Against Tolerance

One of the great catchwords of neoliberalism is tolerance. We must tolerate gays and people of color and Muslims (as long as they're not, you know, all covered in black or, no duh, terrorists). This pretty much sums up white liberal nonsense succinctly: we might not like all these weird, gross people but it's our ethical obligation to tolerate them. After all, we can't just, you know, get rid of them as that would be not right and stuff.  America was built on tolerance! So we must tolerate them (just keep 'em in their own neighborhoods that I might visit, once in a while, to add some color to my life — no pun intended).

Oy vey. I'll come out and say it: I have a hard time tolerating tolerance. But not because I am opposed to people who are, uh, different. It's because tolerance is such an egregiously condescending word — as if this was all our (whose?) world to begin with and now, oh, we have to put up with all these odd and distasteful people. As if we were not all different! As if difference was not the very stuff of life!

So I don't want to tolerate difference. I don't want to tolerate queers and blacks and browns and commies and kikes and retards and cripples. I don't even want to tolerate white middle class liberals. Nope. I want to affirm them.

I don't want to find myself begrudgingly accepting anyone or anything — ok, maybe I'll tolerate the occasional bartender in a vest or a backwoodsy beard on my barista. But as for all those other freaks and miscreants? Nope, no tolerance from me. I wanna love them, affirm them. And hopefully ignore them because just like you, I'm a weirdo too and I don't really care what color you are or whom you fuck or wanna fuck or how you fuck.

A word, then, on respecting and ignoring people. To ignore other people is sometimes to respect them. It's to assume they have their own lives, their own kind of happiness and distress and ecstasy. Of course, I also ignore those for whom I have no respect. But in this case I'm talking about two different modes of respect: a fundamental or natural respect for someone as a form on the planet versus a respect (or lack thereof) for someone within the human social. I'm talking about the former here: to ignore people who are different than me is to respect their fundamental presence on this planet. If I find myself tolerating them, it's as if I assume I was here first and they entered my space. Which is absurd. 

Now, I don’t have to respect your authority as my boss or co-worker; I can very well know and believe you are an incompetent douchebag. At which point I might or might not tolerate you. I may, for instance, throw a knipshit. Or quit. Or ignore you. But I still respect that you are a different human being and that, alone at night, you wrestle your strange demons just as the rest of us do. Only your demons are your demons and my demons are my demons and that’s ok. In fact, it’s better than ok: it’s beautiful. I may not tolerate your douchebaggery but I love your oddity as a form on this planet. I love that your demons are ugly and weird and very much your own. They make the world more colorful. I don't have to like you to love that you exist.  

I truly believe that tolerance is dangerous. It is one of those words and concepts that sounds right but that actually works to placate, to justify, our racism, homophobia, our disgust with things that are different — such as loner misanthropic horny hebes. While the distinction between tolerance and affirmation may seem pedantic, the distinction is everything. Tolerance is predicated on an architecture of entitlement. It’s a sensibility that breeds hatred. Affirmation, meanwhile, fosters and foments a multihued life.

If tolerance is nearly passive, performed begrudgingly, affirmation asks something else of the affirmer: it asks for a reckoning, for a recognition of the other that may yield ignoring but, first, demands empathy. Tolerance is something you do behind your back, while looking away. Affirmation demands all of you; it demands your presence within this life, your attention to what's around you, a reckoning of this life. 

Affirmation begins with the radical idea that all there is is this life. That all there is is difference, that there is no foundation but that everyone and everything is different and flows with the cosmos and, yes, it’s beautiful. There is no alternative to life. Life is not to be tolerated. It's to be affirmed — or not, as the case may be.


Brad said...

Let me offer this and see if you agree or can provide some nuance to my understanding:

Affirmation, for me, of some racist group (e.g. that overused example, The Nazis) would take place at a certain level of psychology but not on another level. This I can affirm: the desire to feel strong. What I cannot affirm is how this raw, undifferentiated feeling finds manifestation. Other, better options are available.

So, in my view, we have to clarify exactly what it is about a person or group that is to be affirmed. On a superficial level I will not only not affirm the heinous or the misguided, I will disaffirm them. On a deeper level, however, we all have primal, wonderfully animal drives that are to be affirmed, drives vital, life-giving, joy-seeking; hopefully these can find service in creative acts of affirmation in the world.

In other words, let us clarify between essence and accident. Essence is to be affirmed, but not necessarily accident.

Also: Can I say "yes" to my "no"? I believe so -- as long as the negation casts a penumbra of affirmation. You want to be an anti-capitalist? Fine and good. But be sure to create something in it's place. Yes?

Does this make sense?

Brad said...


I wonder if the concept of "bounded infinity" is relevant to this discussion. (I've been listening to your lectures.) Just like a person can do/be an infinite number of things but cannot do/be anything/everything, so too perhaps affirmation should be bounded. Bounded affirmation would be to say that there is infinite space for affirmation of persons/groups but there are still limits, boundaries.

Foamy Witch Slut said...

Tomorrow I have an interview at a college to teach freshman comp and am preparing for the inevitable question about "diversity in the classroom." I never know how to accurately discuss this concept because of what you have just written about here. Thanks for this, it's brilliant as always!

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Brad: Yes yes, I like this very much. I can affirm you but don't have to accept everything you do, eg, the Nazis. Sure, there's something interesting about their nutbag fascism but that doesn't mean I can't punch a Nazi in the face. I think the essence/accident distinction works in this instance — maybe better than the bounded infinity.

The law by its very definition does not tolerate certain things — murder (certain murder), theft (by poor people, that is), etc.

But I think of, say, wearing religious clothes in classrooms or in public. Here is where the notion of liberal tolerance clouds the issue as people believe they actually have the right not to tolerate certain clothes. Which is insane. A will to affirmation would never even raise the question. It would be absurd. The same goes for, say, gay marriage or sodomy laws — tolerance renders these legislative matters but affirmation renders the very discussion irrelevant.

In all honesty, I'm working out what I mean in this very essay.

@ FW Slut: I hope the interview went well! I fear talking about this in an interview could very well get you run off campus — just as I was run off campus. Please say it didn't happen, that they loved you and offered you loads of money to teach, among other things, affirmation.