Tolerance or Universality

In August 2010, The Guardian ran a graphic segment on female genital mutilation, which represented extremely violent imagery of victimized women and girls. The piece produced, however, a mix of fascination and guilt. The forewarning of “distressing and disturbing images” precedes a horror that only serves to titillate. The guilt emerges precisely because one wants to consume.[1] Why does such an emotional response occur? Or, more importantly, why do news segments on female genital mutilation always include filming strategies reminiscent more of Cannibal Holocaust than empathic reportage (given that there can be no neutrality)? The question, ostensibly a petty provocation, opens onto a more fundamental problem in contemporary politics. There is a shocking homology between the artillery of images, sound clips, and cultural strategies used in speaking of the various crimes in the global South and much simpler racist imagery. Since the former is, however, mobilized in the name of otherwise unassailable causes, mainstream liberals accept them without a thought while crusading against the world’s ills. It is held to be self-evident that education will save Afghanistan, microcredit loans will solve poverty and gender inequality, and the Democratic Party would be the bastion of the progressive forces if it weren’t for those meddling Republicans. The twin pillars upon which modern liberalism rests are “tolerance” toward “difference” and the “defense of victims”. A closer look at each shows them to support, at worst, the ideology of predatory capitalism and, at best, a strategic dead-end for left political action. An alternative conception of politics must be predicated around a notion of universality which unabashedly speaks of a new world. Such a politics would be predicated upon the oppressed asserting historical agency and not, as contemporary politics frames them, as degraded objects of Western pity.

The mirage of saccharine-sweet humanitarianism obfuscates the degree to which tolerance paradoxically resurrects old stereotypes within superficially unassailable causes. The common sense position has become so uncritically absorbed that even a Likudnik I met in Tel Aviv unwaveringly assured me he was “for tolerance” of the Palestinians, but Israel must continue occupation because it was the they who were intolerant. Indeed, Israel is a Weberian ideal in embodying the contradictions of tolerance. It incessantly speaks of its credentials as a liberal tolerant state but does so explicitly as a way to justify continued violence. That such an example is merely an extreme case does not change the fact that such politically sterile declarations of equality are continually accompanied by naked aggression.

Ironically, tolerance emerged in political thought as a progressive notion to end the religious bloodbaths of the 100 Years War.[2] Kant used a notion of the respect of difference to criticize European imperialism in favor of “hospitality.”[3] Descartes in his Discourse on the Method argued the prerequisite to rational thought was tolerance since one had to thoroughly disabuse one’s self of preconceptions before undertaking any meditation.[4]

Modern tolerance’s incoherence betrays itself once it moves from social contract to ideology. As an ideology, its logic is inherently relativistic. A truly democratic space would be one in which cultural particularities express themselves. Whereas previous centuries were marked by Eurocentrism or Christianity, liberal democracy will putatively accept all difference into the melting pot. Such an ideology is absolutely essential since liberalism merely provides the meta-framework by which actors relate—rule of law, private property, liberty, and (but not always) elections—but it does not provide a substantial social tie to ground the body politic. An ideology which allows each different constituent identity to express itself while not simultaneously destabilizing society in general is critical.

However, relativism reaches its impasse in the face of horrific crimes. It would be monstrous to claim that female genital mutilation, sati, or homophobia expresses modalities of cultural difference. The problem is, however, that there is no principled reason to reject those practices. If one accepts tolerance of the Other non-hypocritically, then one has to accept those practices. Indeed, the common defense of those practices exploits liberal rhetoric of choice, difference, and cultural colonization to defend abhorrent practices. The Assad regime dismissing Syrian protestors as American and Israeli dupes is merely the latest iteration of a long history in which postcolonial reaction co-opts the language of emancipation. As such, crimes can only enter the liberal consciousness as an Absolute Evil excluded from any and all rational explanation. The only way to negotiate the contradiction is, then, an arbitrary decision which is, of course, not arbitrary. It is informed by power politics parading as critical thought. The decision is one of sheer calculation between “good” culture and “bad culture” which determines value from without. Child soldiers emerge not only from poverty but the ersatz empowerment of the poor. That is, those who are brutalized take out their false empowerment in the most terrible ways. Instead of realizing the political constellation, this “humanitarian” discourse creates modern missionaries authorizing new forms of Western intervention. It is civilized to wait until 18 to go to war; the savage cannot wait that long. A framework which mediates problems politically—a universality in which politics retains its primacy over culture—is replaced by apolitical criminalization. In short, all that is left is the Darkness.

