'Tolerance,' or Manners?

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This
essay originally appeared in the September 1991 issue of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
.

Like
ladies’ hemlines, there are changing fashions in libertarian writing.
Libertarians, who pride themselves as individualists, are all
too often lemmings following the latest trend. The very latest
trend among libertarians is to write vehemently, indeed “intolerantly,”
about the importance of tolerance, and how much they grrr, hate
“intolerant people.” Every manjack and his brother is denouncing
“intolerance” these days, along with a lot of gaseous pseudo-philosophic
hokum about the relationship between one’s ideas and one’s “tolerance”
toward the ideas of others.

There
is a curious anomaly here that has gone unnoticed. One of the
things that strikes a person who first encounters Modal Libertarians
is their surpassing rudeness, their overwhelming boorishness,
their total lack of manners. It is libertarians, and only libertarians,
who will call you up, as a perfect stranger, and proceed to denounce
you for various deviations, or for alleged contradictions on page
851. It is only libertarians who, learning a few syllogisms about
liberty, and having read next to nothing, consider themselves
perfectly qualified to harangue learned men on their alleged errors.
It is only libertarians who conclude, simply by virtue of announcing
themselves as libertarians, that your house is their house and
your possessions their possessions: an implicit assumption of
communism of libertarian possessions. And oddly enough, or maybe
not so oddly, the very people who are bleating most loudly against
“intolerance” are some of the worst offenders. The “philosophy”
is really a smoke screen, for the real problem is decent manners
and their lack of them; and when some of us react against those
boors, we are of course denounced for being “intolerant.” The
ill-mannered wish to ride roughshod over the rest of us, and then
howl about “intolerance” whenever we decide to resist. Note the
typical Modal ploy: shifting the focus of attention from manners
and behavior to abstruse discussions of philosophy. This move
enables them to focus on the charge that we are intolerant of
their “ideas,” that we are betraying our responsibility of engaging
in continuing dialogue or “conversation” about ideas, when the
real problem is them; their boorish Aaggression” and lack of manners.

Manners
are vital to the quality of life; civility is a crucial requirement
of civilization. It softens edges, and makes social life worth
living. Note that I am not calling for the punctilio of a seventeenth-century
Spanish grandee: just ordinary decent behavior. But that is what
is so sorely lacking. Much of the current wave of Political Correctness
is a crazed attempt to continue and to justify swinish behavior,
while trying to substitute a host of formal rules for decent politeness.
But these formal rules are the reverse of manners, for they are
used as clubs to impose one’s will on others, all in the name
of “sensitivity.”

Thus,
suppose that someone is talking or speaking, either at a gathering
or a formal lecture, and happens to refer to Ms. X as a “distinguished
actress.” The feminist language police are then apt to appear,
shouting out that “actress” is an “insensitive” and sexist word
and that the speaker must use the gender-neutral term “actor”
(or who knows, maybe next it will be “actperson”). Here is a typical
case where in the name of imposing “sensitivity,” the thought
police are deliberately taking over in a power play, cowing the
speaker through smears when everyone knows he was simply using
standard terminology, and being unbearably rude and barbaric in
the course of that takeover.

The
thought police have only one virtue: clarity. At least you know
what side they are on. But how about our “anti-intolerance” Modals?
What would they have to say here? Would they condemn the feminists
for being “intolerant?” Or would they condemn us for being “intolerant”
of the thought police? Or maybe both? All is confusion. On the
other hand, focus on decent manners and the answer becomes clear.
The rude boors in this example are the feminist thought police.
The philosophic tail-chasing that says, as one recent Modal writer
put it, “we must be tolerant even of the intolerant” would be
simply irrelevant here. For there is no obligation of any sort
to be polite to rude people. On the contrary, those who have breached
civility are “the aggressors,” and should be tossed out on their
ear. To absorb and agree with this point, one does not need any
high-flown philosophic theory: just plain common sense and a sense
of decency.

It
strikes me too that since Modal libertarianism is lifelong adolescent
rebellion against one’s parents, one’s neighbors, and the bourgeoisie
generally, that this revolt against good manners, and its displacement
into bleating about the “philosophy of tolerance,” is characteristic
Modal behavior. The Modal rebels against what used to be standard
parental teaching about manners, and challenges such teachings
with pseudo-profound blatherings about tolerance, metaphysics,
and the theory of knowledge.

A
final point about the private telling of jokes, which can be one
of the great charms of social intercourse. Jokes, of course, almost
always have some group or other as the butt of the joke:
whether it be gender, age, religion, occupation, or ethnic group.
The Politically Correct grinches, having no sense of humor whatever,
are trying in effect to outlaw every joke as “insensitive” to
some group or other, and therefore not politically correct. But
hyper-sensitivity is one of the great barriers to civilized discourse
and social relations, and can make such relations virtually impossible.
Every such group, instead of being encouraged to bellyache, should
get off its high horse. Modal Libertarians, of course, are up
there with the anti-joke grinches, in the name of “tolerance”
rather than “sensitivity.” The Modals are just as despotic and
just as crippling of joy through rotten manners.

Suppose,
for example, someone, Mr. A, is telling a joke of which the butt
is Group G. Simple politeness and good manners would lead Mr.
A not to tell the joke if one of his listeners, say Mr. B, is
obviously a member of Group G. On the other hand, if A doesn’t
realize it, or it turns out that one of B’s friends or relatives
happens to be a G, it would be incredibly boorish for B to denounce
A as bigoted, insensitive, and all the rest. Modals should be
stuck here; for they would have to figure who to denounce: A,
for being “bigoted” against Group G; B for being “intolerant”
of A’s jokes; or both for being intolerant of the other. In practice,
of course, we know how Modals come down, and it is invariably
with the “sensitive” and the Politically Correct. The emphasis
on manners, in contrast, would, in effect, tell B to pipe down,
stop being boorish, and lighten up: humor is one of the great
joys of the world.

This
essay is included, with many others, in the Lew Rockwell-edited
Irrepressible Rothbard

Buy
it

Murray
N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was the author of Man,
Economy, and State
, Conceived
in Liberty
, What
Has Government Done to Our Money
, For
a New Liberty
, The
Case Against the Fed
, and many
other books and articles
. He
was also the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
.

Murray
Rothbard Archives

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