How Tolerant Should We Be of Intolerance?
Earlier this year, the Arizona State Legislature passed a bill that would have allowed business owners, as long as they were asserting their religious beliefs, to deny service to lesbian and gay customers. Under pressure from the Chamber of Commerce, the state’s Republican governor, Jan Brewer, vetoed the legislation, but it was a close call. As far as its supporters were concerned, the bill was a victory for the civil rights of people of faith; for its opponents, it was just as clearly an assault on the rights of nonheterosexual minorities. This impasse highlights one of the most ticklish questions of liberal philosophy: How tolerant should tolerance be of intolerance?
The bill’s supporters argued that anti-discrimination laws are not neutral, but part of an activist agenda that is making it harder and harder to live and work according to one’s most deeply held beliefs. While legalizing discrimination against one group seems like a perverse way to protect the rights of another, consider the French government’s decision in 2004 to outlaw religious symbols in schools; its intent was to get Muslim girls out from the behind the veil, but for the sake of consistency, the interdiction also applied to large crucifixes, Wiccan pentacles and the Star of David. I don’t agree with this, but a part of me admires the sheer Enlightenment chutzpah: sometimes liberalism is illiberal, and that’s OK.
Jamie Cohen-Cole’s fascinating new book The Open Mind tells the story of liberal tolerance since World War II, examining how an ideal of open-mindedness was deliberately cultivated in psychology, pedagogy and social science. Exposing all the contradictions of liberalism, Cohen-Cole has written a highly illuminating prehistory of the muddles and riddles of contemporary political rhetoric. He shows how specific prescriptions for the ideal type of citizen—unprejudiced, intellectually flexible and tolerant of ambiguity, with tastes running from Abstract Impressionism to strong coffee—crystallized around the fight against totalitarianism at home and abroad. This type was nurtured in the cozy salons of Harvard and Yale and in the rarefied institutes of Princeton and Stanford by the elitist of liberal elites. Taking themselves to be the image of the perfectly open mind, these exquisite intellectual Narcissi worked hard to denounce their benighted colleagues and exclude them from the conversation. Eventually—inevitably—these avatars of tolerance were condemned according to the very standards they had created.
The first significant salvo in the postwar battle to pry open the American mind was an enormous psychological study published in 1950 called The Authoritarian Personality. Sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, it was aimed at discovering “the social-psychological factors which have made it possible for the authoritarian type of man to threaten to replace the individualistic and democratic type prevalent in the past century and a half of our civilization.” The four authors, two of them émigrés from Nazi Europe, interviewed more than 2,000 middle-class white people in the hope of smoking out the “potentially fascistic” among them. Subjects were measured on the “F scale” for latent fascism, on the “E scale” for ethnocentrism, and on the “A-S scale” for anti-Semitism. The high scorers on any of these scales turned out to be very unpleasant people indeed, prone to criminality, superstition, delinquency and a variety of mental illnesses. Although the research was criticized for its devout Freudianism (high scorers were seeking “sadomasochistic resolution of the Oedipus complex”), work continued apace on the cluster of dispositions that constituted the anti-democratic type. Being ethnocentric was characterized as a cognitive deficit: such people were unable to see what was in front of them because their emotional needs overwhelmed their faculties and produced systemic misinterpretations of the world.
In the decades that followed, social scientists and other academics worked tirelessly to understand, promote and practice the psychology of tolerance. According to Cohen-Cole’s affectionate but ironic portrait of this endeavor, it involved a certain amount of navel-gazing. One of the most venerated models of open-minded debate was high-table conversation at the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, and the Ivy League sought to emulate those crucibles of British privilege by lavishing money on its own fellows. Recalling those years, the beneficiaries dwelled wistfully on the way that their minds were propped ajar by the excellence of the “food, drink, and smoke,” the comfort of the seating, and the ceaseless flow of coffee and snacks, replenished by invisible hands late into the night. The famous anthropologist Margaret Mead formulated some rules for the conduct of open-minded discourse, including the admonition that failing to provide the right kind of alcohol could “wreck a conference.” This rule seems to have been followed faithfully: one attendee at a 1957 gathering of the leading lights of the academic and policy world remembered how the lovely weather and beautiful grounds enabled the participants to “drink sherry before lunch and martinis before dinner,” and to “sit at small tables drinking beer or gin fizzes in the twilight.” High on the fumes of sherry and self-regard, these men and women took themselves to be the embodiment of all that was fabulous about the citizens of a liberal democracy.
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