Your complimentary articles
You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please
The Last Supper
Terri Murray watches a liberal death squad in operation. (Warning: Contains spoilers!)
There’s never been a better time to rewind back to Stacy Title’s prescient 1996 film The Last Supper, a prophetic morality tale about what happens when would-be champions of liberal tolerance fail to hold themselves to tolerance’s demands.
Five ostensibly liberal post-grad students living in small town Iowa have a Sunday night ritual of inviting a guest to dinner as a stimulus to topical debate and intellectual sparring. It’s all rather civilized until the night when a stranger, Zach, assists Pete after his car breaks down. As their invited guest has cancelled, the five invite Zach to stay and dine with them instead. Desert Storm veteran Zach doesn’t share the graduates’ worldview, to put it mildly. The veneer of civility quickly crumbles once Zach begins to expound his right-wing views, including that Hitler “had the right idea”, that black people have quick tempers, and that liberals are feckless “pussies” who never actually do anything other than whine. Things spiral out of control when Zach pulls a knife on Marc, threatens to rape his girlfriend, and later breaks Pete’s arm. In a moment of panic, Marc stabs the redneck in the back, killing him.
At the prospect of a murder rap they don’t deserve the graduates bury the corpse in their garden. Before it has even grown cold, the group convene a panic-stricken meeting and come up with the following question: “It’s 1909. You’re in a pub in Austria, having a Schnapps with a stranger… Let’s say his name is Adolf. Now Adolf at this point in his life has done no wrong. He’s not bitter. He’s not angry. He’s committed no crime, he does not bring knives to the dinner table, he’s not killed anybody, he certainly hasn’t started a world war. Do you kill him? Do you poison his Schnapps to save all those millions of innocent people?” This question forms the catalyst for the housemates’ reconfiguration of their collective guilt into a public service: Zach was ‘Hitler’ and they’ve made the world a better place by shutting him up, permanently. They then set off on a path of righteous activism against right-wing ignorance, which they justify as a remedy to the passivity Zach had accused them of. They form a pact to eliminate evil by literally exterminating (via poisoned wine) at first any dinner guest that expresses far-right ideas; but later, just conservative views; and, ultimately, any ideas they happen to find distasteful.
Zach and Marc getting acquainted
Last Supper images © Sony Pictures 1996
So these defenders of the tolerant liberal worldview refuse to tolerate ways of life that conflict with it. Their intolerant approach to other peoples’ intolerant ideas illustrates an apparent paradox in the liberal conception of tolerance: it would seem contradictory of the ideal for it to be imposed on people. Paradoxically, these liberals are absolutely intolerant of non-liberalism. However, this apparently fatal flaw in liberalism is a mirage. The Iowa housemates are not liberals, because they do not champion the liberal principle of tolerance, which is content-neutral, but only champion those viewpoints in which the content is broadly liberal/tolerant. In fact, they are too cynical about the value of genuine diversity to actually live up to its demands. The classic liberal political philosophers (Locke, Mill, Paine) had faith in reason and persuasion as the best means of combating the influence of pernicious ideas. These Iowa pseudo-liberals distrust other peoples’ reason and think they have an exclusive monopoly on it.
When we first encounter the housemates at the beginning of the film, four of them are squirming in front of the TV as a reactionary tub-thumper named Norman Arbuthnot spouts hateful opinions about feminists. Arbuthnot is the arch-enemy of progressive values – a Marine LePen- or Rush Limbaugh-like mouthpiece for populist bigotry. Despite wincing at his sexist rants, they acknowledge that they “should be helping” Paulie prepare their dinner, yet none of them do. This foreshadows the hypocrisy that will tarnish their self-image throughout the narrative.
Their self-contradiction comes full circle by the end of the film when through a chance encounter, they manage to snare ‘big fish’ Arbuthnot in their poisonous net. As the dinner conversation unfolds, they find to their astonishment that Arbuthnot’s views are less extreme than their own, and that despite his admittedly prickly public persona and inflammatory rhetoric, he is the real champion of liberal tolerance. When Luke, the graduates’ ring-leader, says to Arbuthnot that his views are extreme, and “extreme views incite people to extreme measures,” Norman replies that he “can’t be held responsible for every nutcase who thinks I mean something when I mean something else.” He explains that he needs to say outrageous things in order to be heard, since he’s not an elected representative but just a concerned citizen who sees things that he wants to comment on. He’s the voice of dissent, following in the footsteps of Jefferson, Monroe and Paine. In response Paulie voices the pseudo-liberal’s worst fear: that Arbuthnot may become too influential. What’s odd about her objection is that the students, who through their expensive college educations are in the best possible position to formulate counter-arguments, don’t seem willing to do so. Instead they want a short cut that will pre-empt, and cut off, ‘dangerous’ (non-liberal) speech before it can be aired (or, God forbid, evaluated). This stance presupposes that they are infallible guardians of wisdom and truth. They so prefer this illiberal brand of authoritarianism that they abandon the classical liberal emphasis on reason altogether, and instead of using it to persuade their opponents, adopt the method of coercion anathema to J.S. Mill – violence.
