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Tolerance: John Stuart Mill and Herbert Marcuse

Trevor Pateman

Abstract: This 2008 Website essay is an edited extract from Chapter VI of Trevor Pateman's Language, Truth and Politics (1975; second edition 1980). The book itself appears to be freely available from Internet booksellers, but in case of difficulty it can be requested direct from trevor@trevorpateman.co.uk. The text itself has not been rewritten, so the reader should be aware that the examples used date from the early 1970s. It should not be difficult to think of more recent cases to illustrate the line of argument developed. Sections in the orginal chapter dealing with more time-limited issues have been cut from this extract. The key texts referred to are John Stuart Mill's essay On Liberty and Herbert Marcuse's essay, Repressive Tolerance. Keywords: Tolerance, Intolerance, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Marcuse, repressive tolerance

As a rule my mind is as true as a sphere and my character as honest as the day: never false if I have the slightest interest in being true, never true if I have the slightest interest in being false. I say things as they come to me; if sensible, all to the good, but if outrageous, people don't take any notice. I use freedom of speech for all it's worth.

Diderot, Rameau's Nephew

Section 1. The Undergraduate Essay

Undergraduate students of Philosophy at some time in their careers probably will write an essay on Tolerance. Most likely they will deal with the problem of establishing a criterion which will distinguish those actions of Individuals which the State (or other Individuals) ought to tolerate from those which it (or they) may legitimately prohibit and punish. Almost certainly the student will take as the object of discussion the criterion proposed by J. S. Mill in On Liberty that:

...the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the action of any of their number, is self protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant [There are numerous editions of Mill's On Liberty, so I shall not give page references]

Of course, Mill's criterion is meant to govern the conduct of individuals and voluntary organisations as well as of the State and its agencies. Indeed, Mill thinks that the threat to liberty is greater from individuals (especially when operating as masses) and from voluntary organisations than it is from the State. Such concerns as these of Mill are unlikely to dominate the student's essay. He will put himself in the position of the State confronting the Individual. He thinks like a Legislator and overlooks that he himself is an Individual. Interestingly, under the heading of Tolerance he will never consider what the Individual ought to tolerate from the State. Either the State is not thought of as capable of causing harm to others not out- weighed by any greater good, or, if it is, the discussion is not subsumed under the heading and criteria of Tolerance (which it could well be) but shifted to the rubric of Political Obligation, where the student will discuss a different set of criteria, such as consent.

Mill's criterion specifies in what circumstances power or force may be used against an individual or group. Where power or force is legitimately used there is no intolerance, properly speaking; the harm criterion implies that some things ought not to be tolerated just as much as it implies that some things ought to be. 'Intolerance' in its proper sense only exists where an individual, group or the State is applying a criterion more stringent than that favoured by the critic who stigmatises a policy as intolerant. For someone who favours a policy of indifference, even the correct application of Mill's criterion would appear intolerant. Further, it should be noted that in specifying the circumstances in which power or force may be used, Mill does not imply that only these can be used, nor that if there is no case for the application of power or force, there is no case for the application of anything else. Mill, indeed, is quite explicit that other pressures may be brought to bear even where power or force may not. Thus, he writes:

Though doing no worse to anyone, a person may so act as to compel us to judge him, and feel to him, as a fool, or as a being of an inferior order: and since this judgement and feeling are a fact which he would prefer to avoid, it is doing him a service to warn him of it beforehand as of any other disagreeable consequence to which he exposes himself. It would be well, indeed, if this good office were much more freely rendered than the common notions of politeness at present permit, and if one person could honestly point out to another that he thinks him in fault, without being considered un- mannerly or presuming.

One of the purposes of this essay is to point to some of the consequences of a general prohibition on the kind of non-coercive interventions which Mill favours.

Section 2. The Ends of Tolerance & Unilateral Tolerance

For Mill, tolerance is not only or even at all an end in itself. Freedom also has an instrumental value, both with respect to words and to deeds. For to permit the free expression of opinions and free experimentation in ways of life is a means to knowledge (including scientific knowledge proper), and hence also to rational decision making about the ordering of society. Thus, for example, in a famous passage, Mill summarises his instrumental reasons for favouring freedom of thought and speech:

First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion... may be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility. Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a proportion of the truth. Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth, unless it is vigorously and earnestly contested, it will ... be held in the manner of a prejudice; Fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost.

The instrumental goal of tolerance - the pursuit of truth - is in itself subversive, and has subversive implications. But, in both theory and practice, the instrumental goal of tolerance is increasingly denied or re-interpreted.

