(Getty/Chet Strang)

Should we ban hate speech? Nazis in the street and the "paradox of tolerance"

I was targeted by some of the neo-Nazis behind the Charlottesville rally — but we can't give up free speech



Matthew Rozsa
September 3, 2017 1:00PM (UTC)

In the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, I've been seeing a lot of people — from writers at the New York Times and Quartz to ordinary Twitter users — refer to a famous argument by the British-Austrian Jewish philosopher Karl Popper known as the "paradox of tolerance."

Because it speaks so directly to the growing concern that neo-Nazis and other white supremacists are gaining power in America — in no small part due to Donald Trump's election to the presidency — it deserves to be quoted in full. Here is its best summation, courtesy of Popper's book "The Open Society and Its Enemies."

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Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, 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.  —  In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.

When I encounter this argument, my mind immediately flies to a very personal experience. Back in the early days of Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, I was targeted by Andrew Anglin — the same Andrew Anglin whose neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer was effectively run offline after he encouraged violence post-Charlottesville — in a pair of blatantly anti-Semitic editorials. After describing how this was a deeply unsettling experience, I offered the following thought:

Although I have nothing but contempt for Trump and his racist supporters, I respect their right to free speech. I would rather live in a society that permits it that one that does not -- even when some of the invective is directed at myself.

Only 18 months have passed between the days when I wrote those words and the present moment, yet the chronological gulf feels much larger. Do I stand by them now?

Yes -- with one crucial caveat. While even toxic political speech should be tolerated, our society needs to be aggressive in holding those who disseminate it accountable. They will almost certainly resist, and that fact cannot matter in the slightest.

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First, though, let's address the two problems with arguing that hate speech should be banned. The most obvious is that the same logic which can be used by one group to deny speech to their adversaries can be turned against them. As Trump made clear when he characterized the anti-fascist counter-protesters as violent and provocative, individuals who oppose humanitarian causes have little difficulty in characterizing progressives as the true oppressors.

Of course, progressives inevitably respond to this by arguing that their ideology is so fundamentally different from that of the alt-right that the Trumpian position is clearly wrong. That rebuttal misses the larger point. Societies may be ruled with laws, but those laws are justified and embedded into our culture by abstract principles. As soon as a new precedent alters one of those fundamental principles, anyone who operates within that society can effectively apply those principles to advance their own agenda, whatever it may be.

"The ability to associate disagreeable ideas with the oppressor, and to quash free speech or other political rights in the name of justice for the oppressed, is a power without any clear limiting principle," explained Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine in April. "Historically, states that rule on that basis tend to push that power to its farthest possible limit."

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The ACLU summed up this point quite succinctly after Charlottesville, when its statement condemning white supremacism also noted that "the First Amendment is a critical part of our democracy, and it protects vile, hateful, and ignorant speech. For this reason, the ACLU of Virginia defended the white supremacists’ right to march."

There is a second argument against banning hate speech, one rooted in pragmatism. Like it or not, banning hate speech is almost certainly not going to work, and could quite likely make their advocates even more powerful.

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Take the Trump campaign. Setting aside the occasions when Trump skirted outright illegality by encouraging violence against the media or protesters, most of the more toxic things he said during his campaign were not illegal. The misogynistic comments about Hillary Clinton and other women who criticized him, the calls for discriminatory policies against Muslims and Mexicans, the race-baiting of his birther conspiracy theories against President Barack Obama — those were all taboo within mainstream political discourse.

Being taboo isn't the same thing as being illegal, of course, but it's absurd to argue that social sanctions aren't a powerful force to be reckoned with. Many politicians, celebrities and ordinary people have had their reputations and lives ruined by errant comments that violated the unofficial bounds of acceptable political discourse. Only a few years ago, it would have seemed impossible for someone as blatantly bigoted as Trump to receive a major party's presidential nomination, much less actually reach the White House. (Which is part of the reason why many in the media failed to take him seriously.)

Yet the social sanctions that used to confine individuals like Trump not only didn't work against him, they actually seemed to make him stronger, as people who secretly felt the same way that he did gravitated toward his candidacy. Thanks to the internet, millions of Americans who shared Trump's prejudices could rally behind their man without fear of being shamed. As a result, he pulled off the greatest upset in American political history since Harry Truman defeated Thomas Dewey in 1948.

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Can anyone honestly say that banning hate speech, as opposed to simply stigmatizing it, would be more effective? Such a policy would require rigorous policing of the internet, for one thing (good luck there), as well as a careful parsing of what type of rhetoric is and isn't sufficiently "hateful" to warrant being prohibited. Would we call the police every time we heard someone praise Adolf Hitler? Would we comb through the shelves of libraries and bookstores to eliminate problematic content? Even if such a thing were desirable, how could it be implemented with any realistic hope of success?

This isn't to say that there are no new weapons that can be used to fight hate movements like the one that congregated in Charlottesville. One in particular comes to mind — namely, enforced personal accountability.

As I wrote in July, no one who spreads hate speech should have the right to do so anonymously. As University of Chicago law and philosophy professor Martha Nussbaum explained, members of the alt-right and other hate movements need to be anonymous "to create for themselves a shame-free zone in which they can inflict shame on others" and "to insulate their Internet selves from responsibility in the real world, while ensuring real-world consequences."

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This is not a right that anyone should have. While anonymity in one's speech is an important civil liberty for people who perform a legitimate public service, like whistleblowers or journalistic sources, it has nothing to do with matters of freedom when it comes to those who wish to harm others.

That is where the fact that hate speech is fundamentally harmful becomes valid. The intrinsically destructive nature of the speech cannot, and must not, be used to justify banning it. On the other hand, it can and absolutely must be used to justify personally naming every single person who promotes it.

Thankfully there are already heroes who are engaged in this crusade, most notably Philadelphia activist Daryle Lamont Jenkins. By forcing accountability on white supremacists, he makes it possible for the resistance against them to deal real damage to the movement without abridging their basic human rights. It's the equivalent of taking an oversized bully and cutting him or her down to the same size as everyone else.

If you're not a bully, you have no reason to fear having your name associated with your words, so no dangerous precedent is set. If you are a bully, on the other hand, then society benefits from forcing you to be exposed for what you are.

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As Jenkins put it to Wired, "If you don't like doxxing, I say, please, find a new way to keep these people back. The problem is you've all been doing nothing."

This, ultimately, is the best way to achieve Popper's goal of protecting a tolerant society from the intolerant. It is a method that violates no one's rights, establishes no precedents that undermine our free society's long-term health and (let's be honest) delivers some long overdue justice against cowards who richly deserve it.

On the other hand, if we try to stop the far right by destroying the basic civil liberties on which our free society rests, then we risk being no better than William Roper from the classic Robert Bolt play "A Man for All Seasons." When Roper declares that he would gladly remove all laws to stop the devil, Sir Thomas More replies, "And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?"


Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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