When intolerance trumps reason

One of the funniest – yet unintentional – ironies I’ve heard of in recent years was the time a local ‘peace action group’ were charged with possession of unlicensed firearms. That’s right. Apparently, in order to stop human violence it was necessary to fight and kill.

It always intrigues me how easily a cause or ideology leads certain types of people away from reason and tolerance and down alleys where their own intolerance and hypocrisy is invisible to them. I saw other examples during my student days, when I generally agreed with the view-set proposed by campus leaders. What I didn’t agree with was they way they were pushing it via judgemental, humourless, thin-skinned intolerance in which any who did not openly show unquestioned adherence to the ‘party line’ in every detail, including its words, was demonised as being an advocate of what the student leaders objected to in wider society.

Policing even got down to monitoring how words were spoken: I recall one student flat I used to visit where one of the flatmates would repeatedly interrupt others’ conversations, opening with a loud ‘hem hem’, and ‘correct’ their pronounciation, usually via some wildly over-pronounced mangling of the word in question. Anybody who reasonably objected to such displays of authoritarian intolerance risked being told they were (wait for it)… a Nazi.

The hypocrisy was, of course, lost on those doing it; and in many ways it was simply an expression of half-educated, angry youth raging at their own powerlessness. The particular cause they had chosen for the purpose was less the issue. More crucial was the abusive intolerance with which their emotional need was pursued.

I don’t buy the notion that such conduct can be defined as typical of one side or the other of the western political spectrum. And there is reason for this. An authoritarian follower response – which is what I am talking about here – reflects a much more fundamental aspect of human nature than the artifice of a particular political compass that emerged from the eighteenth century age of reason and the industrial revolution.

It seems to me that behaviours such as ‘authoritarianism’, particularly the zealous anger typical of authoritarian followership (which is what the students I knew were doing) reveal a different aspect of human nature, one independent of time, culture or politics, and which has potential to be held by anybody. What drives it, I suspect, has less to do with political orientation than with a fundamental human desire to validate self in a community. Authoritarian followership is an easy way to do so. It rewards intolerance. And it is an easy device for community-building; a definition of ‘them’ versus ‘us’ which rewards demonising ‘them’ as a shared activity.

The problem, as I see it, is when such behaviours are attached to laudable ends, such as human equality, good-will and tolerance. This gives that behaviour enormous power; if you object to being bullied by authoritarians, it means you must not want the laudable aim they are bullying you over. It’s a no-win situation for people who are reasonable, who actually do want the same thing for humanity – but who don’t like the methods by which the intolerant seek to obtain it.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

10 thoughts on “When intolerance trumps reason

  1. Strikes me as some weird and dark combination of Shakespeare’s line about nothing holding fashion but wars and lechery and the guy in Vietnam who said “we had to destroy the village to save it.”

    And then there’s Mr. Yeats’ line about too long a sacrifice making a stone of the heart.

    We know all these things, I think, but somehow we can’t stop ourselves from doing them, and we’re almighty surprised when we do them ourselves. Then we’re REALLY surprised when we meet the new boss, who’s the same as the old boss.

    Violence in the name of non-violence strikes me as prima facie evidence of insanity.

    It seems that the lesson we humans draw is somehow always that we must do violence. Part of the problem is that doing violence is easy, it requires little more forethought than a predator assessing and attacking its prey, and the evolutionary advantage of intelligence is negated through violence preventing the intelligent from reproducing.

    Obedience to authority is almost like a feedback system in that sense.

    And I’m going to stop now, because this problem makes me angry enough to do violence. Wherein lies the rub.

    (Heavy sigh.)

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    1. I think you’re quite right – humans, by nature, are violent, emotional creatures. Shakespeare knew it for sure (and kept tweaking the early-modern style police state he lived in on the back of it, with his writing). I often wonder whether the problem isn’t the Dunbar issue; the idea that we were evolutionarily geared to a specific social scale by virtue of what could be supported by hunter-gatherer societies – about 150 individuals, more or less, built around mildly extended kin groups. Anything more risks triggering an ‘us versus them’ response. But equally, even within that society, individuals seek status. Of course human intelligence managed to cope through the evolutionarily insignificant 10,000-odd years since societies grew beyond that scale – but at a cost. The point being that, maybe, this same human intellectual capacity also enables us, as societies but also as individuals, to abstract the problems in various ways that in most (but not all) specific examples can be reduced to personal worth-validation, often in basic terms. Not that I would use as a case study the concept of some elected leader nonetheless using social media to vent his anger at his own sense of worthlessness, all at 4 am while sitting on the toilet, or something…

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  2. Interesting post. Yes authoritarian follower response is a general human feature. You can see it in politics of left and right, in religious sects, even in ‘political correctness’ in society and media. Maybe why I’m wary of joining any such organizations!

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    1. Quite true – and I avoid all such organisations myself, for similar reasons. To me, tolerance, reason and genuine kindness, fuelled by empathy, trump (er… as it were) the pitfalls of human nature… would that this were better understood.


  3. Politicians have a way of making simple problems huge and the solutions even larger.
    ( off topic – yesterday I watched our Major League Rugby championship, Seattle vs San Diego. The Seattle team had quite a few New Zealanders (including Maori) and won. I told my better half that I’d have to congratulate Matt Wright being as it was actually a NZ win!! )

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  4. I battle with the paradox of tolerance at times, but no – I don’t need guns to do so. I look at human history and I see some geniuses with the right ideas, but then it always falls apart. Arrogance and greed get in the way. There’s always going to be someone who wants power and wealth, even though it means almost nothing and I find the minor things in life are the best.

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  5. hehe of course authoritarians don’t get irony- probably because it’s a little too nuanced for black and white thinking 😉 And I definitely don’t think this belongs to one side or the other- as some people like to claim- any honest view of history demonstrates that it’s possible for anyone to take become a fundamentalist. However, I think that sometimes it’s more important to stand up to authoritarianism when we agree with the views being espoused- sure it’s a lot easier to vocally disagree with people who are authoritarian on the other side of the argument and a lot harder to stand up for liberty when we oppose those whose liberty is being violated, but I don’t think we get to choose when and for whom the rules apply, otherwise we don’t really support freedom at all.

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