Aziz Z. Huq Reviews a New History of "Tolerance"

A Pervasive and Empty Idea of Tolerance

A waitress at the upscale Chicago cocktail bar Aviary spits upon Eric Trump in an apparent show of political disdain; the President’s son complains about the absence of “tolerance.”  Harvard University fires faculty dean Ron Sullivan after students protest his legal representation of Harvey Weinstein. Sullivan mourns the failure of “reasoned discourse”; others condemn students’ “difficulty tolerating moral difference.” The Tarrant County Republican Party votes to remove its vice chair because he is a “practicing Muslim”; the vote fails after state and national leaders object. In Denmark, Switzerland, and the Netherland, far-right parliamentary parties adopt platforms rejecting “multicultural society,” committing to “Western Christian culture” and the closure of all mosques. Those far-right parties gain ground in the 2019 European Parliament polls. And then there is the immigration detention facility in Clint, Texas, where children as young as seven, “many of them wearing clothes caked with snot and tears,” care for “infants they’ve just met” without soap, shampoo, toothpaste or showers. The policy under which immigrant children are detained is termed, perhaps not coincidentally, “zero tolerance.” 

Tolerance, it would seem, is in parlous straits. It appears assailed from all sides of the political spectrum. Invoked against political protest, rejected as a national value, and conjured as a ground for strictly enforcing the law against children, the tolerance card today (sometimes intolerantly) is seemingly as empty as it is commonplace. Its promiscuity suggests that the word has come adrift from any conceptual or normative anchor. It is open to bidding from the most aggrieved and self-righteous of public figures.  

One way to winnow this surfeit of tolerances to a more manageable domain is to lean upon intellectual or political history. Accounting for the way in which the term has evolved in philosophical writings or been deployed in practice, its meaning might be hammered into tractable form. But a problem with this approach is evident even on quick inspection of Denis Lacorne’s pithy, at times desultory, Europe-centered history of ideas and practices of tolerance: There is no coherent story to tell. The uses of the label “tolerance” over time, instead, do not converge on a stable conceptual core.

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