Some Thoughts on Progressivism, And How Tolerance Can Collapse Into Something Dangerous

What might we argue in favor of calling terrorists names?

Let’s mention just one key goal: the education of the world’s Muslim youth. Instead of hearing moral praise and encouragement for terrorism from jihadists, which then gets mixed in their minds with the nonjudgmental, tactical talk of Western officials and media, they’d have to absorb a steady stream of insults of terrorists’ intelligence, morality, decency, and reasoning. Young Muslims would have to get used to hearing jihadist heroes described as savages, scum, and uncivilized losers, along with the reasons why. It would intellectually force them, far more than they are forced today, to choose between two visions of the world.

We should not minimize the thirst for respect among terrorists and their potential sympathizers. When we treat terrorists only as tactical foes, as though we’re too jaded for moral talk, we raise the self-respect of terrorists and their appeal to young people.

– Carlin Romano, “If We Don’t Call Them Names, the Terrorists Win,” in The Chornicle of Higher Education 7.20.2007

1. Romano is a very sharp critic, and I wish he had taken some time to talk about the academic approach to these concerns. From what I remember a long time ago doing work on Critical Legal Studies, the academic approach seems to be that activism and radicalism should have a home within a pluralist society.

The argument is that progress necessitates diversity and asserts that claims to diverse identities entail rights. That starting point doesn’t seem too bad, to be honest – new things always seem radical, and space needs to be made to accommodate them. But notice where we move quickly: A truly progressive society would be able to tolerate the intolerance of some of the groups given rights, probably by trusting that through eventual enlightenment alone intolerance can go away. “Making people citizens” is by definition fascist rhetoric, if there is any condition on citizenship other than personhood.

The essential point is that a belief in progress, coupled with a belief that humanity can be united because of something fundamental that makes us human, add up to disaster. The idealism becomes “everything we’re doing is wrong if we have any prejudices, myself included” and purposely doesn’t account for some of the most prejudiced people there are.

The deep question is: how did moral reasoning go so far astray so quickly? The starting point wasn’t that stupid, was it?

In truth, the starting point was exceptionally stupid. The assumption underneath the starting point was that the new is always correct, and that the old must give way, since it will have to. Amazing how the “is/ought” conflation that supposedly made other ages less scientific occurs at the very basis of our own thought.

2. It could be asserted that language is inherently biased towards the traditional, since it is so dependent on convention. Only a rigorous look at language shows how any progress is made – language at key points is indeterminate, uncertain. Tradition not being able to account for this indeterminacy means that radicalism – the new – is a key part of our very living that must be embraced. Tolerance is the only value in this schema.

The trouble with this argument is that some traditions are more partial to change than others, and ours is very partial to change. Christianity in this country for the most part celebrates the establishment clause – what it does not celebrate is an overriding hostility to religion manifest in political correctness, the idea that anything “sinful” is helping displace a “patriarchal imperialistic order” as opposed to just being “wrong,” and tax money going to things like abortion and sexual education when one is pleading with one’s own children to be very careful.

The skepticism of the new – its embracing of radicalism – should never be mistaken for tolerance. Real tolerance is knowing where one stands and then working to understand and appreciate the other. But that sometimes means that the most tolerant people have to make very exclusive judgments.

The trouble with tolerance today is that it starts with the idea that no judgments need be made at all, and then attacks the entire set of conventions political and intellectual that we have for even attempting to make a judgment. Hence it becomes supremely intolerant in the name of tolerance, believing that a war must be waged for true tolerance, not seeing tolerance as something that accompanies beliefs rather than being a central belief itself.

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