There is a liberal policy of protectiveness towards perceived victims of the established order. Yet the students’ brand of ‘diversity’ has been transformed into a rigid orthodoxy that proclaims the unambiguous and uncritical acceptance of ‘difference’ not because of the merits of the other’s viewpoint(s), but merely because the person or group who expounds it is different to the mainstream. However, to use Mill’s word, the idea that decent, reasonable people “just know” that the generic, abstract value of “difference” is always right, has become a “tyranny” defended by the majority, and anyone who disagrees can only have one kind of motive – the bigoted (ie wrong) kind. Moreover, the housemates seem to think that Arbuthnot’s followers are somehow especially susceptible or vulnerable because of his persuasive powers. But as Arbuthnot says, “Followers of Nelson Mandela commit murder. Followers of Gandhi kill people… People do what they want to do.” While Arbuthnot acknowledges that harmful people exist on both the extreme left and the extreme right, he suggests that “the more extreme those opposites get, the more moderate this society becomes, because when you average out all those extremes, you come out with a society that’s pretty well anchored in the middle. And that’s what we all want, isn’t it? A society where all of us can live? All races, all religions, all views living together.” When they put their Austrian pub question to him, he says he would “absolutely not” poison Hitler, but would instead “talk to the man, try to show him the error of his ways to the best of my ability, challenge his ideas, exchange thoughts, provoke change by intelligent debate.”
Given the unexpected turn this dinner conversation has taken, the five convene a spontaneous meeting in the kitchen to “prepare dessert” – that is, to debate whether there is really warrant for exterminating their arch-enemy, given that his views are making a lot of sense. The trouble is, they are no longer capable of debate, even amongst themselves. They have abandoned reasoned argument because they just know that they are right. Luke, unable to tolerate dissent, pulls a gun, and threatens to kill them if they swerve from their plan.
The students are minorities with ostensibly left-wing values. As such, they are perfect proxies for today’s ‘safe space’ crusaders of no-platform identity politics. By contrast, Norman Arbuthnot expresses views that most even moderate liberals would probably consider offensive at best and repugnant at worst. Yet he himself is not intolerant. He is not preventing anyone else from responding to his views, nor does he want to punish dissenters or coerce compliance. He’s simply expressing offensive ideas.
Free expression – even of ideas that are blasphemous, challenging, tasteless, unorthodox, sacrilegious, disturbing, forbidden, and taboo – is something genuine champions of tolerance have always defended. J.S. Mill, the godfather and architect of liberal political philosophy, advocated the “absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological” however immoral the opinion or sentiment may seem (On Liberty, 1859, p.71). This of course includes the freedom to disagree with what other people say.
The concept of ‘intolerance’ means more than making verbal objections to others’ views. Tolerant people do object to other people’s views, often in quite vocal and acerbic ways. Tolerant people fully accept (and endorse) all manner of non-violent dissent, satire, ridicule and criticism. Tolerance allows for a willingness to engage in debate and argument, to withstand offensive views. By contrast, intolerance implies rejection of the other’s fundamental right to dissent, and so denies them self-determination. Intolerance implies an unwillingness to abide offensive, taboo, or unorthodox opinions in any form. Intolerant individuals or groups dictate how others must live. This is what makes the Iowa housemates intolerant even as they imagine themselves to be champions of freedom and diversity.
Ron Perlman as Norman Arbuthnot
In 2000 I interviewed Elinor Tatum, Editor of The New York Amsterdam News, a Harlem-based African-American newspaper with progressive roots. The previous year Tatum had been on the receiving end of a media storm after defending the right of the Ku Klux Klan to hold a demonstration in New York City. The then New York Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, had attempted to divide and conquer his liberal critics by denying that organization a permit to hold a rally in the city with their traditional white hoods. His aim was to force liberals into a dilemma that would tempt them to abandon their traditional commitment to absolute freedom of expression for all ideas by pitting this ideal against their bedrock anti-racist sympathies. During his tenure, the Mayor had trampled on all manner of free expression that was critical of him or his policies. While he combated the kinds of petty crime visible to tourists, the maverick mayor had also stacked up a record-long list of civil liberty law suits against his administration, so banning demos was par for the course. Tatum had taken the heat from her support base to defend the principle of free expression that she knew in the long run would protect all minorities, including ethnic minorities. She told me that she and her associates realized that “we could not rightly stand up for any organization that we believed in, if we couldn’t stand up for an organization that we abhorred what they said… that is the true test of civil liberties.” She knew that Giuliani was presenting liberals with a false dilemma. Yet to many of her liberal allies at the time she seemed a turncoat. Meanwhile Giuliani, the seemingly ‘liberal’ defender of NYC from the scourge of the KKK, had established a double standard, allowing demonstrations he liked – such as a rally to celebrate the New York Yankees World Series victory – but disallowing those he disliked – such as demos by the New Black Panthers, taxi cab drivers, or AIDS advocacy organizations. As it turned out, the principle of free speech prevailed in this case, and some twelve Klansmen held a pathetic demonstration in downtown New York City while more than two hundred counter-demonstrators gathered opposite them to exercise their right to protest.
