Tolerance Discourse and the Democratic Party

By Matt Sheedy

In her book Regulating Aversion, Wendy Brown argues,

[T]olerance discourse reduces conflict to an inherent friction among identities and makes religious, ethnic, or cultural difference itself an inherent site of conflict, one that calls for and is attenuated by the practice of tolerance. (15)

Among other things, this statement is meant to highlight how contemporary tolerance discourse within the United States, especially the call for tolerance amongst people or groups that are seen to be different, works as a political discourse with significant consequences. More specifically, Brown argues, it tends to depoliticize social conflict by framing it as either a personal ethic for individuals to follow or as a “religious” or “cultural” tendency (e.g., Jews are more tolerant than Muslims).

Watching a clip from the Daily Show with Jon Stewart last week, live from the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, I came across a good example of this type of discourse at work. In a series of ironic interviews with participants at the DNC meant to illustrate tolerance as a basic tenant of the Democratic Party, the inclusion of gays, Latinos, blacks, women, and the poor were all highlighted.  When respondents were asked who should not be tolerated the tone turned decisively hostile, with responses ranging from, “A bunch of gun-tottin’ hillbilly tea-baggers,” “Whack-job Evangelicals,” along with remarks like, “These Christian Evangelicals don’t get it because I don’t think they’ve actually read the Bible,” and “We even invite the redneck freaks in.”

While I do not want to suggest that these sentiments are representative of all Democrats nor imply that all tolerance-talk is the same (i.e., some versions are better than others, more nuanced, etc.), this segment serves as a good illustration of how tolerance as a discourse most often obscures the social production of things like religious, ethnic and sexual identity and thereby naturalizes them as things one must accept for the good of all. My point here is not that these respondents need to learn to become more inclusive, as the clip seems to imply, but rather that such discourses, whether they appear in the political realm or in the academy, tell us very little about complex and historically-situated beings (e.g, as privileged, marginalized, etc.) and instead rely on edifying stories that often reinforce our own prejudices and preferred ways of seeing things, despite professed intentions to the contrary.

* For those living in Canada, the clip can be found here.


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