Why Tolerate Intolerance?

It’s Easy to Cancel Political Opponents With Harmful Views—It’s Also Dangerous to Democracy

Why Tolerate Intolerance? | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Crop of Jean Dubuffet's "Houle du virtuel" ("Swell of the Virtual") (1963). Courtesy of Flickr/jean louis mazieres.

Is it better to tolerate seemingly prejudiced political opinions, or should we be intolerant of people whose views on diversity, equity, and identity strike us as harmful?

I am an advocate for radically tolerating political disagreement, even if that disagreement strikes us as unmoored from facts or common sense. One reason is that dissent makes democracy more intelligent. While many believe that vaccine skeptics misunderstand the relevant science and threaten public health, their opposition to vaccines nevertheless draws attention to chronic problems within our medical system: financial conflicts of interest, racism and sexism, and other legitimate reasons for mistrust. People should have their voices heard because politics shapes the things citizens care about, not just the things they know.

Tolerating disagreement also ensures the practice of democracy. Otherwise, we may find ourselves handing off ever more political control to experts and bureaucrats. Political truths can motivate fanaticism. Whether it is “follow the science” or “commonsense conservatism,” the belief that policy must actualize one’s own view of reality divides the world into “enlightened” good guys and ignorant enemies who just need to go away.

But what about beliefs that seem harmful and intolerant? You might question, as the political philosopher Jonathan Marks does, whether a zealous belief in the idea “that all men are created equal” is so problematic. Why not divide the political world into citizens who believe in equality and harmfully ignorant people to be ignored? The trouble is that doing so makes actually achieving equality more difficult.

Marks’ challenge to divide ourselves around equality makes me think of the great 20th century Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper’s “Paradox of Tolerance,” or at least the meme version of it. This edition of the paradox holds that tolerating the openly intolerant leads to the destruction of tolerant people and tolerance. While the meme depicts the literal Nazis, it is less clear who else it should apply to. Should it extend to dangerous misinformation from right-wing politicians?

Popper’s actual writing departs from its depiction on social media. He argued for the suppression of intolerant ideas only if those speaking them were not willing to engage in rational argument, if their followers “answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols.” The philosopher’s tolerance was less about combating internalized prejudice than the willingness to practice democracy.

The underlying issue when it comes to tolerance in the public square is the tension between liberalism and democracy. Although liberalism is often equated with leftism, liberal philosophy is far more encompassing. Right-wing liberals champion property and business rights, while left liberals see inclusion and equal outcomes as more important.

Liberalism often conflicts with democracy, because each proposes a different way to protect rights and ensure equality. Democratic solutions seek to broaden public participation and diversify the representation of interests in the policy process, while liberalism’s answer is to protect rights by guarding them from legislative debate. The U.S. Supreme Court, for instance, is thought to be a more reliable steward of the rights of Americans to free speech, abortion, and firearms, because justices are presumed to be far wiser, more virtuous, and less “political” than voters and representatives.

Such liberal guardianship is dominant in left-wing politics. Boston University professor Ibram X. Kendi has advocated for a constitutional amendment establishing a “Department of Anti-Racism,” an expert body with the power to review and veto legislation that seems poised to exacerbate racially unequal outcomes. For instance, if new zoning laws in New York City seemed likely to decrease rates of Black homeownership, this agency could intervene to prevent their passing.

We are seeing, right now, that liberal ‘thought guardianship’ leads to a winnowing in the range of acceptable opinions. Each side becomes fanaticized around their own notion of justice, and public conversation becomes narrowly focused on policing the boundaries of heresy.

“No-platforming,” the effort to prevent controversial speakers from presenting their views, seems far removed from judicial and expert bodies, but it guards rights in a similar way. Take Charles Murray, whose book The Bell Curve partly attributed the racial achievement gap to genetic inheritance. When a student club invited him to Middlebury College in 2017, the chants and yells of protestors prevented him from publicly speaking. A group of students justified this in light of Murray’s views not merely being factually dubious but also “[denying] the basic equality” of audience members. No-platforming posits that some ideas harm people’s rights, even if not directly inciting violence or the loss of political freedoms, and that an audience knowledgeable about these harms can prevent people from speaking in order to momentarily safeguard equality.

Karl Popper would find Kendi’s proposal, no-platforming, and perhaps even the Supreme Court inconsistent with open societies. They all rely on the idea that people with certain authoritative knowledge ought to be allowed to constrain democratic practices, whether in legislatures or briefly within an auditorium. They presume that some matters are too important to be decided, or even discussed, by unenlightened citizens and their representatives.

The work of German American philosopher Herbert Marcuse offers another, more contextual way of looking at the question. He argued that “the function and value of tolerance depend on the equality prevalent in the society in which tolerance is practiced.”

Abstract tolerance is a good thing, contended Marcuse, but it falls short in practice. The first reason was that citizens are “manipulated and indoctrinated” and lack “authentic information” and the ability to think “autonomously.” The second reason was that media, educational, and other social institutions are hopelessly monopolized by conservative thought, blocking change. Because tolerance really just “[served] the cause of oppression” in the absence of equality, Marcuse advocated “new and rigid restrictions” and “the withdrawal of toleration of speech” to restore “freedom of thought.”

While there is no doubt that citizens ought to be more often challenged to rethink the status quo, Marcuse proposed an extreme version of liberal guardianship: an “educational dictatorship,” a class of people, namely Marcuse and those who agreed with him, who can think rationally and autonomously.

