Sunday, September 17, 2017

Tolerance of intolerance, revisited

One of the earliest entries on this blog (which I won’t link to now because the writing makes me wince – but hey, I was 18!) was entitled Bigotry Against Bigots.  In a jumbled, rambling and exaggeratory way, high-school me expressed my opposition to “Hate Crime” legislation stiffening legal penalties for crimes committed with allegedly prejudiced motives, and touched on the hypocrisy of not tolerating intolerance through a CISV anecdote.

Recent events in Charlottesville and the ensuing public debate on the proper response to hate speech have prompted me to revisit and develop those ideas.  Specifically, I’d like to address Karl Popper’s “paradox of tolerance” – shared by many illiberal would-be censors in the wake of the kerfuffle – which Wikipedia summarizes thusly:

“The paradox of tolerance, first described by Karl Popper in 1945, is a decision theory paradox.  The paradox states that if a society is tolerant without limit, their ability to be tolerant will eventually be seized or destroyed by the intolerant.  Popper came to the seemingly paradoxical conclusion tht in order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance.”

That conclusion is wrongheaded for two reasons.  First, intolerant segments of otherwise tolerant societies are not always large or strong enough to threaten the tolerant majority; and second, for so long as the intolerant remain relatively powerless, their viewpoints can be more effectively counteracted through measured tolerance (allowing them to speak and then engaging in firm but respectful dialogue) than through intolerant means like censorship or forceful repression.

Writing in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Popper could be forgiven for fretting “when a society is tolerant without limit, their ability to be tolerant will eventually be seized or destroyed by the intolerant.”  But WWII merely proves that is possible, not that it’s inevitable; as written, the claim is pretty vague, and doesn’t specify just what “limits” he’s referring to. 

If the limit were the initiation of force, I would agree; we should be intolerant of violence.  But that’s widely accepted, and doesn’t seem to be what people are using Popper to argue.

Rather, Popper’s paradox is being shared on my timeline as justification for repressing intolerant speech, like that at the Neo-Nazi and Klan rallies preceding the murder in Charlottesville.  But from my view, there’s very little reason to fear those groups are anywhere near strong enough to seize power or threaten our norms.  Consider: “A recent report by the Anti-Defamation League found a grand total of 42 Klan groups currently active in 33 states, most claiming fewer than 25 members. Even that small remnant is disorganized, squabbling and fractious.” The numbers for Nazi groups are similarly small.  It just doesn’t follow that if we allow these groups to keep speaking and hosting rallies, our “ability to be tolerant will eventually be seized or destroyed.” Really? With what army?

Not only is censorship unnecessary, it’s also counterproductive.  Ostracized extremist groups recruit off the belief that they are being oppressed for speaking truth to power.  When we jail them for marching, prevent them from speaking or otherwise censor their message, we feed right into that belief and actually make their arguments more plausible/convincing to those on the fence.  At the same time, the act of *attempting” to silence political speech actually does quite the opposite by creating a larger controversy and ensuing media stir, which only amplifies the hate groups’ megaphone and allows them to reach a broader audience.  Publicizing fringe ideologies to the greater public while at the same time lending them just cause for complaint (the infringement of their First Amendment rights) is not a good way to reduce these groups membership or contain the proliferation of their ideas.

It’s much more effective to let them speak (and then explain why they’re full of shit to anyone who will listen!) than it is to banish them underground where their nonsense can proliferate unrebuked. Former hate group members tend to agree with this view.

Finally, for what it’s worth, I think even Popper agreed with it too.  He’s quoted in this article as saying:

“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.”

He leaves open the possibility that intolerance can be countered by rational argument and social pressure, and makes clear that this is the preferable solution, when possible.  His paradox only refers to the times when it’s not possible, lest radical Nazi-like groups seize national power. From my view, we remain very far from such times.

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