In the past, I have written about the value of unfettered civil discourse. I have argued that our debates over culture and politics should engage everyone, even the most virulent and hateful among us, in the belief that you can learn something of value from anyone.
But recent events, including the tragic shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, have left me with big questions, questions I doubt I’ll answer satisfactorily anytime soon.
Preaching about the need to listen to everyone is easy when you disassociate it from its perils. For example, I am a white man. People who look like me founded this country and entrusted power to other white men. Objectively speaking, white men are still the most well-represented and powerful class in the United States. Not surprisingly, there are few meaningful ways to dehumanize white men within the English language.
For people of color, religious minorities, women, or LGBTQ+ people, however, the English language offers many words and phrases that undermine or diminish their ability to be seen as full-fledged members of the world.
Civil discourse can only exist when a conversation takes place in good faith. In my mind, this means discussions should be productive, allowing for meaningful debate based on the principles of inclusivity, equality, and respect. Disagreements are a natural byproduct of debate, but dehumanizing rhetoric certainly is not.
Owing to the commitment to free speech in the United States, we tolerate the speech of the least tolerant among us in order to preserve the right for marginalized people to speak their mind. But it is important to remember that the right of a person to speak his or her mind does not mean that what was said is necessarily worthy of consideration or respect.
In 1945, philosopher Karl Popper, a lifelong advocate for a free and open society, defined what he called “the paradox of tolerance.” He wrote:
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 ... 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.
Mr. Popper wrote these words in the aftermath of World War II, at a time when many were wondering how the Nazis’ violent, hateful ideas had taken hold in Germany. It is clear that unlimited tolerance, which allows bigotry and prejudice to run amok without confrontation and challenge, is a recipe for disaster.
But how best to square this paradoxical conception of tolerance with America’s commitment to free speech? It seems that many people have confused freedom of speech with the requirements of civil discourse and tolerance. A number of politicians, op-ed writers, and TV pundits have breathlessly preached of the need to tolerate the intolerant.
But what productive conversations can come from hearing out those who celebrate the mailing of bombs to major political figures or shooting 11 people in a synagogue? What is there to learn from those who believe the same acts were false-flag operations, orchestrated for nefarious political purposes?
Perhaps we need to revisit the language of civil discourse. In recent years, the intolerant have co-opted the language of tolerance to make us listen. Those who do not wish to hear racist rants and bigoted tirades at their schools or on their social media feeds are now accused of being “the truly intolerant.”
There must be a greater delineation between free speech — the freedom to speak one’s mind without governmental interference — and civil discourse — a conversation or good-faith debate of ideas.
As we set new standards for our discourse, here is a good place to start: Engage the people with whom you disagree, but only if they respect your humanity and your rights. As Mr. Popper warned us, tolerating intolerance, allowing what is good about our values and principles to be used as cover for hate, is profoundly dangerous, and that danger is one we need to confront each and every time it arises.
Contact Will Tomer at firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1932, or on Twitter @WillTomer.
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