a follow up to “Free Speech and the Paradox of Tolerance”

[note added 2–20–17: shortly after this essay was published, a new twist developed in the Milo Yiannopoulos controversy. I addressed those developments in a separate piece: on Milo, the limits of free speech, and who gets thrown under the bus.]

Two weeks ago, I published Free Speech and the Paradox of Tolerance. It garnered significant attention, especially after it was featured on the Medium homepage as a popular article of the day. I’ve received a lot of responses to it, both from people who agreed with my thesis and those who do not. I have penned this follow up to address misconceptions, legitimate questions, and other critiques that I have received.

Unsurprisingly, many responses were tantamount to people yelling “BUT FREE SPEECH!” back at me (a reaction that is often satirized on social media via the #FreezePeach hashtag). I knew that my essay would garner such reactions, which is why I spent the first several paragraphs (up through: “…we have the right to free speech, but that right is somewhat limited. We are by no means entitled to ‘free speech without criticism or consequences,’ nor are we entitled to an audience”) to pre-emptively debunk the simplistic (yet quite pervasive) notion that all expressions of speech (regardless of content or context) are fully permitted and fully protected under the law.

Some commenters made wild speculations about what I was advocating, for instance, suggesting that I was trying to ban all speech that I disliked, or that I wanted to send people to “re-education camps” (yes, somebody actually wrote that). Several accused me of being “intolerant” of people who disagree with me, with a few explicitly calling me intolerant of Christians (which is utterly bizarre, given that Christianity wasn’t even mentioned in the piece). To those who labeled me “intolerant,” I respond with a direct quote from the piece: “I tolerate all forms of expression, except for expressions that convey intolerance toward others.” So if you’re promoting intolerance toward others, then yes, I’m intolerant of your views; if not, then you have nothing to worry about. (And I will address the important matter of defining “intolerance” toward the end of this piece.)

Portraying your opponent as an “extremist” is a common (albeit tired and inelegant) debate tactic. I suppose that is why so many commenters jumped to the conclusion that “refusing to tolerate intolerance” must automatically mean either full-scale censorship or outright violence. While not an all-out pacifist, I am generally a non-violent person. And as a mere individual, I am incapable of single-handedly banning or censoring anything. What “refusing to tolerate intolerance” means — in the overwhelming majority of cases — is that I refuse to associate with people who express intolerance; if intolerance is expressed in my presence, I will speak out against it; if others enable or abet intolerance (or those who express it), I will hold them accountable for it and/or put pressure on them to dissociate themselves from it. On the individual level, this is what “refusing to tolerate intolerance” generally looks like. And if we (i.e., the majority of us) collectively respond to expressions of intolerance in such a manner, then intolerance should be kept at bay, and we will be able to maintain an open and tolerant society.

In the Karl Popper quote that I excerpted in my piece, he says: “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.” I generally agree with this. But he also notes that this tact may not always be sufficient (e.g., if intolerant forces garner too much momentum or become expressly violent), and that more stringent measures may be necessary to defend ourselves “against the onslaught of the intolerant.”

The reason why I mention this is because we (i.e., those of us who want to maintain an open and tolerant society) seem to be genuinely split regarding our assessments of the current political situation. If you’ll allow me to paint in admittedly broad strokes: The first camp tends to view Trump’s election as an accident or anomaly, Milo Yiannopoulos’s bigotry as run-of-the-mill “trolling” akin to leaving nasty remarks in the comment section, and Richard Spencer’s ideology as a flawed message that is bound to fizzle out in the marketplace of ideas. The second camp includes those of us who have witnessed the unrelenting rise of white nationalism (or the “alt-right,” as it is sometimes euphemistically called) online over the last several years — their recruitment of hordes of young white men, their campaigns of hate speech and harassment (e.g., Gamergate, attacks on Leslie Jones, and others) designed to intimidate and silence women and minorities. Now, we are watching the architects of that movement being treated as celebrities and playing lead roles in the Trump administration, and we cannot help but feel that there is something far more substantial and grave going on here. Maybe the first camp is correct — perhaps these new developments do not represent a pernicious threat, and free speech absolutism is sufficient to maintain openness and tolerance. But then again, openness and tolerance do not always win, as evident in the rise of Nazism and other fascist regimes in the past. Many of us in the second camp (who disproportionately include members of marginalized groups targeted by white nationalists) have good reason to fear that we may be in the early throes of the kind of “onslaught of the intolerant” that Popper warned us about, and that harsher condemnations and/or more severe suppression may ultimately be necessary to stop it.

