Intolerance as Illiberalism
“We live in intolerant times” notes Dr. Kim R. Holmes of The Heritage Foundation from his 2014 article in Public Discourse “Intolerance as Illiberalism.” All across America, this illiberal mindset is spreading, corrupting our culture and our politics. It is evident in the mendacity with which opposing opinions are attacked and in the way that state and federal governments conduct their business.
This mindset turns ideas like tolerance and liberalism on their heads. It weakens the checks and balances that have long protected our rights and freedoms. As a result, illiberalism threatens not only the social peace of our country, but the very future of freedom and democracy in America. We ignore this growing phenomenon at our peril.
It’s all-too-common these days for people to try to immunize from criticism opinions that happen to be dominant in their particular communities. Sometimes this is done by questioning the motives and thus stigmatizing those who dissent from prevailing opinions; or by disrupting their presentations; or by demanding that they be excluded from campus or, if they have already been invited, disinvited.
Sometimes students and faculty members turn their backs on speakers whose opinions they don’t like or simply walk out and refuse to listen to those whose convictions offend their values. Of course, the right to peacefully protest, including on campuses, is sacrosanct. But before exercising that right, each of us should ask: Might it not be better to listen respectfully and try to learn from a speaker with whom I disagree? Might it better serve the cause of truth-seeking to engage the speaker in frank civil discussion?
The Culture of Illiberalism
The roots of modern American illiberalism lie in the trauma experienced by liberals in the 1960s. The rise of the New Left and its sister movement, the Counter-Culture, changed how liberals viewed not only culture but also politics. As described in Rebound: Getting America Back to Great, by Dr. Kim R. Holmes, rebellion for New Left liberals moved beyond mere economic class issues to ones involving gender, sex, and race.
Politics became cultural, and Marxist assumptions about the irreconcilability of class conflict were transferred to the culture wars over gender, race, and sexual identity. Channeling the ideas of philosopher Herbert Marcuse, the New Left dismissed old-fashioned liberalism that preached individualism and moral responsibility as “repressive tolerance.” Liberation focused now on groups, not on individuals, and dissent was seen not as an individual right of conscience, but as a political weapon to overthrow traditional morality.
Since the 1960s, the radical egalitarianism of the New Left has fused with traditional progressive ideas about state and society. Feminism is no longer about giving women equal political and legal rights—it’s about confronting the male power structure and the “rape” culture.
Fighting racism is no longer about ensuring that African-Americans and minorities are treated equally before the law—it’s about eradicating “systemic” racism and promoting affirmative action. Environmentalism is no longer about conserving natural resources—it’s about “saving” the planet from overpopulation and climate change.
With such utopian causes, it seems perfectly acceptable to “break a few eggs” to make a new liberal omelet.
Over the years, the hard edges of the rebellious sixties attenuated. Many liberal Baby Boomers grew older and mellower in their views. Yet many held on to the assumptions of the Counter-Culture, particularly with respect to gender, sex, and race. Today, these people occupy the high ground of American culture, and their values are mainstream.
They are university professors and trustees; intellectuals and writers; Hollywood producers and actors; lawyers litigating politically correct, high-profile cases; newsroom executives and producers; school teachers and administrators; and the pastors, deacons, priests, and bishops of some of America’s mainline churches.