Intolerance against intolerance

25 Nov, 2015 at 11:19 | Posted in Politics & Society | 3 Comments

We teachers do our best to be Socratic, to get our job of re-education, secularization, and liberalization done by conversational exchange. That is true up to a point, but what about assigning books like Black Boy, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Becoming a Man? The racist or fundamentalist parents of our students say that in a truly democratic society the students should not be forced to read books by such people – black people, Jewish people, homosexual people. They will protest that these books are being jammed down their children’s throats. I cannot see how to reply to this charge without saying something like “There are credentials for admission to our democratic society, credentials which we liberals have been making more stringent by doing our best to excommunicate racists, male chauvinists, homo- phobes, and the like. tolerance-does-not-mean-tolerating-intoleranceYou have to be educated in order to be a citizen of our society, a participant in our conversation, someone with whom we can envisage merging our horizons. So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable. We are not so inclusivist as to tolerate intolerance such as yours.”

I have no trouble offering this reply, since I do not claim to make the distinction between education and conversation on the basis of anything except my loyalty to a particular community, a community whose interests required re-educating the Hitler Youth in 1945 and required re-educating the bigoted students of Virginia in 1993. I don’t see anything herrschaftsfrei about my handling of my fundamentalist students. Rather, I think those students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents.

Richard Rorty

Although Rorty’s view is pointing in the right direction re handling intolerance, his epistemization of the concept of truth makes the persuasive force of the argumentation weaker than necessary. Jürgen Habermas gives the reason why:

As soon as the concept of truth is eliminated in favor of a context-dependent epistemic validity-for-us, the normative reference point necessary to explain why a proponent should endeavor to seek agreement for ‘p’ beyond the boundaries of her own group is missing. The information that the agreement of an increasingly large audience gives us increasingly less reason to fear that we will be refuted presupposes the very interest that has to be explained: the desire for “as much intersubjective agreement as possible.” If something is ‘true’ if and only if it is recognized as justified “by us” because it is good “for us,” there is no rational motive for expanding the circle of members. No reason exists for the decentering expansion of the justification community especially since Rorty defines “my own ethnos” as the group in front of which I feel obliged to give an account of myself.


  1. Norms are neither true nor false, and in the end they are developed in the public (political) sphere. No philosopher has ever outlined an account of morality/ethics that has completely satisfied any other philosopher. In the current context, we are above all concerned with praxis. So (just based on the two quotes given) I call this one for Rorty.

    • I do think that Rorty’s position is justifiable, but the problem as I see it is that there exist other stronger justifications. Rorty thinks that proposing that ‘x’ is true, doesn’t add anything to the proposition that x, and that a fortiori the semantic concept of truth is fundamentally separate from his own pragmatic concept of truth. In Rorty’s view all we as scientists can aspire to is to justify our propositions and convictions. That’s however not enough for me — the aspiration of scientific research has to be truth. And that’s one reason I think Habermas has a point in rejecting Rorty’s “deflationist” concept of truth. Holding something to be justifiable (true) is not equivalent to something being true. Truth is trans-subjective, and, although telling intolerant people that they have values we don’t accept, is justifiable, I think that some values and views transcend the time-person-index and may work as really good reasons that can force people to change their minds (given, of corse, that they want to participate in argumentation — and we do, with painful certainty, know that some do not).

  2. Teaching students to question their own biases justifies Rorty’s reading list. Parents are often against such teaching, as well, unfortunately.

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