Tuesday, March 23, 2010

On Tolerance

Here's David Theo Goldberg on racism at the UCs -- and the UC administration's response:
University of California administrators seem to have gathered around a singular verbal response to the variety of “incidents” that has rocked UC campuses in the past month or so. All such incidents, they say, are expressions of “intolerance and incivility.” President Yudof has issued a statement insisting that “It is also important that members of the university community conduct themselves with civility and with tolerance for the diverse groups that make up our campuses.” Chair of the Board of Regents, Russell Gould, reiterates the sentiment: “The University of California's commitment to diversity and tolerance for differing points of view is one of the hallmarks of its character.” To paraphrase Gandhi, robust diversity would indeed be a good thing.

But what does it mean to paint all these incidents as expressions of “intolerance”? And by extension to call for “tolerance” of and by all members of the University community? Better for the most part to be tolerant than not, to be sure, though is it really, always, better to be tolerated? If this is the way the University is seeking to manage its diversity--for that’s what tolerance is really, a managerial modality--we may be in deeper trouble than we perhaps realize.

To say that the racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic incidents at UCSD, at Davis and UCSC are cases of intolerance is to imply that that those engaged in these expressions are saying awful things to and about people they reject. To call for tolerance is to address only the awful things they are saying, not the underlying and implicit rejection. It addresses the symptom, not the underlying condition of which the individual utterances are merely the manifestation. We should not say such things, it implies, even about people we find or whose behavior or culture we find unacceptable.

We may not want certain folks around, for whatever reason, but we should put up with them, or at least not express our dislike or distaste for their presence. That’s what it means to tolerate. To be intolerant is to violate the injunction to accept about one people with whom one disagrees, to prevent them from expressing themselves, to exclude those one finds abhorrent for whatever reason, or ridiculous, or unacceptable. That’s what the language of tolerance amounts to. It leaves in place the lack of understanding, the insensitivities, the set stereotypes and prejudices, the total lack of understanding or worse yet the couldn’t-care-less attitude about others. I don’t have to, I don’t want to know you. Or I know you all too well. But I am willing to have you around because tolerance suggests we’d be better for it, better that is more for having the largesse than any actual benefits from your actually being around. Tolerance, then, is more about me, the one tolerating, than about you, the tolerated. Tolerance, in short, is self-centrist more than it is openness to others because one is curious about them or genuinely committed to the virtues of heterogeneity.

But there is another context to which we must remain attentive. Tolerance, the attitude and indeed culture that the administration seems to be calling for, is one expressed always from a position of relative power. I don’t like you, I don’t like your culture, but I’ll put up with you because I’m in a position to do so. You can come in here, to what is presumptively my place but not yours, because I am big enough to have you around. Just don’t get too comfortable because you are here at our (or at least my) largesse.

Too strong? Well ask the tolerated—those repeatedly reminded that they are “minorities,” in power as much as in brute numbers—if they are cool with “being tolerated”. Please tolerate me, even while you think I don’t belong here? As opposed to what? Having equal standing? Being taken seriously for what one is, stands for, has been through? Having an unquestioned equal place, having one’s views as accepted or as critically assessed as anyone else’s on their own terms, not on the basis of who the majority may think is expressing them? Curious, isn’t it, revealing that the only ones calling for tolerance in such circumstances are those who are in power in any case. Those excluded, those lacking power or standing never ask for tolerance; they demand rights, recognition, equality, empowerment.

Considered against this background, we can question also the all too quick insistence on the part of President Yudof and other University administrators that the case of the Irvine 11 belongs in the same category as the racist expressions on the San Diego, Davis, Santa Cruz and UCLA campuses. Here, the dominant view would have it, the Irvine 11 were intolerant of the Israeli ambassador when he spoke on campus, refusing to allow him to speak unhindered. If speech is sacrosanct—well, clearly not all speech but speech properly expressed at a time, in a place and in a manner appropriate—then disrupting such speech is intolerant. And, paradoxically, we should be intolerant of this intolerance.

Surely, however, there are deeply relevant distinctions to be drawn between the expressions of the Irvine 11, on the one hand, and the racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic expressions of students on the other campuses, by contrast. In the latter case, judgment was being passed on having the objects of the expression around. We don’t want you here, the racists et al are saying; you don’t belong here, you are not welcome. And you are not welcome for who we take you by nature to be, because you are not one of, not like “us”. The Irvine 11, by contrast, were not making any claim about the nature of people, they expressed no view about all Jews, say, or even about Israelis. They were trying to call attention to the deadly practices of the Israeli state for which the speaker of the day, Ambassador Oren, stands and speaks. The attempt may have been bungling; in the end, it has been profoundly ineffective, making the “appropriateness” of their intervention the focus rather than the practices of the Israeli state to which they were wanting to call attention. But they were precisely not expressing a judgment about a group on the basis of its supposed nature; they were admonishing a state for practices of indiscriminate killing of people, including relatives of some of those protesting. They were not, in short, being intolerant; they were being political.

The indiscriminate charges of “intolerance” obscure these pressing distinctions. Moreover they obscure, with deeply unfortunate effect, the state, social, and institutional relations of power that abject the most vulnerable groups. Thus, to date, only the Irvine 11 have been arrested and likely charged, ironically for disturbing the peace (how intolerant can you get?), while protesting Israeli violations of human rights and international law. While the history of discrimination against Muslim students and those subject to discriminatory attack on the San Diego, Davis, and Santa Cruz campuses warrant their institutional protection, University administrators seem incapable of extending the very tolerance for which they call generously to the students they find least tolerable. It turns out that the power to tolerate is also the power not to.

Though UCSD’s Chancellor Fox may have been slow and far too cautious in initially responding to the racist expressions on her campus, perhaps those UC administrators less generous towards the Irvine 11 would do well to take their lead from her in calling not for tolerance but for a commitment to “mutual respect”. Respect predicates itself on a presumption of equality, of recognizing the standing of others. If we start from that premise rather than from one of tolerance, what follows is the figuring out of what sort of knowledge about others, about other histories and cultures, ways of being and struggles is needed for full respect to be recognized. That would entail a significant set of changes across the entire curriculum, profound shifts in pedagogical practice and content, as the multiracial coalition of UCSD students, staff, and faculty courageously committed to transforming the climate have so insightfully insisted. It entails reversing the drumbeat march to a technocratic professionalism and a much more centralized role for the social sciences, humanities, and arts in addressing civic literacies for all students than has been the recent trend. Not ethics by the numbers or mandatory tolerance training by some silly time-wasting online program one can click through just to satisfy state mandates. The coalitional challenge is a very different register than the power, and the powerlessness, of tolerance. It’s one we’d do well to take up across the entire University system.

Irvine, California
March 15, 2010

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