The inherent ethnocentrism of liberal tolerance becomes clear. It is not, as liberals like to accuse the anti-imperialist Left, that “we” think others are incapable of freedom, democracy, and human rights. Rather, it is only cosmopolitan liberals who have the privilege of moving rhizomatically through space—ironically playing with every culture. The numerous fictions projected are confused with political engagement. The prerequisite to being a liberal cosmopolitan is a bank account with enough assets to be able to access and purchase different cultures. The much lauded transnational connections fostered by European integrations have been, for example, limited to the middle and upper classes of the European populaces.[5] Cultural diffusion has an inherently class character. If one is poor, one is shackled into spatial prisons. Capital exerts constraints upon the agency of the poor in all aspects of life with culture no less affected.

In a strict repetition of the worst of 17th-19th century colonial epistemology, there is the Self who can move freely and the Other who is fixed into place. A strong example in recent art is the works of Nikki Lee. She, not incidentally a Korean-American, takes photographs of herself within different aspects of Americana. She takes on (ironically, of course) blackface, brownface (posing as a Latina), and even goes into whiteface as the wife of poor white working class “trash”. She goes everywhere. They go nowhere. It is not only at multicultural festivals that liberal tourism takes place. Modern imperialism distastes territorial aggrandizement but operates by locking up “ungoverned spaces” (see: the poor).[6]

And yet, it is not just a process of bordering. Indeed, liberal tolerance loves to experience other cultures and fetishizes “cultural diffusion” to its most inane heights. Hence, even as borders are respected as the unknowable “abyss of the Other,” the undeniable desire to perforate them exists. We must know what is behind the veil, we must understand the secrets of the Tao. Modern liberals are smarter than Adela Quested, they know they can never truly connect. However, the subsequent interactions are often more superficial than the earlier, more naïve encounters. The dialectic between territorialization and deterritorialization which has marked the history of capitalism reproduces itself on the cultural plane.

Slavoj Zizek explains liberal racism as a result of envy. Racism is the clash of fantasies that are defenses against the desire of the Other. One believes others have found the “secret”—the ability to experience joy beyond the impasses of lack and repression (jouissance). On the other hand, one is also afraid that the Other wants to steal our jouissance and rob one’s self of one’s own fantasy. Liberal racism or, what he calls “postmodern racism,” never says others are inferior, merely different.[7]

Zizek’s interpretation provides much of the psychological framework to understand liberal racism. In this respect, his work is critical to understanding the inconsistencies within fantasies that lead to liberalism’s impasses. However, his psychoanalytic arguments should be grounded in political economy. The perverse desire to constantly know and experience others’ desire while trying to hoard and protect one’s own desire is nothing other than the capitalist logic of accumulation for accumulation’s sake- the ceaseless desire to extract more and more surplus-value from everywhere and anywhere. The above-mentioned superficiality in contact is no mistake since commodity-exchange must be superficial in order to be perpetuated. Culture in the era of spectacle is immensely profitable since it has instant turnover time for capital. The rise of “cultural sensitivity” became hegemonic at the exact same time that lifestyle became an organizing principle of marketing. At the end of the road, liberals have condemned their objects of pity either into perpetual victimhood sans agency or the purgatory of market relations where, unlike being hacked to death, one’s victimization is one’s own fault.

The current use of tolerance as ideology emerges out of the defeat of the global social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Those movements brought issues of culture and its expression to the forefront over class inequity, the unequal distribution of both resources and right under the law. Different identities protested against the stultifying bureaucracy of state-centric capitalism. However, the militants’ excessive focus on spontaneity and liberated desires meant no organizational structure could be built.[8] As a result, they were primed to have the proverbial rug pulled out from under them. French Maoists became NATO’s cheerleaders, guerilla warfare became guerilla marketing, and women’s and queer rights became imperialist apologia.[9]

Liberal tolerance critically bears a class dimension. Whereas it originated as a means to speak of oppression as such, its modern usage is one of the key ways in which modern liberals get to mock the working class, immigrants, and racial minorities for their racism/homophobia/sexism/lack of ecological conscience—only pausing to celebrate the hollowed-out and fetishized corpses of Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez. Instead of looking to economic and social structures which generate inequalities, liberal cosmopolitans congratulate themselves on their openness to everyone as they pass the fly-over states from Los Angeles to New York to attend art exhibitions or to make business deals. We voted No on Prop 8, Yes on Barack Obama, and Yes on Planned Parenthood. So leave us alone and stop talking about capitalism.