At the most general level, the instrumental goal of tolerance is dropped from theory and practice and tolerance is taken to be an end in itself, and no more. This tendency is captured in the popular legitimating expression 'Everyone is entitled to their opinion'. This idea of entitlement - which turns opinions into private property - has no place in classical liberal theory, which does not assert entitlement to opinions, regardless of their rationality (or, for some, their humaneness). One could well claim that the fundamental right in classical liberal theory, specifically in Mill, is the right to attempt to dispossess people of their irrational ideas. This, after all, is the role Mill assigns to the intellectual. It is the right of response, not the right to speak which needs re-assertion in current circumstances. (See also on this website my essay Liberty, Authority and the Negative Dialectics of J.S. Mill)

In classical theory, to express an opinion is not just to express an opinion - as a sort of credo - but to contribute to a debate, and not a debate deliberately without end but a debate aiming at a positive outcome, in terms of the acceptance and application of one opinion rather than another. Mill actually looks forward to the day in which there is only one political party:

In politics, again, it is almost a commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life; until the one or the other shall have so enlarged its mental grasp as to be a party equally or order and of progress, knowing and distinguishing what is fit to be preserved from what ought to be swept away. [My italic]

The goal for Mill is not to have an opinion, but to do something with it. In the modern entitlement conception, the object is to have an opinion (there is a premium on having opinions on every subject); not to be dispossessed of it by rational argument or any other means; and to leave the world as it is. I think that this modern conception functions, quite simply, to preserve the status quo. Nowhere has this been clearer than in the theory and practice of television debates and increasingly in education. TV organisations are obsessed with ideas of 'impartiality', of giving each 'side' its 'share' of TV time, regardless of the rationality or humaneness of the views expressed. Of course, this ideology often covers up grotesque bias - bias not of the unavoidable sort, but perfectly avoidable. On the other hand, it does sometimes seem to be true that if the BBC cannot find reputable scientists to deny (for example) that there is an environmental crisis, this causes panic not satisfaction among programme producers. For, to put out a programme presenting only one 'side' of a 'case' is bias. It is not considered possible that in some cases there might be a fairly well established 'side' of truth. Compare these remarks with those of Herbert Marcuse in the essay Repressive Tolerance:

Within the affluent democracy, the affluent discussion prevails, and ... it is tolerant to a large extent. All points of view can be heard... in endlessly dragging debates over the media. The stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one, the misinformed may talk as long as the informed, and propaganda rides along with education, truth with falsehood. This pure tolerance is justified by the democratic argument that nobody, neither group nor individual, is in possession of the truth and capable of defining what is right and wrong, good and bad. Therefore, all contesting opinions must be submitted to 'the people' for its deliberation and choice. But I have already suggested that the democratic argument implies a necessary condition, namely, that the people must be capable of deliberating and choosing on the basis of knowledge, that they must have access to authentic information, and that, on this basis, their evaluation must be the result of autonomous thought... But with the concentration of economic and political power and the integration of opposites. …effective dissent is blocked where it could freely emerge: in the formation of opinion, in information and communication, in speech and assembly. Under the rule of the monopolistic media ... a mentality is created for which right and wrong, true and false, are predefined, wherever they affect the vital interests of the society . . . The meaning of words is rigidly stabilised. Rational persuasion to the opposite is all but precluded.

I shall return to this quotation from Marcuse. For the moment I want to consider some further aspects of the situation in which the having of opinions is treated as an end in itself.

In order to secure oneself against dispossession, claims to knowledge have to be treated as expressions of opinion (to use the distinction employed by Hannah Arendt in her essay "Truth and Politics") and in this sense, such claims are invalidated. For an essential characteristic of a claim to knowledge is that it must be accepted by the hearer too, unless they can produce reasons for not accepting it, or for accepting it but only with a different status (as when they accept that something is probable rather than certain). Their reasons for accepting or rejecting a claim must be good ones; not any reasons will do. Interpretation of claims to knowledge as expressions of opinion is a way of escaping the compulsiveness of such claims and the necessity for rational argument, which any desire to reject the claim entails. The positivist tradition in philosophy provides legitimation for such a practice. By way of crude example of what can and does happen, compare BI, B2 and B3 as possible responses to the assertion of A:

A: The US Government refused to allow elections to be held in Vietnam after the Geneva agreements.

B1: Have you got any evidence for claiming that?

B2: Ah, well, everyone has their opinion.

B3: Well, I respect your opinion.

