There Aren’t Two Sides to Every Desk

A Writing Magazine column, the paradox of tolerance, and what people don’t understand about free speech.

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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

My latest copy of Writing Magazine arrived on the day I was supposed to leave for Swanwick Writer’s School, which was cancelled due to COVID-19. This surprise helped to soften the blow, and I started leafing through it as virtual job interviews, bingeing Avatar: The Last Airbender, and general lockdown ennui allowed.

In their regular feature, Other Side of the Desk, literary agent Piers Blofeld laments a lack of non-woke publishers, and highlights Hachette’s response to Rowling being a TERF. He describes Hachette staff saying they were uncomfortable working on Rowling’s books as ‘hegemonic thinking’ that squeezes out platform space for those who don’t support trans rights.

This stance plays right into the bad faith argument that tolerance means tolerating intolerance. Much has already been written about the paradox of tolerance, initially coined by philosopher Karl Popper, who writes:

Less well known [than other paradoxes Popper discusses] 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 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.

To summarise, this concept states that tolerating intolerant views (such as giving Nazis a platform) will inevitably lead to those intolerant views taking over the society that has tolerated them (which could be argued to have happened in the US).

Blofeld chooses a surprising stance by chalking it up to ‘a difference of opinion’. A difference of opinion is whether or not pineapple is good on pizzas (for the record, it is). Whether or not trans people exist/are valid/are humans is NOT a difference of opinion. That’s denying someone’s very existence.

He suggests that the staff who wished to not work on Rowling’s books were maybe not cut out for work in the publishing industry because they don’t believe in freedom of speech. This is another bad faith argument. What he’s doing is promoting the idea that ostracising people with hateful views is the same as censoring free speech. And it’s not. Rowling’s views aren’t being oppressed or censored; she’s just facing consequences for saying things that are inappropriate. Freedom of speech should never mean freedom from consequences, and many bad actors will insist otherwise.

It’s disappointing that Blofeld is using his own considerable platform to promote harmful ideas like the spectre of the intolerant left, and it’ll be interesting to see in next month’s issue if any of my fellow subscribers picked up on this. And if Writing Magazine would even print those letters, which seems unlikely given the can of worms it would open. And this is another part of Blofeld’s argument.

He suggests that these ‘group think’ environments within publishing will result in the industry ‘failing to publish to huge sectors of the UK’s population’. Frankly, this is a slippery slope fallacy and according to recent surveys is flagrantly untrue. A growing majority of the UK’s population is comfortable with trans people in particular, and opposition to immigration is softening too. Britain won’t be left with dearth of representation if publishers take a stronger stance against hate speech from authors, unlike the marginalised groups which already struggle to find themselves in the content produced by these ‘startlingly narrow’ corporate cultures.

Publishers (and society at large) are under no obligation, moral, financial or otherwise, to tolerate intolerant viewpoints. And it’s wearying to continue to see people use our tolerance against us to silence an already underrepresented outlook on life.

Written by

Poet and author across several genres, with a love of photography and gardening. Find out more:

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