The Paradox of Tolerance

Today I read an article on Arstechnica (Right-wingers say Twitter’s “bias” against them should be illegal), and, as hot-button political topics such as this so often do, it spawned an interesting comment thread. Ars is a thoughtful, rational, and evidence-based site, so it should come as no surprise that the majority of commenters are of the same persuasion. So much so that the comment threads are occasionally more interesting than the original article.

The argument you often hear from the far right, is that refusing to publish or listen to their hate-speech amounts to censorship. By “censoring” their speech, the supposedly “tolerant” society is behaving like the Third Reich. Godwin’s law aside, this latest attempt by Trump and Co. to stop Twitter and other social media companies “silencing conservative voices”, runs along similar lines; they are arguing that bias in suppressing “conservative voices” should be illegal, in the name of free speech.

The obligatory XKCD is of course titled Free Speech:

Alt text: “I can’t remember where I heard this, but someone once said that defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you’re saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it’s not literally illegal to express.”

The comic itself (and the alt-text) is a powerful argument for the de-platforming of the far-right, or, for Twitter to have the right to de-platform anyone it chooses. But another idea that reinforces it was linked later in the thread; the Paradox of tolerance:

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: 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. — 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 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.

The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 1 – Karl Popper

I think the paradox itself – how to tolerate the intolerant – is a problem I’d been subconsciously aware of, but the idea that the intolerant will destroy a society whose tolerance is limitless is to me, a minor revelation. Popper argues that there must be a limit to tolerance, and to me this shows why calling out assholes on their bullshit, and refusing to host it, is not in any way against the values of free speech. It’s the mark of a tolerant society defending its values against destruction.

By trying to force social media companies to show more tolerance to climate change deniers, right-wing conspiracy theorists and anti-vax nutjobs, Trump and his ilk are the embodiment of this destruction. And we should not tolerate it.

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