Philosopher Karl Popper (1902-1994), castigated obfuscating writers as those “who have nothing to say, and say it very badly.” Popper, a forceful defender of liberal democracy, was particularly critical of highbrows who criticized the social system without offering any viable alternatives. I am often reminded of Popper’s acerbic criticism when reading the vacuous commentaries of some politicians, celebrities, and columnists. From the political left- to-right, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Steve Bannon come to mind. The reader can surely insert a few favorite names here.
Yet, Popper believed that social criticism was essential for the success of an open society. He advanced the paradoxical idea that “in order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance.” Popper adds a warning that, if a society is unlimitedly tolerant, its ability to be tolerant is eventually destroyed by the intolerant. Such is the tongue-twisting paradox of tolerance.
The paradox enters our daily lives when deciding what restrictions, if any, are to be applied to freedom of speech. Popper believed that to allow freedom of speech to those who would use such freedom to eliminate freedoms was contradictory. That is, allowing freedom of speech to those that would suppress the speech of those with whom they disagree is inconsistent. So, what freedoms of speech should a tolerant society extend to the intolerant fascists and communist ideologues among us?
Popper, as well as John Rawls, two of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, offered some ideas. The American attitude is to tolerate intolerant views almost without limits. But that, for Popper and Rawls, seemed risky. If the intolerant seek to destroy a society, that society has the right to become intolerant of such views in order to preserve itself. Thus, Rawls added a “self-preservation” exclusionary clause to his tolerance.
In current free speech practice, we seem to have adopted a double standard. Totalitarian views of the right (e.g. fascism) are not to be tolerated, but totalitarian views of the left (e.g., communism) are permissible. For example, if a Neo-Nazi is invited to speak at one of our universities, the appearance is likely to be cancelled in a furor of protests. In fact, even moderate conservative speakers encounter significant backlash. Yet, totalitarian left-wing speakers do not face such a hostile environment.
At this point some clueless reader, who has nothing to say, and says it very badly, will object to my counterpoising racist fascism with “altruistic” communism. Let’s review the historical facts of democide by fascist and communist regimes. Democide, or death by government, is the useful term introduced by R. J. Rummel to define “the intentional killing of an unarmed or disarmed person by government agents acting in their authoritative capacity and pursuant to government policy or high command.”
When it comes to democide, Hitler’s Nacional-Socialists are responsible for approximate twenty million victims. Similarly, The Black Book of Communism estimates one hundred million individuals murdered by Marxist socialists in the 20th century. The authors examine the China of “the Great Helmsman,” Kim Il Sung’s Korea, Vietnam under “Uncle Ho,” Cuba under the Castros, Ethiopia under Mengistu, Angola under Neto, and Afghanistan under Najibullah.
In a liberal society, the rule of law must protect even odious beliefs. So, should a tolerant society allow a fascist like Steve Bannon, or a socialist like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez the right to disseminate intolerant ideas that undermine the foundations of society? Or, should a society, refuse to tolerate the intolerant? Either undertaking is defensible, but somehow, I am not sure on what grounds, we seem to have concluded that Bannon’s odious beliefs should be banned from public discourse, but Ocasio-Cortez’s democide producing beliefs should not.
Perhaps the most consistent way to address the paradox of tolerance is not to display intolerance to ideas that make us uncomfortable, that differ from ours, or even to ideas that make us mad. We should reach for intolerance only when those ideas present a clear and present danger to our political order. Meanwhile, we can choose to avoid those politicians, celebrities, and columnists who have nothing to say, and say it very badly.