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The tolerance of intolerance, its evolution

La tolerancia de la intolerancia, su evolución

  • Published at: 28/08/2020. Visto 1174 veces.
  • Abstract (spanish):

    El último tiempo ha estado marcado por el cuestionamiento a la salud de la política nacional y mundial, se han escrito artículos y libros que tratan sobre el peligro de líderes populistas y el fin de la democracia. Lo que destaca de la vida en comunidad es un trato social donde prima la intolerancia. Por más que creamos que este es un fenómeno del siglo XXI, es un sentimiento que ha ido germinando desde tiempos pretéritos.

  • Keywords (spanish): cultura, cancelación, hiperdemocracia, posmoralidad, Sociedad.
  • Abstract:

    In recent times, the status of both national and world politics has frequently been questioned. Many books and articles have been written about the dangers of populist leaders and the end of democracy. What distinguishes community life today is social treatment, were intolerance has become paramount. Although we might think this is an occurrence of the 21st century, it is a sentiment that has been festering for a long time.

If by democracy we understand it as a political system that represents the people, covers a diversity of opinions, holds a great dose of liberalism and adherence for the rule of law, then that democratic ideal is quite different from what we are experiencing in today´s world. There are various signs that show a deterioration in social life, such as the cancel culture” -sometimes referred as “callout culture”- which represents such a high level of intolerance, that lead a group of more than a hundred intellectuals of different trends to publish an open statement in which they plead for the respect of freedom of expression and thinking. But, how has society reached a point of tolerating the intolerance?

This cultural change has been gradual and corresponds to a phenomenon which has its origins in the 18th century and over the years has globalized. What might seem to us as a present-day phenomenon were a person in its community life, “does not want to give reasons or care to be right, but simply seems determine to impose their opinions”, corresponds to what the Spanish writer Jose Ortega y Gasset in the 1930´s mentioned a new type of person that had emerged in Europe.

The first part of this article expands on the meaning of the “cancel culture” to describe our society´s state and continues with a brief historiographic compilation that shows the evolution of western civilization. The books used as reference for this work presents deeper reflections, and therefore their readings are highly recommended.

Cancel Culture

The concept of “cancel culture” is defined by as: - 

Cancel culture refers to the popular practice of withdrawing (canceling) support for public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. Cancel culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming.

Reality is far more brutal than this definition. When a victim is detected on the internet or social media, this type of culture causes rage within the web-surfers. They can shun their Instagram profile, censure their Twitter accounts, send death threats in Facebook, post their private information, -address, phone numbers, workplace- or simply affront them, even reaching physical aggression. What may seem like isolated cases of limited repercussions, they contain ramifications that can shake the intellectual, cultural, academic, and scientific spectrum.

In July 7th 2020, Harper´s Magazine published a letter cosigned by 150 world figures of cultural and political thinking, amongst them Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, JK Rowling and Francis Fukuyama, were they express their concern for the “intolerance towards opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, attitudes that tend to weaken the norms for open debate and tolerance for differences in favor of ideological compliance, being most frequent the calls in social media to impose swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity”. 

The danger of this ideological culture is the establishment of a single-minded narrative, imposed by a minority and amplified in social media, who acts as judges, sentencing them beforehand, without the victim´s benefit of the doubt and due process. This way reality is “created” and what’s even worse, truths are fabricated without a single sustenance.

The Chilean economist Axel Kaiser points out that the origin of this crisis, “is found in the growth of a dogmatic thinking, which has built a hegemony in humanities”. It is key to understand the background in this dogmatism, because it appears when an assumption is invalidated by reality, but nonetheless its error is unacknowledged, on the contrary, they introduce suitable variations to maintain that belief. Dogmatism tries to protect a belief from any criticism or evidence against.

As history has shown, this is nothing new. Many situations we thought were exclusive of our era, now we´ve come to realize they are a repetition of pass occurrences. It´s an auto-plagiarism that we humans make as a product of our slow evolution in comparison to science or technology, which only an exceptional minority develops. Marc Ferro tells us that the superposition of ideological politics with the rule of law has occurred since the French Revolution. In the prosecution of King Louis XVI, when his defense had expiated the charges against him, the young prosecutor Saint-Just dismissed any chance of due process by stating “Of course, the King can be judge according to the law, but this is not a trial, it´s a political act. The King is not a defendant, he is an enemy. For the mere fact of having reigned, he is guilty”. What is unusual in this statement is the liberty granted to those who must apply justice to transit between the rule of law and politics, depending on the part that will grant them victory, eliminating the obstacles in its path.