Much of the rhetoric surrounding the latest round of imperial violence and capitalist accumulation has come through the exploitation of the rights rhetoric of a co-opted Left. Israel claims to be a scion of LGBT rights with Birthright even providing “queer-friendly” tours of Israel. The Republican Party which fiercely opposes women’s rights within the US champions it abroad. The US defends Iranian Baha’I, but tolerates SB1070 in its own borders. Mainstream progressivism is utterly complicit in the further marginalization of communities they claim to support. The large percentage of the black vote against gay marriage has not been used as a moment to reflect upon intercommunity tensions. Instead of looking at the tensions between two communities, it is an excuse to mock with smug tolerance those who themselves fail to be tolerant—a key act of displacement to exonerate society from its own guilty conscience. In each case, the defense of victims is war against the oppressed by other means. It is not direct repression, but splitting oppressed groups who share similar abjection within society. Conspicuously absent is any notion that the oppressed might have political agency.

The Left has its own mirror-image of liberal tolerance when it speaks of culture and the crimes of the Other. It excessively uses the term “solidarity” but uses it as a moral, not political category. In a Rousseauian manner, solidarity emerges from the shared experience of suffering and not, as the old worker’s movement and Marxism stated, from shared historical agency. Its most distilled expression comes in the various “narratives of the oppressed” which are taken as political categories in-themselves. Such narratives are important insofar as concepts and action can only be determined from concrete conditions and experiences, but they cannot be the central object of political struggle. Otherwise, one gets liberal sensitivity with its “anti-imperial twist”- Wow, you’re so oppressed! Those multinational bastards! My God, I feel so terrible about my identity as a Westerner, I’ll try the best I can to not act like one.

It places the Left into a defensive position in which one goes from problem to problem without a central organizing tendency. Instead of a positive program for a just world, one which proposes a new world or Idea against the dominant state of things, it meekly seeks to protect victims. The hijab debate provides the best contemporary example of the Left’s problem. One should oppose every attempt at criminalization as French racism in the name of crude feminism. A group of powerful white men and women lecturing a vulnerable persecuted minority on how they should act does not constitute an act of liberation. The critique of religion was and should always be tied to the critique of oppression and not to the majority’s desire to persecute the minority. However, one should not take defense against Islamophobia as an excuse to inure Islam from criticism carte-blanche. Foucault’s notion that the experience of sexuality was a free choice applies both to the decision to wear the hijab as well as to the forced imposition of “sexual liberation.” The recognition of the contradiction is the only way to non-hypocritically reject both Sarkozy and Khameini as two faces of political reaction.

The tentative standpoint in which to reject the false antagonisms presented to us would ground the Left in a notion of universality. There has been much theorizing surrounding the concept in recent thought trying to use it as part of resurrecting the idea of revolution against the postmodern distrust of all grand projects of emancipation. I will, however, restrict myself to analyzing universality as a spatial concept. In terms of cultural plurality, universality would politicize all relations of culture even among the oppressed. All Palestinians suffer from occupation, and a united front should be maintained against the IDF, but this should not make us forget that there is a secular Left and a religious Right and the secular Left is better than the religious Right. A true resurrection of universality would respect singularities, but remain indifferent toward them in relation to politics. One should not defend the right to narrate, but the right to politics- the right to be a “privileged actor captured in a virtually grandiose fashion by the spotlight of History.”[10]

