The recent uproar against The Daily Mail – a British, right-wing daily – is the latest in a long line of liberal anger against the paper (this time sparked by a seemingly anti-semitic attack against the leader of the Labour Party’s father, and prominent left-winger, Ralph Milliband). Many left-leaning commentators have once again lined up in order to condemn the paper, but rather than jumping on the bandwagon, we should perhaps take a moment to reflect on how this recent foray against the Mail is but a microcosm of how liberal tolerance ‘works’ within our permissive society.
As Slavoj Zizek has superbly pointed out in a number of writings, liberals only express tolerance towards the ‘other’ so long as they remain the imagined other. In other words, a liberal might express their tolerance for Islam (perhaps having their own copy of the Koran or visiting Home-Office-approved Islamic destinations for their exotic holidays) but this tolerance is conditional in that they must adopt some of our values (i.e. don’t stone people to death, try and blow me up, or tell me about your beliefs). So long as they aren’t the real other, and remain as our imagined (acceptable, toned-down, westernised) version of the other, then we can tolerate them.
Although clearly I am not trying to argue that we should accept stonings or ‘terrorism’ (when used in the correct way), what this relationship nevertheless reveals is that the liberal needs something to disagree with – an ‘uncivilised, uneducated, ignorant’ real other – in order to establish their own superiority. By definition, one only ‘tolerates’ what we don’t want near us, and therefore whenever we are ‘tolerant’ of the other, we are enacting an oppression and power hierarchy that privileges the tolerator. To put it in a different way, because the liberal is the one who tolerates – and defines what can and cannot be tolerated – then they are necessarily placing themselves in a position of authority over the other.
So how does this relate to a recent The Daily Mail scandal? I suggest that the outraged liberal in this scenario is imagining the readership and journalists of the paper as their other: those ignorant, uneducated, racist, homophobic, sexist, BNP and EDL sympathetic masses who just don’t understand why they shouldn’t believe what they do. It’s this real other against which the ‘enlightened’ liberal of ‘middle class’ Britain positions themselves and therefore positions their power.
Liberals love to hate The Daily Mail because such publications reposition their self-righteousness – their enlightened superiority – over the other. This is both an imagined other who is constantly being reaffirmed in popular and political discourse – scrounging benefits, work-shy, un-educated, violent, drug and alcohol dependant, into vulgar forms of culture – and a real other that dares to challenge the liberal definition of what is tolerable behaviour.
The irony is, of course, that all the hatred and shock created around such stories only serves to promote The Daily Mail (which perhaps should be considered more of an entertainment channel, publishing content for ratings and revenue, than a news service). I wonder, for instance, how many of the hits on their website in the last week have been from enraged liberals, seeing what the real other dares to have said, rather than any regular readership of the paper. A ‘hit’ or a ‘sale’ – and therefore revenue – is the same whether the reader agrees or disagrees, and therefore liberals are actually only encouraging them to create more and more ‘outrageous’ stories.
Of course, I am not trying to defend The Daily Mail, but it seems to me that such scandals only make us look down for the problems of society rather than look up. Instead, why don’t we stop bashing The Daily Mail for a minute and look at the power wielded by the hoarders of capital – who get away with taking what they can from society then stashing it away in tax havens or disgustingly expensive investments (you’re wrong, Cameron, ‘profit’ is a dirty word) – then we can see that such a liberal intolerance of The Daily Mail actually only sustains such a system. In our rush to condemn their outrageous stories, we not only sustain their existence through our very attention, but we also ignore what’s going on behind us.