The British philosopher Karl Popper once said, “In order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance. He went on, “If we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”
He called this the paradox of tolerance, riffing on Plato’s earlier musings about “benevolent despotism”. While Plato’s focus was related to the structure of governing, Popper was more focused on the behavior of the people; because while governments can issue and enforce an official position, it cannot be everywhere, absent a KGB or SS-level army. Thankfully, those don’t come around too often. Not so, with the public. On the streets, in the office, and on the Internet, a thousand eyes are upon us.
Human are now always watching. Moreover, they are inherently judgmental, and so are continually evaluating — judging — whether what you do, how you go about doing it, and even why you’re doing what you’re doing — your motivation, and intentions — are ‘right or wrong’, so that if they don’t like any piece of it, they can reprimand or stop you from doing it. And while humans have always judged one another, the court of public opinion is becoming increasingly vocal, these days, and the alarming surge in intolerance is threatening one of the foundational values upon which democratic societies are built: the right to free speech.
The Americans enshrined this principle in the very first Amendment of the Constitution. It makes sense, because the freedom of expression is the foundational power of an individual to influence — to advocate for — his or her own life, and everything in it. Without the unfettered exchange of feelings, thoughts and ideas, the people are powerless — voiceless.
The cardinal threat to free speech isn’t coming from an autocratic or militaristic overlord — at least, not in the United States, Canada and the UK (I’m not sure if Continental Europe is having the same issues). Rather, danger is coming from the very people we might’ve thought were its greatest champions, and defendants: the liberal, progressive, and increasingly young left.
Intolerance takes many forms. The National Coalition Against Censorship — a public advocacy coalition comprised of fifty non-profit organizations devoted to freedom of expression, and against censorship in schools, the arts, public forums and the street — produced a book called Censoring Culture. In its introduction, the authors define censorship as the institutional or individual suppression of free speech, because of the viewpoint expressed in it — that is, suppressing content they find undesirable. In the stated pursuit of ‘protecting people’ from potentially objectionable words or creative output, censors will fight hard against allowing it to gain an audience. Unlike governmental suppression, the NCAC states, individual censorship is more insidious. They say, “Censorship often operates subtly, sometimes disguised as a moral imperative, at other times presented as an inevitable result of the free market.” They go on: “No matter what the camouflage is, however, the result is the same: the range of what we can say, see, hear, think and even imagine in narrowed.”
These are the words of fifty non-profit free speech/expression advocacy organizations in the United States.
What is behind all of this is the growing intolerance of the population at large — especially the young, who have been so indoctrinated by parents and teachers alike into believing the ruse that ‘everyone’s a winner’, and creating a ‘fear of offending’ culture, that it has stopped discourse in its tracks, driving it inward, into homes where it’s whispered, and individual minds in which it festers, beyond the reach of influence, or mitigation.
This last point is worth elucidating. When you stop someone who is truly bigoted from spewing hate speech, it doesn’t go away — not a bit. Instead, it ends up growing, unmolested, inside a toxic environment — the head or community that created it. When Michael Corleone said in The Godfather: Part II, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” he was really saying that if we lose our connection to our enemies, we lose our influence over their actions, or reach. Censoring hate speech drives it underground, where it is lost, and grows. If we were instead to engage hate speech, by giving it a platform — abiding by the First Amendment — it may make us sick, but we would at least have a fighting chance of exerting a counter-influence over it, in a public forum, either through debate and argument, or by exposing the ‘hater’ to the effect that his or her words have on its audience. Whatever our beliefs, none of us is immune to social influence. In fact, you could say that without one another, there is no humanity. We are social creatures, to our cores.
So the best way to influence one another is to let each person do the best they can to express their own views on any given matter, however much we may agree or disagree with — or be offended by — their viewpoint, so that we can also do our best to create bridges between us. This is the very nature of debate and discourse — the Greek dialogos. In a piece called Why Communication Matters, I wrote that dialogue is the basis of connection; and that “we need to recapture our ability to inject quality into our dialogues — and to listen better, with both ears — to help us bridge differences, to gather with intent and purpose, to suspend judgment in favor of understanding and connection, so that we may overcome the increasing levels of loneliness and isolation that we — especially the younger generations — are experiencing at alarming rates.”
Dialogue requires us to tolerate dissenting views, no matter what our emotional reactions may be to them. It requires tolerating hate speech for two reasons: to champion the rights of any individual to voice their beliefs publicly — that most democratizing and empowering value; and to create a forum for discourse to occur, so that we can reach the point where we understand what is behind the words and attitude, in order to bridge difference, at minimum, and effectively disarm the weapon, at best. It’s counterintuitive, but it’s the only thing that works. If not, we risk fragmenting into intolerant sub-groups that drive ever deeper into their eco-chambers, where a singular point of view is guaranteed to become unassailable, because it is therefore unopposed; in such chambers, anything remotely different becomes intolerable.