In sequence A-B1 a claim to knowledge is challenged in terms appropriate to the status asserted by the speaker. In sequence A-B2 in contrast, a claim to knowledge is invalidated by being treated as the expression of an opinion, whereas formally speaking there is no invalidation in sequence A-B1, though it is possible that it should have the intent or function of invalidating A's claim. A-B2 functions neither as a question, rejection or refutation but instead - one might say - as an evasion. In sequence A-B3 the invalidation of the claim to knowledge appears in mystified (repressive) form. For in A-B3, B engages in evident cognitive disrespect at the same time claiming to respect the product of his own disrespect: here there are some essential ingredients of a Double Bind as theorised by Gregory Bateson in an essay most easily accessible in his book Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972).

This distinction between challenge and invalidation I believe to be important: Invalidation is process or result of communication which involves denial of the status of a person's utterance, or equally the imputation of a different statement from the one actually made. It affects the speaker in ways which, according to Bateson, may become of clinical significance. It may occur in situations where speaker and hearer are either of equal or unequal power. To escape invalidation involves being able to understand and state what is going on, which requires relevant cognitive skills and freedom to criticise, neither of which are necessarily available. Challenge is always explicit, whereas invalidation may be implicit, and challenge involves the making of a meta-statement about an utterance or about the speaker's relation to the utterance (For more relevant discussion, see Paul Watzlawick, J Beavin and D Jackson's book, The Pragmatics of Human Communication (1967)).

In terms of its implications for tolerance, the interpretation of knowledge claims as expressions of opinion is a way of halting an interchange which might oblige the hearer to change his beliefs. It is a clear example of a practice which is inconsistent with the classical instrumental aims of tolerance, yet it is carried out and legitimated by means (such as the expression 'I respect your opinion') which may themselves be taken as paradigmatic ways of expressing or connoting one's own tolerant attitude. Clearly, a different criterion of tolerance has established itself here: one which displaces the pursuit of truth in favour of the protection of illusion. Even where it is genuinely opinions rather than claims to knowledge which are involved in an interchange, it is no part of the classical dialectical theory that differences in opinion should be simply acknowledged ('That is your opinion') and argument abandoned ('Agreeing to differ'): dialectic is the art of reaching agreement on disputable matters.

Now I think that there are other phenomena which indicate the existence of a theory and practice different from and in- consistent with the classical instrumental one. Perhaps I can best get at them by giving a general characterisation of what I think the differences are. I would like to say that the classical ideal is a reciprocal one, and existing practice (and an emerging new ideal) increasingly a unilateral one. Reciprocal tolerance involves recognition of the right to reply, even decisive reply, whereas unilateral tolerance stops practice and analysis at the point of the initial utterance. Unilateral theory and practice accords no rights to hearers, who perform their duties with respect to tolerance simply in not interfering in the speaker's expression of an opinion, not only by not attempting to suppress that expression, but also by not replying.

What this means in practice is that behaviour not proscribed by the classical theory of tolerance, indeed, even called for by the instrumental goals of that theory, is now stigmatised in the new theory and practice as intolerant, as a transgression rather than an application of the tolerance criterion. For example, the pursuit of truth requires that the hearer be free to challenge the speaker's relation to his statement: to say, for example, that he is lying or deceiving himself. These are critical tools in the pursuit of knowledge, including self-knowledge. Of course, they can be abused. But what I suggest is that increasingly they are seen as intolerant in themselves and indicative of intolerant attitudes. They are intolerant by the criterion that 'anything goes', including mendacity. It is not only rational challenge to arguments and arguers that is stigmatised, but challenge to ways of life too. If people feel intolerant when they request someone not to smoke in a 'No Smoking' rail compartment, how much more intolerant would they feel if they carried out the following demand of Wilhelm Reich: 'Any mother hitting her child in the street should be publicly challenged; if such a measure were systematically carried out, the public would soon be drawn into the conflict over the child as a member of society and against its being subject to the will of its parents' (Wilhelm Reich, What is Class Consciousness? - a pamphlet from the 1930s)

In summary, I am suggesting that a situation now exists in which kinds of practice which block the achievement of the instrumental goals of tolerance are taken as being tolerant ones, whereas practices which are central to the instrumental exercise are criticised as intolerant. Marcuse would say: Tolerance has turned into its opposite and become repressive; repressive of truth and rationally informed action.

First published in this form on this website in 2008. Extracted from Chapter VI of Trevor Pateman, Language, Truth and Politics. Towards a Radical Theory for Communication, second edition, Lewes: Jean Stroud 1980. Copyright with the author.