Like the laws of nature, intolerance pursues its own constant in history. Every age has had its own intolerance. The rolling down of history, to avoid the reified concept of progress, has never done away with prejudice. While it may have reduced it in some parts and in some ways, it also managed or allowed it to spawn new forms each time. Forms which are not really new. The species of intolerance have always been the same. In this brief note, I wish to outline some of the species of intolerance which our modern, post-industrial age has practised, just as any previous premodern pre-industrial culture.
- Category error. This includes what may be called genre error. Our commitment to divisions in the field of human expression (written vs oral, satire vs ‘serious’ discourse, ‘fiction’ vs ‘fact’, etc) has always allowed criticism devoid of empathy to issue denunciations by mistaking one category for another. Satirists and all their latter-day iterations (comedians, hybrids of discourse) have always been accused of false consciousness, ill-intent and violence by virtue of confusing their modus operandi. This has been made possible because of …
- Suspicion. Philosophers have often defined modernity as the age of suspicion. Marx, Nietzsche and Freud are usually hailed (or denounced) as the archpriests of a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’. Yet, it may be shown that all ages had their practicians of suspicion. The medieval theologian accused of heterodoxy, the ancient philosopher accused (and sentenced to death) of upsetting the ‘natural’ order were the victims of such mistrustful watchdogs. And most often, it was intolerance, rather than understanding, patience and affection, which fueled the condemnation.
- Suppression. Intolerance doesn’t have time for appeals. Its justice is as summary as it is exemplary. Suspicion is impatient, afraid that clarity may expose it for what it is, rash and partial. Intolerance is hygienistic: once committed to a course of action, it cannot allow rejoinders for fear of spreading further the suspected disease. The cancelling culture we witness today and which cuts across the ideological spectrum, is a subspecies of this kind of intolerance which is intolerant to dialogue, exchange and co-existence. It is a form of imperialism. Whether it’s about de-platforming a speaker or writing off someone for something they said or wrote without the willingness to enter into dialogue with them, intolerence does what it does best: suppressing voices and hanging effigies in the dead of night.