Shoulder-shrugging: the durable kind of tolerance

EmberIt is widely noted that Millennials are a tolerant bunch.  They accept diversity and the rights of minorities.   The younger you are the more likely you are, for instance, to take for granted a gay couple’s right to marry.  Tolerance is a demographic wave.  It will eventually triumph.

This is the outcome of a variety of historical and cultural influences.  In the present day, the most effective players perhaps are Hollywood and the elementary-school system.  These institutions took on entrenched hostility, racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, and xenophobia.  And, mostly, they prevailed.  A task of no small difficulty.  An accomplishment of some real significance.

But there is, I think, a flaw in the Hollywood-School approach.  And it’s the inclination to treat tolerance as an act of generosity, as something that fills the world with the light of human goodness.  This approach is designed to show how deeply satisfying is the act of tolerance and in most cases to make us reach for our hankies.  Tolerance…is…just…so…beautiful.  (Snuffle, snuffle, honk.)  We are not only doing the right thing, we are generously compensated for our good behavior.

But consider this second approach to tolerance:

Dutch tolerance was never “nice”. It was, as Shorto remarks, built not on admiration or even celebrating difference, but precisely on indifference, on letting others live their lives regardless of what one might think of their practices and beliefs, as long as they did not interfere with the business of society and of business itself. It was a shoulder-shrugging tolerance.

(This is Philipp Blom in his Times Literary Supplement (April 30) review of a new book by Russell Shorto called Amsterdam: A history of the world’s most liberal city. Little, Brown)

Shoulder-shrugging tolerance may be the more powerful, durable, dependable form of tolerance.  And it is one promoted by J.S.Mill.  (Though I’ll be damned if I can find the passage in question.)  The idea, Mill says, is not that we are supposed to like the people of whom we are tolerant.  The liberal idea is that we are supposed to endure even those we find dubious, difficult or repellent.

Forget the self congratulation.  Stow the hankies.  We are obliged to be tolerant all the time, and not just when it feels good or makes us look good.  Real tolerance is not always “nice.”

Now, this might be merely a point of principle were it not for the eruption of a certain illiberality in American culture.  Politics have turned into a shouting match.  There are no limits to things we are prepared to call one another.   Character assignation is the order of the day.   And this comes from people who would insist that they are the very souls of liberal toleration.

I will use one example from my own experience.  When even well educated, tender-hearted Canadians discover that my wife is American, they let fly with extended rants that drip with a bitter tongued indignation.  It doesn’t seem to matter that my wife and I are standing right there.  A small but apparently invisible point of courtesy.  But what is also missing, and I mean utterly invisible, is the Millean idea that we are obliged to respect even those we dislike. Do these liberals understand liberalism?

And here’s perhaps the oddest twist.  Even Millennials, our best and brightest accomplishment in the liberal ascendancy, can be discovered trashing the opposition…even as they insist that they are liberal to the very core.  Apparently, Hollywood and the school system missed the “Dutch” part of the story.

We can guess at what happened here.   Hollywood of the old fashioned kind sometimes struggled to tell a story unless it had a swelling orchestra in the background.  Big emotions, yes.  Shrugging, not so much.  So “hanky” liberalism was bound to get on the studio “docket” while Dutch liberalism was not.

The same might be true for elementary school.  Hanky liberalism is a great story to tell.  It makes the teller look so very noble.  The “told,” too.  Hanky liberalism carries a rhetorical pay load.  It says, “embrace this idea and we’ll adorn you in nobility.”

Shrugging liberalism, that’s a less pretty story.  But to the extent that it delivers the more durable form of liberalism, it’s the more urgent one.


To Wodek Szemberg with whom I was talking about tolerance just a couple of weeks ago in Toronto.

The photo. showing a magnificently elaborate shrug, is an outtake from the Pharrell Williams’ Happy video here.

4 thoughts on “Shoulder-shrugging: the durable kind of tolerance

  1. TJ Olney

    TV crime dramas have been fairly consistent in the shoulder shrug type of tolerance. They have a very broad audience and therefore the only tolerance that will not offend many viewers is the shoulder shrugging variety. Some take it a step further and have different characters doing different kinds of tolerating and then meta-tolerating each other.

    1. Grant Post author

      TJ, great point, TV has been an educational enterprise with the likes of Andy Sipowicz rising out of his prejudice finally to get to a … shrug. We hope for more but take what we can get. Thanks Grant

  2. Pingback: Tolerance, now even for liberals! | CultureBy - Grant McCracken

  3. Michael Powell

    Grant, Sounds like you’re ruminating on a few issues in recent, related posts, about diversity, multiculturalism, liberalism today, millenials and branding. I’ve also been looking at and thinking about these issues, not the least because I’ve been working with a grocery store brand that is striving to figure out and act on multiculturalism today (in a very specific area of North America). A few touchpoints of use. One is Paul Taylor’s The Next America. Dense with a lot of stats and surveys, but pretty compelling, Taylor argues that embracing diversity and being liberal is not a phase young people will go through and grow out of, which I think is the folk wisdom or folk theory of youth (i.e. liberals in college, conservative when they have a family/buy a house). Second, I think you’re right to point to Pharell and also the Coca-Cola superbowl ad as examples of a certain kind of multicultural inclusiveness in popular representation. It’s all very nice, particularly because there are no real relationships here, mostly just images. Third, a recent report on underlying racism among whites in America (see, in The Atlantic, “Hidden Racial Anxiety in an Age of Waning Racism”), with a sub explaining: “Even as they quickly condemn the likes of Donald Sterling, surveys reveal whites have serious misgivings about a more diverse nation.” And then four, another recent article, here the NY Times, explaining that “More Hispanics Declaring Themselves White.” Clearly, we’re in the midst of a massive cultural shift, but it’s not linear. Contradictions everywhere. I have consistently found that millenials proudly state that race, ethnicity and gender “do not matter” to them anymore. Except when it does, and Donald Sterling and #YesAllWomen prove that difference matters more now than ever, arguably. Which may help explain why your brand of liberalism is increasingly unacceptable these days: perhaps you are thinking too consistently, too logically? A funny situation for the anthropologist then to be in. We have never been more popular, because we study diversity. But we have secretly never been more upsetting, because we are genuine relativists.

Comments are closed.