Strimpel: When intolerance is a virtue

Yale is a diverse place, and as such, it has evolved strategies to stem potential conflict that can arise from diversity. We cannot live a day at Yale without being exposed to posters, pamphlets, articles or chalk on sidewalks that implicitly ask us to be aware and tolerant of someone’s opinion. We are, in general, expected to countenance ideas that are batted about campus, not by dint of their value as ideas, but merely because some proportion of students adhere to them. And at Yale everyone is encouraged to have an opinion.

Indeed, academic institutions in general these days are governed by ideas of multiculturalism, tolerance and political correctness. The ideological revolution of the 1960s has continued to hold sway in institutions of higher learning.

As we daily imbibe explicit and implicit assumptions from this tradition, something important of the older ways is lost. One of the virtues that has been sidelined is intolerance.

How can intolerance be a virtue? Intolerance is associated with prejudice and hatred, and these are indeed manifestations of intolerance. But intolerance can also take the form of integrity. Someone who is intolerant of mediocrity is merely upholding his or her standard of excellence.

Take the example of culture. We have inherited the conviction that culture, subjected to the market, is and must be democratic in nature. If a new album is selling well, who are you to say it’s no good? You might say you don’t like it, but how can you say it’s no good? This attitude embodies a very specific idea of culture. Buried in this conception is the idea that culture exists to entertain us, to cater to what we already know and appreciate, to be a reflection of the lowest common denominator. But a truly great work is rarely appreciated by a majority of people, and to be intolerant of mediocrity is to give meaning to praise, to create room for those works of true value to distinguish themselves. Rather than catering to the existing desires of the general public, culture should be a force that creates cultured people, elevating people’s sensibilities and sharpening their perception. It may be elitist to claim that the great thinkers point the way, and we the public must follow, but it is stultifying to say that all culture should be subject to the will of the majority and to deny culture any objectivity.

Of course, if we travel along this tack, we run the risk of developing a more dangerous kind of intolerance. Intolerance of culture should not be confused with intolerance of people. The point is not that people are either born to produce things of value or they are not. If this were so, it would be a short jump to a wholesale persecution of those who are considered to be inferior. Rather, everyone has certain strengths and weaknesses and a unique contribution to make to mankind. The intolerance I am advocating would, in fact, provide people with a basis for understanding where their strengths and weaknesses lie, for they would not be led down a path in which they have no aptitude by the false praise of the democratizers of culture.

If culture is not democratic, who gets to decide what is great and what is mediocre? Nobody. Ultimately, those works that stand the test of time, producing offshoots in many directions, are those with the stamp of greatness. People in every generation can find some new facet of a great work fresh and important for their own time. And so my insistence that we be intolerant is really a call for the continued appreciation of culture that stands the test of time, over and above the noise of the creation and destruction of that which is mediocre and which is inevitably forgotten within a short span of time.

When we develop a reverence for longevity and greatness, we will be more intolerant of the mediocrity of the barrage of ideas that assaults us at Yale every day, and this in turn might give us the much-needed time and space to devote to the ideas that are truly worthwhile.

Daniel Strimpel is a sophomore in Silliman College.