Kansas Progress Institute

Ad Astra Per Aspera ~ To the Stars Through Difficulties

Tolerance and Free Speech

Posted on June 6, 2016

By David Burress

Bigotry’s standard self-defense is now a preemptive red herring: accusing bigotry’s opponents of intolerance. The earliest version was the “free speech” defense–“to criticize me is to deprive me of my free speech” (namely, the freedom to call people hateful names). Later came the “political correctness” defense—“if you criticize me you are merely following a liberal party line.” Nowadays the preferred version seems to be triple jujitsu–the claim that criticizing intolerance is in itself intolerant, which therefore justifies intolerance of criticism of intolerance. These puffed-up ideological claims are generally insulated from challenge by an absence of any concrete cases. In other words they consist in straw man arguments, glittering generalities, and empty rhetoric that feels good to those who feel in need of a defense.

Thus Ron Marr, a Missouri columnist, provides a well crafted 650 word example in Friday’Kansas City Star. Marr proceeds to:


1. Commit triple jujitsu: “I’ve become pretty intolerant of people who yammer about intolerance”—which, as far as we can tell, includes anyone who brings up the allegedly overworked subject of bigotry.
2. Claim that this jujitsu takes no “stance on any issue except freedom of speech and opinion”—as if intolerance towards bigotry is somehow an infringement of free speech.
3. Claim that “they” go too far: they “are unable to countenance the slightest objection to their appeals and ultimatums” and much more in that vein—without giving a single actual case where someone issued an ultimatum.
4. Claim that “they” are even “enforcing agreement under penalty of law,” an act which is “criminal and dictatorial,”—without giving a single actual case where that was attempted.
5. Claim that “they” replace the “dictionary definition” of tolerance “as abiding a situation even though it not your cup of tea” with something like “celebration”—without a giving single actual case of an alleged misunderstanding or a demand for celebration.
6. Claim that “they “ are exceptionally intolerant of efforts to correct their misunderstanding of the dictionary definition—once again without a single actual case.
7. Claim that he personally “never tell[s] others what they should do, think or say”—at least, as long as they don’t “jammer” or “cry havoc” or “let slip the dogs of Facebook comments.”
8. Claim that he personally is tolerant of gay marriage and transexuals using public restrooms of their choice—but also finds it necessary to state publicly that he personally doesn’t like them.
9. Claim that he personally is tolerant of those “who behave with minimum levels of civility and decorum”—which of course leaves a lot of room for claiming that other people’s nonstandard sexual expression violates his sense of decorum.
10. Claim “toleration” requires that “you must tolerate my right to use and own firearms without interference”—as if proposing to control handguns is innately intolerant.

Tolerance in a democracy is in fact a relatively subtle and complex concept that people often get wrong, and not only on the right. I’ll make a few brief comments.

1. As every sensible person knows, some things deserve to be tolerated and other things don’t.
2. What is not quite so obvious, in a democracy we need to reach a rough consensus on what those things are.
3. Right now a slow social change is going on such that it will no longer be socially acceptable to express many forms of bigotry in public (let alone act on them to the detriment of the targeted group). In other words, we are shifting from public tolerance of open bigoted intolerance directed at scapegoats towards public intolerance of open bigoted intolerance.
4. You will still have free speech to express hate in public. However whenever you do so, you should expect that others will to use their own free speech in efforts to change your mind, and in some cases efforts to shame you. In any case, public life is getting less and less comfortable for open haters (and more and more comfortable for their former scapegoats).
5. Marr is one of many right-wingers who are actively resisting those changes.
6. As in all things, it is easy to go overboard. Social change often works better with gentle persuasion than harsh shaming.
7. Nevertheless, it is necessary to point out that:
a. In this piece, Marr is expressing mild hate towards gays and transexuals; and
b. Much worse, in this piece Marr is attempting to construct a general defense for the public expression of hate, provided it is done in sufficiently muted form.


Marr does manage to make one valid point: “If you don’t like what Donald Trump, Sen. Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton have to say, then don’t listen to their speeches. But you must tolerate their right to speak. Blocking highways, busting windows or starting fights to prevent candidates from presenting their ideas is the epitome of hateful intolerance.”


But take note: we do have a social consensus that disrupting public speeches is generally wrong, and that consensus has nothing to do with tolerance for hate speech. They are separate questions.

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