Cast your minds back to 1996. That year, in Manchester, UK, an IRA bomb injured over 200 people and devastated a good part of the city centre, Robert Mugabe
was re-elected president of Zimbabwe despite a mere 32 percent voter turnout, Boris Yeltsin won re-election as Russia’s president amidst claims of corruption, the Nintendo 64 video game was released in Japan, rape victim Sarah Balabagan was caned in the United Arab Emirates, The Ramones played their last gig, Dolly the Sheep, the first mammal to be successfully cloned, was born at the Roslin Institute in Scotland, the U.S. launched Operation Desert Strike against Iraq, and Stacy Title released a low-budget indie film about regressive ‘liberals’ that went virtually unnoticed. In hindsight, The Last Supper is probably the most prescient film of its decade, if not the 20th century. Set in the household (and garden) of five liberal post-grad students in small town Iowa, the film is a prophetic morality tale about what happens when would-be champions of the liberal principle of tolerance fail to hold themselves to its demands.
The five smug academics have a weekly Sunday night ritual of inviting a different guest to dinner as a stimulus to topical debate and intellectual sparring. It is all rather civilised until the night when a stranger named Zach assists law student Pete after the latter’s car breaks down. As their expected guest has cancelled, the five invite Zach to stay and dine with them instead. Desert Storm ‘war’ veteran Zach doesn’t share the graduates’ worldview, to put it mildly. The veneer of civility quickly crumbles once Zach begins to expound his right-wing views, including that Hitler “had the right idea”, that black people have quick tempers and that liberals are feckless “pussies” who never actually do anything other than whine. Things spiral out of control when Zach pulls a knife on Marc, threatens to rape his girlfriend, Paulie, and later breaks Pete’s arm. In a moment of panic, Marc stabs their redneck guest in the back, killing him.
Feeling trapped at the prospect of a murder rap they don’t deserve, the graduates bury the deceased bigot’s corpse in the garden and set off on a path of righteous ‘activism’ against Zach’s brand of right-wing ignorance, which they justify as a remedy to the ineffectual passivity of which Zach had accused them. Before Zach’s corpse has even grown cold, the group convene a panic-stricken rationalisation based upon the following hypothetical: “It’s 1909. You’re in a pub in Austria, having a Schnapps with a stranger, a young art student with one testicle. Let’s say his name is Adolph. Now Adolph at this point in his life has done no wrong. He’s not bitter. He’s not angry. He’s committed no crime, he does not bring knives to the dinner table, he’s not killed anybody, he certainly hasn’t started a world war. Do you kill him? Do you poison his Schnapps to save all those millions of innocent people?” This hypothetical forms the catalyst for the housemates’ reconfiguration of their collective guilt into a public service and prophylactic against the social ills of chauvinism and bigotry. “Zach was Hitler” and they’ve made the world a better place by shutting him up, permanently.
Together the five form a pact to eliminate evil by literally exterminating (via poisoned wine) any table conversant that expresses, at first, right-wing ideas but later just conservative views and, ultimately, any ideas they happen to find distasteful. Their intolerant approach to other peoples’ intolerant ideas seems to illustrate a paradox in the liberal conception of tolerance: defenders of the tolerant liberal state seemingly refuse to tolerate intolerant ways of life that conflict with their own. However, this apparently fatal flaw in liberal tolerance is a chimera. The Iowa housemates are not liberals, because they do not champion the formal liberal principle of tolerance (which is content-neutral), but only those viewpoints in which the content is broadly liberal/tolerant. The classic liberal political philosophers (Locke, Mill, Paine) had faith in reason and persuasion as the best means of combating the influence of pernicious ideas. The Iowa pseudo-liberals distrust human reason and think they have an exclusive monopoly on it.
When we first encounter the housemates at the beginning of the film, four of them are squirming in front of the television as a reactionary demagogue named Norman Arbuthnot spouts hateful opinions about feminists. Arbuthnot is the arch-enemy of progressive values, a Marine LePen or (at the time) Rush Limbaugh-like mouthpiece for populist bigotry. Despite wincing at his sexist rants, they acknowledge that they “should be helping” Paulie prepare their dinner, yet none of them do, which foreshadows the hypocrisy that will tarnish their progressive self-image throughout the narrative.
