expressions of progressive values? …
Intersectionality puts a premium on “experiential authority.” That is, the person experiencing the “oppression” gets to define both the oppression and the remedy. The role of less-oppressed allies, typically white progressives, is to defer to the experience of the more oppressed, learn from them, and support their struggles. That can mean that even liberals in good standing are blindsided by controversy, such as the Claremont McKenna dean who resigned amid protests and hunger strikes when she had the audacity (in a sympathetic e-mail) to tell a Latina student that she strove to serve those students who “don’t fit our CMC mold.”
You cannot question the victim. You must support the victim. And (here’s the hidden shout-out to Marcuse) intolerance in the name of tolerance works to advance social justice. …
But this we do know: that Herbert Marcuse still afflicts America, and even activists who have never heard his name live in the activist culture he helped create. Every shout-down, every screaming fit, every hunger strike, every economic boycott, every social-media shame-storm, and every riot furthers his legacy. It turns vice into virtue, makes hate great again, and creates new generations of men and women who want to hurt their enemies and feel morally righteous as they do it. Lurking behind the rage is his singular idea, which we should not allow to curse us forever, that America’s “tolerant” citizens should be the most intolerant of all.