It's a strategy, not a value

I want to convince you that, despite all appearances to the contrary, tolerance is still a good strategy. I won’t make a humanistic appeal to toleration and rational dialogue, because I don’t think that will sway anyone. No, I’m going to use a Machiavellian gambit here and appeal to your desire to win: I want to convince you that, if your side is the more tolerant one, then you are more likely to win the culture war. This works because you can’t beat your ideological opponent if you don’t understand how they think. There’s the added bonus of attracting fence-sitters by being the less cut-throat side, but it’s mostly the first thing.

It will help if I define “tolerance.” The liberal virtue of tolerance was, originally, not so much about tolerating the presence of people different from oneself. Rather, tolerance meant being able to entertain an idea that one finds repugnant. That means taking an idea that is reprehensible to you and being able to anticipate what its proponents would say to your arguments. Take a position that you hate so much that even asserting it tastes like dirt in your mouth. Can you convincingly argue for it, in a way that makes you really sound like one of its supporters? Can you also explain why someone would think that way, without sounding as if you’re just mocking the other side? If so, then you’re tolerant in the sense that I use.

The benefits of this are obvious: it’s easier to predict what the other guy is gonna do if you know how he thinks. And if you don’t know how your opponent thinks, you’re asking to lose. For example, one critical error made by conservatives and classical liberals over the past decade is to repeatedly point out inconsistencies in progressive argumentation, going on the assumption that progressives actually cared about logical consistency. But if one views the entire edifice of Western thinking and reasoned argument as a means of oppression, then this strategy is a non-starter. Post-Foucault, progressive thought assumes that everything boils down to power relations, so fairness and logical consistency just don’t matter. All that matters is dismantling the systems of oppression. On this view, applying double standards to one’s opponents isn’t just permissible. It is actually just.

The reaction of many on the right, and even of many classical liberals, has been to “fight fire with fire.” The assumption is that, since progressives are not interested in reasoned debate and simply want to win, then there is nothing to be gained by tolerance. At this stage, so the thinking goes, the best thing we can do is cut our losses and descend into vicious realpolitik. While I am sympathetic to this line of thinking (dialogue is not always the answer), I want to caution against it. Even in a brutal power struggle, understanding how your opponent thinks is still critically important. After all, if the rest of the world had bothered to read the French poststructuralists and understand what progressives were actually doing three decades ago, we probably wouldn’t be in this mess.

It is at least plausible to argue that progressives frequently win due to conservative hesitancy to understand their way of thinking. That is to say, progressives keep winning ground in the culture war because the rest of the world is too repulsed by their way of thinking to understand what they’re doing. You see this in action every time a conservative is visibly (perhaps performatively) disgusted by critical theory or French postmodernism or some other facet of progressive intellectualism. The conservatives ignore progressive intellectualism, which inevitably turns out to have contained some valuable insights apart from its political leanings. Those insights wind up forming the basis of progressive victories in the culture war.

I want you to take one thing away from this: tolerance, and understanding of one’s opponent, is valuable even if one is committed to realpolitik. Regardless of what side you’re on, you are far more likely to win if you’re willing and able to read the opposition’s thinkers with a straight face.