There are two spatial components- an orientation and a strategy. In the first case, the spatial orientation would be that of a diagonal. Universality is the diagonal which cuts across all particular struggles excavating what is the Same across infinite multiplicities.[11] The contrast would be with Hardt and Negri who propose an additive form of universality. In Commonwealth, they propose “revolutionary parallelism” in which every struggle exists in-itself, connected by shared feelings and shared enemies, but which cannot be abstracted out of them.[12] It leaves us schizophrenically putting out fires without the moment in which the Multitude becomes Prince. In this regard, the Soviet Union of the 1920s, teaches a lesson. It was not “class reductionist” as many have inaccurately charged. It was the first “Affirmative Action Empire” that respected the self-determination of its constituent nationalities even to the point of respecting the right to secede.[13] It legalized homosexuality, abortion, eased divorce laws, and instituted a Department for Women’s Affairs to overcome patriarchal relations. It was, however, recognized that all such struggles would inevitably reach impasses without the element which overdetermines other particularities which is the element of class struggle. It is not that every struggle is, in the end, a class struggle, but every struggle must at some point become a class struggle in order to be won decisively.

Outside Europe, the best and the worst of decolonization recognized this form of universality. It was the communist partisans in Malaysia and Vietnam or militants such as Guevara which spoke of anti-imperialism not in terms of liberating an identity but the positive creation of a new world. It was the reactionary decolonizations found in the Middle East, in key segments of Quit India, or even the Zionist movement against European anti-Semitism which spoke endlessly of national pride, victimization, and which replicated imperial practices writ large.

The other aspect of universality’s spatial quality would also help to overcome one of the biggest problems facing the Left in the era of neoliberalism. The Left is well-situated to struggle in a specific place, but weak at articulating a multi-scalar politics which integrates place to the urban, to the regional, to the state, and to the global in a coherent approach.[14] Global capitalism, especially given the velocity of financial markets and the rapid ability to move factors of production, can devastate any victories the Left might win in a given area. Only a politics which can articulate itself on multiple levels can ever hope to hold out. The bugaboo of the contemporary anti-globalization movement is precisely in its understanding of contemporary capitalism as a deterritorialized space. The notion of Empire as a center-less network which has annihilated space is naïve to the very real borders existent. As such, fine-grained analysis of different scales is reduced to a Deleuzian sublime. The anti-globalization multitude is indeed a “swarm” running from protest to protest afraid that any attempt to move beyond the immediacy of a given group’s struggles constitutes “nondemocratic practice” or “a repetition of the old Jacobin-Leninist paradigm.”

One of the lessons to be learned from Leninism was that it provided, at the turn of the century, a solution to the problem of scale. There was the place (the soviet), the urban (the industrial cities of the North), the regional (the proletarian North and the soldiers in the South), the state, and the global. Lenin’s criticism of spontaneity can be read, in this sense, as a critique of non-scalar politics. If all there was were the spontaneity of strikes, then the result could only be equilibrium between class forces. If demands were made upon the State without active power within it, one could only hope for a bourgeois-democratic revolution. Finally, unless the revolution saw itself globally, it would never survive. The relative irrelevance of the Chiapas beyond its symbolic value testifies to the inability of seizing one space to produce and overarching progressive outcome.

The Second Arab Revolt is the contemporary example of a movement which is and was able to reach out across spatial limitations in a manner which did not just reduce the entire area into an inchoate space. There had been, for years, struggles within the constituent countries of the Middle East. They were, however, localized resistances which could not produce a sustainable progressive vision across borders. There was nothing that instilled, in Kant’s phrase, popular enthusiasm. One key aspect of the successes of the revolutions is precisely that it could look outside its borders for support. The progression over the past few months has been, in part, a spatial progression. There is the most particular space- the Tunisian street shop which was closed. Then, there was the country, Tunisia, embroiled in turmoil for weeks before the media reported it. Then, there was Egypt in which the entire country and region became concentrated at a singular point- Tahrir Square.

One should not be afraid to say there is a universal humanity. Signs in Arabic which laud the Egyptian uprising in Madison, Wisconsin and, in turn, Egyptian trade unions’ solidarity with Wisconsin workers are not the interactions between two lifeworlds. It is the recognition that, beyond all surface appearance, there is shared struggle against the universality known as capitalism. Universal humanity is nothing other than the collective struggle against the universal barbarism of the present.


