Free Speech and the Paradox of Tolerance Redux

I read Julia Serano’s article with great interest, because the limits of free speech are a daily concern at my website , a “Free Speech Forum” of the very kind that concerns her.

I agree that there is a “paradox of tolerance” which is a difficult issue to resolve to everyone’s satisfaction. To what degree should we tolerate intolerance? My answer is much simpler than hers: We should tolerate all speech which does not advocate or incite physical violence against others.

Julia seems to disagree. Her glaring lack of condemnation of the punching of Richard Spencer while he was being interviewed is clearly tacit approval of violence for political reasons. I do not agree with Richard Spencer, but he should definitely have the right to peacefully profess his views, just like the ACLU agreed in 1977 that Nazis should have the right to peacefully march in Skokie, a largely Jewish suburb of Chicago. This did not make the ACLU into Nazis, but instead illustrated their commitment to principle.

She goes on to say that people like Spencer:

invoke “free speech” to make their ideologies appear unassailable.”

This is a willful mischaracterization and readers should not gloss over it. Speakers such as Spencer do not invoke free speech “to make their ideologies appear unassailable”, but rather simply to be heard at all in the face of real political violence which seeks to suppress their views. It is perfectly fine and politically healthy to verbally assail his ideas. What is not healthy or just is to use violence to prevent his speech.

Spencer has used his right to free speech to call for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” — presumably this entails scaring people into fleeing and/or using the legal system to forcibly purge all people of color and indigenous peoples from the United States. Wouldn’t that be tantamount to silencing these groups, thereby violating their freedom of speech (not to mention countless other rights)?

Here Julia is using the exact same “slippery slope” argument she criticizes when free speech advocates use it. Clearly no one has been silenced by allowing Richard Spencer to speak, but she is claiming that his speech is a step down that slope, and implies it is therefore justified to use violence to stop him from speaking.

In describing her own experience, she says:

Colloquially, we call this being “in the closet,” but that’s just a fancy way of saying “hiding from hate speech and harassment.” Of course, I technically had free speech, but that doesn’t count for much if speaking your mind is likely to result in you being bombarded with epithets, losing your job, being ostracized by your community, and possibly other forms of retribution.

Let’s rephrase this to look at the other side and see if Julia is truly for equality of expression or not: “Of course Richard Spencer technically has free speech, but that doesn’t count for much if speaking his mind is likely to result in being punched in the face, and possibly other forms of retribution.”

Would Julia agree with that? Or does she advocate freedom from retribution only for herself and those who agree with her own views?

I remember expressing a potential solution to this problem in a conversation that I had with a friend in the late ’90s. I told him that I tolerate all forms of expression, except for expressions that convey intolerance toward others. My friend was a free speech absolutist, and found my pronouncement to be hypocritical. He argued that being intolerant of intolerance was itself a form of intolerance. I argued the reverse: If I tolerated intolerance, that would not make me a tolerant person; it would merely make me an enabler of, or accomplice to, intolerance.

When I was in college I took a student trip to the Soviet Union. This was extremely interesting because we were introduced to and encouraged to debate politics with similarly aged Russian students who were members of the Komsomol, the Communist youth organization. When I brought up the point that America had greater freedom of speech than Russia, their counterpoint was that “All expression is allowed in Russia, as long as it is not dangerous to the state.” They did not seem to find anything odd about this formulation, but to most Americans it immediately sounds wrong.

Julia’s friend was correct. Julia is hypocritical. She says one thing, namely that she tolerates all forms of expression, but then she does another thing by advocating violent intolerance of peaceful expression of ideas she personally has judged to be offensive. Her classification of “intolerant speech” sounds exactly like the Komsomol classification of speech which is “dangerous to the state”.

She appeals to authority by bringing up a point by Karl Popper:

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 even to suppress them, 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 anything as deceptive as rational argument, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists.

Yet if she wants to be self-consistent and not tolerate intolerance, why the focus on the potential evils of white nationalism and conspicuous lack of any mention of Islam and the actual murder of cartoonists? This inconsistency of principle exposes her prejudice.

Those of us who are passionate about free speech, and who want to live in a truly open society, cannot afford to be bystanders anymore. We must absolutely refuse to tolerate intolerant speech and the people who promote intolerant ideologies.

The important question here is what exactly she means by “refusal to tolerate”. It sounds very much like a “dog whistle” term declaring that violence is perfectly OK if approved by Julia and people who agree with her.

While we may each have somewhat different opinions on precise definitions, I believe that we can (and should) easily come to a consensus that people who explicitly advocate ethnic cleansing (as Spencer has), or who incite campaigns of hate speech and harassment targeting women, people of color, transgender people, immigrants, and other minorities (as Yiannopoulos has), are clearly attempting to suppress other people’s right to free expression, and as such, they are promoting intolerance. And we should not tolerate them!

Again, her proud declaration of intolerance reeks of incitement to violence. And no, I do not believe we can easily, or ever, come to any consensus that mere non-violent expression of a point of view is somehow attempting to suppress other people’s similar right to free expression. The right answer to is to answer, not to hit. As they say in nursery school “Do not hit. Use your words, Julia!”

And she ends with yet another call to violence:

This is what we face now. And the only way to stop this from happening, to reverse this trend, is to absolutely refuse to tolerate intolerance.

My site welcomes all views which do not incite violence, and so far at least has maintained productive discussion while forbidding only five very limited categories of speech:

  • personal threats or incitement to violence
  • personally identifying information (doxing)
  • child porn
  • spam
  • copyright violations (upon notice)

What I absolutely will never do is stop the expression of one person’s non-violent ideas at the demand of another like Julia who refuses to tolerate free speech.