Tatum is right. Tolerance is not an attitude that one adopts depending upon the content of the speech or the personal qualities of the speaker, but aims instead at structural equality. Because it is a principled approach, it applies equally and consistently to all forms of speech and to all speakers, regardless of the good taste or not of their expressions. So tolerance is a principled form of forbearance, and is distinct from weakness, indifference or a passive laissez-faire attitude. German philosopher and political theorist Rainer Forst defined tolerance as a three-stage mind-set involving (1) an objection to a belief or action; (2) an acceptance component, such that positive reasons for tolerating the belief or action trump negative ones; and (3) limits to our acceptance, such that some beliefs and activities are regarded as intolerably wrong. There must be some specified limits to toleration to distinguish it from an arbitrary or apolitical response, and the reasons we give for rejecting (that is, not tolerating) certain kinds of beliefs or activities must outweigh the reasons for accepting them.
In drawing the line between objectionable-but-tolerable ideas/activities and those that are simply intolerable, many Western liberals have utilised Mill’s ‘harm principle’. While the pseudo-liberals in The Last Supper seem to think it’s not permissable to let people do ‘bad’ (but harmless) things, or even to hold ‘immoral’ ideas, Mill argues the opposite: “The only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over any member of a civilized society, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant” (On Liberty, p.68). There are famous difficulties in determining what counts as ‘harm to others’, but Mill’s followers have traditionally maintained a very narrow understanding of harm, to encompass only those activities that physically injure or constrain others or otherwise damage their “permanent interests as progressive beings.” Offense does neither. Indeed Plato suggested the reverse – that Socrates, in being a ‘stinging insect’ on the body politic of Athens, provided a healthy stimulus to the Athenian status quo.
The Austrian-British philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper (1902-1994) also recognized the danger in censoring intolerant attitudes. He thought it preferable to counter them with rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, but he too understood that a limit on tolerance is integral to its definition: “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them” (The Open Society and Its Enemies, 1945). Popper maintained that society has a right to suppress intolerant attitudes if the mouthpieces of those attitudes refuse to engage in rational argument and refuse their followers the right to hear alternative views.
So tolerance must have limits. But The Last Supper illustrates what happens when the line of tolerance is drawn at offensive speech, and why this threshold is far too low. The key to tolerance is reciprocity, which is guaranteed by structural equality in freedom of speech, not by policing the content of speech. Structural equality puts a legal brake on the hypocrisy exercised by intolerant individuals. If we draw the line at the expression of what we think of as repellent ideas, then we have refused to extend to others the same privilege we want for ourselves. All of us, even the most authoritarian zealots, want to be sovereign over our own thoughts and minds, and the freedom to pursue our own values. This is why classic liberal philosophers have had a much higher threshold for offensive speech, and would limit only those actions that interfere with the reciprocal liberty of others to live according to their beliefs.
Because it aims only at a fair framework within which all variety of ideas can be expressed rather than the promotion of some particular content, liberalism can and does accommodate illiberal worldviews. The limits liberal states place on the freedom of illiberal ideologies, are there to protect the equal freedom of others, not to constrain the individual zealot in the expression of his beliefs or the practice of his ideology or religion. Religious and other zealots can and do live, and thrive, within liberal democracies, up to the point that they try to coerce others to conform to their worldview. By contrast, within illiberal regimes such as Saudi Arabia, liberals and progressives will never be free to pursue their own ways of living.
The housemates in The Last Supper champion a unilateral, not reciprocal, form of tolerance vis-à-vis the content of beliefs. This makes the ostensibly progressive ideas they champion into dead dogmas, believed not with the conviction that arises from critical reflection and the tussle with opposing ideas, but with the conviction that arises from an Orwellian group-think mentality.
© Dr Terri Murray 2016
Terri Murray is an American author, essayist and educator. She taught philosophy and film studies for over ten years at Hampstead College of Fine Arts & Humanities in London, where she is currently Director of Studies. She is also author of Feminist Film Studies: A Teacher’s Guide (Auteur, Columbia U.P., 2007).