[1] “Female Genital Mutilation- UK.” The Guardian. 1 8 2010. <>

[2] John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689 <>

[3] Kant makes his case against imperialism here: “But to this perfection compare the inhospitable actions of the civilized and especially of the commercial states of our part of the world. The injustice which they show to lands and peoples they visit (which is equivalent to conquering them) is carried by them to terrifying lengths. America, the lands inhabited by the Negro, the Spice Islands, the Cape, etc., were at the time of their discovery considered by these civilized intruders as lands without owners, for they counted the inhabitants as nothing. In East India (Hindustan), under the pretense of establishing economic undertakings, they brought in foreign soldiers and used them to oppress the natives, excited widespread wars among the various states, spread famine, rebellion, perfidy, and the whole litany of evils which afflict mankind. China and Japan (Nippon), who have had experience with such guests, have wisely refused them entry, the former permitting their approach to their shores but not their entry, while the latter permit this approach to only one European people, the Dutch, but treat them like prisoners, not allowing them any communication with the inhabitants.” Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace, 1795 <>

[4] Rene Descartes, Discourse on The Method, 1637

[5] Perry Anderson, New Old World, London: Verso 2009.1

[6] The National Security Strategy for Counter-Terrorism, June 2011,


[7] Slavoj Zizek, “Multiculturalism or the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism”, New Left Review 225,

Sept-Oct 1997

[8] Michael Scott Cristofferson, French Intellectuals Against the Left: The Anti-Totalitarian Moment of the 1970,

London: Berghan Books, 2004

[9] Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, London: Verso, 2002.

[10] Franz Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, New York: Grove Press, 2004 (1963), p. 2

[11] Alain Badiou, Ethics, London: Verso, 2002, p. 27

[12] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009

[13] Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939,

Ithica: Cornell University Press, 2001

Moshe Lewin, The Soviet Century, London: Verso, 2005

[14] Neil Brenner, The limits to scale? Methodological reflections on scalar structuration.”, Progress in Human Geography, 15, 4 (2001): 525-548, available on faculty website at <>

2 Responses to

  1. Matt

    I didn’t read the whole article. I stopped at here —
    “The problem is, however, that there is no principled reason to reject those practices. If one accepts tolerance of the Other non-hypocritically, then one has to accept those practices.”

    The quote is regarding female genital mutilation. Are you even serious?
    If someone attacks me, should I just be “tolerant” of them? Hell no I will defend myself.

    TOLERANCE DOES NOT APPLY TO VIOLENT PRACTICES. Unless a person seriously has a psychological condition where they are *compelled* to harm themselves in some manner. If they feel compelled to harm others, they need to be kept away from others for their own good. Not killing them is being tolerant. Allowing them to live, yet apart from others.

    The intolerant are not deserving of tolerance. If these people can not stop themselves from mutilating women, they need to be kept away from women. My heart tells me to sterilize them all, but I’m OK with just keeping them apart from women. THAT is my tolerance.

    “Tolerance” ?!!!! ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?? When did this so called “tolerance” replace the GOLDEN RULE ——


    Treat others how you want to be treated. This is how to live. Anything else is completely barbaric.

  2. Maize

    @matt — You shouldn’t have stopped reading. As I understand the argument, the author is saying that because the old “tolerance” morality led to unacceptable conclusions (such as the one you’re saying is unacceptable, i.e., that there’s nothing wrong with female genital mutilation) then the old morality must be wrong — NOT that the unacceptable conclusion must be wrong.

    I did read the whole article, and I agree with the Srinivasan’s main point that “tolerance”-based liberalism has a major flaw in that it is unable to address things which clearly should not be tolerated. However, as the article mentions, the idea of liberal tolerance emerged as a way to end religious warfare (re: 100 Years War). If we abandon liberal tolerance and attempt to create a new “universalist” ideology, how do we most productively address the potential religious/cultural warfare, and how do we avoid simply assuming that the morals/ideology of the most powerful are by definition “universal”?

    I suppose I agree with the diagnosis, but am unclear on the prescription. I suspect I’m missing something, but I wouldn’t mind a return at the end to the issue of genital mutilation or homophobia or these other moral issues, which so often appear among oppressed classes (so that the attempt to find a solution can appear to be a form of cultural colonization)….