Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Allison Kilkenny on repressive tolerance

Allison Kilkenny doesn't use the phrase "repressive tolerance" in Occupy Wall Street and the Importance of Creative Protest The Nation 11/21/2011. She explains how Occupy's actual impact was connected with the participants' willingness to break with established procedures and rules on how free speech and freedom of assembly and the right to protest were to be exercised:

Up until Occupy, most protests had become exercises in futility. Protesters would show up with their sad, limp carboard signs, march around for a little while - maybe press would show up, but most likely not - and then everyone would go home. Hardly effective stuff.

Even when the protests were massive, say during the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, media had learned to ignore protests as being the hallmark of a bygone era of granola-munching hippies. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the media helped hand protesters loss after loss, perhaps recognizing the fact that protest waged within the perimeters constructed by city officials is completely ineffective.

Demonstrators need a permit to march, and even then must remain on the sidewalk and never disrupt traffic; they need a permit to use a bullhorn, a permit to play music, etc. Protesters, in other words, can protest as long as they never disrupt the normalcy of everyday living, which of course defeats the concept of meaningful protest in the first place.

After a while, all protests began to look the same. Protesters show up, march around, chant X or Y slogan, and if it’s super-exciting, clash with the police and everyone goes to jail. Repeat chorus. It’s no wonder the corporately controlled media were so easily able to write off protest culture as being unimportant or ineffective. The horrible truth was, it had become futile.

That is, of course, until Occupy showed up and refused to play by the city-written rules. No, they wouldn’t be getting permits. No, they wouldn’t be going home at curfew. They would remain in camps as permanent monuments to the injustice and inequality of America’s society. There was no “normal” anymore. There was only what Occupy chose to do, and to not do.
Repressive tolerance is a concept identified with the Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse. To judge from these quotes from Marcuse's 1968 Postscript to his famous essay, "Repressive Tolerance", he would have related to Allison Kilkenny's point:

Under the conditions prevailing in this country, tolerance does not, and cannot, fulfill the civilizing function attributed to it by the liberal protagonists of democracy, namely, protection of dissent. The progressive historical force of tolerance lies in its extension to those modes and forms of dissent which are not committed to the status quo of society, and not confined to the institutional framework of the established society. Consequently, the idea of tolerance implies the necessity, for the dissenting group or individuals, to become illegitimate if and when the established legitimacy prevents and counteracts the development of dissent. This would be the case not only in a totalitarian society, under a dictatorship, in one-party states, but also in a democracy (representative, parliamentary, or "direct") where the majority does not result from the development of independent thought and opinion but rather from the monopolistic or oligopolistic administration of public opinion, without terror and (normally) without censorship. ... The ideology of democracy hides its lack of substance. ...

However, the alternative to the established semi-democratic process is not a dictatorship or elite, no matter how intellectual and intelligent, but the struggle for a real democracy. Part of this struggle is the fight against an ideology of tolerance which, in reality, favors and fortifies the conservation of the status quo of inequality and discrimination. ... The tolerance which is the life element, the token of a free society, will never be the gift of the powers that be; it can, under the prevailing conditions of tyranny by the majority, only be won in the sustained effort of radical minorities, willing to break this tyranny and to work for the emergence of a free and sovereign majority - minorities intolerant, militantly intolerant and disobedient to the rules of behavior which tolerate destruction and suppression.
To quote Arlo Guthrie: Some things don't change, you know; some things do.

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