THE PHILOSOPHICAL ROOTS OF INTOLERANCE *

Milan Valach

 

 

* This article was firstly published in: Antisemitism at the end of the 20th  century.  Museum of Jewish culture, 2002, Slovak Republic. 

 

 

 

 

The first publication of Mein Kampf Czech, in 2000, reminds us once again of the need for a critical revision of the foundations of European culture. Is Nazism an aberrant, random phenomenon occurring in history once and once only? Or is it an upsurging from the depths which occurs ev­ery time that sufficient strain accumulates in society and renews potential forces - previously hidden or only moderately in evidence - concealed deep in our way of thinking? Is not this monstrous bestiality to be found in the very roots of what we so proudly call European culture?

Is this questioning shared by the nations of the colonised countries? Much is said at the present time about the creation of a global civilisation. There can be no doubt that the question has long since ceased to be globali­sation: yes or no? Now the question is simply what form it will take, on what foundations - by no means least, foundations of values - this planetary civili­sation will emerge.

European history does not offer too many reasons for pride. For its greater part to date it is the history of wars, repression, social injustice and religious intolerance. Only gradually, at the cost of many sacrifices and in­termittent successes, will it be possible to change this picture. However, we have not yet exhausted all avenues. The grandiose attempt of post-modern philosophy at a revision of the intellectual - potentially totalitarian - under­pinning of our thinking cannot be considered complete, for it still has to de­liver in terms of positive projects. And above all, the reviving manifestations of intolerance, and this particularly in the post-Communist countries, are ev­idence that the work is only just beginning.

And so we too now have our neo-Nazi groups and fanatic religious sects. What is more, the enduring vacuity of ideas and values in Czech soci­ety does not augur well in this respect. For it is in just such a situation that the bearers of simple truths and, above all, the implacable authorities, pre-sent themselves as bellwethers and the way out of moral nihilism. But is this what they really are? Where would their vociferously manifested intolerance to everything different from themselves lead us? In finding an answer to this question the key lies in the term intolerance itself.

Intolerance the inadmissibility of otherness, and hence the requirement of sameness. A requirement which unleashes itself in all its horror against those who are unable to be the same. But even for the others, for those who do have the possibility of accommodating to the 'norm', there is still no bed of roses. For in that term 'inadmissibility of otherness', it is the first word that demands our attention, that inadmissibility which has within it diktat and uncompromising coercion. And so it seems that intolerance allows of only two possibilities: death for those who cannot, or refuse to, accommodate, and servitude for the rest, whom the razor-edge of intolerance has left, for the moment, alive.

The long history of religious, racial or national intolerance has not stinted in showing us its bloody consequences in the form of persecution, tor­ture and murder. What, then, could be easier than to reject it in the name of humanism? Let's be tolerant! Let's be tolerant and humane!

But actually, tolerance is not the simple matter it may seem. After all, we are hardly going to be tolerant of criminals. It looks, then, as if we need to defend certain fundamental values and to be, in fact, intolerant to any kind of attempt to infringe them. And so, for example, in a number of countries it is a crime to utter the 'Auschwitz lie'.

We have to decide, then, what to be tolerant of, and what not. If we wish to justify this necessary distinction, we have first to clarify the basis and roots of intolerance as such. To avoid becoming entangled in the equivocali­ty arising from the overlapping of the two types of intolerance I have raised, let us first look at one of them, namely that which in history is linked with the extermination of people not falling into the category of what is permitted.

Let us inquire, then, into where the ideological excuse for mass mur­der comes from. And clearly, we shall simplify things somewhat for the pur­poses of our investigation. For the moment, then, we shall leave on the side­lines the economic and socio-psychological motives of such behaviour. Even so, we seem to have more than enough avenues to pursue. We might delve in­to the various ideological and philosophical systems, seeking there the roots of intolerance, and ask about its function in this or that philosopher. How­ever, we might equally attempt a reconstruction of some ideal type, some most universal model of murderous intolerance. As numerous surveys of the various philosophical and ideological systems have been conducted, it is rather to a reconstruction of that ideal type that we shall apply ourselves. The advantage of this approach lies in the fact that it does not target any partic­ular system, and not even any philosophical, religious or ideological system that existed in the past, but focuses on nothing less than finding the princi­ple which enables us to identify the lethal potential not only in systems of ideas in the past, but in those of the present and the future. At the same time it goes without saying that we are attempt ing merely a contribution to this en deavour, and not a definitive answer.