Cancel culture is navigating through an expeditious track. There is almost no defense against activists who consider themselves as ideological guardians on concepts such as justice, gender, climate, economy, or any other matters that comes to their minds. The writer Ivan Buruma points out that: “The implementation of ideological purity can turn itself intolerable. It is not a matter of disagreeing with certain opinions, but that the persons suspicious of being skeptical or disagreeing ideologically, must be wiped out from public opinion”.

Falling into a fanatism that elevates the truth of a few to a superior status, that shields them of any evidence that contradicts them, is leading to accept an imposed narrative and whoever disagree with it, does not deserve to be heard, and must be eradicated.

A brief historiographic analysis

Supposedly, today´s social coexistence is a matter of great concern to many readers of this article. However, it is worth citing the saying “for the new, the classics”. Consequently, for the analysis of the evolution of society, I will refer to the book “The Revolt of the Masses” written by José Ortega y Gasset in the 1930´s. Further on, I will use the works of Gilles Lipovetsky, Mario Vargas Llosa and José Antonio Marina.

  • The Mass Man 

In his book, Ortega y Gasset explains that the words revolt, masses, and others, do not have a political meaning, since public life is not only political, but is also intellectual, moral, economic, religious, etc. He clarifies that society is composed of minorities and masses, describing minorities as individuals or groups of persons specially qualified, that compete from the rest to be the best, -there is no socioeconomical distinction-. The mass is the average person, who has diluted itself in society, not differentiating from the rest. They repeat in a generic type as they coincide in desires, ideas, and way of being. They don´t excel themselves and live as they are, without any effort of self-perfection. For this reason, the division between excellence minorities and masses is not social, but of types of persons.

Further on, Ortega y Gasset considers dangerous that the mass, -without having the competencies- is supplanting the qualified minorities in activities that they cannot properly execute without special skills. He even warns about the “increasing achievement of the nonqualified pseudointellectuals, despicable and disqualified”.

Another similarity in the description of his era in comparison with our 21st century is described in his work;

“Democracy and rule of law, legal coexistence, use to be synonymous. Today we are living the victory of a hyper-democracy, in which the mass acts directly outside the law, by means of pressure, imposing their aspirations and tastes…I doubt there has been other times in history in which the crowds were able to govern so directly as in our present time. That is why I refer to it as hyper-democracy”.

In this way, European values of plurality, diversity, and liberalism were severed, since the course of society was assumed by persons who intervened in public life through direct actions -proclaiming and justifying violence as a first option- which engendered “the right to not be right, the reason of nonreason”.

A short parenthesis to reflect on the excellence minorities and hyper-democracy, under the present belief that we all, or almost all, have the competencies to be good -in a broad sense- with our actions and opinions. In Platoon’s classic “The Apology of Socrates”, he describes Socrates´ trial, were he is accused of perverting the youth. In a certain part of the judiciary process, it is pointed out that all citizens of Athens portrayed young people as good and only Socrates corrupted them. Under this accusation, the philosopher questions the prosecutor if he believes that all men can be good livery hands and make them better, or if only a few can do that job. Socrates ends his statement by saying that the Athenian young people would be lucky if only one person corrupts them, and all the rest help them be good persons. 

The genesis of the social change described by Ortega y Gasset is associated to the “satisfied young master”, referring to the behavior of those who inherit all the wealth generated by their hardworking forefathers -States as organizations and benefactors, science, medicine, education, justice, security- all heirs that, without having worked to earn it, take that wealth for granted, without appreciating the hard work that their ancestors toiled to build it. They have no shame in spending it because they are confident that it will last forever. This easy and limitless lifestyle gives them a feeling of success that motivates to accept themselves as they are. They take their moral and intellect as good, and as a consequence, shut themselves to any external instance, deaf to hear other opinions, nor question their own or the needs of others. Consequently, they act as if they are the only ones existing on this planet and accept only their peers -whomever thinks and acts as themselves-.

  • Post-morality 

For many centuries, western civilization upheld morality with a religious root, originated from God, whose basis was the ten Commandments. Later, between the 18th and 19th century this moral-religious relation breaks up and the human being becomes the center of the universe, trust is placed in human capacity and science replaces religious, mystical, and spiritual beliefs. Philosophers of the Illustrious begin an onslaught to spread peoples´ rights in society, successfully putting them above any responsibilities and consequently, subjective rights such as happiness are installed. “Nobody joins to be unhappy” and the revolutionaries of 1789 cement this concept in their constitution: “The goal in society is common happiness”.