Yes, we are describing social media. But it’s not only that.
Censorship’s ‘end state’ is totalitarianism with or without the government — that is, “requiring complete subservience” — intolerant of any dissenting voices.
And as horrific as my next thought may be, I feel compelled to state that in my view, the current, pervasive state of shaming people online and in public for sharing their views presents one of the greatest threats to democracy in our times.
I’m not alone. Scottish firebrand and historian Niall Ferguson — a man who is married, no less, to Somali activist/feminist/author/politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali — wrote an Op-Ed for the Boston Globe back in the relatively innocent days of 2017. In response to the alarming trend by university students and faculty to disinvite guest speakers on the grounds that “we believe it is our right not to participate with anyone who uses hateful or hurtful language,” or some version of it, he wrote:
“Freedom is rarely killed off by people chanting “Down with Freedom!” It is killed off by people claiming that the greater good/the general will/the community/the proletariat requires “examination of the parameters” (or some such cant phrase) of individual liberty. If the criterion for censorship is that nobody’s feelings can be hurt, we are finished as a free society.”
A 2018 piece by the United Kingdom’s BBC quoted Universities Minister Sam Gyimah, as warning of “a creeping culture of censorship” on university campuses. Gyimah, who is black, warned Westminster that “If what you’re doing is essentially mollycoddling someone from opinions and views that they might find offensive, then that is wrong.” His solution: hold a summit on free speech and invite everyone to participate. In doing so, he is cracking open the door to bridging and tolerance, and with it, the possibility of defanging extreme views.
The reason I decided to write about this topic today was not about hate speech, per se, or its advocacy. I am a bleeding-heart inclusive human who is given to accepting everyone on their own terms, and who has used every opportunity extended — in the form of viewpoints, shared — to understand others’ worlds better, in service of building bridges, and/or tempering extremity. In fact, when I was in university, I once spent three hours on a bus from Providence, RI to New York City as seatmates with another college-aged stranger, who for reasons I don’t know shared with me that he was upset that a ‘pretty girl’ who “could’ve had anybody” chose to date a “black guy”. Without a particular dog in that fight, I chose to spend the time we had together surreptitiously psychoanalyzing him, hearing him talk, and getting to the nut of why he felt it was worse than if she dated someone white. It took no more than an hour for me to uncover that he had never had a negative personal interaction with someone of color, whereas it was his parents whose views he had unthinkingly parroted, turning him into an unwitting bigot. By the end of our chat, his stated conclusion was, “I never realized I didn’t have my own opinion; and I guess it’s fine for her to date anyone she wants. He is kind of a nice guy…”
I considered it a victory. I was 22.
That never would’ve happened if I shamed him or censored him — or put his back against the wall, in any way. And he never would’ve changed his mind if I hadn’t taken the time to listen and understand his world view, then to find a way to help him see something less toxic. Instead, he would’ve likely continued to feel that way, and perhaps that belief would’ve deepened over time. Who knows? Instead, he walked away with a new perspective — one he was free to reject, but didn’t! — and new tolerance.
In my heart, I believe that everyone is good; and that some have simply gotten a bum deal. If we believe in others, it’s our collective job to help them find their way back to the light, not to shame them and hold them prisoner where they stand. This sentiment is really no different from one enshrined in two more American amendments — the fifth and fourteenth; they establish that “a defendant accused of a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The court of public opinion is not only gagging free speech but is also jumping to dangerous and literally prejudiced conclusions about the guilt of the parties sharing thoughts, ideas and/or creative output. By expressing our intolerance of others, we are assaulting the democratic underpinnings of a free society, and moreover, we are also revealing just how thin our skin has become, and how much our own viewpoints have metastasized into bigotry, with regard to non-conformance to a subjective norm.
Because any belief is subjective.
Back to the point of these thoughts: I was attacked, directly, for my words, just this week, by people I work closely with; and it got ugly and out of hand, long before I was made aware that the controversy even existed, at all. In short, I was presumed guilty on the spot, without my knowledge that I was even on trial.
I wrote a piece called I Am Not Black. I wrote it, bluntly put, to preach tolerance of difference, because that’s my world view — the product of life experience. I specifically chose to write it because my upbringing, background and connections to people of color conspired to make me not only open-minded, but somewhat active in championing the causes of people who are maligned, marginalized, harassed or ignored. The underdog. I have been like that forever. To that end, over the past two months, I have written and published several pieces on the protests I participated in — and photographed — and in fact one of those pictures was picked up by the International Center of Photography for inclusion in their upcoming exhibit on #BLM, which made me very happy, because they are a world-class outfit with a huge audience. I continue to do what I can, as an outsider to the black community, because I believe nobody should be treated differently for any reason that is not individually merited, and because I equally believe that no one should be left alone and hung out to dry.
