Against the Tolerance Paradox

In light of recent events such as the Charlottesville protests, the now 72-year-old tolerance paradox is once again relevant. The concept of the tolerance paradox is that, should a tolerant society tolerate intolerance, the tolerant society will inevitably be destroyed and replaced by an intolerant one.

Putting aside, for the moment, the historical fact that any society which represses those who pose a threat is an inherently intolerant society, let us examine exactly why a society that represses, or permits the repression of, those deemed intolerant is undesirable to all who do not wish to be themselves repressed.

Tolerance of the unpopular does not mean that one accepts these ideas; the absence of violent repression, either by the state or by individuals, of condemned ideas is not an endorsement of said ideas.

While society does reserve the right of self-preservation, physical force may be used only as a counter to physical force. So long as those who we see as tolerant remain intolerant of those with whom they disagree, democracy cannot function.

Historically, when speech is banned or allowed to be censored because it is reviled by the majority, suppression of political minorities has been legitimized in perpetuity. We saw this in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Communist China. After those countries banned certain speech, we saw the most horrible atrocities committed in human history.

To answer speech, even speech which we consider utterly morally unacceptable, with violence is to normalize future violence against any speech considered morally unacceptable by anyone at any time. Should the religious be allowed to assault those who preach heresy, the highest evil in the view of zealots? Should those who believe life starts at conception respond with violence to pro-choice advocates and doctors responsible for, in the pro-life view, the killing of millions of unborn babies?

The beliefs of our nation and society hold that any violence against speech is wrong just as strongly as we hold that racism and Nazism are wrong. It is critical to freedom of speech that groups cannot use violence and intimidation to silence the voices of minority groups, whether the minority’s beliefs are ethical or even reasonable.

In the words of former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “The remedy to be applied [to reprehensible speech] is more speech, not enforced silence.”

This movement towards political violence that our nation has taken is based on the deeply cynical concept that speech and open debate will not thoroughly discredit the arguments of fascists and racists. Speech and debate are the foundation of democracy. For groups who consider the other side to be immoral to meet one another in the arena of debate is fundamental to democracy. To claim the process of speech and debate is ineffective is to deny the process and existence of democracy itself. Democracy cannot exist without its most hated opinions being allowed to be debated.

Ironically, there is also an inherent naïveté in the supposition that unacceptable views should be silenced by force. Within this is the borderline narcissistic assumption that one’s views will always be those considered acceptable by the majority. The most critical cog in the machine of democracy is the legal safeguard of speech, no matter how hated the speech may be. If that cog is lost, the whole system is doomed to eventual collapse. If those we hate most are repressed, we have lost any right against repression by those who hate us. If we come to the conclusion that we have so little faith in the democratic system that violent political repression is needed, then the great experiment of American democracy will truly be over.