A publication of the Radical Philosophy Association

Civility and Repressive Tolerance in the Trump Era

An analysis of the contemporary meaning of civility.

by Brandon AbsherJune 27, 2018

Members and defenders of the Trump administration have lately found themselves having difficulty eating dinner in peace. Apparently ignorant of the obvious and galling irony of their choices in restaurant, both Trump advisor Stephen Miller and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen were met with protests as they separately attempted to enjoy dinner out at Mexican restaurants over a recent weekend. To the further consternation of some, White House Spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked by the owner to leave a restaurant when staff indicated their strong displeasure at her appearance there during the same weekend.

Many left-leaning liberals, most prominently the Editorial Board at the Washington Post, have suggested that such actions are “uncivil.” While they are sure to point out that the President and his backers are worse offenders, the erstwhile Board asks those who oppose the Trump administration to consider the consequences if the situation were reversed: What would happen they ask - seeming to introduce an unrealized hypothetical - if judges or legislators who defend the rights of women to make their own reproductive choices were harassed by uncivil pro-lifers? At a minimum, they say, we must learn to tolerate our differences and allow public officials to carry on their private lives peaceably.

The convenient erasure of persistent violence against - murder of - abortion providers and harassment of women who seek their services is perhaps to be expected in polite society.

In any case, these calls for “civility” remind me of what philosopher Herbert Marcuse referred to in his 1965 essay of the same name as “repressive tolerance.” Marcuse argued in the essay that appeals to “tolerance” had themselves become “repressive,” functioning primarily to protect actions and policies that undermine the possibility of peaceful co-existence. As Marcuse writes there,

[T]olerance is an end in itself only when it is truly universal, practiced by the rulers as well as by the ruled, by the lords as well as by the peasants, by the sheriffs as well as by their victims. And such universal tolerance is possible only when no real or alleged enemy requires in the national interest the education and training of people in military violence and destruction. As long as these conditions do not prevail, the conditions of tolerance are ‘loaded’: they are determined and defined by the institutionalized inequality (which is certainly compatible with constitutional equality), i.e., by the class structure of society.

Marcuse’s point is relatively clear. Within a highly unequal society dedicated to the militaristic suppression of a “national enemy,” tolerance generally appears as the acceptance of rule, domination, and repressive violence. Alternatively, it represents the “both-sides-ism” according to which those who support such things as “peaceful ethnic cleansing” and enact policies to hold children in prisons deserve the same right to express their “opinions” and to enjoy their “private lives” as those who demand liberation, equality, and upholding basic human rights. In either case, “tolerance” amounts to its opposite: the devastation of the conditions necessary for the peaceful development and exercise of human autonomy and the enjoyment of the fruits of one’s labor.

Historically, the modern concept of tolerance called for an end to religious warfare and the violent suppression and expulsion of religious minorities in Europe. It was a revolutionary defense of the right of each individual to decide their conscience and a program for the establishment of a secular public sphere, free of the absolute claims of religious belief. Those who called for tolerance then sought to emancipate humanity from superstition and thereby to promote human autonomy and the rational organization of human life. Whatever their hypocrisies and contradictions, these were their avowed aims.

At present, however, appeals for “civil discussion” and “tolerance” can only be seen to support the opposite of these original aims. These words are now used to discipline those who reject stubborn superstition, mass irrationality, religious hatred, and organized barbarism. The purveyors of civility insist that public officials should be allowed to live their private lives peacefully. What they fail to mention is that the lives of these public officials, both public and private, are dedicated to the destruction of the very liberal values called upon.