Wednesday, August 17, 2011

How tolerance can lead to intolerance

R.R. Reno, in "The Cosmopolitan Conservative," describes how liberalism often seems to approach conservatives, especially on campus:
.... We’ve all experienced the liberal default to denunciation. Reservations about radical feminism? “Patriarchal.” Criticize multicultural lunacy? “Cultural imperialist.” Question affirmative action? “Racist.” Opposed to same-sex marriage? “Homophobic” or “heterosexist.” Worried that increased taxation will stifle economic growth? “Protecting the rich” and “indifferent to the poor.” The message is that anyone who questions liberal policies is either a bigot or out for himself, and probably both.

The decline of religiosity among liberal elites in recent decades has accentuated this parochialism. During the debates leading up to the revision of the general-education requirements at Harvard, some genuinely liberal faculty members proposed a required course on reason and faith, observing that students need to understand the religious ways in which the vast majority of human beings have and still think about First Things.

But it was not to be. Secular jihadist Steven Pinker insisted that faith “has no place in anything but a religious institution.” Concern for faith and its influential role in society “is an American anachronism,” and “the rest of the West is moving beyond it.” In other words, the Smart People who run the world needn’t waste their time with the beliefs that govern the lives of most of the folks who actually live in the world. ....

Ideally, the liberal seeks a cosmopolitanism of impartiality, one that calls for “public reasons” that everyone can agree on. It’s a classical ideal of cosmopolitanism based on a vision of universal reason safely above the particular religious and moral beliefs that often serve as the source of discord and division. A laudable goal, perhaps, but in point of fact this ideal tends to undermine rather than promote solidarity. Those who imagine themselves to have attained the universality of reason preside at a distance, casting themselves in the roles of referee and judge responsible for determining whose reasons are “public” or indeed “reasonable.”

Or worse, they become cultural therapists, anointed experts in the supposed pathologies of conviction and cultural conflict. The therapeutic ethos receives support in present-day liberalism from a widespread skepticism that seems the opposite of older beliefs in universal reason but turns out to lead to the same governing mentality. We can’t know moral or religious truths, we are told, and to know that we can’t know creates the paradoxical imperative to denounce moral imperatives so that we can manage our differences in an “inclusive” and “nonjudgmental” fashion. [emphasis added]

Judge or referee, therapist or manager, the liberal governs from above. This distance—the conviction that liberalism has somehow transcended the nitty-gritty of substantive debate and attained a higher outlook—is what allows the old-fashioned rationalists like Steven Pinker to ally themselves with postmodern skeptics in the liberal establishment. The liberal maintains his distance, exempting himself (or imagining himself exempted) from the agonies of the always morally, metaphysically, and religiously fraught content of important human interactions. It’s this insulating distance, along with a therapeutic understanding of those below them, that encourages unwarranted feelings of superiority. The liberal does not see the conservative as a man or woman with ideas and convictions to be engaged but as a person with prejudices and interests to be diagnosed and treated. ....
The Cosmopolitan Conservative