To put a finer point on it: ignoring others’ plight is the telltale behavior that leads, if unchecked, to genocide.
So I participate. In doing so, I am no different from any ‘outsider’ who attempts to abet a cause in which they believe in spite of being on the outside. Back in 1911, The all-white International Ladies Garment Workers Union and Amalgamated Clothing Workers took the lead in organizing “our black brothers” for membership in the newly created Urban League, to help black migrants from the rural South integrate. They did this over federal opposition. Then in 1914, Joel Spingarn of Columbia University became chairman of the NAACP, recruiting (other) prominent white leaders to the board to champion black civil rights. In the South, some 90% of civil rights lawyers in Mississippi were Jewish, as were some 30% of white volunteers who rode freedom buses to the South, registered blacks, and picketed segregated establishments.
It goes on.
My point is simple: as I wrote in I Am Not Black, leaving others to their own self-defense, without participating because I am not one of them, is as much an abdication of our shared humanity as anything else I can imagine. It was this that Niemöller observed in Nazi Germany when he wrote First They Came… a ‘blind eye’ that resulted in the wholesale murder of tens of millions of innocents.
So I wrote a first-person piece on the matter, and was grateful to the group that picked it up to publish it. Privately, I’ve received solid feedback — including words of encouragement I actively solicited from a number of black friends, and one black family member. In addition, dozens of non-black minorities have lent their support to the piece, which makes me feel as though I struck a positive chord.
On to the reason for today’s musings. As I said before, I was called out by a few people who had taken offense to three things: that I made the article about myself; that I described being black as a barrier; and that I employed racial hate speech in the writing (all aster*sked with*n an *nch of *ts l*fe). Fair enough. Everyone is entitled to their thoughts. Except that it didn’t end there. They talked amongst themselves. They brought it forth, up the ranks, to people who represent relationships I value. Nowhere did anyone feel the need — or was compelled — to bring their concerns or worries to my attention. I think my piece speaks for itself in that it preached empathy and the need to listen with an open mind. Frankly, this is what shocked me most about their (re)actions. It was a bid to censure and punish me for the ‘audacity’ of my appeal for deep listening, discourse, empathy, tolerance and solidarity for people who are unjustly attacked.
I am hurt that I was the target of the same form of intolerance and censorship that Ferguson, Popper, the NCAC and Gyimah have all warned us about publicly.
In truth, I am guilty as charged: Yes, the article was about me, and what I’ve learned over the years, not the least of which has been informed by decades-long relationships with black people I admire, about whom we need to speak more, not less. I cannot speak for anyone else, in their voice, or in the abstract. Yes, I described being black as a barrier, because if it weren’t, then there would be no need for civil rights, marches or protests, nor changes to representation, racial profiling, inherently racist policies and practices, etc. etc. etc. And most insidiously, Yes, I wrote that if we stop acknowledging that racial slurs exist (I listed a good dozen of them for every group that has been vilified — all asterisked to highlight their offensiveness), then we cannot fix the problem. How can we decry something without calling it out?
The strangest thing of all is that I was pilloried for preaching tolerance, and discourse.
There is a grave need for more discourse — more writing, discussion and debate — on the subject of intolerance. The fact that a piece written about solidarity can be targeted for censure proves the point that any perceived offense, however picayune, misguided, misinterpreted or disingenuous it may be, can become, in unthinking hands, a missile. We have created an infrastructure — a society — in which “mollycoddling someone from opinions and views that they might find offensive” is creating a “creeping culture of censorship”, as Gyimah — once again, a black man — warned his nation, recently.
I am grateful that the people to whom the initial offense was brought — the people I care about — saw the situation differently, and in fact invoked the first amendment in their reaction, upon reading the article.
Despite the personal hurt I felt, it’s tempered by the request I received just yesterday. The firm in which I work asked if we could use the piece to trigger a larger discussion on race, tolerance and diversity. I am firmly open to that possibility. What I cannot abide is the cowardice of people who read (or skim) something they don’t understand, then use it to hurt the author, rather than checking in with me to make sure their offense was well-founded (or to even share with me that I offended them, and how).
I find it to be intolerance of the highest order. And sadly, it seems endemic.
I will continue to share personal stories of what I’ve learned, and will not stop advocating for free speech, because without it, I am convinced that we will lose other freedoms. So although people continue to get more and more offended by less and less, we need to recalibrate our relationships with words and one another, so that we can share how we feel with the people who would benefit most from hearing it, and we can begin to build bridges over differences, or at the very least, address one another’s perceptions.
We must “defend against the onslaught of the intolerant,” as Popper said, so that tolerance is not destroyed.