The Paradox of Tolerance vis à vis freedom of expression

By | December 21, 2023
Comic illustrating the Paradox of Tolerance

There’s a good chance that followers of my blog are familiar with Karl Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance. To summarize:

The paradox of tolerance states that if a society’s practice of tolerance is inclusive of the intolerant, intolerance will ultimately dominate, eliminating the tolerant and the practice of tolerance with them. Karl Popper describes the paradox as arising from the seemingly self-contradictory idea that, in order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must retain the right to be intolerant of intolerance.

I also like how Yonatan Zunger puts it: “Tolerance is not a moral absolute; it is a peace treaty.” Practicing intolerance violates and therefore abrogates the treaty. In short, intolerant people are not entitled to tolerance.

It occurs me that this concept is directly transferable to the right of freedom of expression.

Ardent defenders of freedom of expression, particularly First Amendment absolutists in the United States, are fond of saying, “The way to respond to bad speech is more speech.” The problem with that is, quite simply, it doesn’t work.

As Mark Twain is credited with saying (though he’s hardly the only one!), “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.” If that was true in over a hundred years ago, it’s all the more true today, in the social media age.

People whose speech is not bound by truth or decorum can fine-tune what they say for maximum impact, maximum entertainment, maximum virality, maximum engagement, maximum rage-induction, and maximum appeal to the worst natures of like-minded people. As Eli Bosnick put it in 2016, essentially predicting the election of Donald Trump, “Everything is Wrestling.”

The simple truth is that in the open markets of ideas we’re stuck with right now, the truth can’t win against lies often enough to protect democracy and civil society. It just can’t. It’s at an inherent disadvantage, which “more speech” simply can’t overcome.

Free speech absolutists will keep shouting “The answer is more speech!” right up until the moment when the fascist regime knocks on their doors in the middle of the night and hauls them away for being enemies of the state.

This post was inspired by Ken White’s lengthy explanation of why he’s much less bothered by the fact that Substack platforms and monetizes Nazis than he is by the fact that they are cagey about it. Ken would apparently be fine with staying on Substack if only its owners were more honest about the fact that they’re totally OK with making money off of Nazi content. But given that they’re being a bit cagey, he has doubts.

I have my own doubts, about the efficacy of Ken’s approach to the goal of protecting civil society and avoiding a descent into fascism. Actually, they’re more than just “doubts.” It’s pretty fucking obvious that Ken’s approach isn’t working.

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