In my studies beneath the Pines at Bowdoin College, I never read any Herbert Marcuse, which explains why I didn’t recognize the Marcusian nature of the trending progressive mantra that one must never tolerate the intolerable. Thank goodness Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter has a Bloomberg View column where we can learn such things. The Ideology Behind Intolerant College Students is his latest. That’s where I stole the snappy label downshouters for the ill-liberal college students who feel compelled to disrupt and shut down campus talks by speakers whose views they feel are abhorrent (but usually don’t know enough about to understand in the first place).
Carter tells us that German-born Herbert Marcuse “was a brilliant and controversial philosopher whose writing became almost a sacred text for new-left intellectuals of the 1960s and 1970s.” Today’s downshouters may not realize it, Carter says, but the ideas they’re putting into action are straight out of a Marcuse essay called “Repressive Tolerance.”
To effect change, Marcuse taught, it’s necessary to practice a discriminating form of tolerance, by which he meant a tolerance for ideas that support the change you want, but an active intolerance for arguments that do not. Carter explains,
The only way to build a “subversive majority,” he [Marcuse] writes, is to refuse to give ear to those on the wrong side. The wrong is specified only in part, but Marcuse has in mind particularly capitalism and inequality.
Undemocratic means such as rioting, blocking roads, and shouting down speakers are acceptable and necessary in pursuit of the social change you want, because authority supposedly rests with the forces on the wrong side, and you can’t count on beating authority through democratic means.
In an Orwellian misuse of language, Marcuse called his discriminating intolerance “liberating tolerance.” And he believed achieving it had to be an aim of academia:
“Here, too, in the education of those who are not yet maturely integrated, in the mind of the young, the ground for liberating tolerance is still to be created.”
I think we can count that project fulfilled, if the craven behavior of campus administrators across the country is any indication.
But Carter reminds us that “a ‘truth’ that will not debate is a truth that deserves to lose.” The strength of your belief that your ideas are right, bolstered not by reason and evidence but by disruption and mayhem, does not make your idea true, noble, or correct. As a Bloomberg View reader put it in the comments,
In any case, the glaring flaw in Marcuse’s thesis has always been that anyone who is able to effectively apply this ‘liberating’ or ‘discriminating’ tolerance must obviously have more power than whoever is being suppressed, and thus must be the oppressor and not the oppressed.
I’m not hopeful that such logic will penetrate the skulls of true-believing, ill-liberal college students. Neither is Professor Carter:
…Marcuse lives. The downshouters will go on behaving deplorably, and reminding the rest of us that the true harbinger of an authoritarian future lives not in the White House but in the groves of academe.