Book Reviews

Review: Regulating Aversion by Wendy Brown

Brown’s book on Tolerance seems to be aging well in our era of unstable politics.

The goal of her project is to probe the political discourse of Tolerance and criticize it, but this demands a preemptive note: given the blistering strength of her critique it’s easy to get the impression that Brown is rejecting Tolerance tout court. This is emphatically not the case. Her focus is on Tolerance as a political discourse, that is, as a force that structures our political ideals and practices. Accordingly, she uses this book exorcise some of the demons she sees lurking in that discourse, but she leaves open a hopeful future where we can get by with a more virtuous version of the ideal. She also leaves unscathed the practice of tolerance in our personal lives – something she takes as an unqualified good. Brown is not intelligibly ‘against tolerance’ as some have put it.

What she is against, however, is a version of Tolerance which has a stultifying, depoliticizing effect on our public sphere, a Tolerance which supplants other justice projects like Equality, a Tolerance which provides cover for an expansionist State, and a Tolerance which underwrites an imperial civilizational discourse of us-and-them.

Each of these accounts is fascinating in turn and I will outline just some features of the case for depoliticization.

This version of Tolerance branches off from Locke’s Treatise for Religious Toleration wherein he argued that doctrinal differences in Christianity were a matter of personal conscience and not public dispute (and religious war). This classical liberal argument achieved peace (to the extent it did) by privatizing what was once public and turning it into a matter of belief.

This pattern recurs. The Enlightenment liberal state makes claims to both secularism and universality, and it faces a thorny challenge in groups who recognize authority in other places – like culture and religion. The liberal state can’t demand that some groups relinquish their most cherished beliefs as a condition of participation and still take itself seriously as liberal. Enter: tolerance. According to Brown, the state trades in a discourse of tolerance at this point because it assures the state’s authority by tacitly bargaining to admit these ‘other’ groups on the condition that they privatize their assertive claims as matters of mere belief. This way the state can maintain an air of liberalism while also inoculating groups it sees as a threat. It’s a hegemony donning robes of neutrality.

This leads to a progressive secularization of politics and relativization of belief that tend toward a State which claims only a culturally neutral proceduralism – one that is emptied of the substantive moral claims which seem parochial.

Whether or not we think that such a state is possible in a pure form (Brown surely does not), the story comports nicely with the state of many contemporary liberal democracies. Paeans to Tolerance as a supreme political value are recited at exactly this moment when citizens feel like their public lives are empty and bloodless.

In the story Brown tells, this liberal zenith (nadir?) is dissatisfying to the point of fueling reactionary movements and pre-modern counter discourses (while not within the purview of her book, resurgent nativism seems like just one case that is a propos).

Thus, tolerant liberalism creates new enemies against which it can assert itself.

To recap the story: liberalism’s pretension to universalism can only be maintained in the face of conflict over substantive values by invoking a discourse of tolerance and reducing competing values to matters of private belief. This relativization advances liberalism’s hegemony at the cost of any meaningful values by which people live. The ostensibly neutral and legalistic residue is so morally unfulfilling that it sparks reactionary and illiberal movements founded on the palpitating values of your choice (race, culture, religion, or some potpourri thereof). Liberalism can then assert itself against these movements by repurposing a discourse of tolerance as license for self-defence against these intolerant barbarians. In short: liberalism makes its own monsters, and efforts to quash them only exacerbate conflict. All told, Brown’s tolerant liberalism is purportedly exposed as a project which both obscures and exacerbates conflict, and which justifies its own imperialism.

While there’s much of interest here, I want to add one squabble: In this story Brown implies that a tolerant, liberal, and secular state cannot ultimately inspire moral allegiance. I would agree that this is an exceedingly difficult issue; the value of liberal democratic institutions cannot be reduced to a moral criterion (then we’re just invoking morals ex nihilo) and it should not be reduced to a matter of culture without great caution (as demonstrated by culturally imperial aggressors who claim the benevolence of democratization). This does not mean, however, that it is impossible to find justifications of liberal democracy which are motivating and inspiring enough to shield it from the reactionaries. One possible approach here would be the culturalist approach of John Dewey who thought that democracy, in addition to being a set of political institutions, was a way of life. “Democracy”, for him, “starts at home” and manifests in a set of practices in all areas of our lives – public and private.

To my mind, this kind of Deweyan project deserves serious consideration; we should want a democracy which is both liberal and morally inspiring. But a potential constructive project like this which hews close to cultural forces would have to be carried out in conjunction with critical projects like Brown’s – ones which sensitize us to the hazards of hegemony and empire. As an exploration of these potential sins and as a partial exorcism of them, I cannot recommend her book enough.

Graham Bracken

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