Tolerance as a Social Disease

How can anyone be against tolerance?  To English speakers, “tolerance” is not, first and foremost, a political idea; to the contrary, its political usage is an extension of its function as an everyday virtue.  Thus translating Russian screeds against “tolerance” can look a bit like an article from The Onion (“Whatever happens, we must make sure not to keep a level head.  As president, I advise all citizens to overreact to anything that annoys them.”) 

Such a caricature would be unfair.  Though the Russian language does have its own word for tolerance (“терпимость,” along the lines of “patience” or “putting up with something”), this term is rarely invoked in discussions about racial, ethnic, or sexual difference. Why this word was rejected is not entirely clearly; perhaps it still conjures up connotations with brothels due to the antiquated term “дом терпимости” (literally, “house of tolerance,” borrowed from the French “maison de tolerance”).  

Instead, acceptance of difference was saddled with yet another imported world (“tolerantnost’”), as if to emphasize that tolerance is not a local virtue.  This is a shame, because it foreclosed any attempt to mythologize tolerance as a Russian trait by rendering the attempt linguistically laughable.  Any discussion of the “tolerantnost’” of, say,  the nineteenth-century  Russian peasantry would be almost as jarring as taking about their access to Wi-Fi. 

Evolution.  Tolerance.  Feel the difference.

Evolution.  Tolerance.  Feel the difference.

An English- or French-speaking country can be full of intolerant people, but not people explicitly crusading against tolerance.  This is not the case in Russian, where tolerance joins liberalism and political correctness as terms whose ideas are framed to be as alien as their morphology. Just as liberals are routinely called “liberasy” (“libf*gs”), the proponents of tolerance are dismissed as “tolerasy (“tolerance f*ggots”).  The reliably outspoken Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin declared in 2012 that tolerance “is the death of freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and the transformation of a person into a mechanism with Western functions.” 

Film director Nikita Mikhalkov, a longtime Putin supporter and advocate of “traditional values,” takes issue with tolerance in his recent book, Besogon. [1] Most of his discussion is based on an article from the October 23, 2013 issue of Sut’ vremeni by Mariia Mamikonian.  Mamikonian’s initial target is the Soros Foundation, whose Open Society Institute she accuses of trying to destroy traditional Russian values through subversive grants and textbooks, and to its “Tolerance Center” in her home city of Ulyanovsk.  From there she moves to Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s series of children’s books about “difference” (“The Other. Others. About Others.”), which she and other local parents considered gay and pedophile propaganda. 

Mamikonian decides to investigate the origins of this strange word “tolerantnost’,” a word she first heard during perestroika.  She discovers that it is a medical term referring to the decrease in immunological reaction to foreign stimuli.   While she is right that “tolerance” has a medical meaning, she either deliberately or accidentally elevates its immunological connotation to the status of primary definition (a move that would be impossible in any language to which “tolerance” is native).  Thus “tolerance” is a plot by foreigners and liberals to weaken the Russian cultural immune system, rendering it susceptible to foreign moral infection. 

What is tolerance, really? I'll let you know after I kill this ugly monster.

What is tolerance, really? I'll let you know after I kill this ugly monster.

This is an old idea, of course: it recalls Nazi social hygiene and at the same time works well with the notion of Russian Orthodoxy as a cultural shield.  And it’s an idea that Mikhalkov clearly loves:

It turns out that the concept of tolerance is very closely linked to immunity—rather, to the lack of an immune response.

Immunity! National immunity!

What is national immunity? It’s the possibility of resisting anything that could destroy you, your family, your society, and your state.

Mikhalkov works himself up into a righteous frenzy, warning that tolerance will somehow  lead children to the unthinkable: the rejection of Pushkin. He closes on a warning:

It seems to me that the question of national immunity is a question of national security because if a people has been without immunity since childhood, has its system of roots undercut and its genetic code broken, you can do anything you want with it!

As a threat to social hygiene, tolerance is thus inherently dystopian, a nightmare future being built in the West and slowly exported eastward. In Russia, it has even become the key feature in a brand new sub genre of right-wing science fiction designed to scare and amuse its readers onto the path of righteousness: liberpunk.

Next: Smug New World



[1] The title of this book (and the tv series on which it is based) is supposed to link Mikhalkov to his namesake, Saint Nikita-Besogon, or, Nikita-who-drives-out-the-demons, but Mikhalkov seems unaware of the word’s much more current meaning in criminal slang: liar, deceiver, bullshitter.  I leave it up to my readers to decide which usage best applies.