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Silencing The Intolerant to Make Way for Free Speech: The Paradox of Tolerance

by Boran GÖHER

Free speech has undeniably become one of the chief virtues of western democracies as the last few centuries progressed. Historically, it was not a very feasible policy in general because of various factors, but as democratic processes and human rights developed, free speech became an increasingly valid constituent of the overall status of development of any given country. Nowadays the average person, especially in a western country, regards free speech in an overwhelmingly positive light, at least in name. Yet, the concept is still truly divisive when you get down to the fine details of it. People seem to agree that free speech is an overall boon to society, but those very people all have very different definitions and approaches to the concept. In other words, it is easy to say that free speech is good, but not easy to say what free speech is.


It might be most appropriate to explain this by the way of logic and theory, but that approach would be long-winded and hard-to-follow, not to mention that it is slightly out of the scope of this article. Instead, I will demonstrate the difficulty of trying to establish the borders of free speech by a few examples, which is I believe is a more appropriate way for this article to go about the topic.


Let us say that in our fictional country, we have absolute free speech. That is anyone can state anything they wish, anywhere they wish. Then comes along a few problematic people. One of them says they will bomb a famous hotel in the capital, another says they will behead a group of people in the country, a few others start making death and rape threats, etc. For the most part, both the state and the people agree that these are not what people should be allowed to say. So, our fictional country bans various forms of terror-inducing speech, threats towards groups and individuals and potentially speech that approves or encourages such behaviour. Depending on the circumstance, the country may also ban certain forms of insult and slander against certain corporations and people. The government might also decide to take action against incorrect information threatening the quality of life of its citizens. Yet, in all these cases, the people would not see these laws in a negative light despite them being made to control speech. Most people would see these laws as not a breach of free speech, but rather, the natural borders of it.


But that is not always the case. Assume that our country has a group of minorities. Due to the laws mentioned in the previous paragraph, you cannot directly threaten or encourage any form of violence upon them. Still, even if you cannot make speeches inciting violence, you can still talk in a way that encourages hate against this group of minorities, otherwise known as hate speech. This one, in particular, is a divisive issue. On one hand, it is easy to categorize it as just free speech, since there is no material harm (or threat of material harm, for that matter). Whatever that is said, remains as a pure expression and does not progress into the physical world. On the other hand, it is literally aimed to hurt a disenfranchised group of society. Outright violence is one thing, but hate speech is an ambiguity when trying to establish natural borders for freedom of speech.


We will now make another assumption. Assume that in our fictional country, there is a group of hateful people who are prone to using hate speech, and demand it to be protected under the umbrella of freedom of speech. In the current status quo, hate speech is not prohibited. So, members of this group (note that this group does not have to be an organization) engage in hate speech against the minority group. This leads to a few consequences that might give further insight on the status of hate speech with freedom of expression.


Firstly, hate speech radicalizes people. If a person is on a “warmer” point of the political spectrum, it is unlikely that they will be very acceptive of extreme views immediately, even if they lean on that direction. For the most part, the progress happens slowly, with the person being slowly more accepting of moderate views first. It is easy to see that if hate speech is normalized, this process becomes much easier. This is why Germany has its famous anti-Nazi and anti-Holocaust-denial laws as well. (1) Sure, hate speech might not directly cause violence, but it is a lubricant for impressionable people to slide into extremist positions where they are inclined to commit crimes and incite violence.


Second, the perpetrator of hate speech not causing material harm by their hands does not mean that there exists no such harm. Their hate speech creates an atmosphere in which other people, more prone to violence, are able to justify and normalize their otherwise unethical and criminal behaviour. In addition to that, this atmosphere perpetuates inaction and fear among minorities, which pushes them even further back in society. Of course, another aspect of this argument is self-harm. The downtrodden of any society is naturally more predisposed to self-harm, a fact which is clearly represented in the statistics. A striking example is the suicide rates among transgender people. On average, around one third of transgender people report having tried to take their life at least once in their lives. Double that amount report having engaged in self-harm at least once. (2) There are many intertwining reasons for this phenomenon, but obviously, hostile environments and harsh offenses to their very beings are not helping. This is one of the points that people are most worried about when they express concern over hate speech aimed at the disenfranchised.

Finally, if we consider all the above points together, we can conclude that not prohibiting hate speech might actually harm freedom of expression. We know that the existence of hate speech works to radicalize people, creates a hostile environment, makes minorities more inclined to self-harm and when it goes under the radar, it can even lead to violence. Under these conditions, it would be no surprise that the minorities in our fictional country would suppress their own speech and expressions, or even attempt to drown out their actual identities. In a way, our country has championed freedom of expression by allowing hate speech, but in this case, are the minorities truly free in their expression? Throughout the article, we have considered a make-believe country, but it is not hard at this point to apply the general idea to any Western democracy. By allowing hate speech, perhaps they, too, are restricting freedom of speech.


Of course, this is not applicable to all countries, at least not at the same level, some are more forgiving of hate speech, others not so much. But if we replace our hate group with the alt-right, and replace our minorities with, well, any minority really, we will see that our model country was very faithful to real life in actuality. This has been once described by Austrian Philosopher Karl Popper as the Paradox of Tolerance. Normally an advocate of tolerant societies, Popper claimed in his 1945 book “The Open Society and Its Enemies” that “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.”. (3)


In similar vein to Popper, I now claim that unchecked applications of freedom of speech will end up destroying freedom of speech itself. Allowing hateful groups of people to grow and prosper under the protection of free speech is allowing the hated to be suppressed. The one difference between these groups is that one of them is against the existence of the other. The alt-right, for example, is against the existence of immigrants, GSRM folks, women in select places, etc. Allowing them to speak their vile lies is oppression against the less privileged people in their societies. Of course, one cannot attempt to ban every instance of an alt-righter (or a member of a similar group) trying to voice their opinions. I am simply claiming that society and government should favor silencing the intolerant if the situation has boiled down to one of the opposing groups losing part of their freedom of expression, lest everyone but the intolerant eventually lose that freedom.


As a closing note, I do not, much like Popper did 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 most 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.”. (4) Today, we encounter many instances where this principle could be put into place, in various social media platforms, TV channels or even governmental debates. The voice of the intolerant is very prevalent. This might seem like the sign of a working democracy, but perhaps, unintuitively, we should lower their volumes a bit so that their voice does not drown out the voice of the underprivileged along with our freedoms of expression and democratic tradition.

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