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« Anne Phillips on Political Representation | Main | Ethics Bites podcast now available on iTunesU »

November 23, 2008


Ben Karst

Listening to this podcast, I think her argument had one counter intuitive point: Tolerance doesn't connote positivity and falls short of equality.

She fails to point out that tolerance is the necessary middle ground between equality and inequality. No society is flexible to dispose of its bigotry immediately and move on from inequality to equality.

She has the same ignorance that the united states government has when we take over countries such as iraq. That is, a virtue can immediately be understood by a people. Just as equality cannot be immediately digested by Americans, democracy is tough to digest right away for iraq.


Thanks for providing this, this interview was interesting enough that I couldn't help myself buying a copy of Wendy Brown's book on tolerance.


"Retrenchment?" Indeed - it is bound to happen, as "reality bounces back". Here is something else worth looking at:

Can tolerance and progress go too far (in a certain direction?) I submit, for example, that the movement towards delibereate lifelong childlessness on the part of many married couples is very wrong...

And I submit the following reflection on this and how it ties in with tolerance in the West (obviously challenging your guest):

Only in the West have persons had so much freedom to live as they see fit. This is due to the heritage of Christian tolerance (Nietszche, Islam [?]: "weakness") and its influence in our society: the idea that although we may disagree with someone, we want to respect and dignify them as valuable persons, created in the image of God, who have the *right to be wrong* (this *unique* form of "civil righteousness", present only in societies inhabited by large numbers of Chrisitans, derives from this core aspect of true righteousness, the righteousness of God, namely: if you love something you let it be free. So here we note that at the core of the Bible is the idea of freedom - from sin, death, and the devil – where we may (without being forced against our willing) through Jesus Christ, live as forgiven people of God - in accordance with the way God intended us to live in joy, that is, in love for the other, which means nothing other than genuine and self-sacrificial concern for the well-being of their person "body and soul").

Now, it is simply not responsible for those holding political power to always allow for this "civil righteousness"-"right to be wrong" stuff of course. While all may agree that in general (20th century Germany, Russia, Cambodia, etc. excepted) laws against murder and theft are a good thing, due to the sinfulness of sin, it may be infinitely better and wiser to not outlaw, but rather verbally discourage, in some cases make more difficult, *and certainly not subsidize* other behaviors which may not be best for the health of the individual and society (gambling, pornography, adultery and consistently practiced [lifelong] deliberate childlessness (!) for instance).

Nevertheless, the level of personal freedom persons in the West have experienced is immense, and unarguably, unprecedented in human history. And I note that you will not find the nuanced and expansive view of rights that allows for this, which in Western societies [especially America] is part and parcel with respect for the freedom of the individual conscience – in any other society, where non-biblical religious ideas (polytheistic [hoi polloi], pantheistic [elites], etc.) are much more closely intertwined with the political (and let us not fool ourselves that these communities were much happier and care-free, and *tolerant* than us). Hence, you will, for example, find that the politically active classes in no other society - not even pagan Greece and Rome - ever officially sanctioned and actively promoted things like gay marriage - hoping to elevate same-sex relationships to the same status as heterosexual ones - although throughout history there have been "variations on a common theme" (namely man-woman themes) when it comes to marriage. Quite frankly, only in a society buffered by so much biblical tolerance and patience (where the "habits of the heart" formed by the non-Christian's imitation of the Christian [Christians could never "tolerate" *sanctioned* gay marriage] is what I am speaking of) could a thing like "gay marriage" occur (go read Luke 15 to see the attitude of the waiting, *prodigal Father* Jesus speaks of).

The key point here is that faithful Christians believe that both mortal (what we call "natural") life and immortal life is rooted in the concept of gift, or grace – *and that this can be freely rejected*. In short, it is not so much our "duty to believe", but our privilege to be "woken up" and recognize and receive all God does for all men - for He does not show partiality - through our neighbor (as we are called to serve them), starting of course with the Neighbor, the Crucified One whose Life creates and restores all life. This means, for example, that it is not so much that our own life is a gift to us (and hence suicide is wrong, per Aquinas), but the lives that are given to us are a gift to us (and hence suicide is wrong: you are a gift to the other).

This is why deliberate lifelong childlessness, for example, in regards to man-woman relationships (which require fidelity as well) is simple absurdity. It is to cut off the umbilical chord of life itself, not to mention Life. Speaking of society as a whole, one cannot pursue "happiness" (however ultimately lacking a Christless happiness would be) in liberty (however ultimate lacking a Christless liberty would be) without life. Many today look at the pain of life and see death as a "curative slumber", something which should be courageously embraced because it brings freedom ("to be free is to die") and I suppose, happiness. This makes me both sad and scared.

This is my Christian perspective. I am sure those of other religions – including pagan philosophers – would have their own coherent way of dealing with these realities. At the same time, I don't think you are going to get societies with nearly as much earthly freedom in these schemes (unless you are rich and powerful and can do as you please to a greater extent).

