The main moral tendency of our century is that criticism of the elites is possible only from the left, but not from the right. Therefore, the limits of democracy, tolerance and freedom in our century will expand only to the left — towards the progressivist and environmentalist progressivist movements, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.
Since 1995, the International Day for Tolerance has been observed on November 16. On that day, UNESCO issued a declaration establishing the holiday, and over the past years, it has become sufficiently rooted in international practice. At the same time, it would hardly be an exaggeration to admit that the Day for Tolerance has by no means become a significant public holiday. Yes, on this day, human rights organisations hold their events and seminars, and activity aimed at protecting the rights of migrants occupy a special place among them. At the same time, however, it is not observed as a national holiday in most countries. There is a feeling that it is unlikely to gain that kind of widespread recognition, at least in the near future. Rather, this day is known in the narrow circles of human rights activists. The negativity of this state of affairs is obvious; tolerance in the modern, open world should be at the heart of human interaction. Therefore, the question of the factual invisibility of this memorable day in society as a whole is quite serious.
The problem is not only to make the day November 16 more recognizable, but also to remember that tolerance should not be limited to one day per year. To this end, let us compare the Day for Tolerance with International Women’s Day on March 8. We will not go into the discussion now that this day, originally associated with the struggle of women for civil rights at the beginning of the 20th century, turned into a late Soviet and post-Soviet ritualistic practice as an absolutely sexist holiday, contradicting its original goals and therefore causing justified hostility among feminists. Even if we take the holiday on March 8 for granted, we are still aware of the notion that women are being taken care of only one day per year, and on every other day in the calendar, men continue to dominate behavioural practices. One would not like the same attitude to prevail towards the Day for Tolerance.
In the context of discussions about tolerance, a separate serious question is the moral dilemma: “Should we be tolerant towards intolerant people?” At one time, the famous American political philosopher John Rawls, in his book A Theory of Justice, reflecting on this dilemma, answered in the affirmative. In his opinion, everyone should be tolerant, even those who do not share this principle — otherwise, this is not a kind of tolerance. If we move away from the narrow and rather new term “tolerance”, then with a broader view of things in our Russian moral and philosophical tradition, Rawls’s approach is to a certain extent, consistent with Leo Tolstoy’s ideas about refusing to employ violence in order to resist evil. The word “Tolstoyism” was at one time in common use. Tolstoy’s approach, understood as forgiveness (or as total tolerance, to use new terms), caused a violent reaction among his contemporaries in Russian society. The opponents of Leo Tolstoy were from the most diverse segments of society, both on the right and on the left. Tolstoy was condemned by completely different and dissimilar institutions, which had completely different and dissimilar policies. On the one hand, the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated Leo Tolstoy. On the other, Lenin was critical of Tolstoyism, which he considered a moral justification for the atrocities of the authorities, and voiced the need to replace Tolstoyism with a morally justified class struggle. This dilemma, the contrast between the views of Tolstoy and Lenin, as we note, has not lost its relevance today, in the current political struggle. Therefore, the moral choice of this or that answer seems extremely important, even now.
In another context, if we take a broader look at this maxim of Rawls’ “tolerance for opponents of tolerance”, then it can be reformulated as follows: is freedom possible for opponents of freedom, or: is democracy possible for opponents of democracy? Here, on the one hand, there is a well-known idea that “Hitler came to power in a democratic way,” and therefore democracy must defend itself against the opponents of democracy and may (and even must) act in undemocratic ways towards them. There are probably few who would argue with this; the only question is where to draw the line, beyond which “enemies of democracy” are clearly and generally recognised. Otherwise, there is a great temptation for a gradual or rapid transition of democracy to authoritarianism — and the consolidation of the political dominance of the established elites.
In modern global public opinion, there is a well-established convention that criticism of the elite status quo is permissible only from the left. Therefore left-wing progressive trends, which really largely rely on civic discontent and protest sentiments, not only receive electoral support in a number of countries, but often become “favourites” of the world media, and their image is drawn almost exclusively in positive terms.