In his book “The Twilight of Duty” (1994), Gilles Lipovetsky positions society in an era that he terms post-morality, since it detaches from the traditional values, transforming into a society that “repudiates the rhetoric of austere, integral, manichaean human being, and in parallel, grants the individual rights to autonomy, desire, and happiness”.

For years politicians, intellectuals or pseudointellectuals, leaders of opinion -real or fictitious- with their followers, and mainly with the media, have dedicated themselves -quoting Ortega y Gasset- to undermine the foundations of traditional morals that exalts self-sacrifice and the satisfaction of a job well done, without retribution. This moral downfall resulted in the creation of a new society that doesn´t intend to control their desires but exacerbates and justifies them. “The culture of a “light” happiness induces chronic mass anxiety, but dissolves moral guiltiness….the sense of lack of morale doesn’t tend to intensify; what dominates our times is not the need of punishment but the minimization of guilt which powers the ephemeral universe of objects”. A moral frivolity seeking that each one can reach its own happiness, along with a moral narrative which in the facts has driven us to higher levels of crime, corruption, and rights for the perpetrators. 

Lipovetsky blames the media for acting as platforms for the expansion of post-moralism. Firstly, he points towards publicity “in which the moral lessons are encased by spots of well-living, like sunbathing on holidays, or mediatic leisure”. Then he points to the hegemony achieved by a part of journalism, “in many countries, for a long time the opinion-press has dominated the information-press. Without a doubt, the interpretation and defense of ideas has often been above-and-beyond the exhibits of facts. Even today, some commentaries express value judgment”. Lipovetsky also unveils the press´ sensationalism when delivering information, via the usage of dramatic images, short phrases, angry debates, dramatization of facts and emotional overdoses, all this to captivate the public.

  • Entertainment Intellectuality 

The media has turned into an entertainment industry, that fast-forwarded the different stages towards happiness, putting it in the frontline of the scale of values, leveraging its permanence in that rank. The same can be said of consumerism, which has infringed the material limits. It´s not enough to have and showoff physical objects. Today it is necessary to “consume” television culture which has no importance if it differs from our own culture or idiosyncrasy. Who cares? We live in a globalized world and must be part of it, we strive to be the same as the rest; we cannot be outcasts of todays´ fashion, trends, ideas, or narratives. Even more, we have become addicted to a voluble culture because we have learned to pay more attention to the opinion of musicians, actors, athletes, and entertainers, than to the intellectuals, scholars, or scientists.

For some, equality can be plausible so everyone can give their opinion, but this must not be confused with qualifying every opinion in equal terms. A misunderstood egalitarianism, where supposedly, “nobody is more than nobody” prevents us to appreciate the real capacities of others. It is not the same to compare a person that help others, to a person that takes advantage of them.

In his book “Civilization of the Spectacle” (2012), Mario Vargas Llosa summarizes the characteristics of society as; “a world in which the top spot is entertainment and frivolity proliferates, making havoc on people´s minds. Its harmful effects are that people do not use their resources -time, money, capacities- to improve themselves and therefore, evolve in shutting-off what’s remanent of intelligence in this society”.

The media, without regret, has the mass man trapped in this matrix, living the reality of entertainment and spectacle, generating each day more addictive products that leave the mass man without time or desire to think or reflect. Escaping from this world in “Alcatraz mode” is unthinkable for two powerful reasons; Beliefs are imposed by repetition –the number of times and diverse types of means that corroborates them- and the language which is a substitute of reality, can be used to lie. Therefore, the media, by counting on both tools, “our beliefs-creation machinery is easily fooled. Media favors this deceit because they can create a reality drill” (17). Likewise, the connection we have with the world we live in or decided to live in, is through the media and social networks.


There is no more crucial task than reverting the “cancel culture”, since their most harmful effects, like the monopoly of “single-minded narrative”, the aggressiveness towards those who disagree of their so-called “truth”, their shunning and intolerance for having a different opinion, are not compatible with a free, democratic and intelligent society. Let us hope that the exceptional minority can wake up the mass man to reinstate the strayed moral values to a society trapped in a reality of entertainment and individualism.

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