We understand tolerance, as we have said, as the inadmissibility of deviations from some model, as the exclusion of othernes, of difference, from what is established as right. This leads us to the understanding that in­tolerance is merely a secondary manifestation of the existence of something which is regarded as right, hence as something which should be. But this very 'should be' in its manifestation as intolerance points to the imperativeness with which it establishes itself as a binding norm. One can compel oneself or others. If one establishes a norm for others, one must somehow prove the justness of one's claim.

I think that there are essentially two paths to meeting this require­ment and to legitimising one's right to formulate norms that are universally mandatory. One of these takes us to the investigation of human nature and the conditions of life in human society. Here we may have formulations of the type: a necessary condition of human co-existence is that such and such rules must be observed in relations among people. The reason for their ob­servance is that we need each other and we cannot survive without mutual co-operation. The evidence for such a contention are generally available facts which everyone can verify, independently of who explicitly formulates this evidence. Here no privileged position is created of bearers of truth with a capital T'. This is the approach taken by the first Greek philosophers, as Jean-Pierre Vernant has so persuasively demonstrated1).

The second way, on the other hand, looks to some form of knowl­edge accessible only to individuals possessed of supernatural abilities. But here there can be no appeal to empirically verifiable facts. For their verifiability by all and sundry of necessity excludes any kind of privilege or exclu­sivity in access to them. Instead, that 'should be' becomes something above or beyond this empirical, demonstrable world, and something which is to be entered only by those who communicate directly with God, providence, his­torical truth, and so on.

If we allow that this 'something above' this world directly determines all that happens in this world, the danger it presents is no more than a cer­tain fatalism which takes reality as given and immutable (the model for which might be seen in Stoic logic). Even so, however, we find ourselves in an insoluble conflict with the reality of the ambivalence of the real world and the resultant need to decide between the various courses of conduct with which real life presents us. Such a stance, however, encourages our feelings of helplessness, even to the extent that logical thinking is destroyed. Howev­er, even this is not enough to account for intolerance of difference so great as to call for its eradication even if this means the extermination of those who are different.

But we have yet another possibility. The conflict, the asynchronism, of events in the real world might also be expressed as an opposition between (his world and that something 'above' it. This 'something above' must of necessity be that which is bereft of contradiction, unambiguous and perfect; and as such it becomes the model, the norm of what should be. The empirical world, to which is accorded - on the basis of its otherness from this mod­el - a relative individuality, can be understood as a mix of the desirable ('should be') and the undesirable; or even as the direct opposition of the em­pirical world and the desirable world above it. This acknowledged individu­ality, however, becomes an undesirable individuality, a manifestation of dif­ference from what is right. And so we arrive at the idea that it is something which should not be, and which must be surmounted.

In most cases it is established that what should be is good. And if we isolate this good and so discumber it of the equivocality and confliction it has in normal life2), we arrive at good in itself. Good in itself, however, no longer has that ambiguity which inheres in the good thing or act, for these could be good for some, and for others not. Thus victory in battle is good for the victor, but not for the vanquished. Good in itself, expressed as the term or idea of good, however, is good for everybody, irrespective of their opinions or desires. For these opinions and desires have their source in the empirical world, which is opposed, and at the very least inferior, to what is really de­sirable, good and above this world, and thus binding and determining for it. As we know from history, this 'above' was not understood only in the sense of superiority of value, but also literally, spatially, as 'being in the heavens'.

Good in itself, shorn of its ambiguity, becomes absolute good, which as such must present a series of other indicia. For one thing, it is clear that it can be only one. If any others were to exist, it would mean that they dif­fered from that first (obviously it is immaterial which is actually first). To differ means to be other. But what is other than good? The answer is easy: the other is evil! By the same token, good cannot change over time. If it did change, the earlier would differ from the later; but what differs from perfect good is evil3). To concede change means, therefore, to accept that good can become evil. But this is out of the question, because pure - i. e., perfect - good in itself contains no conflicting elements, and there is therefore no reason why it should change.

