Book Review: The Know-it-all Society: Truth and Arrogance in Political Culture

As noted in the review (included below), Lynch raises the question of intolerance in a tolerant society, but he does not answer it. “Must we listen to Nazis”, or must a tolerant society tolerate a social group (Nazis are not the only intolerant group in the western world, but they are a quintessential example of intolerance) who are intolerant? If the answer happens to be no, a related question is what sort of behavior constitutes intolerance that need not be tolerated?

North America, Europe, and associated “western nations” and India are presently the world’s more “tolerant societies”. These societies, taken as political entities, are beset by problems arising from the conflict between tolerance and intolerance, the mistaken belief that a tolerant society must tolerate intolerance. 

An ideal tolerant society would be one in which every social group and every political alignment is committed to a tolerance of every other group, not merely in principle but in practice, the group’s declarations, documents, political appeals, and so on. The people of a tolerant society need not agree with one another intellectually, need not have the same ideas of what constitutes a good or better society. They have the right to vote for their views and, if their numbers are sufficient, dominate the society’s political process. Permitable differences include income disparity, at least to the point where it becomes effectively intolerant by precluding those on the downside from acquiring resources needed to continue their [tolerant] activities. The tolerant collective cannot advocate for advantage that precludes the same right to support whatever social, political, or economic policy any other group happens to hold, provided only that they are likewise tolerant. 

Since, in our ideal tolerant society, every other tolerant group must be tolerated, there cannot develop any motive to cheat on the political process because the rule of tolerance, everyone must have the same opportunity for social and political expression, would preclude it. No group could justify its social or political ends on grounds that other [tolerant] groups have no right to their expression. Intolerant means never yield tolerant ends except in the single case of ridding society of intolerance. In that one case, tolerant means cannot work because the intolerant will always refuse to accede to the tolerant. Refusal on the part of a tolerant society to rid themselves of intolerant groups is the source of the intolerant group’s political advantage. More on this below.

Obviously, in such a society, there could be no Nazis for the simple reason that what makes a Nazi a Nazi (speaking of the collective) is not their economic theories, but their intolerance of certain groups, notably Jews, people of color, homosexuals, and so on. In the end, their intolerance becomes intolerance of every other group that disagrees with them on any subject. 

By intolerance (on the Nazi part) here, I speak of the target group’s illegitimacy in the views of the intolerant group. The target group (or groups) have, in the eyes of the Nazis, no right to suffrage of any kind, even to the point (ultimately) of their right to exist, not merely as a social or political entity, but as individuals! Intolerance of this sort ends up asserting an “end justifies the means” social (and so political) attitude. If the target group does not even have the right to exist, the Nazi has no problem breaking with the “rules of tolerance” up to and including taking life. 

An intolerant social or political group can only be comprised of intolerant individuals. That intolerant individuals might exist in an otherwise tolerant society cannot be ruled out. So long as intolerance is confined to them personally by criminalizing intolerant behavior (for example, hate crimes) and forbidding them to form collectives with any political or social voice the tolerant society survives. Groups of intolerant individuals might come together to express their mutual intolerance, but no such group can apply to be a political party or formal social group having any recognized political legitimacy, special tax status, or what have you.

When a tolerant society signals an intolerant group’s acceptance (socially or politically) by granting it political legitimacy, a certain inevitable, historically documented dynamic begins. The intolerant group has an inherent political advantage. Since, for the intolerant, the ends justify the means, they are free to cheat while those who are tolerant are not. Though it may take some time, the intolerant gain advantage, politically and economically, because their intolerance is [mistakenly] protected by the tolerant. This brings more people into the group (they sense an economic or political advantage in belonging) giving it even greater political influence. The cycle is self-reinforcing. The intolerant group eventually grows to overwhelm the formerly tolerant society. 

This is why the answer to the original question: must we listen to Nazis, is no! Tolerating intolerance, possibly defensible on some theoretical grounds, is illogical because the intolerant are intrinsically corrosive to any society that tolerates them. Intolerance, like cancer, is inevitably destructive of the body that harbors it. It is not logical to do anything but struggle to root it out. 

This commentary is already long enough, but I would briefly address the second question only implicitly covered in the above discussion: what counts as legitimately disallowed intolerance? Suppose I am the publisher of an astronomy magazine. Must I allow the publication of an article arguing that the earth is flat and at the center of the universe? If I sponsor a conference of astronomers, must I allow the flat-earther an official voice with a formal presentation? Must I allow her to attend the conference at all? 

To all but the last question, the answer is no. As noted above, the issue is political and social intolerance, not intellectual disagreement. In my view, intolerance of intellectual viewpoints (“your ideas are idiotic”), even ad hominem (“you are an idiot”) do not automatically count as intolerance of the disallowed sort. My position as conference sponsor allows me to reject papers and speakers whose intellectual views clash strongly with my own. I am not denying this person a political or social voice or within her social group, nor social interaction with my group.

Forbidding her even to attend my conference might amount to disallowed intolerance provided she has not proven to be a disruptive influence at past conferences; this because a conference is a social as well as an intellectual event. To avoid unrealistic restrictions on human psychology, the tolerance demanded of every social and political organization is limited to the right of each organization as such to exist legitimately in the eyes of every other organization. The association of astronomers is not intolerant of the flat-earth society politically or socially, only intellectually. 

We might go on to examine a more complex and perhaps realistic case. Must the flat-earther be permitted to teach astronomy or earth science in a public school? Imagine she is otherwise qualified by having the appropriate teaching certificate. What complicates this example is the public nature of the school (supported by taxes on the community of all social groups in its district) coupled with the curriculum approved (presumably) by that community. I leave this example as an exercise for the reader. 

Review Know-it-all society by Michael Lynch (2019)

Another book about the polarization of American politics, this time, the viewpoint of individual and social psychology. Lynch makes some excellent general points about extreme polarization and unwillingness to listen to other views poisoning American politics. He well describes the harm this does to democratic polities in general and the U.S. in particular. There is nothing new in this. There have been other periods of extreme polarization in American politics, but not like this one since before the Civil War.

Among the new features, this time around, the Internet and the sheer scale of many modern corporations contribute to the problem. The Internet market is filled with people who actively seek to limit their exposure to ideas running counter to their own. Providing individuals tools to build these barriers to alternatives  (the same tools can explore alternate viewpoints) is just good business. Individuals, of their own free will, choose to use them to limit perspectives to which they are exposed. 

The Internet is but one facet of this problem of know-it-all arrogance infecting polities all over the world. Still, the pain is both acute and different in the U.S. and Europe because these are among the few places in the world (Australia, Japan, among others) where political and ideological alternatives are not criminalized. Lynch lays out the problem and its consequences both for the health of society and “the truth,” which he points out, is always out there even if not directly accessible or utterly denied by postmodern critics.

While the book is good in general terms, Lynch elides specific problems. He asks at one point, “must we listen to Nazis?” In other words, must a tolerant society tolerate intolerance? He asks the question but never really answers other than to point out that opinion on this goes both ways. 

If this is not a great book, it is a good one and another solid addition to the literature about dangerous sickness in Western cultures.