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Two Dogmas of Multiculturalism: Nietzsche, Rushdie, and Values Discourse (part 2)

The so-called value of tolerance too is reduced to an unjustifiable, arbitrary attitude if it is held from the standpoint of a multicultural liberalism conceived in the terms of a values discourse rather than in those of a discourse of reason. It is the standpoint that is at issue, rather than tolerance itself; tolerance, like the historically evolved conception of justice, is arguably rational to the core. Its conceptual heritage lies in the work of Locke and Kant, and forms part of the rational basis of modern liberal democracies; as advocated by these thinkers, tolerance is not merely a value, but a rational value, what Aristotle and Plato called a virtue. By “rational basis,” I mean this: tolerance is a condition for dialogue. The capacity to allow for beliefs or proposals that may run against the grain of one’s expectations or preferences is a sine qua non for coming to any kind of agreement or understanding. Therefore, if rationality has a normative and social significance, the virtue of tolerance must play an important role in its realization.

Further, to speak of virtue in general indicates that genuine moral commitments can receive a defense within an implicitly or explicitly shared normative framework, which now in the modern world in principle extends to all of humanity. To speak of the virtue of tolerance in particular therefore implies that one can defend with reasons, as I briefly attempted in the foregoing, why the attitude of tolerance is a superior and worthwhile attitude; one can attempt to reveal the rational basis of one’s commitment to it. It is not merely to aver that tolerance is valued, but to attempt to provide an account of why it ought to be valued to those who may question its value.

But we now speak of the value of tolerance, not the virtue of tolerance. This is not to split hairs; it rather reveals our fundamental attitude toward our own presumably highest moral commitments. From the vantage of a multicultural liberalism that deploys a discourse of values, our moral commitments are just that, ours, and so as multicultural liberalists we must allow ample space for alternative values that are no more and no less defensible than our own. This is how the first dogma of multicultural liberalism, that “tolerance is good,” gives way to the second, “I may not judge the attitudes, practices, and values of others.” The true logic of tolerance implies, and indeed demands, a condemnation of intolerance; it is not logically related to a terminal suspension of judgment concerning the practices of others. This latter hails from a different source altogether: a commitment to values discourse. It is the dual commitment to tolerance and to values discourse that renders this variety of multicultural liberalism incoherent, not any defect in the concept of tolerance itself.

This is seen in the fact that a commitment to values discourse is not only consistent with the skeptical suspension of judgment concerning the values and practices of others; it is also consistent with markedly intolerant positions. The ugly, less discussed underbelly of moral relativism is that it is consistent with an irrational endorsement of one’s own values at the expense of others’, a position Nietzsche was quite comfortable with, but one that the multicultural liberalist is bound to reject. Samuel Huntington, for example, does not shy away from this outcome. In the influential article “A Clash of Civilizations?”, later expanded into a book, he prophesies that because of an incommensurability of values between civilizations, they are poised to clash. He diagnoses the ill will between sectors of the Western and Islamic worlds as fundamentally reflecting a clash of beliefs and values, and indicates that it is time for the West to close ranks. Although he claims “not to advocate the desirability of conflicts between civilizations,” and to be merely setting forth “descriptive hypotheses as to what the future may be like,” in the next breath he says, “If these are plausible hypotheses, however, it is necessary to consider their implications for Western policy.” [1] A set of downright xenophobic recommendations follow, all of which follow from the basic premise of values incommensurability between civilizations. Here are three indicative ones: “to promote greater cooperation and unity within its [the West’s] own civilization; to incorporate into the West societies in Eastern Europe and Latin America whose cultures are close to those of the West . . . to limit the expansion of the military strength of Confucian and Islamic states.” [2] These are perfectly reasonable recommendations given Huntington’s premises. Dialogue is only possible between those with shared values, and an attitude of implicit or explicit hostility must be maintained in relation to alien civilizations with alien values at their core. Inter-civilizational “dialogue” can only have a strategic function: to persuade the implicitly hostile camp that there is a coincidence of interests on any given issue, while substantively working only to advance one’s own.

It is noteworthy that the numerous critics of Huntington focus on his dubious concept of “civilizations,” or the idea that there are sharp borders between them, or that people have civilizational identities at all, and so on. [3] That is to criticize Huntington for overestimating value incommensurability between “civilizations,” not to criticize him for engaging in values discourse itself. These critics do not attack the methodological place the notion of values has in his thinking. That is because values discourse is taken uncritically for granted. It remains unrecognized that to speak of values in this foundationalist manner disguises a petitio principii: the discourse proceeds from premises to conclusions of incommensurability. Thinkers like Nietzsche and Huntington may be alarming, but they are quite consistent.

It seems appropriate now to consider contemporary cases where a lack of clarity about the nature of one’s normative commitments exacts a heavy toll. The paradigm case for head-spinning incoherence among a liberal intelligentsia presumably committed to tolerance remains the Salman Rushdie affair. [4] As is well known, after the fatwa commanding faithful Muslims to kill Rushdie was declared by Ayatollah Khomeini, a spate of articles appeared from Western academics and journalists that berated Rushdie for essentially bringing the fatwa upon himself. Some even expressed a malicious desire to see the fatwa carried out. Few in the immediate aftermath condemned the fact that the leader of a foreign state commanded his followers to commit murder. This remarkable reaction deserves careful analysis.

