In 1965 Herbert Marcuse wrote an essay called ‘Repressive Tolerance’ which had a long-lasting effect on the political atmosphere of the time. It’s not without problems, as Marcuse excuses repression of social forces he doesn’t like – but the basis of much of the essay is as insightful today as it was then. If you want to read the whole thing you can find it HERE but I’ll extract some of the more applicable details.
He summarises his conclusions, thus:
In other words, today tolerance appears again as what it was in its origins, at the beginning of the modern period–a partisan goal, a subversive liberating notion and practice. Conversely, what is proclaimed and practiced as tolerance today, is in many of its most effective manifestations serving the cause of oppression.
That is, the modern version of tolerance, emergent when he was writing his essay, is not truly tolerance (serving to liberate and empower) but rather a tool of repression and oppression that silences and censors. Anyone who has run into the ‘social justice warrior’ crowd knows exactly how that goes.
Thus, within a repressive society, even progressive movements threaten to turn into their opposite to the degree to which they accept the rules of the game.
In 1965 the issue was more a worry about governmental censorship and that is still an issue, but we have a bigger issue today with private censorship. That is, certain powerful corporate interests dominate sales points (Amazon) and social media (Facebook and Twitter) amongst others. Some like to excuse censorship from private parties in various ways and even claim it isn’t censorship, using weasel words like ‘Editing’ or ‘Criticism’. These private, transnational virtual spaces often succumb to oppression from minority interests or the presumed sensibilities of the majority, insulated from criticism and excused in their censorship by their private status.
Many so-called progressive movements seem to end up allied with archly conservative movements. When both are morally conservative, whether it be from a traditionalist, religious, moralistic approach or a progressive, ‘social advancement’ moralistic agenda, they seem able to work together to censor and control. A prime example of this is the bizarre alliance between Gail Dines (progressive anti-porn campaigner) and David Cameron’s Conservative led coalition to filter UK internet access by default and to ban ‘extreme’ porn.
The tolerance which enlarged the range and content of freedom was always partisan–intolerant toward the protagonists of the repressive status quo. The issue was only the degree and extent of intolerance. In the firmly established liberal society of England and the United States, freedom of speech and assembly was granted even to the radical enemies of society, provided they did not make the transition from word to deed, from speech to action.
This is, of course, no longer the case. Expression itself is now being repressed on the mere supposed basis of harm without it being proven or shown, or on the basis of offended or made uncomfortable. We are transitioning from suppressing bad actions, to suppressing ‘bad speech’ and even ‘bad thought’.
In the interplay of theory and practice, true and false solutions become distinguishable–never with the evidence of necessity, never as the positive, only with the certainty of a reasoned and reasonable chance, and with the persuasive force of the negative. For the true positive is the society of the future and therefore beyond definition arid determination, while the existing positive is that which must be surmounted. But the experience and understanding of the existent society may well be capable of identifying what is not conducive to a free and rational society, what impedes and distorts the possibilities of its creation. Freedom is liberation, a specific historical process in theory and practice, and as such it has its right and wrong, its truth and falsehood.
This passage stands in direct contrast to much of activist philosophy in the current age which is much more affected by postmodernism and the idea that subjective feelings are at least as important as facts, if not more important. The very idea that attempts to extract objective information about, from and for situations is under attack. In relation to #gamergate this bizarre ideological standpoint is exemplified in the DiGRA spitballing about avoiding peer review for activist research and in the use of mythologised and repeated false claims about the supposed societal effects of games that have been known to be false for years.
However, censorship of art and literature is regressive under all circumstances. The authentic oeuvre is not and cannot be a prop of oppression, and pseudo-art (which can be such a prop) is not art. Art stands against history, withstands history which has been the history of oppression, for art subjects reality to laws other than the established ones: to the laws of the Form which creates a different reality–negation of the established one even where art depicts the established reality.
That’s an important point, so I’ll repeat it. ‘Censorship of art and literature is regressive under ALL circumstances’. Of course, people will argue about what constitutes art and will make excuses for censorship or claim what they’re doing isn’t censorship, so let’s call it ‘creative acts’ and ‘restriction’ instead. To me the greater point here is that art is – and must be – free to turn things on their head, to challenge all viewpoints and to play with all topics in order to explore and express them.