A few commenters complained about the “violent” (at least three people used that specific word) protests at recent Yiannopoulos college events — several points need to be unpacked here. For starters, at the recent University of Washington event, the primary instance of violence occurred when a Yiannopoulos supporter shot a protestor. Oddly enough, this altercation received significantly less press coverage than the smashing of windows at UC Berkeley. It should also be said that, while the media often describes Yiannopoulos as a “provocateur” (which makes him sound like an Ann Coulter-like figure: controversial, but not to be taken too seriously), what he does is far more sinister than that. He has a penchant for singling out individuals (often students at the college he is speaking at) and inciting hate and harassment against them. At a recent UW Milwaukee talk, he did this to a trans woman — a detailed account can be found here — then later bragged about how the incident led to her leaving the university. There was also evidence (as discussed here) that Yiannopoulos was planning to target undocumented students by name in his UC Berkeley talk (thus putting their lives at risk), and that the protesters purposefully damaged the building (thus shutting down the event) in order to prevent this from happening. I know that in most cases, property damage that occurs during protests seems senseless and counterproductive. But given Yiannopoulos’s tendency to target (thereby harming) vulnerable individuals in his speeches, a few broken windows would appear to be a far less violent alternative.

Numerous commenters argued that the best way to challenge Yiannopoulos (and his ilk) is to either ignore him, or to counter his “bad” free speech with more “good” free speech. Neither of these claims takes into account the considerably large platform that he has already amassed, nor the fact that he (and many of his supporters) is not interested in engaging in reasonable dialogue or debate. Blogger Stephanie Zvan, who attended one of his talks, described it this way:

To start with, Yiannopolous makes nearly no arguments in his presentations. He does make assertions, but rather than backing them up with anything, his schtick is to talk about how outrageous he is for saying these things and giggle that it makes people mad at him. No one will be educated on the reasoning of the Right by engaging with him. What they’ll find instead is demagoguery and Yiannopolous encouraging the audience to suppress dissent. When an attendee spoke out of turn to challenge him on the assertion that there is no gender pay gap, that person was ridiculed by Yiannopolous and then shouted down by the audience. Once that person was escorted out of the auditorium by security (the response to every disruption), Yiannopolous finally calmed the crowd. Then he asked, “Is anyone else here stupid enough to believe in the pay gap?”, with the implication anyone answering in the affirmative would be subject to the same treatment.

(Note: that excerpt is from Zvan’s piece Nazis, No Platforming, and the Failure of Free Speech, which is an excellent read addressing many of the same issues that I discuss here.)

Free speech absolutist Bill Maher also championed this “more speech” strategy in defense of his decision to invite Yiannopoulos onto his HBO show last Friday. In a statement (issued in response to journalist Jeremy Scahill’s decision to pull out of the appearance), Maher said: “If Mr. Yiannopoulos is indeed the monster Scahill claims — and he might be — nothing could serve the liberal cause better than having him exposed on Friday night.” Aside from the fact that Maher did very little to challenge Yiannopoulos on his bigotry and #AlternativeFacts, the very notion that we should automatically engage bad actors/bad ideas in debate, and that this will somehow “expose” them, is absolutely ludicrous. As an example: For years, tobacco companies argued that smoking cigarettes does not cause cancer — the vast majority of people today understand this claim to be patently untrue. If Maher were to invite someone onto his nationally televised show in order to “debate” that issue, all it would do is amplify that misinformation and legitimize that position in many people’s eyes.

To put it another way: If you believe that we shouldn’t go out of our way provide a platform for people to peddle outright lies (as that would undermine open discourse), then by the same reasoning, we should not provide a platform for people who plan to use it in order to harass, intimidate, and silence others (as that would also undermine open discourse).

Frankly, it was frustrating to read responses arguing that we should simply ignore the likes of Yiannopoulos and Spencer, or alternatively, that we should counter their “bad speech” with “more speech,” as these commenters completely ignored the main point that I stressed throughout my essay — namely, that people can (and often do) use their “free speech” to suppress other people’s freedom of expression. There is no such thing as being “pro-free speech” on all occasions and under all circumstances. Rather, there are those of us who aspire to free speech except when it comes to expressions of intolerance, and those who insist on a hands-off approach to speech even if that means that the vulnerable will likely be silenced and that the intolerant could potentially exploit that loophole in order to rise to power.

For reasons explained at great length here and in my original essay, the free speech absolutist position does not take Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance into account, and therefore cannot be taken seriously. Hence, from here on forward, I will focus solely on the following critical questions: What does “refusing to tolerate intolerance” look like in practice? And how do we distinguish between intolerance (which undermines open discourse) and intolerance toward intolerance (which is necessary in order to preserve open discourse)? Indeed, several commenters who appreciated my essay asked questions and/or expressed reservations along these lines: expressions that are tolerable to me may be intolerable to you. And vice versa. So how do we make sense of “intolerance” when it can mean different things to different people?

I initially planned to answer these complex questions here. But in the interest of accessibility (as this response is already almost 2,000 words long), I will address the crucial matter of defining “intolerance” in a forthcoming essay.

This essay was made possible by my Patreon supporters — if you liked this piece and want to see more like it, please consider supporting me there. You can learn more about my writings and activism at juliaserano.com.

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