Tag Archives: John Stuart Mill

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.

You just don’t get it!

John Stuart Mill says this

…the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind.  No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this mode; nor is it in the nature of human intellectual to become wise in any other manner.  (On Liberty)

"Oh, that’s no fun," I thought.  

Isn’t it more fun to go with our first inclination?  And stick to it.  Especially when people disagree.  When people don’t like our ideas, I have a suggestion.  Shout:

You just don’t get it!

And then shout at them until they do…get it.  Easy peazy, as the English say.

And that’s why I am thinking about this, I guess. I was in England for a week.  (The Boot camp in London, thanks to Mark Earls and an enthusiastic group attending, was a smash hit I am happy to say.)  I can’t help feeling there is a clear split between points of view.  

I was watching the Sky coverage of Israeli boarding of the flotilla. An interview of protesters in the street in London and some guy grabbed the camera to announce, "Sky has real problems and if you are watching this, you are probably a wanker."  There was something about the finality with which he said it that struck me.  He knew that Sky viewers "just didn’t get it."

A couple of years ago I was doing research with a guy in Germany.  He lived modestly but his sister was a big sneeze.  When she came to visit, she left her Mercedes park near his apartment, he was utterly surprised when it got well and thoroughly keyed.  There was something about his utter lack of surprise that struck me.  He knew his sister just didn’t get it.

Class warfare.  It’s a real deal here.  Part of me wants to go with my most natural ideological and emotional reactions.  But that’s not what we do.  Our job, and what a tedious job it is, is to see both sides of the picture.  We need to exhibit the mobility, the lability, of a Russian novelist.  

Like I need European inspiration.  American politics descended into "you just don’t get it" some time ago.  I can’t remember the last time I saw someone rub their chin and say, "hmm, I hadn’t thought of that.  That’s interesting."  God knows, I never say it.  I’m too busy shouting, "You just don’t get it."  

There are two possibilities here, anthropologically speaking.  

First, we have lost our Millian gift for a thoughtful examination of the issues.  We are in love with the theater of being totally right all the time.  We are addicted to emotional outrage.  We don’t care there are deeper issues.  When it comes to politics, we are all now divas.  Give us the big gesture.  Give us the sweeping condemnation.  Or leave us out of it.  Politics might once have been a game for sober souls.  Now its for emotional show offs.

Second, the cultural world has widened.  If we were to do a geographic mapping of the ideological space, we would discover that it has expanded.  So much so that it is now vastly larger than it was in the Mill’s England.  In this case, the outrage is entirely justified.  We live in a larger world, where the differences really are more different.  When the world of politics expanded, its tensility would not hold.  Ground opened up.  The consensus tore.  

Probably both are true.  And if they are both true, what then?  How do we put Humpty Dumpty back together again?


To Katherine Bell for listening to an incoherent early statement of this argument.