Their self-contradiction comes full circle by the end of the film when, through a chance encounter, they manage to snare “big fish” Arbuthnot in their poisonous net. But as the dinner conversation unfolds, they find to their astonishment that Arbuthnot’s views are less extreme than their own, and that he is the real champion of liberal tolerance, despite his admittedly prickly public persona and inflammatory rhetoric. Arbuthnot explains that the extremes of both parties grab all the headlines, but “the real decisions are made by moderates”. When Luke, the graduates’ ring-leader, says to Arbuthnot that his views are extreme, and “extreme views incite people to extreme measures” Norman replies that he “can’t be held responsible for every nut case who thinks I mean something when I mean something else.” He explains that he needs to say outrageous things in order to “cut through” and be heard, since he’s not an elected representative but just a concerned citizen who sees certain things wrong that he wants to comment on. He is being the voice of dissent, following in the footsteps of Jefferson, Monroe and Paine, who were all critics. In response to this, Paulie voices the pseudo-liberal’s worst fear: that Arbuthnot may become too influential; his followers hate anyone who disagrees with him or his opinions.
What is odd about this objection is that the grad students, who are in the best possible position to use their expensive college educations to formulate counter-arguments, don’t seem willing to do so. Instead they want a paternalistic short cut that will preempt ‘dangerous’ (unorthodox) speech before it can be aired (or, God forbid, evaluated). This of course presupposes that they are infallible guardians of wisdom and truth. They so prefer this illiberal brand of paternalism that they abandon the classical liberal emphasis on human reason altogether and, instead of using it to persuade their opponents, adopt the apolitical method of coercion (violence). They are too cynical about human nature and the value of genuine diversity to actually live up to its demands. Their brand of “diversity” has been transformed into a rigid orthodoxy that proclaims the unambiguous and uncritical acceptance of ‘difference’ and ‘the other’ tout court – not because of the merits of “the other’s” viewpoint(s) – but merely because the person or group who expounds it is different to ‘us’. And yet, this policy (paternalistic protectiveness towards perceived ‘others’) has become, to use Mill’s description, a “tyranny” espoused by the majority, In other words, it is not protection for ‘them’ but the master discourse: all decent, reasonable people “just know” that “difference” is always right and morally good, irrespective of ideological content. Consequently, anyone who disagrees can only have one kind of motive: the bigoted (i.e. wrong) kind.
Moreover, the housemates seem to think that the Arbuthnot’s followers are somehow especially susceptible or vulnerable vis-à-vis his persuasive powers. But as Arbuthnot says, “Followers of Nelson Mandela commit murder. Followers of Ghandi kill people, …” Arbuthnot says these were great men, but neither they (nor he) can control what people do. “People do what they want to do.” While Arbuthnot acknowledges that there are some harmful people on both the extreme left and the extreme right, he suggests that “the more extreme those opposites get, the more moderate this society becomes, because when you average out all those extremes, you come out with a society that is pretty well anchored in the middle. And that’s what we all want, isn’t it? A society where all of us can live? All races, all religions, all views living together … In any society, no matter how big or small, you’re going to have dissent, I mean look at the five of you. Can you honestly say you agree on everything?”
When they put their Austrian pub hypothetical to Arbuthnot, he says he would “absolutely not” poison Hitler but would instead “talk to the man, try to show him the error of his ways to the best of my ability, challenge his ideas, exchange thoughts, provoke change by intelligent debate.” Given the unexpected turn this dinner conversation has taken, the five excuse themselves to convene a spontaneous meeting in the kitchen to “prepare dessert” (i.e. to debate whether there is really warrant for exterminating their arch-enemy given that his views are making a lot of sense). The trouble is, they are no longer capable of debate, even amongst themselves. They have cynically abandoned reasoned argument because they just know that they are right. Luke, unable to tolerate dissent, pulls a gun and threatens to kill them if they swerve from their planned course of action.