What we have said so far, however, need not in any way lead to that homicidal intolerance whose theoretical roots we are here trying to under­stand. We might speculate about the absolute and ask ourselves what its ex­istence means for mankind, and so on, without being in the least intolerant. The problem arises the moment we try to materialise from that absolute a practical manual for our conduct.

For the abstract nature of perfect good makes it by definition unserviceable for addressing any kind of concrete situation. If we are to attempt this, we have also to create a mediating link, which is the interpretation of the situation in terms of the idea of good.  This interpretation in itself, however, constitutes an insoluble problem. Because it cannot undertake to develop for this, by token of its abstractness, has no substance. Interpretation thus becomes a process in which the interpreting subject invests its own ideas and convictions into the answer, which, howev­er, was supposed to be of entirely non-subjective character, that is, a pure de­velopment of the idea of good. The significance of this fact becomes imme­diately apparent when we address the question of the choice of exegetes. For we have to take into consideration that the quiddity of the human world is variety of opinion. So we never have just one interpreter, but, as is usually the case in history, two or often even more.

We can, however, leave it to individuals to choose whom they will lis­ten to. But this choice itself is, from the perspective of the interpretation of good we have pursued so far, paradoxical. If people can choose the inter­preters, then they are equally entitled themselves to interpret the idea of good. And because in practice their interpretations differ, we end up in the post-modern blind alley in which we have no criterion for judging what is right. The absence of such a criterion inevitably leads to chaos. Which also means, incidentally, that to allow several interpretations as justified is prac­tically the same as abandoning the idea of good altogether.

It seems to me that this problem is insoluble in theory, even if a prac­tical solution is known. That solution consists in the use of extra-theoretical - that is, coercive and manipulative - means by which one of the interpreters of the desirable - of good - establishes himself as the sole legitimate one. The moment that he assumes this position, the whole human world begins to structure itself in a specific way. Once all the others are excluded from the interpretation of what is goodness and good, he alone remains as the one to bring this knowledge to people. We might say that he alone speaks in the name of good and in effect represents it. Other people have no alternative ac­cess to a knowledge of what is right, what is good, what should be, than through this person.

The other expounders and anyone, in fact, who had any convictions differing from that which is now the sole correct one are in effect at variance with good itself. This differentness is evil. And to eradicate evil is unques­tionably a good thing. So it is unquestionably a good thing to eradicate ev­erybody who is different. Whether this will mean merely a change in their convictions or their physical elimination depends solely on their willingness to submit. This is reinforced by the fact that physical existence is of no im­portance; it has no positive value in itself. For that positive value was at the outset of our cogitation detached from this world and counterposed to it in the form of absolute good.

And now we are in a position to understand why it is so easy to kill ideological opponents. Still eluding us, however, is why in this system of gov­ernment, which we usually call totalitarian, those are also killed en masse who would in any case be willing to accept it.

And this is the conundrum which Hannah Arendt has addressed in her work on the origins of totalitarianism4). To solve it we must realise that the legitimatisation of power in a totalitarian state rests on a privileged access to good, as we have shown above. In practical terms, however, the justification of the privilege can never be proven. There is no way of distinguishing those cases where the exegete correctly interprets good from those in which he errs, or even from those in which in some way or other he merely puts for­ward his personal interests or prejudices as a manifestation of perfect good. If such a distinction were allowed, it would mean that the truth about what is good manifests itself his words and deeds only by chance. And as a result, he would cease to different in this regard from others. It follows further from this that he would lose  his exclusive claim  to power. Or, to put it another way, he would have as much claim to power as anyone else.

If he does not want to allow this, be it because of his will to power or because of fanaticism, he must present all his decisions as perfect, as in­dubitably good. In so doing he in effect places himself beyond this world and passes into the world of perfect, ideal good. In this way he himself becomes a god, whatever the ideology he acknowledges (viz. the cult of Stalin, Mao, Hitler and the leaders of today's sects).