Tolerance is first and foremost for the sake of the heretics–the historical road toward humanitas appears as heresy: target of persecution by the powers that be. Heresy by itself, however, is no token of truth.
Authentic tolerance is. The pseudo-tolerance we find ourselves victims of, remarkably intolerant of many forms of expression, is itself a pseudo-religious orthodoxy against which art often revolts and performs its heresy. ‘Social Justice’ has become a secular religion no better, and perhaps just as bad as, the more conventional religions of the past and just as religions that claim peace have prosecuted war, so ‘religions’ that preach tolerance have ended up embodying intolerance and hatred, excusing these actions through apologetics that would make William Lane Craig blush with shame.
Within the affluent democracy, the affluent discussion prevails, and within the established framework, it is tolerant to a large extent. All points of view can be heard: the Communist and the Fascist, the Left and the Right, the white and the Negro, the crusaders for armament and for disarmament. Moreover, in endlessly dragging debates over the media, the stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one, the misinformed may talk as long as the informed, and propaganda rides along with education, truth with falsehood. This pure toleration of sense and nonsense is justified by the democratic argument that nobody, neither group nor individual, is in possession of the truth and capable of defining what is right and wrong, good and bad. Therefore, all contesting opinions must be submitted to ‘the people’ for its deliberation and choice. But I have already suggested that the democratic argument implies a necessary condition, namely, that the people must be capable of deliberating and choosing on the basis of knowledge, that they must have access to authentic information, and that, on this. basis, their evaluation must be the result of autonomous thought.
Those familiar with the way the reporting of the news has changed and those who criticise ‘fair and balanced’ coverage of issues that simply aren’t ‘fair and balanced’ (such as climate change) already know these lessons and this passage will look shockingly familiar. In that instance the inclusion of opposing points of view, that in reality are a vanishingly small minority, has created an impression in the public that the matter is one of serious contention – which it absolutely is not.
It is no different in relation to the topics we find ourselves arguing in and around #gamergate and the ideologues who argue there. There’s no evidence that games have any discernible effect on people’s attitudes whether that’s violence or sexism. However we are subjected to an endless stream of propaganda, demonisation of opposition and – for people who reject tone arguments – a great deal of rejection of people’s genuine anger as harming the debate.
Falsehoods with no evidence behind them are given the same weight as more solid, evidenced facts and any democracy, whether a ‘market’ democracy or a political democracy, relies on an informed consumer base or electorate. Now we find not only are games consumers being given stories that perpetuate propaganda, but that there is collusion to create a false narrative and to wilfully misinform – or fail to inform – the consumer base.
This is, perhaps, particularly relevant to #gamergate where games media’s supposed purpose is to inform the consumer base and to act as their advocates, not as the advocates for political causes.
The whole post-fascist period is one of clear and present danger. Consequently, true pacification requires the withdrawal of tolerance before the deed, at the stage of communication in word, print, and picture. Such extreme suspension of the right of free speech and free assembly is indeed justified only if the whole of society is in extreme danger.
Marcuse was writing during the Cold War and in the aftermath of WWII and the fascism that dominated that period. I suspect this is what lead him to make exceptions in his essay and to suggest that political viewpoints he happened to disagree with were exempted. However this passage allows us to reconsider the inconsistent positions that he adopted in the essay.
Can we say, in the technologically advanced and egalitarian west, that our society is in extreme danger? Is it in ‘extreme danger’ from the expression of challenging ideas or sexuality in fiction? Even if one were to be outstandingly generous and to accept the proposition that this fictional free expression presented any danger at all, I don’t think anyone could make a rational case for ‘extreme danger’. In such a case, where is the justification for seeking to restrict expression in games, in literature, in art?
There is none.
There’s much to be praised in Marcuse’s essay, but it’s not without problems. He falls into his own trap in his post-script, suggesting overturning the status quo by deliberately prioritising certain points of view to compensate for their perceived lack of access to the media structure. This is just using the system to create a repressive tolerance of a different ilk, it’s the same status quo, but with a different Generalissimo.
In my view the only metric for true tolerance is truth, and truth can only be found by seeking objectivity.
The right against which Marcuse railed still exists, but in the economic sphere, not the social sphere. Power, these days, in relation to social issues resides in what it called ‘the left’, but which is actually an authoritarian application of a repressive form of tolerance.