Nice summary of the ongoing influence of Marcuse and “Repressive Tolerance” (his 1965 essay) by David French in National Review.
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.
Fred Bauer summarized Marcuse thusly:
Only some viewpoints should be tolerated, Marcuse contended. This “discriminating tolerance” would, as he put it, “mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.” For the sake of true tolerance and of liberation of the human spirit, tolerance would be withdrawn from viewpoints that Marcuse considered harmful. His work and that of other members of the Frankfurt School has been greatly influential in politically correct culture and campus politics…
Defending Marcuse’s “discriminating tolerance,” Sculos and Walsh argue that “conservative and reactionary elements have distorted” it by characterizing it “as a categorical attack on free speech,” the views of conservatives and “reactionaries” being “frequently predicated on aggression, sexual repression, and discrimination.” The authors take issue particularly with my claim that Marcuse’s approach to tolerance makes a “case for repression — of thought, conscience, speech, and science.” What’s striking about their argument is that, to refute my claim, they use the same passage from Marcuse that I used to justify it. Discriminating tolerance, that passage reads,
would include the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc. Moreover, the restoration of freedom of thought may necessitate new and rigid restrictions on teachings and practices in the educational institutions which, by their very methods and concepts, serve to enclose the mind within the established universe of discourse and behavior — thereby precluding a priori a rational evaluation of the alternatives. And to the degree to which freedom of thought involves the struggle against inhumanity, restoration of such freedom would also imply intolerance toward scientific research in the interest of deadly “deterrents,” of abnormal human endurance under inhuman conditions, etc.
Sculos and Walsh try to discount the anti-liberal implications of this viewpoint by arguing that Marcuse here is calling for the repression only of “those thoughts and words that promote destruction, bigotry, racism and deprivation. Any science repressed is that which is geared toward developing technologies of war, environmental catastrophe and human exploitation.”
However, Marcuse’s criteria for repression may be far broader, and far more open to abuse, than Sculos and Walsh might think. After all, the question of which “thoughts and words” really promote “destruction, bigotry, racism and deprivation” is itself a topic for debate. Many opponents of abortion, for instance, might argue that support for legal abortion is a movement in favor of the destruction of human life. Conversely, feminist defenders of abortion might argue that opposition to abortion is a form of bigotry against women. Or take racial preferences. Some might argue that state-sponsored racial preferences extend racism and bigotry; others see contemporary racial preferences as an anti-racist remedy to the legacy of racism.
To note these disputes is not an invitation to nihilism or a suggestion that there are no right answers to the questions. But the controversies do suggest that, on many important issues, there is not an immediately obvious, universally agreed-on viewpoint.
Here’s a long excerpt from French’s piece, which covers how the phenomenon has spread from the campus:
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.”
When Marcuse wrote his essay, he lamented that “no power, no authority, no government exists which would translate liberating tolerance into practice.” In other words, since his ideas challenged entrenched power, by definition no power yet existed to impose this new tolerance. He was merely laying an intellectual foundation. Others had to make his dream real.
Enter the campus radical. In the 1960s, the mob was the instrument of intolerance. By the 1990s, the mob had gained tenure. By the 2010s the mob and the mob’s children possessed enormous power and influence throughout the higher-education establishment, and that power and influence passed into Hollywood and into corporate America…
Intolerance of alleged intolerance was the very definition of the “liberating tolerance” that Marcuse dreamed of. Fortunately for the First Amendment, the federal courts have thus far been unwilling to “translate liberating tolerance into practice” and have struck down every Marcusian speech code they have directly addressed.
Universities were rebuffed, but the radicals were undeterred. 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?
In many ways, however, the modern Marcusian intolerance is even worse than it was 25 or 50 years ago. Then, the subjects were more predictable — the Vietnam War, the Johnson administration, and then Reagan and Bush, the Cold War, abortion and homosexuality. The lines were clear. Now they’re not, and even some liberal professors tremble at the unpredictable potential wrath of their radical students.
For that, they can thank “intersectionality,” one of the most incoherent and pernicious of the gifts the modern academy has given our contemporary culture. In a way, intersectionality is a joke made real. Back when I was applying to law schools, white students used to say that their application had a chance “unless it’s up against a lesbian quadriplegic from Nairobi.” The greater the number of victim categories, the greater the affirmative-action boost.
Intersectionality, in a nutshell, holds that your cultural and political power increases with the number of victim categories you belong to. As Nathan Heller of The New Yorker put it in an excellent exploration of the phenomenon at Oberlin, intersectionality “sees identity-based oppression operating in crosshatching ways. Encountering sexism as a white, Ivy-educated, middle-class woman in a law office, for example, calls for different solutions than encountering sexism as a black woman working a minimum-wage job.”
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.
It’s entirely possible, however, that the very subjectivity and capriciousness of intersectionality may be its downfall — and that Marcusian intolerance could once again go into remission. …
(T)here is a growing recognition that the radicals went too far… A sense of unease pervades the campus culture. Do the riots at Berkeley and the attacks at Middlebury represent the natural progression from the screaming protests that disrupted Yale and so many other campuses in 2015? Will the age of Trump give the radicals an even longer list of grievances and an even greater sense not just of moral certainty but of moral urgency? Will we see buildings burn, as during the Vietnam War, or will a blaze of bad publicity lead to a temporary retreat, as at my law school in 1993?
We simply don’t know. 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.