But in the empirical world in which other people live there are not many things that are so ideally good. Indeed, there are many that are down­right evil. This presents a serious cleavage between the absolute rule of the perfectly good leader, or whatever we call him, on the one hand and the real existence of evil on the other. True, he could concede his impotence, or at least weakness, but in so doing he would put his power in question, and his power not only over this world, but above all over other people. If he does not want to bring this about, there is usually only one explanation to give: alongside the force of good, represented by the will of the leader, there is also a force of evil. It must be uncovered and eliminated so that the rule of good can finally be installed.

To put it another way, every totalitarian leader needs enemies in or­der to account for all the failures and glitches. If there is a real enemy, so much the better. If there is not, one must be created in order to be destroyed. More accurately, he must be found constantly so that he can be destroyed con­stantly. His endless dying salvages faith in the infallibility of the leader.

Who this enemy is to be depends on the nature of the ideology with whose help the leader legitimatises his claim to absolute power. If the core of this ideology is the idea of the chosen race, the vehicle of evil must be iden­tified on the basis of race. So, all those will be killed who are racially differ­ent, whatever their thoughts or acts may be. If the core is some historical goal towards which the leader is taking us, the host of evil will be identified on the basis of a real or assumed dissension from this aim. But because an enemy must be created at all costs, absolutely anyone can be labelled as such carriers. They could be people with big noses, just as they could be those who wear the wrong colour of shirt, wear glasses or know how to read (as was the case, for example, in Cambodia), and so on. And, of course, in both cases those are also eliminated who do not agree with the whole thing.

The objection might be raised that race is, however, empirically demonstrable. But as we well know, nothing of the kind is true. And the rea­son is that people differ in their appearance, in typical anatomical features and, above all, in the colour of their skin. The fixation of the Nazis, and par­ticularly of Heinrich Himmler, with measuring the shape of the skull and oth­er anatomical signs is well known, as is the endeavour to create a new, elite, race of superhumans from the coupling of individuals chosen on the basis of their racial origin and the corresponding corporal signs 5). The colour of the skin, blue eyes, the origin of one's ancestors and the like: in themselves these mean nothing until we ascribe a certain significance to them. Thus, for ex­ample, the glaring fact of skin colour in itself means nothing for one's stand­ing in society until an interpretational framework is created in which it be­comes a classifying parameter on the basis of which is determined one's place in the social hierarchy 6).

The word 'hierarchy' which now crops up is crucial, because in a society in which there is no hierarchical structuring, no such characteristics - and, indeed, no characteristics at all - can acquire the significance of al­locating position such as ruler/ruled, superhuman/subhuman, allowed to live/marked for extermination. So, it is not any empirical sign, but the ide­ology, which determines the significance of the sign, which is fundamental. Even if the very ideology itself maintains the contrary, it is in reality the case that a hierarchical vision of the world, and the attendant hatred and need for an enemy who will be destroyed, is primary (viz. the necrophilous and authoritarian character in Fromm) 7). The casting about for empirical ar­guments is only secondary. For this reason Nazi ideology did not in fact mean an automatic favouring of native Germans and the certainty that they would not themselves fall victim to terror. For that to be the case they had also to be convinced Nazis, or at least regarded as such. Racism, like Nazism, is not, then, founded on empirical facts, but on empirically un-demonstrable ideas of the superiority of a race or nation 8). This is in essence identical with the idea of perfect good, with the difference that we fill its original abstract concept with a particular content - namely, the racial or national type. (I have analysed elsewhere a similar procedure in the case of Communist ideology.)9)

If we link the idea of absolute good with the belief that a particu­lar person has privileged access to this idea, we get the murderous mix which manifested itself not only in the Holocaust and the Soviet gulags, but in the many other cases of mass extermination that we encounter so often in human history.

Given this, would it not be better to speak about absolute evil than about absolute good? What happens if we substitute in this system absolute evil for absolute good? For a fuller treatment of this question we have to turn to a writer who addressed it in minute detail, and did so with unusual can­dour. I am thinking of Plato and his Republic.

