See Helen F. Wilson’s most recent contribution to Society & Space here: The Possibilities of Tolerance: Intercultural Dialogue in a Multicultural Europe


On June 23rd 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union with a majority of 52%. Whilst a close result was predicted, the outcome sent shockwaves through British politics and saw the Prime Minister, David Cameron, resign from his post. The UK’s EU referendum followed a divisive campaign, years of political agitation by the UK Independence Party (UKIP), a tabloid press hostile to the European project, and internal struggles within the Conservative Party over its relationship with the EU. Yet the reasons behind the leave result are far from clear-cut. Whilst the Eurobarometer has persistently revealed UK citizens to be the least likely to feel European, so-called “Brexit” might also be taken as evidence of a wider breakdown in social relations, trust in the “establishment,” and resource distribution (see Closs-Stephens for an overview).

Since the referendum, commentators have focused on the role of austerity politics, postcolonial anxieties, the rise of English nationalism, political populism, and generational differences in an effort to make sense of the result. Whilst multiple perspectives abound, at the center of this particular piece is the sharp rise in hate-crime and anti-immigrant sentiment that has been observed since the vote to leave the EU. More specifically, I am interested in what this rise says about the state of “British tolerance,” or rather, how it has contributed to the sense that Brexit has marked a “purge of inclusive values.” In this context, what does tolerance look like and is it really a lost ideal? Drawing on the work of Wendy Brown (2006), I argue that tolerance offers a form of suspension that can be intrinsic to new ways of relating, but that it can also produce inequalities that perpetuate disdain for others. Understanding how and when the possibilities and problems of tolerance arise is important.

In the days and weeks after the referendum, school children were told to “go home” by classmates, Muslims were spat at in the street, Polish cultural centers were attacked, and racist graffiti daubed across homes and public property. This increase in hate crime has shown no signs of abating, with recent weeks marked by fresh reports of violent attacks and racist abuse. Whilst the scale and potency has been notable, these events have not occurred in a vacuum, and nor are they entirely new. As anti-racist scholars have argued, the rhetoric of shock and outrage at the “unprecedented” nature of such racist and xenophobic hate, has the effect of recasting racism as somehow exceptional, as linked only “to extraordinary events” (Emejulu, 2016: 89). In accounts of shock, racial harassment and violence are presented as anomalies rather than something that exists at the heart of British life. Yet politicians and media outlets that have been so quick to voice their disgust and promote the country’s tolerant values in the aftermath of the referendum, have been guilty of irresponsible campaigning, fear mongering, and years of hostile policies that have legitimized intolerance without concern for the consequences (see James O’Brien on The Sun’s Brexit rhetoric; and Wodak, 2015 on the normalization of nationalistic and racist rhetoric in politics). As the recent Eurobarometer report suggests, prominent political figures have not only failed to condemn racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric, but have also “created and entrenched prejudices.” This is a trend that shows no sign of slowing.

Describing recent events as an issue of intolerance falls woefully short of capturing the hate that they expose and the damage and violence they inflict. More importantly, describing racism and xenophobia as issues of intolerance automatically implies—indeed implicitly accepts—that non-white British citizens and migrants should be the focus of tolerance in the first place. As Brown (2006) has forcefully argued, political discourses of tolerance not only stabilize inequality, they actively produce it by naming those that are to be tolerated. Tolerance is a second-order virtue that responds to dislike, disdain, and disapproval. Without negative feeling there is no need for tolerance. Yet for years, tolerance has been hailed as a core British value. Taught in classrooms up and down the country as a mandatory part of values education, it is hailed as something to be proud of and too often presented as evidence of a nation at ease with its diversity. Such uncritical celebration has concealed its negative credentials and the unequal forms of power that work to privilege some, whilst subordinating others.

In the months since the UK’s EU referendum, Wendy Brown’s (2006) critique of political tolerance is as relevant now as it was a decade ago. As commentators mourn the loss of “British tolerance,” I want to focus on the forms of suspension that tolerance enables and the problems that come with this suspension. Tolerance is important in times of conflict and it would be impossible to move from hate to understanding without it, for it is key to withholding violence (Wilson, 2014). Tolerance can thus be of real value, but only if it enables the emergence of something else—something better. In this scenario, tolerance is, by necessity, a temporary condition. Yet for too long, tolerance has been a political end in itself; something to work towards but never beyond. In short, tolerance has become static, allowing it to permanently fix others in a subordinate position.