(My "bonus" prediction: the "new atheism" is a stop-gap: though some atheists may genuinely believe that we are entering an era where religion will decrease, this will not happen. Because though many think "death is natural", when it comes to their own lives their desire to conquer death will lead those "fortunate" enough to have earthly power to say to their neighbor: "I am self-determined and beauty, justice, and meaning are only something that and those I choose to associate with create / make / determine" (and they will plan to proceed as they see fit, with all the added powers afforded to them by a technological age. Of course, this won't work. We not only cry out for beauty, justice and meaning as individuals and as communities, but we also *need* this in order to live managably day by day. Enter: man, the religious animal - and "politics" can be distinuguished from this, but not separated...)

I would be delighted to debate Professor Brown here, although I won't have access to a computer again until this coming Monday.



I suggest Ms. Brown go ahead and explore the differences of tolerance in Saudi Arabia by not wearing a black bedsheet there. If she survives that, she can go to Pakistan and try and preach Christianity or Atheism there. She'll quickly find that the West is a LOT more tolerant - though I doubt she'd live long enough to appreciate that. Perhaps she can just go to China and start talking about democracy there - the embassy will get her out of prison in a few days I'm sure.

Also, her history is bunk. She claims the American North was considerably more tolerant than the South. Wrong. Abolitionists washed their hands of the black man once he lost his chains. And many prefered they got shipped back to Africa. Outside Abolitionist circles were KKK like groups roaming the North lynching and intimidating blacks almost as much as in the South. The reason the West is more tolerant than anywhere else is because its let intolerance run its course and got burned badly for it.

She seems to have an agenda to support gays and lesbians after the debacle that was Proposition 8. Get over it. The people spoke. And while I AGREE with her they made the wrong decision (or at best the right decision for the wrong reasons) it isn't the final word. So chill out. They'll be another ballot soon.


Ms Brown's arguments were extremely poor, and your failure to offer even a modicum of criticism of them tantamount to dereliction of journalistic duty.

I don't think Ms Brown understands her own argument, so forgive me if I don't either. But here goes.

Gays in the US are tolerated. You aren't allowed to kill them for their sexuality. But they don't have true equality, because they can't yet marry officially. This proves that the US is utterly vile and wretched, and that tolerance in the US is a lie, a smokescreen to hide gross systemic unfairness.

[The point that you needed to make, but didn't, is that this current limitation on full gay equality in the US is probably just temporary. There is no fundamental reason to think that US gays cannot win the argument for gay marriage within the existing constitutional structures of the US. There are many precedents for such campaigns succeeding in the US system. This is not the same in other political dispensations, where the law is supposedly based on divine instruction. Such societies need a legal revolution, abandoning the whole basis on which their laws derive, in order to embrace gay equality.]

Some people say that gays in the US are living in paradise compared with gays in Iran, who are executed for their sexuality. Ms Brown gets very slippery here. Iran's government is anti-US. It is therefore to be supported at all costs. And If that means turning a blind eye to the murder of Iranian gays, she's cool with it. If you point out that's what she's doing, she'll deny it. But it IS what she's doing. She uses nebulous ad hominem smears against those who draw attention to gay rights abuses in Iran.

She knows it would look bad if the US imitated Iran and introduced capital punishment for homosexuality. If the US did imitate Iranian laws on homosexuality, by taking the Iranian penal code wholesale and running it through a Farsi/English Google translation, Ms Brown would criticize the US for possessing such laws, but not Iran for providing the model for them. That's how jerry-built the professor's arguments are.


I generally agree with georgesdelatour. Except that I would have to say that the Philosophy Bites hosts are not bound by any "journalistic duty". They aren't journalists (that's almost an insult these days) but philosophers and this isn't a news podcast. Perhaps their podcasts would be better served with someone providing a counterpoint argument but that's their decision. Also, Ms. Brown may or may not have selective myopia concerning non U.S. tolerance, but I don't recall her specifically pointing out any superior alternatives. So to say she specifically favors Iran is a stretch.

k khan

People who believe themselves to be tolerant are intolerant of people who have not arrives at that level.

Dr k khan

John Walsh

She displays a poor knowledge of history in criticising "The West" for the crusades and slavery in comparison to the Islamic World.

Islam was spread via barbaric imperialism and indulged in slavery long before Columbus arrived in "The New World”. Historically Islam enslaved far more people than were shipped over to America.

Her dhimmitude is motivated by guilt and slothfulness.

M. Ormond

This Philosophy Bites interview with Wendy Brown is really fantastic -- a great pleasure to listen to! Her concerns with the ways in which the "tolerance" discourse gets put to use in American politics helped me think more critically about the foreign policy portion of President Obama's 2010 State of the Union Address. Go Wendy!

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