Tuesday, 25 September 2012

On Intolerance

Today's editorial in the Taipei Times concludes:
"Taiwan, the open, welcome nation that it is, should not allow the forces of xenophobia to take control, because if it does, it will close itself off voluntarily from the rest of the region and the world."
Although I agree with the censure against xenophobia, I don't think this is the underlying cause of recent cases of intolerance toward foreigners.

I think the real cause of intolerance is the absence of any publicly respected limitation on the scope of State power; the sprawl of government beyond a strictly demarcated field of rights and into the administration of so many other areas of social life in which different people arrive at different valuations means that tolerance is now a fugitive virtue.

To put it bluntly... why bother to persuade people not to behave badly or to do things which make you uncomfortable if you can just pull the levers of politics to have the government document, harass, tax, prohibit, arrest or even expel the people or the behaviours you happen to disapprove of? The only reason not to do this is the realization that it is a pandora's box holding potentially bad consequences for everyone, oneself included - especially when one's enemies get hold of those same levers.

I can only surmise that that realization requires an unusually awkward leap of intellect for those people - such as the editors of the Taipei Times perhaps - who have become accustomed through long years of "education" to supporting the continuous outward sprawl of State powers. Not only are they fixated upon politics as the ultimate locus of all ethics, but they are also thereby in a position of some culpability for having supported the unlimited expansion of the very means by which the recent episodes of intolerance have been carried out: political power. This point cannot be made often enough - the insistence upon a democratic majority as the pre-valued standard by which to judge whether a policy ought to be accepted rather than resisted, is only a "civilized" substitute for a calculation of comparative military strength (the "Clauswitz Inversion": democratic politics is war by other means).


Over the past few days I've been reading John Locke's "Letter Concerning Toleration" which was addressed to Locke's friend Philip van Limborch and which was first published in 1689 during the "Glorious Revolution" and the background antagonisms between Protestant and Catholic sects of Christianity in England at the time.

More than any other point made in that letter, I was compelled by his insistence upon drawing a clear distinction between the civil responsibilities of the magistrate and the ecclesiastical responsibilities of the church; the symmetry of the distinction immediately put me in mind of the comparative absence and/or discrediting of religion today and the fact that the State's powers have long since sprawled out to touch upon behaviours that infract not against a strictly demarcated set of rights, but against some populist constellation of lifestyle "virtues" (e.g. environmentalism). In other words, what were once responsibilities assigned by common consent to a seperate institution whose only legitimate powers were those of rational persuasion, have now been transferred to the State - along with the puritanical fervour with which the environmentalists, for example, advocate various policies.

A mad question:

Do the different forms of puritanical intolerance require a common aesthetic denominator?

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