Tag Archives: Times Literary Supplement

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.

How do we make culture?

It’s like a tune I can’t get out of my head.  It keeps circling.

“From its opening sentence, every novel is an argument for its own reality.”
This is the sentence with which Mark Kamine opens his review of the new Joshua Ferris novel, The Unnamed.
But of course it’s going to appeal to an anthropologist.  We’re in the business of observing how cultural artifacts serve as arguments for their own reality.  
But there’s still something breathtaking about the “reality argument” process. Doesn’t Marx have a line about how we build worlds, and they then build us? Worlds issue from artifice and end up as perfectly actual, so actual you can bounce a nickle of them.  The arbitrary becomes the indubitable.  Miraculous. And then not.  And therefore miraculous.
We have a pretty good idea how this works in natural systems.  The complexity theory shows us how things emerge.  The Fibonacci series is a nice illustration of how the application of the same logic over and over again produces a robust, complex system.
We have a somewhat less clear idea of how this works in economic systems.  How enterprise starts from tiny acts and scales up into enterprises.  We can start with simple acts of exchange and, whoa nelly, before you know it, we have a market and a world. Economists are more inclined to posit this miracle than study it.
We are not at all clear on how this works culturally.  How do cultures create “mattering maps.”  (And who was the novelist who coined this term? Elizabethan Spencer, I think. Can’t find her with Google, but the search tells me that Lawrence Grossberg has also used the term.)  
How does a world makes itself?  Collecting gives us a glimpse.  No coins matter till you have a 18th century penny.  Then more and more 18th pennies do and, then, eventually, 19th pennies start to exercise their fascination.  The mattering builds its own scaffold, piece by piece.  We posit one thing, and another becomes necessary, still another becomes plausible, and a third hoves into view.  
It’s all very vector-ish and critical path-ish, isn’t it?  With these creations, we want to choose our starting point carefully.  It will impose certain limits.  It becomes a substructure, potentially an imprisoning assumption.
I think this is what Kamine says finally about the Ferris novel. Eventually the conceit is exhausted.  The “what  if” ceases to be generative.  The novel starts with a man possessed of the urge to keep walking and, er, follows him as he walks.  This builds a world and a novel of some interest.  But eventually the conceit empties out.  The novel does not become a complex system, a world of meaning.  It isn’t a plausible argument for its own reality.   
And that is of course the big problem with our culture at the moment.  Now that we are so various, multiple,  contradictory, and dynamic, we have plenty of arguments against our own reality.  Making culture in our culture is difficult.
And the makers of culture are tempted by two options.  
The first is, perhaps, the one exhibited by Ferris, to build a world from a single conceit, to play out the “what if” until a world results.  
The second is to embrace the noise and in that once radical act of abandon to construct a post-modern world that is filled with empty signifiers in chaotic flight.  This novel is exciting to write (and read) the first few times, and then it’s “Dude, the novelist’s job is to make meaning, not distribute it.”  
The “man who must walk” conceit is a courageous one.  It says, “what if I posit this guy with this condition, what if I am true to this, what I write where this (sorry) takes us.  What if I “vector” this and see what happens.” In effect Ferris’s peripatic hero is Mosiac.  He promises to walk us out of our post-modern condition to something that can be lasting and substantial.  
But Ferris fails (nobly) because fictional terraforming of this kind can only work when some of the noise is let back in.  It works only if the critical path is not allowed to cul de sac. At least, I think that’s it. The problem, I think, in a nutshell: How can cultural artifacts serve as arguments for their own reality, how can they build worlds?  It’s clear they do.  It’s up to us to figure out how.
Ferris, Joshua.  2010.  The Unnamed.  Viking.  Available at Amazon here.
Kamine, Mark.  2010.  Going in Circles.  Times Literary Supplement.  March 5, p. 20.