Free Speech and Misreading The Paradox of Tolerance

In the aftermath of the horrific Charlottesville rally, a memed quote by Carl Popper called “The Paradox of Tolerance” started making the rounds on leftist Internet. I’ve heard it invoked regularly since by figures like Vaush and Science Mike (this isn’t a dig at either of these creators. I admire both of them for different reasons. Please don’t be mean to them.) I myself have favorably invoked the Paradox in private conversation. The “Paradox” is this:

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.

I have seen this quote invoked in order to give a free pass to shutting down, suppressing, and deplatforming ugly ideas. It seems like a clever loophole within the broad liberal principle of free speech: we can allow all ideas to be expressed except those we deem intolerant or distasteful. This makes a sort of intuitive sense — deprive an idea of oxygen, and it will (presumably) eventually suffocate and die. I even wrote a blog post on how deplatforming is effective.

However, I’m starting to second guess this simplistic notion of free speech and tolerance. I now see this interpretation of The Paradox as not only a gross misinterpretation, but also potentially dangerous.

In my commitment to thinking more clearly and resisting the zombification of social media, I have rediscovered an ancient, secret skill, long lost to the denizens of the Internet. I call this skill “reading the rest of the paragraph.” Literally in the very next sentence, Carl Popper goes on:

—In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.

In other words, the important qualifying word in this quote is unlimited tolerance. According to Popper, we can and should tolerate bad ideas up to a point. It is best to keep ideas in check with open discourse, rational debate, and public opinion. (I acknowledge that there is an interpretation of the meme that suggests combating bad ideas with public discourse is a form of the Paradox of Tolerance, and I support that view.) We must not tolerate intolerance when it comes to extremities, like violence or threats of violence.

I think it is fairly obvious that it is dishonest and myopic to use The Paradox of Tolerance as an excuse to deplatform or suppress all ideas we deem distasteful. In fact, I fear this myopic reading of The Paradox of Tolerance, precisely because I am a minority. I am a profoundly offensive creature to many Americans. I am gay, a Satanist, and a leftist. I’m practically the degenerate faggot your Christian mother warned you about. If we suppress speech based on what is deemed dangerous or offensive, I would be the first to be silenced in the face of a Christian nationalist majority. Without an objective measurable test for intolerance like threats of violence or slander, we put all minorities at risk.

Now more than ever, minorities and leftists must not set a precedent for suppressing speech, even offensive speech, with the exception of libel, slander, and threats of violence. If we do, we will inevitably be the ones who are silenced.

But that’s just me, and maybe I will disagree with myself tomorrow. This is a complicated topic, and I hope this to be the beginning of the discussion, not the end. What do you think? Please add your voice to the conversation by writing me an email or leaving a comment below. If your comment in excellent, I may feature it in my monthly Best Comments series.


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4 thoughts on “Free Speech and Misreading The Paradox of Tolerance

  1. Yeah I hear you on this. In my view, tolerance is about maximizing the diversity of voices that can be heard. When an idea is toxic enough that it is shutting down different people from being able to speak, that is when I will not tolerate it anymore. Homophobia, for example, shuts down the speech of queer people and leads to a loss of diversity in ideas. But there would be a difference, to me, between hateful homophobia that shuts me down entirely, and misunderstandings of queerness that are open to my responding. The former is reducing my ability to speak, the latter is not and is an opportunity for growth.

    Like, my mom not understanding trans stuff at all but being willing to listen to me is different from the bigots who deny me my right to discuss my identity or who would push me out of the public square entirely.

    Lastly, while I’m not entirely sure how to verbalize this at the moment, I’m definitely connecting this to the idea of epistemic injustice (which is violence to someone towards their capacity as a knower). Offensive ideas that do not violate someone’s ability to communicate their own self-knowledge is different from epistemic violence and might be a good framework to look at this through?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for this comment. On my discord server, I have in two statements in my community rules: first, to never engage in hateful speech. Second, if you have questions or confusions about minority experience, my discord is a safe space to ask and explore those questions. I’m not always sure of the boundary between those two, but I think this might be similar to what you are getting at.

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  2. The political climate in Western European countries is a good example of how silencing can make the problem worse. Mainstream political parties have tried to ignore and shun extreme right-wing parties here for decades, and failed to effectively engage with their talking points because they blatantly looked down on them (and by extension on the people who vote for them or even partially agree with them). As a result, these right-wing parties have now convinced a significant part of the population that they are addressing inconvenient truths that the established parties and mainstream media outlets are censoring, when really they are just spreading misinformation and racist garbage. Vilifying them only entices more people to try the forbidden fruit of unpopular opinion. And because reactions to supporting such parties can be very negative, people feel that they have to commit to it, and it starts to become their identity, which makes it all the more difficult to change their minds.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for sharing, and I think you are exactly right. We are seeing a terrifying resurgence of far right/nationalist identitarianism in certain European countries. Perhaps I am too much of a free speech idealist, but I do think that allowing ideas — even bad ideas — to be discussed will (hopefully) create some natural checks and balances.

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