To begin, if it were the case that these commentators were actually committed to the virtue of tolerance, then like any virtue, they would be committed to condemning its absence as vicious. To use some classical examples, a commitment to the virtue of justice implies a condemnation of the vice of injustice, a commitment to the virtue of wisdom implies a condemnation of the vice of ignorance, a commitment to the virtue of courage implies a condemnation of the vice of cowardice, and so on. The distinctively modern virtue of tolerance is no exception—a genuine commitment to it must include a condemnation of intolerance as vicious—and I can think of no better example of vicious intolerance than to have a religious leader put a price on someone’s head for blasphemy. However, a condemnation of this was mysteriously absent.

Instead, it was implicitly Rushdie’s intolerance that was condemned. By publishing The Satanic Verses, he was allegedly not expressing the requisite sensitivity to the feelings of Muslims. On this logic, hurting someone’s feelings presumably justifies a homicidal reaction. But here the multicultural liberalists’ cards are on the table. Their reaction, far from expressing a commitment to the virtue of tolerance, betrays an utter contempt for it. Instead, their master allegiance to what I have called the second dogma becomes visible: to exercise a total and thoroughgoing skepticism when it comes to the beliefs, practices, and values of the Other, even if these beliefs and practices condone cold-blooded murder. This attitude is arguably an artifact of a thinking that has been determined by values discourse: in a world of value systems, none with any greater or less justification than any other, the virtue of tolerance is demoted to being an indefensible value, and thus any putative commitment to it is easily overtaken by the categorical imperative to suspend judgment on the actions of those who are regarded as inhabiting alien value systems.

The inadvertent condescension of such an attitude is appalling. First, it treats putative Otherness as a kind of holy cow: the Other is inscrutable, incomprehensible, and thus we must suspend judgment on its beliefs and actions. This attitude ought to be regarded as a symptom of intellectual laziness and even contempt, rather than a sign of reverence, respect, or sound intellectual procedure. Second, by treating the Other with this alleged absolute respect, the multicultural liberalist implicitly excludes the Other from her own moral scheme, one that for example values tolerance and proscribes cold-blooded murder. That is precisely how Khomeini escaped criticism from intellectual circles. The implication is that we cannot expect these Others to abide by our norms, which after all merely reflect our values. But this ruse is paper-thin. Despite our intellectual commitment to values relativity, we in reality believe that unjustifiable homicide is bad, which emphatically includes religious edicts that command it, and that this belief does not merely reflect our values. But our intellectual commitment to a relativistic values discourse strains us here toward a posture of extreme hypocrisy, and also contempt for the group we are supposedly respecting, whom we no longer regard as rational interlocutors with whom we can fruitfully engage in a potential debate. Instead, someone like Khomeini is uncritically accepted as representing the views of a people who we have already decided cannot be understood or related to in principle.

What I called the ugly underbelly of the moral relativism implied in values discourse is visible in more current affairs pertaining to relations between the West and the Islamic world. Both the headscarves debate in France and the Danish cartoon affair were couched strongly in terms of values discourse. Concerning the former, it was widely observed in editorials that the so-called “core secular values” of the republic were being threatened by young Islamic women, presumably with alien values, who attended school in headscarves; this led to a government ban. Apparently the other “core values” of liberty, fraternity, and equality took a back seat here, which include the values of free speech and religious tolerance. Likewise, the Danish cartoon affair was couched entirely in terms of the Western value of free speech, again versus the presumably alien values of the Islamic world. In both of these examples, rational mediation is rhetorically forestalled in principle. The “debate” is set up like the pieces on a chessboard; apart from reflecting an arrangement of intrinsic hostility, the “moves” are set in advance to play out this hostility. Given the premise of an impassable gulf in values, no other outcome is conceivable.

These examples demonstrate that values discourse has the effect of seriously distorting public debate. To again use Huntington’s phrase, it invites a closing of ranks by all parties. Modern secularists become vehement and Muslims become defensive. That is because the normative dimension to debate has been entirely gutted. Huntington’s thesis concerning a clash of civilizations is in a sense trivially true almost to the point of tautology: if one starts from the premise of values incommensurability, and the parties in question genuinely value what they value, the inevitable outcome just is a clash. Absent rational-normative assumptions, so-called debate simply becomes a theater for various parties to announce the next conflagration. Here the virtue of tolerance simply drops out as irrelevant.

A version of this paper entitled “Is Tolerance Rational?” was presented at a conference on “Discrimination and Tolerance in the Middle East,” May 2-4, 2007, Lebanese American University. It is forthcoming in the conference proceedings, published by Orient-Institut Beirut.


1. Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 73, no. 3 (1993): 48.

2. Ibid., pp. 48–49.

3. A notable example of this critical tendency is found in Edward Said, “The Clash of Ignorance,” The Nation, October 22, 2001.

4. A good, if somewhat polemical, discussion of this episode may be found in Christopher Hitchens, God Is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007). See also Ibn Warraq’s introduction and Salman Rushdie’s subsequent address to the Center of Inquiry here.

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