If we insert the word "evil" into our thinking so far instead of the word 'good', nothing will change. The only difference is that the whole sys­tem will no longer seem to us emotionally appealing. Within it good will now fulfil a manipulative function in which it wins us subconsciously to some­thing that we would otherwise never entertain. Something, however, remains unchanged, and that is the power of the interpreter, the spokesman, the lead­er or philosopher-king. Its justification makes it an absolute power, and it is this which is the actual core and source of murderous intolerance.

Thus we see that attempts to achieve absolute power both constitute a totalitarian political system and beget mass violence. And the personal qualities of the prophet of the new Truth and perfect Good are totally irrele­vant. As soon as the system is in place, it runs according to its own internal logic. Either the prophet adapts or he is swept aside by others more knowing (viz. for example the death of Lenin and his replacement by Stalin). If we want to get out of this world, it is not enough to replace the leader; we have to decentralise power and thereby destroy the essence of the system. Howev­er, even then something remains, and that is the ideas, the ways of behaving and the values that attend a totalitarian society.

If democracy is to be possible at all, we must therefore attempt to meet two conditions. Firstly, the greatest possible decentralisation of power allied to the greatest possible degree of direct involvement of citizens in de­cision-making. Secondly, the identification and dismantling of values and stereotypes attending the status of the ruled, unfranchised and anatomised mass that long we were, and the contrasting of these with values of the equality and solidarity of free citizens. If we mean to safeguard ourselves against a repetition of the horrors which absolute power and hierarchies that defend ideologies spawned and still spawn, it is precisely those values foun­dations of democracy that we must bolster and develop. For the democratic political system itself is only a form through which these values manifest themselves, maintain themselves and also reproduce themselves in the pop­ulace. If democracy has no values basis, it ceases to be functional and sets about transforming itself into some form or other of authoritarian power.

As we have seen above, the method for establishing what is just and desirable may rest also in an analysis of the empirical conditions of human coexistence - and this if only because nothing else exists outside this world, or because there is no other way to find manifestations of the absolute than to seek it with our fallible human understanding in the world around us. Be­cause as long as no-one can claim absolute knowledge, people are equal in their fallibility, to speak of nothing else. Respect for one's fellow human be­ing, recognition of his unique value, as well as respect for oneself are, together with a pan-human solidarity, expressions of the values required for sur­vival in a global world bristling as much with problems as it is with weapons of mass destruction.

And so, the key value for the survival of mankind is that of the indi­vidual as a human being; it is the value of every member of the species Homo sapiens. It is on this value that the form of co-existence and the method of de­cision-making rests. And it is we ourselves who establish it as such by our own choice, and both in the values diffused by culture and in the process of inter­relating in which, through our conduct in practice, we do unto others as unto ourselves. This value must be defended against all attempts at its degradation as theory. But above all it must be promoted in practice, for it is in everyday life that it is withheld in all relationships in which man is ruled over by man.

But this also means that we must be intolerant of all attempts at its devaluation, whether in theory or in practice. This form of intolerance de­mands of us that we identify those theoretical systems, together with all the forms of subjugation and manipulation and the values associated with them, and set about their destruction. Such intolerance I would call an intolerance in the cause of the preservation of life.

But as the core and actual reason of homicidal intolerance is au­thoritarian power, we have to ask ourselves, at the same time, to what extent respect for power is rooted in us, to what extent an elitism is rooted in us which divides people into those that are more and those that are less. Are we truly willing to accord to every individual the same right to share in the decision-making in this state as we accord ourselves?

 

 

REFERENCES

1) Vernant, Jean-Pierre: Les origines de la pensee grecque. Paris, PUF.

2) Aristotle: Nichomachean Ethics, Bk. 1, ch. 4 & 5.

3) Popper, Karl R.: The Open Society and Its Enemies. London, Routledge, 1968, ch. 4.

4) Arendt, H.: The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966, III, ch. XII.

5) Clay C., Leapman M.: Master Race. London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1995.

6)  Šmausova, G.: '"Rasa" jako rasisticka konstrukce'. In: Sociologicky casopis. Vol. XXXV, no. 4, 1999, pp. 433-446.

7)  Fromm, E.: Fear of Freedom. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1960.

8 ) Gellner, E.: Nations and Nationalism. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1983.

9) Valach, M.: Svět na předělu. Brno, Doplnek, 2000.

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