08 July, 2008

The Tolerance Fallacy

I was talking with a Dutch acquaintance, Sabine, the other night and she summoned to our conversation several of the topics to which I've paid disproportionately much attention in this journal. She is in NYC looking into the BDSM and burlesque subcultures to develop material for a series she hopes to do over the next year on these and related topics for Het Parool, a daily in her native Amsterdam. She also produces for several television news/cultural outlets and will perhaps be returning next spring for a longer stay and some filming. She would like to do a segment on shibari rigging, so I gave her particulars for friends Bob and Chantal at Ropemarks, an Amsterdam-based site of very high quality. I spent a lazy, hot afternoon shortly thereafter perusing some of the Dutch sites and articles she'd rooted out regarding BDSM, seeing how much Dutch I could make out with my German and leaving the rest to Google.

In chatting with Sabine I was once again taken with the extraordinary tolerance of Europeans, and of the Dutch in particular, although much of our conversation went in the direction of assimilation problems among the Muslim population in Holland, the murder of Theo Van Gogh, and how much tolerance counts as enough ("Genoeg is genoeg" to quote Sabine). The very notion of tolerance itself provoked some insightful dialogue, as we determined that it is predicated on objection, and thus implies stratification or a moral hierarchy. Tolerance is very precisely not acceptance (which assumes a equality and perhaps even incorporation), and certainly there is something unacceptable (in the West, at least) about religious vendettas and homicidal rampages, such as the events prompting our consideration of the subject.

Apparently the Dutch (like the rest of the EU) are talking a great deal about the requirement (nearly codified by the scuttled EU Constitution and most recently in the ill-fated Lisbon Treaty) that the European polis practice tolerance while their immigrant populations suffer no obligation to accept the communities and structures that welcome them. It is an interesting historical moment for the founding members of the EU, especially the political classes, who are suddenly beset by their own double standards, and it is a difficult time for the left (my tribe), having discovered their presumed standard bearers to be more than a little interested in conserving the segregated status quo.

Happy-faced shibboleths, much less legislation about tolerance never settled any issue (e.g., kink, homosexuality, religion, race, etc.) that high minds (e.g., governments, political organs, social movements, etc.) would have them do in a high-minded way. Tolerance is a very dangerous thing to teach, for embedded in its curriculum is the concentration of a moral objection to the tolerated, one that in the granting of the tolerance serves merely to dignify antipathy and open the divide that much wider. As a pervert I can much more readily abide open enmity than sniffing tolerance, meaning: accept me or don't, but be clear. As Europe is learning, tolerance only exacerbates existing frictions.

Living as I do in the priciest third-world country on the planet (Brooklyn) I have a somewhat refracted view of cultures mingling, and tolerance here is in short supply. What happens in Flatbush does not stay in Flatbush, it moves out onto the land and is finally and fully assimilated (flattened) into the level playing field that is still (at least in some measure more than most of the rest of the world) America. Remember when no one in Dubuque had yet heard of hip-hop? Disco? Bay Ridge? And that's just cultcha (such as it is). New Yorkers are anything but tolerant; we're impatient, dismissive, entitled and self-important, but no more so than we think you are.

This city is an arcade of freaks (of which your correspondent is happily one), oddities, revolutionaries, capital concentration and preposterous creative energy because New York does not condescend to tolerate, it does not care about your identity or the terms under which you insist upon your segregation. Quite predictably it gets attacked a lot by moralists; some with bibles, others with laws, still others with the occasional spectacular slaughter. As this lively pool of seething intolerance continues to accept and incorporate humankind's best creative energy alongside the worst body blows the high-minded can heave at it, all without skipping a beat, the high-minded will uselessly persist in legislating and imposing its agenda for my behavior. I personally don't have a lot of tolerance for that.

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