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May 14, 2009

The Marketing of Conceit


"Toleration is not the opposite of intolerance but the counterfeit of it. Both are despotisms: the one assumes to itself the right of withholding liberty of conscience, the other of granting it."
-- Thomas Paine, Rights of Man

The longevity of the spurious concept of tolerance among smart people never ceases to amaze me. The brilliant Seth Godin, author of one of my favorite marketing books, planted his flag on Tolerance Hill today, and I'm guessing that, as with most of Tolerance's great advocates, no fierce bombardment of arguments could remove him from it.

Wisely, Godin was not specific or direct in his criticism, lest he alienate his fans. However, it's possible to infer, given the entire context of the article, that he was subtly ridiculing a Polish politician who articulated a position that maintained that sizeable public investments should produce sustainable returns.

People who wrap themselves in the Tolerance Flag are quick to pat each other on the back to congratulate themselves on how tolerant and open-minded they are. However, they often mistake the self-congratulatory applause for being right, and they are quick to eschew all reason that contradicts them. They are so enamored with their assumed virtues that they lack interest in hearing any argument that demonstrates contradiction.

"The nations...cling to their opinions as much from pride as from conviction. They cherish them because they hold them to be just and because they chose them of their own free will; and they adhere to them, not only because they are true, but because they are their own... It was remarked by a man of genius that 'ignorance lies at the two ends of knowledge.' Perhaps it would have been more correct to say that strong convictions are found only at the two ends, and that doubt lies in the middle." - Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Tolerance is not a virtue, and it is not superior to intolerance. Both of them are simply conceit, and neither of them deserve marketer's promotions.

If confronted with someone who doesn't value the same things you do, you may indeed attempt to sway his opinion and change his behavior (after all, as Godin essentially notes, this is what marketing is about), but keep in mind that with respect to the virtue of those beliefs, "[N]o earthly power can determine between you." - Cam Beck


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I think Seth's example was a poor choice, as procreation within zoos represents a common sense take on life over extinction, at least in the Polish politician's mind. Furthermore, the politician is merely reflecting on the usage of citizen funding. He might be wrong about the elephan'ts sexual preference, but his statement represents neither tolerance nor intolerance, but simply a point of view. Perhaps Seth should return to discussing business and leave politics to others.

As for tolerance v. intolerance, again I agree: One can be as ugly or as beautiful as the other, depending upon one's point of view and neither represent truth.

Hey, Lewis -
I don't mind at all that Seth Godin or anyone else writes about politics, morality, or zoology on his blog. His blog, his choice.

After all, some of the best things I read from Seth is when he tackles some seemingly obscure issue and ties it into something else that would otherwise seem to be unrelated. Done successfully, the point turns out to be both profound and interesting.

However, as is true with anyone who publishes opinion (including you and me), once it's out there, others can (and probably will) deconstruct and criticize it.

When using my blog to do so, I first seek to be intellectually honest. Then I see if I can add to the discussion. I then consider if it's relevant to my audience and if I can articulate my position in a way that they will also find interesting.

Irrespective of my decision to post, sometimes I can, and sometimes I can't.

God knows this certainly isn't the first time I've disagreed with someone and chose to write about it here on this blog, and it won't be the last.

However, none of it detracts from the respect I hold for those individuals (including Seth). In fact, in this case, it is because of that respect that I chose to write about it.

Seth's politics are pretty easy to spot if you read him regularly. Even when his politics differ from mine, I continue to read his blog. I guess that makes me tolerant.

Hi, Jay -
I find that's true for a lot of authors. Sometimes it's brief and subtle enough to avoid distraction, but sometimes I want to call out, "Enough already! It's beside the point. Move on!"

And I guess that's really the rub. If it's germane to the point the authors are making then it's completely appropriate to bring it up.

However, if they're not prepared to make a strong argument for something that is so clearly arguable, or if their shtick is to make insinuations instead of arguments, well... I appreciate that far less.

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