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Politics Writing

When is it not free speech?

A vehicle plowed into a group of people protesting the white nationalist march through downtown Charlottesville, Va., on August 12.

I have previously written about the extent of free speech, as defined by the law, and indicated my disagreement with protesters at the University of California, Berkeley, over the shutting down of far-right hate-speech figure Milos Yiannopoulos.

The events in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend prompted me to reexamine my position, and consider where the limits of the freedom of speech should be drawn to ensure an orderly, tolerant, and welcoming society.

On Sunday, I posted a note on Facebook about the paradox of tolerance: an argument presented by philosopher Karl Popper that if we practice unlimited tolerance, then we will also need to tolerate the intolerant who seek to destroy our tolerant society; tolerance without limits will lead to the disappearance of its own society. Therefore (emphasis mine):

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.

Source: Karl R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies


Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor at the University of Virginia (and someone I had the fortune to meet this winter), put it eloquently in his opinion piece for The New York Times: “There is no ‘free speech’ if anyone brandishes firearms to intimidate those they despise. You can’t argue with the armed.”

The brandishing of firearms to advocate a point is, almost exclusively, a far-right phenomenon. However much the so-called “alt-right”, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, white supremacists — whatever you call it — wish to argue, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have warned that white supremacist groups have carried out more attacks than any other domestic extremist group over the past 16 years.

Certainly, the left and liberals have not been wholly non-violent. But this is nowhere near equivalent to the violence wielded by right-wing groups in the name of advocacy for their causes, and far more incidents have demonstrated the far-right’s refusal to accept facts — a necessary precondition for meaningful debate. (Obama’s birth certificates, anyone?)

It also doesn’t demonstrate a willingness to debate when far-right protesters accuse peace-promoters as race traitors, imply threats of sexual assault, and spout theories about the difference in brain sizes between the races, and disproven associations that brain size is associated with intelligence (it’s not; climate is probably a bigger factor).

It is simply not possible to engage in rational argument when the best tools of knowledge gathering (namely, the sciences) are dismissed and ignored. Nor is it possible to engage in rational argument when you are being run over by a car.

Under such circumstances, is it time for us to consider the paradox of tolerance and the reserved right to not tolerate as Popper describes?

Are we reaching a critical point in society where, for the sake of continuing our progression towards an orderly, welcoming, diverse, inclusive, and egalitarian society, we must considering using the option that Popper had argued should be reserved as a path of last resort?

Should We, The People of the United States of America, invoke the right to “suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies” in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty?

By Leo Ji

software engineer and news nerd