How to find our way out from our culture-wide sex addiction.
Love in Jackboots
To defeat today’s coerced togetherness, tolerance isn’t nice, it’s necessary.
Following the Second World War, critic and novelist E. M. Forster wrote a short essay called “Tolerance,” encouraging modern society to embrace the “dull” virtue of tolerance in order to cope with the reality of living in a crowded world of real, fundamental difference. Forster modestly defined tolerance as “merely putting up with people, being able to stand things,” admitting that while mere forbearance might not inspire or excite anyone as a heroic civic virtue, the experience of two major wars demonstrated that civilization might benefit by curbing any global ambitions.
Forster explicitly took issue with the idea of love as the “proper spirit” for rebuilding society. Not only has history disproven this prospect time and again, but common sense immediately shows that love does not work as the basis for public policy. “We can only love what we know personally.,” Forster suggested “And we cannot know much.”
Today, we live under the established ideal of a pluralistic society, one where difference must be celebrated and affirmed, and strangers must declare love and support for each other. Forster’s tempered realism reminds us that this harmony is necessarily a fake.
The Civic War
At best, people publicly compete to pretend they love strangers living ways of life incompatible with their own, the better to appear virtuous or at least to avoid punishment. At worst, policies that command love between strangers and across incompatible lifeways degenerate quickly into violence and persecution. Pride parades and calendars of ritual appreciation are undergirded by campaigns to eliminate political dissent, ranging from physical assault and property destruction to cancelling and doxxing.
The new project shows the extent of the ruin that awaits down this path. As its proponents claim, even those who denounce hate and personally reject it are guilty of it. People who choose to “live and let live” and harbor no ill-will toward any race are core to the problem. According to Ibram X. Kendi, the apostle of anti-racism, individual attitudes and actions do nothing to ameliorate the racist structure of society. Only by promoting an “outcome-centered” equity agenda, he contends, can we get beyond “irrelevant” personal intentions. The “privilege” of the tolerant can never be checked (or tolerated), only confessed, punished, and purged. Under such absolutism, civic life itself, like those who dare to live it, becomes the enemy.
To justify love’s bizarre transformation into a tool of compliance and coercion, our new absolutists depict their actions as necessities of public health. The logic of “love” over mere tolerance has been central to the official response to the COVID-19 virus. Rather than suggest that vulnerable people take protective measures against the virus, in the name of collective responsibility the government overrules personal autonomy in all cases. Everyone must self-quarantine. Everyone must wear a mask (or two, or three). Everyone must distance. And, of course, everyone will need to be vaccinated.
These measures are justified with assurances of love. It’s always out of concern for others that people are subjected to masking, distancing, and staying home; one is responsible for others’ health first. Whereas a person used to tolerate their odd neighbor being a germaphobe and donning a face mask, they now must mask and distance on their neighbor’s behalf, even if the act is more symbolic than scientific. Anything less amounts officially to the opposite of love, hate.
The consequences of not complying with the new anti-“hate” ethic are surprisingly (or not) intolerant. The resident or business owner who dares not endorse BLM will have their property ransacked and destroyed. The content creator who does not post the black square will be abandoned by her followers. The business owner who murmurs any sliver of sympathy for Donald Trump will be boycotted. The innocent shopper at the store who doesn’t wear a mask properly will be shamed and kicked out, not even by the store’s employees or police, but by other shoppers. All of which is, quite intentionally, just the beginning: the goal is the complete, systemic eradication of what is officially deemed vice.
This vengeance against tolerance not only systematizes actual hate, it stymies the building of anything. Progressives have been feverishly at work destroying the culture: its monuments, its systems, its heroes, and its history. Forster points out in the opening of his essay that “the only sound foundation for a civilization is a sound state of mind.” Yet the prevailing state of mind is now paranoid, hysterical, and hostile to reality. It’s a spirit that preaches national unity behind thousands of armed soldiers, impeaching elected officials no longer in office and purging the internet of even the hint of dissent.
The Wronged Right
Conservatives know well that they should tread lightly these days, but if they once believed that the classical liberal tradition of tolerance and open discussion would endure, they should now realize that it will not endure on its own. It must be actively reasserted in a new way that suits new times. Those who wish to dismantle tolerance now aim to bring down everything else with it. Tolerance today is not simply a nice way to behave. It is the only way to conserve traditional life without spiraling into catastrophic conflict.
In the spirit of tolerance, conservatives often grant unproven premises to arrive at a compromise—which then becomes impossible because the premise itself prevents a compromise. For example, they will allow Democrats to stipulate that there was no fraud in the 2020 presidential election as a means of discussing safer, fairer elections in the future, which is contradictory: if there’s no fraud, then no reform is necessary. Similarly, the idea that our immigration system is “broken” was put forward in order to advance amnesty and open borders. But the only problem with the system was that the many well-defined laws on the books were not being enforced. Granting the premise that the system is broken ensures “reform” instead of enforcement.
Conservatives no longer have much, if any, influence over culture or society, and have been put in a position of toleration for norms we often find disagreeable. But at the same time, we find zero tolerance for ourselves from the dominant party, which has made clear its desire to wipe us out. Conservatives must rally together and commit ourselves, at the very least, no longer to accept the Left’s creeping redefinition of terms and establishment of false premises atop old ones that were questionable to begin with. Exercising tolerance without even demanding it in return is just slavishness.
Some state-level decisions about the pandemic have proven that a muscular reassertion of tolerance confers big and immediate benefits. Rather than buckle before the scientistic scientific consensus that demanded the complete shutdown of society, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem put tolerance to work in their states, asking for people to take some personal responsibility for their health while respecting the needs of their vulnerable fellow citizens. At the same time, they calmly and patiently demanded that the country show tolerance for how they chose to conduct their business.
In the face of a determined, respectful demand for tolerance, the Left is nonplussed. For too long they have been allowed to seize the moral high ground and persecute their enemies in the name of kindness. Americans cherish tolerance because it best ensures we are left alone from such officialized crusades.
Tolerance is routinely demonized as hate or watered down into niceness. Both these distortions need to end. Tolerance is stronger and healthier than its critics say. With progressive elites taking over every institution and jeopardizing the civil rights of half the nation along with the country’s constitutional foundations, conservatives must act decisively where they can to restore civic life by restoring and defending tolerance and the genuinely salutary social distance it provides. Rather than enforcing a phony love, good government discourages the intolerant from trying to swallow society whole. There is a great deal of work ahead, but, eventually, tolerance may help lead to a mutual understanding that some differences are too deep to be wiped away. In such hopelessly divided times, this wisdom must be reclaimed before it becomes impossible to restore.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.
Remarks accepting the Claremont Institute’s Henry Salvatori Prize for helping to secure the teachings of the American founding. Washington, D.C., October 27, 2018