Despite the democratic deficits of such a regime, it is strikingly close to what we hear from establishment voices today. After all, the presumption that some people disagree only because they are misinformed, if not completely deluded, is at the core of our current political predicament. Just consider the public controversy over how schools should teach students about race. One side claims that parental concerns over the influence of “critical race theory” on education are steeped in myth and misinformation, while the other side accuses schools of peddling “indoctrination in ahistorical nonsense.”

Such statements fail to account for a very important historical fact: it has often taken civil disobedience, from groups of citizens drawing attention to a state of affairs they believe is no longer tolerable, to break the monopolistic grip of status quo thinking. Whether it is via teachers introducing challenging ideas into the classroom or via parents pushing against school boards and teachers’ unions appearing to overstep their authority, disobedience drives political change. But liberal guardianship seeks to establish new monopolies, rather than to promote productive disagreement. That’s the dynamic in media and higher education today, where “no-platforming” is aimed at out-of-fashion political thought.

Still, no-platforming is appealing in part because political progress in addressing inequality is so frustratingly slow. Charles Murray’s racial ideas rightfully feel menacing, because they might justify even less representation of Black people in politics and higher education. Liberal guardianship looks attractive when democracy is dysfunctional, as a way to compensate for the persistence of social inequalities, not to mention ineffectual governance. Perhaps those shouting down their opponents hope that loudly opposing problematic utterances within social media and on college campuses will lead to chronic diversity issues finally being resolved. But it hasn’t worked that way.

We are seeing, right now, that liberal “thought guardianship” leads to a winnowing in the range of acceptable opinions. Each side becomes fanaticized around their own notion of justice, and public conversation becomes narrowly focused on policing the boundaries of heresy. The problem of institutions falling short of realizing equal treatment gets blurred with the issue of too many citizens thinking and saying the wrong things.

The political philosopher Robert Talisse, a Vanderbilt professor, articulates a similar concern. A consequence of ongoing political polarization is people’s partisan identities becoming core to their sense of self. In turn, they demand more conformity of belief from friends and allies.

One could call this “intolerance creep.” Efforts that begin with no-platforming more obvious opponents of equality like Charles Murray later target potential allies. For instance, geoscience professor Dorian Abbot’s recent disinvitation from speaking at MIT was not because he opposed addressing diversity problems at universities but because he believes that affirmative action is the wrong tool to use.

One problem with intolerance creep is that a range of views on equality are compatible with democracy. Philosophical debates about equality of opportunity, outcomes, status, and capabilities have persisted for centuries, with no signs of forthcoming agreement. But when citizens embrace their own version as Truth, partial allies become political enemies. The variegated, “big tent” coalitions that traditionally helped to end harmful and discriminatory politics are rendered impossible. Polarized politics leads to gridlock, not victory.

How can we avoid intolerance creep? Consider the starkly polarized debate over trans rights. Progressives’ political goal seems clear: equal treatment. Yet the conversation is dominated by ontological claims. “Trans men are men” and “Trans women are women,” insists the ACLU when issues like restroom access arise, while opponents chant “sex is real” in response. Each side is only further fanaticized by the belief that “science” vindicates their own position, as if we could just get citizens to accept certain facts, certain truths, then the thorny policy disagreements will disappear.

Some parts of the debate are not spectacularly complicated, even if they are contentious. For instance, which currently sex-segregated spaces should allow trans people entrance without intrusive forms of questioning? In other cases, discerning equal treatment is less clear-cut. Controversy over sports participation and hormone treatments for minors are beset with overlapping dilemmas and trade-offs concerning autonomy and fairness, largely obscured by competing ontological claims. For instance, a “sex realist” approach gets natal women kicked out of the Olympics, while extending transition rights to teens would mean being willing to use governmental authority to revoke parental custody. Again, politics is a matter of caring, not knowing.

This might seem like a pedantic distinction, but it’s important. As Popper wrote, “‘Equality before the law’ is not a fact but a political demand based upon a moral decision, and it is quite independent of the theory—which is probably false—that ‘all men are born equal.’” Citizens need not believe anything specific about the nature of equality or that transwomen are women. They only need to be willing to listen to people’s reasons for caring about an issue, to share their own experiences, and to make policy compromises and concessions. And studies of political canvassing show that this kind of democratic talk actually works for trans rights issues.

This looked to be the approach Nancy Kelley hoped to take when appointed chief executive of Stonewall, the LGBTQ+ human rights organization. “We don’t have to convert everybody to our way of understanding gender,” Kelley said in an interview, “for the experience of trans people’s lives to be more positive, and for them to have lower levels of hate crime, better access to health services and more inclusive schools and workplaces, we don’t need people to agree on what constitutes womanhood.”

A society that tolerates political disagreement invariably tolerates some risk of harmfully intolerant beliefs. But dissent isn’t just some abstract democratic value. As a buffer against intolerance creep, it helps ensure progress against harmful policies. We tolerate some of the opinions that strike us as distasteful because it pays off later.

So, we should resist the impulse to demand conformity in order to compensate for current democratic deficiencies. People whose speech directly promotes or inspires violence should be prevented from entering politics, but extending that intolerance to those who simply see equality differently deprives us of potential allies. As uncomfortable as it may be to talk to people whose beliefs fall short of our own, it is a discomfort that I hope more of us can learn to live with.


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