Being tolerant of intolerance

The philosopher Karl Popper wrote about the paradox of tolerance. In a nutshell, if we allow people who are intolerant to have a full voice then they will overwhelm the tolerant, and in the end our freedom of expression will be extinguished.

There’s another view: Anyone can be tolerant of what they agree with, it’s being tolerant of what you dislike that’s the real mark of real tolerance.

Are these views opposites? That depends. If we accept Karl Popper’s view it raises the question: who determines what is intolerant speech? Jordan Peterson is a Canadian based psychology academic who came to prominence when he protested against a proposed law to force people such as him to use ‘gender-neutral’ pronouns. So instead of ‘he’ and ‘she’, use ‘they’ etc. When he attempts to give a talk at US universities he is often forced to abandon the speech or is interrupted by students opposed to his views.

Now, are these students against freedom of speech? Why do they oppose someone speaking simply because he has a different view to them? One would think they could give their own talks and create their own YouTube videos etc. They justify their actions by inciting Karl Popper’s view of tolerance (although few of them have probably thought about the philosophical underpinnings of these actions). To them, it’s not just that Jordan Peterson has views they don’t agree with, but these views are intolerant views and there they have every right to stop him expressing them.

If we were to say that we shouldn’t allow views to be expressed that are intolerant then who is it to make this judgment? As it happens, we allow unelected minority groups to decide what what we can read or view. These people may be academics in universities or people in multi-national corporations such as Facebook who have no allegiance to any one country or view (and certainly not to the truth). And the greatest censor is self censorship. If you express a politically incorrect view it can be held against you.

How true is this view that if we allow intolerant views to be expressed they will drown out tolerance? The argument doesn’t seem to hold water. All the restrictions we have seen on free speech come, not from the people holding the ‘extremest’ views, but from the people opposing them. In Germany anyone who questions the holocaust can be charged. And they are. These views are not allowed public expression. The result? A rise in far right populism.

And there’s a third view: We should be intolerant of anyone who offends us.

Lindsay Shepherd was a teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University. She showed some first-year students in her tutorial a television debate on gender-neutral pronouns, which included University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson. She was disciplined by her superiors, including the acting manager from the university’s Diversity and Equity Office. The details are not relevant here but one issue was they said that she was impartial when she showed the video. Apparently she should have pointed out the politically acceptable view to hold. It is a symptom of how free speech is being suppressed. Just presenting views that are not fashionable resulted in her being disciplined. To limited extent the university backed down but only because of allegiance backlash that arose.

It used to be the view that universities were places where opinions could be discussed but now, it seems, if the opinion may confront or offend you, it should be banned.

Philip Braham is a writer. My podcast is

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