As Brown suggests, the operations of tolerance are “reversible—sometimes emancipatory, sometimes subordinating, sometimes both at once” (14). Brown further points to the issue of political and moral Manichaeism: “if we assume that inequality is bad then equality is good, if slavery is bad then freedom is good. So if intolerance is bad, tolerance is good” (42). And here lies the core problem. As Brown argues, there is no question that we would all prefer tolerance to violence and persecution if they were the effects of intolerance. But tolerance is always holding something back and, as recent events have highlighted, it is often something “dark” or violent (Brown and Rainer, 2014: 42). Tolerance is haunted by the danger of the return. If tolerance is nothing more than a withholding of violence or action in the face of something that is disliked, what happens when the justification for tolerance is no longer there? In the aftermath of the UK’s EU referendum, we have seen an emboldened toxicity. A negative leave campaign that was fought largely on issues of immigration has seemingly given racism and anti-immigrant sentiment legitimacy (see here for a report on Nigel Farage’s anti-migrant poster and here for the Vote Leave leaflet featuring Syria and Iraq). Immigrants and non-white British citizens have been confronted with cries of “Go home! We voted you out,” whilst the announcement of the referendum results were immediately met with calls for the start of repatriations (see here). As Khalili (2016: 30) has argued, the leave result has highlighted just how thin the”‘veneer of civility” is and how easily it “can be peeled back to reveal the virulence of racism and xenophobia seething under the skin of British life.”

The current situation, in which appeals for tolerance are made as a direct response to the open and violent expression of xenophobia and racism, presents the kind of paradox that was discussed back in 2008 during a public debate between Wendy Brown and Rainer Forst. As Forst argued, it is without doubt that tolerance would be welcome over violence, but if we call for xenophobes and racists to be tolerant, their objection to migrants and ethnic minorities is not directly challenged, indeed it is implicitly accepted. “If you believe tolerance is genuinely the means against intolerance than you often implicitly accept an objection… whereas the objection should be our main aim of critique” (40). In short, “racists shouldn’t learn to be tolerant… Racism is something we fight against—we don’t fight for tolerant racists” (40).

As Blasi and Holhey (Brown and Rainer, 2014: 90) note, the “tolerant racist” is one of the clearest examples of the tensions that lie at the heart of debates on tolerance. If, as Forst argues, tolerance requires both objection and acceptance (an objection towards a conviction, person, or practice and an acceptance that they have no reason or right to act on that objection), then those that refrain from acting, despite holding the greatest of objections, might also be considered the most tolerant and thus of greater virtue. This brings us back to the challenge of setting out a clear account of what objections are considered reasonable or justifiable in the first place.

Whilst it is pertinent to challenge the objection, there is another aspect to this debate that deserves comment. The focus on the figure of the racist also performs another move and that is to detract from the structural conditions, media rhetoric and government policies that have played a role in shaping, legitimating and creating the very “intolerance” that politicians and the media have been so quick to denounce in the wake of the Brexit vote. To frame racism as a form of “inter-personal violence” is to “ignore the power relations that maintain and legitimize racial hierarchy” (Emejulu, 2016: 89). It is to ignore the austerity policies that have exacerbated inequality, the discourses of terror that have demonized communities, and the legacies of colonial violence and imperial governance upon which Britain is built (Gilroy, 2005; Kundnani, 2014). It is to deny institutional racism (Ahmed, 2012), and to ignore how migrants have been blamed for economic dislocation, growing inequalities, rising unemployment, and a stretched social welfare by those in positions of power (Khalili, 2016). To frame racism and xenophobia as matters of individual intolerance is to therefore depoliticize them. It is to absolve the government and the media of responsibility at a time when it is vital to question what made such hate possible in the first place.