The collective protagonists are minorities with ostensibly left-wing values. As such, they are identity politics personified – perfect proxies for today’s “safe space” crusaders and champions of no-platforming. By contrast, Norman Arbuthnot expresses views that most moderate liberals today would probably consider offensive at best and repugnant at worst. Yet he is not intolerant. He is not preventing anyone else from responding to his views, nor is he prepared to punish dissenters or coerce compliance. He is simply expressing offensive ideas. Free expression – even of ideas that are blasphemous, challenging, tasteless, unorthodox, sacrilegious, disturbing, forbidden and taboo — is something that genuine champions of tolerance have always defended. J.S. Mill, the architect of liberal political philosophy, advocated for ‘absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological’, however immoral the opinion or sentiment may seem. (On Liberty, 71)
Indeed, the fatal flaw or paradox is on the other foot: today’s strident illiberal champions of exclusively “tolerant” speech content like to remind us that ‘Euro-centric’ or ‘Western’ political forms are dangerous and misguided, since there is no universal truth… except of course their truth that ‘there is no universal truth and no common human rights’. That view is true, and so infallibly true that anyone who expresses the least doubt about it or even wants to debate it must be silenced.
The concept of ‘intolerance’ means more than verbal objection to others’ views. Tolerant people do object to other people’s views, often in quite vocal and acerbic ways. Tolerant people also fully accept (and endorse!) all manner of non-violent dissent, satire, ridicule and criticism. Tolerance implies a willingness to engage in debate and argument, and to withstand offensive views.
By contrast, intolerance implies rejection of the other’s fundamental right to dissent, and so denies him self-determination. Intolerance implies an unwillingness to abide the offensive, taboo, or unorthodox opinions of the age. Intolerant individuals or groups dictate how others must live. This is what makes the Iowa housemates intolerant even as they imagine themselves to be champions of diversity.
Back in 2000 I interviewed Elinor Tatum, editor of The New York Amsterdam News, a Harlem-based African-American newspaper with progressive roots dating back to 1909. The previous year, she had been on the receiving end of a shit storm after defending the right of the Ku Klux Klan to hold a demonstration in New York City. Then mayor Rudolph Giuliani had attempted to divide and conquer his liberal critics by denying the white supremacist organization a permit to hold a small rally in the city with their traditional white hoods. His aim was to force liberals into a false dilemma that would tempt them to abandon their traditional commitment to absolute freedom of expression for all ideas by pitting it against their bedrock anti-racist sympathies. During his tenure, the mayor had trampled on all manner of free expression that was critical of him or his policies, so banning demos was par for the course. Less obvious than Giuliani’s “sanitizing” of New York City was the price paid in civil liberties for this brave new muzzled metropolis. His constant clashes with New Yorkers’ First Amendment rights earned him the Thomas Jefferson Center’s Lifetime Muzzle Award. While he combated the kinds of petty crime that is visible to tourists, the maverick mayor had also stacked up a record-long list of First Amendment law suits against his administration and became notorious among black New Yorkers for giving his police force carte blanche to abuse black ‘suspects’.
Tatum, like Norman Siegel of the New York Civil Liberties Union, had taken the heat from her own people (Tatum from members of the black community and Siegel from certain Jewish New Yorkers) in order to defend the principle of free expression that she knew would protect all minorities, including ethnic minorities, in the long run. Both Tatum and Siegel were seasoned civil rights activists with long pedigrees of anti-racist advocacy and civil liberties activism. They knew that Giuliani was presenting liberals with a false dilemma. Yet, to many of their liberal allies at the time, they seemed like turncoats. Tatum told me that she and her associates “realised that if we had a double standard we could not rightly stand up for any organisation that we believed in, if we couldn’t stand up for an organisation that we abhorred what they said … that is the true test of civil liberties.” Meanwhile Giuliani, the seemingly ‘liberal’ defender of NYC from the scourge of the KKK, had established a double standard, allowing demonstrations he liked (such as a rally to celebrate the New York Yankees World Series victory) but disallowing those he disliked (such as demos by the New Black Panthers, taxi cab drivers, or AIDS advocacy organisations).
