Virtual Freedom and Tolerance: The Perils of Uniform Diversity

Britain’s Mass Observation project consisted of hundreds of people keeping journals of their daily lives in order to generate a sociological snapshot of British society in the 1930s. Today, researchers are undertaking similar studies of our societies by looking at blogs.

Anyone engaged in such research would probably find that our societies are not lacking in diversity. Every ethnicity, ideology, religion and fetish known to humankind is probably represented in cyberspace. But does this diversity translate into more tolerance? Given the general state of affairs in the world, the answer would seem to be resoundingly negative.

Some argue that the conflicts caused by the increased contact of dissimilar people can only be alleviated through more tolerant behavior. Thus, a keystone of modern democracy is that, despite differences of all kinds, citizens should exercise tolerance and agree that the one thing that unites us all is our desire to be governed justly and be treated equally.

On the one hand, I’m interested in exploring if technology can, by increasing the presence of diverse voices and facilitating dialogue, lead to increased understanding and tolerance. On the other hand, I’m also interested in the limits of tolerance as exercised by a society through hybrid mass-public media such as the internet.

Related to the latter line of inquiry, it seems to me that a major obstacle in working towards a genuine understanding of the Other is precisely our modern conceptualization of tolerance and freedom. Richard Hoggart, in his 1957 book The Uses of Literacy, described how freedom started to acquire a particularly authoritarian edge in the age of mass communications. Hoggart analyzed how print media served to construct an ‘Anything Goes’ culture in which freedom was attached to materialistic goals and consumption, excluding development of the Self and understanding of the Other in any meaningful way.

“[T]he concept of freedom may widen until it becomes the freedom not to ‘be’ anything at all, and certainly hardly to object to anything at all. A man is free not to choose, but if he uses his freedom to choose so as to be unlike the majority, he is likely to be called ‘narrow-minded’, ‘bigoted’, ‘dogmatic’, ‘intolerant’, ‘a busybody’, ‘undemocratic’… Tolerance becomes not so much a charitable allowance for human frailty and the difficulties of ordinary lives, as a weakness, a ceaseless leaking-away of the will-to-decide on matters outside the immediate touchable orbit.” (p.133)

Pressure to conform, as imposed by this brand of ‘freedom,’ prevents people from defining themselves in any moral way, and any expression of belief that contradicts any other belief results in accusations of hypocrisy or fanaticism. Thus, if one values freedom, it is best to not believe.

“The reasoning seems to be as follows: (1) The only value is freedom; (2) Therefore to have an open mind is the only firm line required; but (3) These people have suggested that some uses of freedom may be wrong; they have taken a moral line; and therefore, (4) They must be hypocrites; they are hiding something; they want freedom for themselves, but not for others. This is the other side of the coin which has ‘sincerity’ on its face. If you accept total freedom, but do not advocate any ‘line’ of your own, you may come in for praise because your muddling through indicates that you are ‘sincere, anyway’. Suggest a rule and you will attract the full weight of opprobrium for the greatest sin in the new catalogue, ‘hypocrisy’.” (p. 155)

This results in a society in which the very availability of ‘freedom’ weakens our ability to negotiate differences and draw boundaries. Are we better human beings for allowing ourselves to live in a society in which all beliefs, no matter how corrupt or perverted, are tolerated? Hoggart argues that real tolerance comes at a high cost.

“The tolerance of men [sic] who have some strength and are prepared, if necessary, to use it, is a meaningful tolerance; the tolerance of those whose muscles are flabby and spirits unwilling is simply a ‘don’t-hit-me’ masquerading as mature agreement. Genuine tolerance is a product of vigour, belief, a sense of the difficulty of truth and a respect for others; the new tolerance is weak and unwilling, a fear and resentment of challenge.” (p.134)

Finally, it is interesting to note how for Hoggart, centralization and technology went hand in hand as far as imposing this new ‘freedom.’ People in a mass society find freedom in the consumption of newer technologies, and the sense of belonging that they afford. However, although these technologies advertise new freedoms of expression and assembly, they may come at the cost of other freedoms in ways we may not have yet become fully aware of.

[T]he problem is acute and pressing–how that freedom may be kept as in any sense a meaningful thing whilst the processes of centralisation and technological development continue. This is a particularly intricate challenge because, even if substantial inner freedom were lost, the great new classless class would be unlikely to know it: its members would still regard themselves as free and be told that they were free.” (p.268)

Freedoms gained and exercised exclusively in virtuality fit totalitarian interests like a glove.

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