How Tolerant Should We Be of Intolerance?

How Tolerant Should We Be of Intolerance?

How Tolerant Should We Be of Intolerance?

It’s one of the most ticklish questions of liberal philosophy.


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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Not everyone in the Ivy League was invited to the party. Although the authors of The Authoritarian Personality found that latent fascism was inversely correlated with one’s education level, the same battle lines were quickly drawn within universities, where identifying authoritarian faculty and shunning closed-minded schools of thought brought the Cold War into the seminar room. At Harvard, the principal target of opprobrium was the behaviorist Burrhus Frederic Skinner, whose theory of “operant conditioning” proposed that all animals, including humans, were entirely driven by rewards and punishments, with no place for intellectual autonomy—the most cherished attribute of the democratic personality. In the 1950s, anti-Skinnerian jeremiads tended toward the insultingly diagnostic, with an important 1959 survey of psychological science denouncing behaviorism’s “autism.” As the two sides became more entrenched, the insults became more and more intemperate. In 1971, Noam Chomsky suggested that a behaviorist utopia would resemble “a well-run concentration camp with inmates spying on one another and the gas ovens smoking in the distance.”

Chomsky’s assault on Skinner coincided with the final implosion of the academic ideal of open-mindedness, which came apart in stages in the decades between World War II and Watergate. The Authoritarian Personality had identified closed-mindedness with the far right. It was not long before someone pointed out that authoritarianism was found on the far left as well. The result was a doomed attempt to promote political centrism as the measure of tolerance. One diagnostic survey contained a section on “Left Opinionation.” Respondents were asked if they agreed with the statement “A person must be pretty stupid if he still believes in differences between the races.” Assent was taken to be a marker of closed-mindedness. At this point, the would-be liberal found herself in a bind: she couldn’t be racist, but she couldn’t be anti-racist either. The main thing was not to take a stand. McCarthyism was closed-minded, but so was communism. Company men in gray flannel suits were conformist, but so were beatniks.

In the 1960s, the beatniks fought back. A new generation took up the cause of open-mindedness and threw it in the faces of the people who had developed it. In 1962, Students for a Democratic Society issued their famous Port Huron Statement, which extolled freedom and self-cultivation while denouncing the rigidity and cowardice of American centrism. Martin Luther King Jr. decried psychology’s focus on social “adjustment” and called for the establishment of an “International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment.” In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the methodology of The Authoritarian Personality was updated for the Vietnam War period: it turned out that the “A scale,” measuring authoritarianism, and the “D scale,” measuring dogmatism, were both inversely correlated with antiwar activism. Taking a stand was a measure of open-mindedness, after all. At the same time, the image of the university as a refuge of reasoned debate was challenged by women, African-Americans and Jews, who pointed out that the Ivy League was more patriarchal WASP bastion than democratic utopia. Given American atrocities in Indochina and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation, it was the centrists, with their commitment to weighing both sides of an issue, who now seemed cognitively deficient and politically paralyzed.

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It was not long before the virtues of the open mind came under equally vociferous attack from the right. The principal focus of conservative ire was a pedagogical initiative called “Man: A Course of Study,” or MACOS. This social studies curriculum was developed in the mid-1960s by cognitive scientists funded by the National Science Foundation and the Ford Foundation, with the goal of making elementary school children more democratic, scientific and creative. At its peak in 1972, it was taught to 400,000 fifth graders in 1,700 schools. The focus was on analysis rather than rote memorization of facts, and students were encouraged not to seek the right answers, but to think “like professional academics and see their material as data from which to draw one or more likely conclusions.” One Baptist minister claimed that MACOS “advocated sex education, evolution, a ‘hippie-yippie philosophy,’ pornography, gun control and communism.” Another commentator warned that it was training children to accept “the concept of a socialized One World totalitarian state without question or struggle.” The Arizona commissioner of education threatened a lawsuit, arguing that MACOS violated the separation of church and state by proselytizing for the religion of secular humanism. That was 1973; judging from the recent attempt to beat back gay rights, things in Arizona haven’t changed much in the last forty years. The issue is still whether humanism can claim the mantle of universalism and neutrality, or if it is, indeed, a conspiracy to replace one religion with another, to substitute for the Christianity of the founding fathers some sort of pagan cult of liberty.

The story follows the classic arc of hubris and nemesis, but Cohen-Cole’s tone is more comic than tragic. By keeping his focus on the Ivy League, he conveys an atmosphere of privilege, self-congratulation and exclusivity that is hilariously at odds with his protagonists’ espousal of tolerance. Another running joke is that the book itself is a product of the educational initiatives it details. The author winks to his fellow historians of science when he describes how his protagonists opposed the “naïve realism” according to which science is a “voyage of discovery” to the “islands of truth.” The pedagogues of tolerance regarded a laboratory as an anthropological site: science was a set of rituals, traditions and origin stories, all framed by its own cosmology. The MACOS curriculum called for ethnographic films of Eskimo life to be shown to children in order to help them see twentieth-century America as a distinct culture replete with its own mythology. It seems fitting that a young historian of science has now turned the same anthropological gaze onto the gin-soaked gatherings of the tribe that produced and promoted it. None of this delivers us—or, indeed, the Arizona Legislature—from the impasse of relativism, as Cohen-Cole is all too aware, and the book ends on the point that “it is the very success of the open mind that makes the apparent cultural coherence of the postwar era a thing of the past.”

There is, however, a more somber story lurking beneath the comic ironies detailed in The Open Mind. Cohen-Cole observes that the academics who developed the ideal of open-mindedness were also involved in American foreign policy, sometimes at a high level: they were “recipients of grants from the Atomic Energy Commission, producers of art championed by the CIA, or military strategists at the RAND Corporation…the very people [Robert] McNamara had recruited to bring creative, rational, and scientific management to the Department of Defense.”

The paradox of the intolerant liberal, in other words, played out on a global stage as well. In the 1940s, psychoanalysis seemed to provide resources for understanding fascism; as the Cold War progressed, this psychological focus on the totalitarian personality shaded easily into the demonization of America’s enemies, and elaborate theorizations of the closed-mindedness of the Soviets and their allies became a justification for aggressive foreign policy. With terrifying speed, the same formula was applied after the Cold War to a new set of foes, defined by Bernard Lewis’s 1990 article “The Roots of Muslim Rage” for The Atlantic Monthly and Samuel Huntington’s 1993 “The Clash of Civilizations?” in Foreign Affairs. Cohen-Cole’s book walks us through the steps by which the ideal of freedom was transformed into its opposite—a cautionary tale for the age of exporting democracy down the barrel of a gun.

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