Repressive Tolerance

Image via Flickr user Underpuppy

This quarter's Claremont Review of Books has a good, lengthy essay nominally tied to Great Redskins Name Change Debate that is, more broadly, focused on repressive tolerance in the modern American polity. Here's William Voegeli:

Modern tolerance demands that we go beyond this narrow political understanding to a broad psychological, sociological one. The success of pluralism is not secured by obeying the rules of the game, that is, but depends heavily on the spirit in which we play it. People need and deserve not just the freedom to march to their own drummer, but to be honored, respected, affirmed, and validated. If they’re not, the deprivation could generate "a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone," in the words of Brown v. Board of Education.

So, mutual non-aggression is not enough. We need mutual respect, support, and encouragement. …

The moral obligation to extend respect and encouragement now engenders a right to receive them. Such a right renders any failure or refusal to offer respect and encouragement a transgression—a rights violation. Those violations, in turn, justify social and even legal sanctions against the transgressors, who are not exonerated by insisting that their actions and attitudes, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, neither pick any pockets nor break any legs.

Emphasis mine. The essay called to mind the recent firestorm over Kevin Williamson's authoring of a piece for National Review Online about transgedered issues that was, shall we say, not terribly sympathetic to the left's prevailing norms on such matters. Things really got nuts when the Chicago Sun Times reprinted the column; the newspaper quickly gave into the howling mob, memory-holing the column and obsequiously apologizing for publishing a controversial opinion on the opinion page.* Williamson was denounced and accused of committing a hate crime—not, it should be noted, for suggesting that transsexuals be prohibited from doing whatever they please to their own bodies, but simply for stating that he would not take part in the "mystical exercise in rearranging words to rearrange reality."

Williamson was not the only media figure in the news recently for not understanding the new rules. Dan Savage—yes, that one—has come under fire for uttering "hate speech" around those most delicate of flowers, the modern college student. Savage is flummoxed:

During this part of the talk a student interrupted and asked me to stop using "the t-slur [tranny]." (I guess it's not the t-word anymore. I missed the memo.) My use of it—even while talking about why I don't use the word anymore, even while speaking of the queer community's history of reclaiming hate words, even as I used other hate words—was potentially traumatizing. I stated that I didn't see a difference between saying "tranny" in this context and saying "t-slur." Were I to say "t-slur" instead of "tranny," everyone in the room would auto-translate "t-slur" to "tranny" in their own heads. Was there really much difference between me saying it and me forcing everyone in the room to say it quietly to themselves? That would be patronizing, infantilizing, and condescending. Cox gamely jumped in and offered that she had used "tranny" in the past but that she now recognizes its harm and has stopped using it. The student who objected interrupted: as neither Cox nor I were trans, "tranny" was not our word to use—not even in the context of a college seminar, not even when talking about why we don't use the word anymore. I asked the student who objected if it was okay for me to use the words "dyke" and "sissy." After a moment's thought the student said I could use those words—permission granted—and that struck me a funny because I am not a lesbian nor am I particularly effeminate. (And, really, this is college now? Professors, fellows, and guest lecturers need to clear their vocabulary with first-year students?) By the not-your-word-to-use standard, I shouldn't be able to use dyke or sissy either—or breeder, for that matter, as that's a hate term for straight people. (Or maybe it's an acknowledgment of their utility? Anyway…)

This student became so incensed by our refusal to say "How high?" when this student said "Jump!" that this student stormed out of the seminar. In tears. As one does when one doesn't get one's way. In college.

Say what you will about Savage, but the idea that he is some sort of anti-trans bigot is kind of hilarious. His real mistake was not only failing to play by the rules of the new game; it was also questioning why those rules exist in the first place and how the rules should be enforced. Acting in so gauche a manner is one of the quickest methods of running afoul of the modern repressive tolerance. Here's Voegeli, commenting on a kerfuffle earlier this year involving the television show Girls and a critic's daring to ask why the show's star was nude all the time.

The Dunham/Kenner/Apatow position is: 1) Molloy crossed the line; 2) we’re not going to say where the line is; 3) we’re also not going to say why the line is where it is, rather than somewhere else, or who decided it should be drawn in that particular location; 4) it’s also crossing the line to challenge Nos. 1, 2, or 3. If Molloy doesn’t understand why his question was contemptible, then his inability or refusal to recognize the boundaries of decent discourse is one more reason to condemn him.

The Grievance Industrial Complex gets angry when you ask it to explain itself because its arguments are, largely, untenable. You are not to ask what you did wrong or how to better approach controversial topics; you are, instead, to grovel, to beg forgiveness, to "acknowledge your privilege" and "stop man-/white-/cis-splaining" or asking others to "enact the labor" of telling you what you did wrong. It's your "cisgaze" or your "heteronormativity" that's the problem, and until you recognize that, your bigotry can never be forgiven. The struggle session will not end until the subject has surrendered. This is the new tolerance. This is the new state of affairs. And those who fail to get with the program—who stand on the wrong side of history, who reject progress and all it entails—will be called to account.

*The State of the American Media Circa 2014, ladies and gentlemen!