Intolerant Liberalism and Progressive Intolerance


This summer I had the privilege of co-directing a summer study abroad program with University of Washington honors students. The comparative program (between Seattle and Amsterdam), explored concepts of urban social control. Through field-based research, the students covered themes such as policing, parenting, sex work, drug policies, homelessness, social welfare programs, public space, immigration, gentrification, transportation and gender.

In the course of our few months of study together, a few things revealed themselves.
1) Students born and raised in the Seattle region, to liberal families, tend to exhibit a particularly potent brand of what I’ve come to call ‘intolerant liberalism’. These students claim a very left-liberal politics, and are quite intolerant of anyone who either a) doesn’t agree with your views, or b) questions that which you take to be obvious and true. I will present an anecdote that illustrates this later on.
2) As it was presented to us by native Amsterdammers, it seems that the Dutch polity, and particularly mainstream politicians, lean towards an ideology of ‘progressive intolerance’. That is, shunning cultural or ethnic groups who do not subscribe to the mainstream progressive Dutch platform. Example to be presented below.

Though similar in character, these two tendencies have some important differences. This is where anecdotes will help illustrate my point.

It was the Fourth of July. We celebrated on the rooftop of our student housing. Many of my students had gone to Berlin or Paris for the long weekend. Those of us who stayed organized a small potluck party to celebrate and be as patriotic as we could muster (*this, before the crazy sh*t-storm of geopolitical and racial politics exploded in late July and August). We were grilling sausages and corn, drinking Dutch beer, and lighting sparklers. I had brought a friend to dinner with me. A fellow American, new to Amsterdam as well, who had a path much like mine: raised in a liberal and accepting family, went to a very liberal liberal-arts college, went on to a PhD. However, my PhD work is in the progressive city of Seattle. Theirs was in a Southern city, not known for anything remotely like liberalism.

This friend, a Scientist by trade and hobby, trusts data and facts, and searches for rational explanations as to Why Things Are the Way They Are. They also appreciate pushing people’s buttons, and not accepting a popular (read: progressive) answer just because it is what we are supposed to say in Conversations about Race, Class or Gender. While this trait initially threw me off, I grew to appreciate it, because it made me validate my claims and think about my own epistemological assumptions about race, class, gender, and other axes of inequality.

However, my 19 and 20 year old, Seattle born and raised, proud feminist and sex worker advocate students, were having none of it. In response to my friend’s part-facetious, part-genuine commentary and questions, their faces actually contorted in disgust. That someone might have questions as to why most crimes are committed by black people (which, for important analyses of such debates, in light of #Ferguson and #MichaelBrown, see this piece, this essay, and this Huffington Post piece which is chock full of infographics, especially this one), was in and of itself, an affront to their liberal sensibilities. That not everyone adopted their politically correct and progressive world view of structural racism, patriarchy and heteronormativity was incomprehensible. More than that, it was unacceptable. Where there could have been dialogue, instead I saw disgust.

Luckily for us, my friend and I laughed this encounter off, seeing versions of our younger selves in these students. Luckily, a few of my students, more willing to ‘play’, engaged and offered incredibly articulate, if not a bit exasperated, explanations. We continued to eat and drink and laugh. The night ended well.

Read any lay account of Dutch history, and you will likely hear a similar refrain: the country has been known for its tolerance for centuries, in large part because peoples’ relationship to water forced folks to work together for the greater good, and overlook inter-personal differences. Through the canal system, polders, and agriculture, the Dutch have seemingly been tolerating their neighbors eccentricities and opinions since the 1600s.

This ideology of tolerance, which is deeply sewn into the narrative of Dutch life, informs many of the liberal policies for which the country is known: legalized prostitution, legalized euthanasia, decriminalized drug use, equal rights for LGBT folks, and, in theory, a secular state that is open to religious beliefs.

And yet, when I asked individual Dutch people whether the Dutch were tolerant, many responded that, “tolerant? maybe. but really, it’s just that we’re very pragmatic.” The legalization issue is a practical one: it is cheaper and easier to regulate than to criminalize. Prostitution? People have been selling sex for centuries. We might as well make a profit on it, and regulate it for safety’s sake. Euthanasia? Why not. Who are we to spend extra money keeping someone alive who is terminally ill and has expressed a conscious desire to end their life? Finally, gay marriage? Sure! Why would the state say who can and cannot marry?

Ah, but this issue of gay rights abuts the myth of religious tolerance. In a country that preaches liberalism, that has many of the most progressive policies in the Western world, the largest growing political party (the PVV), leverages gay rights as a weapon against Islamic faith and Muslim immigrants. These politicians argue that Muslims, in their admonition of homosexuality (as if all Muslims share the exact same beliefs!), do not fit the mold of Dutch tolerance.

Thus, we see the Dutch, rather than hold tolerance as a universal value, adopt anti-Islamic rhetoric, couched in language about the ideology of tolerance, in the name of, ironically, being more tolerant towards gays and lesbians.

Both of these tendencies are dangerous, but they operate at different scales. Intolerant liberalism operates at the scale of the individual: creating distance, inviting shame, and eroding trust. The intolerant liberal says, “I am right, and you are wrong, and if you do not believe what I believe, you aren’t worthy.” Is this an action that produces dialogue? Of course not. It is alienating, and were it not for the good humor of my friend and I, could have potentially led to embarrassment, shame, and future silences.

Progressive intolerance occupies the scale of the nation, the state, and the polity. It produces fractures amongst residents, erodes trust in those that are different, and simplifies complex issues into soundbites. It relies on an assumption of a shared history, in which Tolerance is an unfractured, secure whole. And in this simplification, in its becoming common sense, it becomes nearly impossible to name: for every argument against the xenophobic and racist political platform of the PVV, there are endless documents, police reports and media coverage about Muslim hate crimes against gays, the threat of Islam on Dutch culture, and Turkish and Moroccan violence and petty crime. The fear produced from social inequalities, economic insecurity, and shifting geopolitical power  finds scapegoats in these simplified narratives that position the Other as Threat, reifying the tolerant and progressive Dutchman as normative, acceptable and safe. (More here on Orientalism and Islamophobia).

At the risk of over-generalizing, let me be clear that I do not think all Seattle-ites nor all Dutch people fall into these categories. But I see both of these tendencies to be incredibly dangerous, and to stand as obstacles to true liberty or justice. Couched in rhetoric about the “right” way to be, both serve to alienate and distance those who might otherwise share common interests. Regardless of whether we live or have lived in either of these places, we should consider our own tendency to assume a “correct” approach to politics or policies. Does fear inform these beliefs? How might we change a stance, or challenge that of the politicians who represent us, if we lead with empathy and curiosity instead? There is no “right” way to be liberal or progressive, but there are many ways to produce pain and distance in the name of being “right”.

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