In this respect, Brown’s (Brown and Rainer, 2014) critique of tolerance is both important and damning, leaving the possibilities for a valuable form of political tolerance seemingly slim. Brown’s critique of tolerance as a political discourse leaves Blasi and Holhey (Brown and Rainer, 2014) to question the limitations that Brown imposes on the “field where tolerance can be beneficial” (88). As they suggest, Brown’s assessment of tolerance seems to locate its value only at an individual level and in the realm of the non-political. This sees tolerance as valuable only in allowing people to get along on a day-to-day basis in which people tolerate their neighbors’ loud music, the repugnant smell of a colleague’s lunch, or the close, bodily proximity of a fellow bus passenger. But is this all tolerance is good for? And is it really possible to avoid tolerance altogether and move directly to other forms of relation?

I suggest that there is more to be said about the possibilities of tolerance as a political tool. In my piece in this journal (Wilson, 2014), I placed emphasis on the “suspension” that tolerance allows. Suspended judgement is crucial if we are to bring Others closer (Butler, 2005). Critique, debate, and learning cannot take place until violence is suspended. Until this happens, the unreasonable objections that Forst speaks of cannot be addressed. Tolerance suspends action, but suspension is time-sensitive. It marks an interlude or an interruption. This period of suspension must be used constructively to target, discuss, and challenge the very basis of the objections for which it was necessary to call for tolerance in the first place. This does not make tolerance an ideal solution but rather a second-best option in circumstances where time is needed to address and dismantle the causes of hate. In a context where the implied permanence of tolerance is so problematic, but where a “simultaneous readiness” to move to respect or acceptance is unrealistic (Brown and Rainer, 2014: 95), tolerance is valuable as a temporary measure—but only as a temporary measure. As Schirmer et al (2012: 1052) argue, “whilst tolerance might be a required minimum of social interaction, stagnancy on that level involves a life without dignity.” And it is this stagnancy that allows hate to remain in place and unchallenged.

The question of temporality connects most urgently to some of the recent metaphors that have been used to discuss the open racism and xenophobia that has marked the months surrounding the referendum. Commentators have sounded warnings about the difficulty of putting “the genie back in the bottle,” the “lid back on the box,” or in replacing the rock that has exposed the darkness underneath. This captures what is wrong with current discourse. There should be no bottle, no box and no rock. It is not enough to seek out new ways to contain the hate and it is also pertinent to question from whom has this hate been hidden. Rather than asking how hate might be concealed from those who are privileged enough to ignore it, we should be asking how we address hate head on. Tolerance is a suspension and not a solution. It can open up a space for action, but it can also become an excuse to do nothing. It is therefore just as likely to (re)produce aversion as it is to tackle it, and just as likely to subordinate as it is to emancipate. When tolerance is necessary, these negative potentials have to be kept in sight and the suspension that tolerance affords has to be used constructively—and we might start by addressing the role of the media in entrenching racist and anti-immigrant sentiment.

As recent events in the UK have demonstrated, when tolerance is celebrated as a core value and political end, nothing is done to address the negative foundations upon which tolerance is built. Until this is recognized, the far more difficult challenge of addressing the conditions of hate cannot begin.



Ahmed S (2012) On Being Included: Racism and diversity in institutional life. Durham: Duke University Press.

Brown W (2006) Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the age of identity and empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Brown W and Rainer F (2014) Di Blasi L and Holzhey FE (eds) The Power of Tolerance: a debate. New York: Columbia University Press.

Butler J (2005) Giving an Account of Oneself. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Emejulu A (2016) On the Hideous Whiteness of Brexit. In: Verso Books (ed) The Brexit Crisis: a Verso report. London: Verso, pp.30-45.

Gilroy P (2005) Postcolonial Melancholia. New York: Columbia University Press.

Khalili L (2016) After Brexit: Reckoning with Britain’s Racism and Xenophobia. In: Verso Books (ed) The Brexit Crisis: a Verso report. London: Verso, pp.30-45.

Kundnani A (2014) The Muslims are Coming!: Islamophobia, extremism, and the domestic war on terror. London, Verso.

Schirmer W, Weidenstedt L, and Reich W (2012) From tolerance to respect in inter-ethnic contexts.
Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 38: 1049–1065.

Wilson HF (2014) The possibilities of tolerance: intercultural dialogue in a multicultural Europe. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32(5): 852-868.

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Helen F. Wilson is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Environment, Education and Development at the University of Manchester.