Jan. 5th, 2017

tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
I think Yonatan Zunger's essay "Tolerance is not a moral precept" is mostly right-on (and I'm amused to see my friends' bicycle club/radical agitprop collective The Degenderettes in the featured photo), though I wish we'd been listening to the Black women who have been saying similar things for years (decades, maybe?)

I don't agree with the essay's framing of war as justifiable, since war is generally not a matter of self-defense but of offense to enrich capitalists. ("War ain't about one land against the next / It's poor people dying so the rich cash checks." -- Boots Riley.) What I do appreciate about the essay is that it calls attention to the existence of fundamental conflict of interests between groups that can't just be resolved through peaceful negotiation. I think radical redistribution of power and wealth is a better solution than war, but of course, some people might think the opposite.

That said, I agree with the central point that tolerance is not an absolute moral law, but rather, conditional on others' behavior. Zunger phrases this as a social contract, but I would phrase it instead in terms of relationships. As your roommate, it's wrong for me to leave my dishes in the sink every night if you always clean up your messes. But it would also be wrong for me to berate you about leaving a cup in the sink one night if normally, you do most of the cleaning (and that's not part of our explicit relationship agreement).

Tolerance is not about what I'm allowed to do to you, but rather, an emergent property of the relationship between you and me. It must arise from a relationship with back-and-forth and reciprocity. It is not given for free.

Almost 3 years ago, I wrote "Against Tolerance", for which I also chose a deliberately provocative title. My take there isn't so different from Zunger's. I was describing a situation like the "war" scenario that Zunger describes: the question of whether homophobes can lead diverse companies is ultimately about a situation in which somebody has already declared war on you. Brendan Eich declared war on me when he started paying politicians to strip away my civil rights. Under those circumstances, I had, and have, no obligation of tolerance towards him. In Zunger's phrasing, my primary priority becomes self-defense.

As I said, I dislike leaning on war metaphors, since they legitimize state violence (which is very different from the violence that individual oppressed people or small organized groups of oppressed people may use in self-defense; by definition, states are not oppressed), the basic principle is the same. Tolerance is not the operating principle when you're under attack, nor should it be.

In fact, I'm inclined to scrap "tolerance" altogether as a counterproductive word (like the phrases "pro-life" and "political correctness", which mean the opposite of what they superficially seem to) than to rehabilitate it as Zunger tries to do, but he provides a helpful framing for those who don't wish to abandon the signifier completely.

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tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

October 2017

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