Tolerating the intolerant

"For those who thought that a global pandemic would sound the death knell for identity politics, think again"

How exhausting it is to be angry. Aristotle may have taught us that, whilst it is easy to be angry, the difficulty is being so with the “right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way”. Seneca, on the other hand, had a simpler, and perhaps more practical, formulation: that anger is the foe of reason, the product of badly held ideas. There is, of course, a valid argument that anger can be used as a force for the good—but do errors of reasoning provide some explanation for the current high state of indignation and intolerance? In an increasingly polarised society, perhaps it is a position not without merit.

For those who thought that a global pandemic would sound the death knell for identity politics, think again. No-platforming, cancel culture, the curtailment of freedom of speech (both professionally and privately) and online spite continue to flourish. For those with a more cynical overview of cultural matters, it was only a matter of time. In this issue, Marc Sidwell, this month’s Guest Speaker, assesses how adherents of social justice, so compassionate when it suits their cause, favour cruelty over common sense, and why wokeness has seemingly rejected kindness. Surveying a similar binary landscape, Konstantin Kisin looks at how language has been co-opted—a form of linguistic revisionism in which words are weaponised to limit independent thought—in the culture wars. The advancement of certain politically correct narratives is now evident in all walks of life, even in comedy. Andrew Doyle, one of the UK’s leading satirists, explores comedy’s role in society and asks whether it can survive its current ideological purification.

The creation of new realities—or what might be termed holding “a post-truth position in a post-truth world”—causes the philosopher Anthony O’Hear to reflect on how postmodernist thinking has undermined our foundational concepts. His wide-ranging essay, “D’où parles-tu?”, prompts a stimulating examination of the subject, not least on the question of tolerance. Perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves of what Karl Popper termed the paradox of tolerance:

Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise.

In the second instalment of his incisive series on China, Charles Parton focuses on Xi Jinping’s chilling revolution in values and
education. The inculcation of ideology early—what Parton calls “engineering the soul of China”—will have a long-term effect on the country and its policies.

Even for those reeling from months of Covid-19 coverage, Debora MacKenzie’s fascinating article on global governance (and not relying on absolute national sovereignty when it comes to disease) is a must-read. That the current pandemic will be followed by one that is infinitely worse is highly likely, therefore the responsibility must be a global one.

At the beginning of lockdown, the security of our food supply (and loo rolls) loomed large in the public’s imagination. The threat of empty shelves proving a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even with supermarkets now full, Harry Holmes suggests that without a comprehensive deal our supply chain post-Brexit will be severely compromised.

Latin America has long attracted the sobriquet “the forgotten continent”, though Brazil has always sought to be the outlier in the region. Once hailed as the “country of the future”, Brazil is now tarnished by deep inequality and a failing economy. In his shrewd essay, Pedro Mendes Loureiro contextualises the country’s longstanding shortcomings and offers some hope despite the despair.

Kant, of all the great philosophers, was not the most elegant of writers. This has not served him well, and yet his work remains as relevant today as in the 18th century. Ralph Walker deftly argues the case for Kant’s Categorical Imperative and what he would think were he alive in the 21st century.

For those who have sought to use lockdown to remedy the gaps in their reading, Proust must come high on their list. Christopher Prendergast skilfully assesses the “English” Proust and how the writer has been interpreted on this side of the Channel. On a more light-hearted note, Richard Russell writes amusingly on how advertising lost its soul and with it the demise of the witty and clever advert.

In his Overrated/Underrated column, Stephen Bayley makes a case for the instinctive over the intellectual; something that may come as a surprise—though hopefully not an unwelcome one—to readers of this publication.

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