Tatum was right. Tolerance is not an attitude that one adopts depending upon the content of speech or the personal qualities of the speaker. Tolerance aims instead at structural equality. Because it is a principled approach, it applies equally and consistently to all forms of speech and to all speakers, regardless of the content or good taste of their expressions. As it turned out, the principle of free speech prevailed in NYC, and some twelve Klansmen held a pathetic demonstration in downtown New York City, while more than two-hundred counter-demonstrators gathered opposite to exercise their Constitutional right to protest. This was a triumph of how freedom of speech should work. Civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel advised both groups and when some protested him (for legally representing the Klan in their First Amendment rights case) by picketing his apartment building with insulting signs and chants, he also defended their right to do so and told the security guard at his apartment building not to call the cops on them.
As a principled form of forbearance, tolerance is distinct from weakness, indifference or a passive laissez-faire attitude. German philosopher and political theorist Rainer Forst defined tolerance as a three-stage approach involving (1) objection to a belief or action, (2) an acceptance component, such that positive reasons for tolerating the belief or action trump negative ones, and (3) limits to our acceptance, such that some beliefs and activities are regarded as intolerably wrong. In order that we can distinguish it from an arbitrary or apolitical approach, there must be some specified limits to toleration. The reasons we give for rejecting certain kinds of beliefs or activities must outweigh the reasons for accepting them.
Liberals in the United States (and to a lesser extent in the U.K.) have followed J.S. Mill’s harm principle in drawing the line between objectionable-but-tolerable ideas/activities and those that are simply intolerable. While the pseudo-liberals in The Last Supper seem to think it is not good to let people do ‘bad’ (but harmless) things, or even to hold ‘immoral’ ideas, Mill argues the opposite: “The only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over any member of a civilised society, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” (On Liberty, 68) There are famous difficulties in determining what counts as ‘harm to others’ but liberals have traditionally maintained a very narrow understanding of harm to encompass only those activities that physically injure or constrain others or damage their “permanent interests as progressive beings”. Offence does neither. Plato suggested the reverse, i.e. that Socrates, in being a “stinging insect” on the body politic, provided a healthy stimulus to the Athenian status quo.
The Austrian-British philosopher of science, Karl Popper (1902 – 1994) also understood that a limit on tolerance is integral to its definition. He recognised the danger in censoring intolerant attitudes and thought it preferable to counter them with rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion. However, he saw that “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.” [The Open Society and it’s Enemies, 1945] Popper maintained that society has a right to suppress intolerant attitudes if their spokespersons refuse to engage in rational argument and refuse their followers the right to hear alternative views.
So tolerance must have limits. But The Last Supper illustrates what happens when the line is drawn at offensive speech and shows why this threshold is far too low. They key to tolerance is reciprocity, which is guaranteed by structural equality, not by policing content. If we draw the line at the mere expression of repellent ideas, then we have refused to extend to others the same privilege we want for ourselves. All of us, even the most authoritarian religious zealots, want the freedom to pursue values that are genuinely our own, and to be sovereign over our own minds. This is why classic liberal philosophers have had a higher threshold for offensive speech. They would limit only actions that interfere with the reciprocal liberty of others to live according to their beliefs. Structural equality puts a legal brake on the kind of hypocrisy and double standards exercised by intolerant individuals. Because it aims only at a fair framework within which all variety of ideas can be expressed, rather than the promotion of some particular ideological content, liberalism can and does accommodate illiberal worldviews. Religious zealots can and do live freely and thrive within liberal democracies, up to the point that they coerce unwilling others to conform to their worldview. By contrast, liberals and progressives can never and will never be free to pursue their own ways of living within illiberal theocracies like Saudi Arabia. The limits that liberal states place on the freedom of illiberal ideologies are there to protect the equal freedom of others but not to constrain the individual zealot in the expression of his beliefs or the practice of his ideology or religion.
The housemates in The Last Supper champion a unilateral (not reciprocal) form of tolerance vis-à-vis the content of beliefs. This makes the ostensibly “progressive” ideas they champion into dead dogmas, believed not with the conviction that arises from critical thought, reflection, and the tussle with opposing ideas, but from the group-think mentality of Orwell’s Oceana.