On the other hand, criticism of the same elites, and often on the same grounds and with the same arguments, however not “from the left”, but “from the right”, provokes a flurry of accusations. Both the leaders of non-systemic right-wing parties in Europe and Trump in the United States are already routinely compared to Hitler. This may be warranted, but what about the fact that between a quarter and half of the voters vote for them, and the electoral results of non-systemic right-wing forces in many Western countries are better than those of non-systemic leftists, progressives and greens. Are undemocratic restrictions on a quarter or even half of your own population permissible? Is intolerance permissible in the attitude of a quarter to a half of its citizens — who, of course, are intolerant themselves, but more often are simply angry at the dominance of the established elites and their separation from their own citizens?
The main moral conclusion of the 21st century is that yes, it is permissible and possible. Moreover, it is not only possible, but also necessary. The main moral tendency of our century is that criticism of the elites is possible only from the left, but not from the right. Therefore, the limits of democracy, tolerance and freedom in our century will expand only to the left — towards the progressivist and environmentalist progressivist movements. And for those who fail to understand this, well, things will be much worse. Even if they constitute up to half of the voters, and given the anti-lockdown protests, perhaps more. So as not to spoil the picture, we will not provide historical examples of how quickly the freedom fighters, having come to power, have slipped not just into totalitarianism, but into terror against their own population. The examples of both Robespierre and Lenin, as well as Trotsky and Stalin are superfluous here. The moral determinant of the 21st century is a given. You can’t argue with it.
The aforementioned book by John Rawls on tolerance for the intolerant wasn’t written so long ago — in 1971, during the lifetime of the current older generation. But it seems that the modern world is separated from it by a vast abyss. In a moral sense, the situation has changed completely. If we postulate the right to be intolerant to those who are intolerant as morally justified, then the next question is how far it can go. Here, on the one hand, we are talking about the development of intolerance towards the intolerant into morally justified violence towards them. On the other hand, this concerns the limits of historical responsibility, which makes this violence morally justified. Here, too, with an understandable degree of conventionality, a parallel can be drawn with Lenin’s theory of class struggle, which clearly postulated the moral justification and political necessity of revolutionary violence. Without it, the oppressed will have no chance of defeating their oppressors. In this context, not just moral condemnation, but also morally justified violence on the part of intolerant opponents who have been targeted with discrimination may well follow in the mainstream of Lenin’s logic. At first glance, it is more difficult to deal with historical responsibility. Is today’s white Oxford/Harvard graduate, or worse, a white redneck farmer, responsible for his racist ancestors? Even if we accept the previous logic about the moral right to violence against the oppressors themselves, is the right to historical retaliation permissible from an ethical point of view? Even with the understanding that the current practices of discrimination, although they have become thinner than they were before, have not disappeared anywhere.
Here the logic of the global evolution of morality in the 21st century seems to be also inclined to say “Yes!” Both ethically permissible violence against oppressors and the right to historical retribution are becoming increasingly justified in moral discourse. The only question is the manipulation of this by the old elites and their ability to manage this violence for their own purposes. The 2020 developments in the United States showed that when controlled protest violence became consonant with the old elite’s mission to keep Trump from being re-elected, the media started to insist that it was morally justified. Then the situation began to change.
In general, these questions about tolerance, justice and morality, on the one hand, are difficult if we go deeper into theoretical reflections, and on the other hand, they are extremely simple and understandable. Tolerance must be a key factor in moral behaviour. The moral determinant of the 21st century is the condemnation of the intolerant. The limits of this condemnation can be different, which has been shown by the political practice of recent years. The manipulation of this process by the elites, in the cynical opinion of the political scientist, is also evident. At the same time, the true revolutionary nature of this process is also, in our opinion, obvious. Should we be afraid of this new tolerant revolution? Is it necessary to avoid this to go into the servile apology of the presumably moribund status quo of the old elites? Each reader has the right to make his or her own moral choice.