On Tolerance

The tension between the social justice movement and the liberal ideals of tolerance and free speech came crashing into the mainstream last week, as activists at the University of Missouri and Yale gained widespread attention for events occurring on their respective campuses. There has been a lot of coverage, so if you are not familiar with the situation, I would recommend (sorted by brevity) this video, reading Popehat’s two posts here and here, Robby Soave at Reason, Jonathan Chait in NY Magazine, and for a longer piece, Connor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic.

Having observed many events and effects of the social justice movement, I’d like to propose a way to think about the liberal value of tolerance, a value that social justice activists have generally disregarded. There are other issues with the movement’s methods, and for more on that, I would recommend some Slate Star Codex links in the first footnote (1).

Recent events have indicated that many social justice activists are not concerned about the movement’s chilling effects on free speech. I think the coverage of the events and general political sentiment recognize this is a dangerous situation, and that free speech must be defended, even for speakers with whom we disagree (2). But I’d like to submit a broader defense of tolerance, especially in light of what free speech does not defend. Randall Munroe of xkcd (3) presents the counter-thesis, essentially arguing for intolerance as long as it is allowed by law:

Use of this comic for criticism purposes qualifies as fair use under Copyright Act of 1976, 17 US Code Section 107.

Although Munroe is correct in that it is totally legal to advocate for people who you disagree with to lose their jobs, I think it is a pretty disturbing, intolerant position. But I want to better understand what tolerance means by looking at a thought exercise I call the Tolerance Gradient.

Level 0: Warfare

Let’s first try and imagine a world with the least amount of tolerance possible. There are no rules of civilization, and we use force to wipe out people who oppose us.  We might think of this as the Hobbesian state of nature, but there’s a simpler term: war. Imagine that there is another group that has either different beliefs, different cultural heritage, or something else that we disagree with, and our group either kills our enemies or gets killed.  It can be a religious war, a national war, a civil war, or a colonial war; it’s all zero tolerance all around. Life in this state is pretty awful, and so there’s an obvious desire to get out of this circumstance and add a little tolerance to society.

Level 1: Basic Society and Laws

Next, let’s imagine a society where we decide to avoid killing each other, since that’s really expensive, and we agree to, or are forced under, some sort of government.  This is a minimum level of tolerance, so the state is a Hobbesian Leviathan ; basically, we’re not in mortal danger, but we have no other rights. This authoritarianism is really oppressive, and various groups use it to stamp out ideas they don’t agree with.  Maybe our group is in charge and oppressive, or maybe another group oppresses us.  We still have to live in fear of enemies who disagree with us, but at least they’re not just killing everyone. Usually.

Level 2: Liberalism and Free Speech

The Lockean level. Since we don’t know who will control the state, groups agree to stop using the state to attack others, and constraints are introduced on government power. This is where the idea of free speech comes in, so we are very familiar with this level in the United States; you can say pretty much anything you want legally, with very few exceptions (trying to start a fight, true threats of violence).  You can even imply  your government’s foreign policy amounts to puppeteering:

U.S. District Court for the Second (Wichita) Division of the District of Kansas, 1967. Public domain photo.

You can’t be arrested by the government for you views, even if you look very silly acting as a human puppet in public.  The xkcd comic previously mentioned supports this level, but not the next; in other words, while we will not use the government to punish controversial opinions, we can use various other means to discourage the opinion from being voiced at all (getting people fired, removing financial support for a show).

Level 3: Against Silencing Speech

There are forms of speech that are legal, but yet end up with some people being forced out of the conversation.  Tolerating something at this level means abstaining from our right to silence a speaker using using the methods mentioned above; if someone writes a controversial column, we don’t try to get them fired, we don’t try to get their license revoked, and we don’t reveal their address on the internet.  This is the level where the social justice movement has had problems: using identity politics as ad hominems, using privilege to allow arguments to work in only one direction, and using outrage to avoid discussion. Just like free speech rights, there is always going to be some gray area about whether a response to an argument is an attempt to silence it or an honest attempt to engage with it, but I believe we can generally differentiate the two. We’ll come back to this.

Level 4: Disagreeing and Engaging

Level 3 bans silencing speech, but mostly allows us to continue ignoring people we don’t like. And there are multiple ways to do this, including ignoring them in commercial interactions, in social interactions, or in direct discussions.  But Level 4 is all about engaging, about responding to arguments with counterarguments. This is how we spread ideas and advance human knowledge, through open discussion and rational dialogue.


This gradient helps us categorize different levels of tolerance, and I hope generally indicates that interactions at higher levels offer a range of benefits including better conversations, increased empathy and understanding, and better solutions.  For example, I think we can say without qualification that living in a place where you can be killed for your beliefs (Level 0) is a bad society and clearly worse than living somewhere you are merely persecuted (Level 1). For example, an average human would probably rather live in Stalinist Russia than under the genocidal aliens from Independence Day.  For that matter, you’d probably rather live in post-1945 Stalinist Russia than in the same location from 1941-1945, despite the terrible persecution.

I think it’s also pretty obvious that being in a politically liberal society (Level 2) is better than the same society where speech is curtailed. There’s probably some disagreement at the margin as to whether speech restrictions should be as narrow as they are in the United States (for example, some European countries accept making Holocaust denialism illegal, while the US does not), but in broad strokes I believe most people would take liberalism over authoritarian governments, all else being equal.

The next level (Level 3) really brings up the question of “tolerating intolerance”.  As discussed previously, xkcd says it’s ok to be intolerant of intolerance, but I’d like to respond with three points. The first is from Scott Alexander in The Spirit of the First Amendment:

A good response to an argument is one that addresses an idea; a bad argument is one that silences it. If you try to address an idea, your success depends on how good the idea is; if you try to silence it, your success depends on how powerful you are and how many pitchforks and torches you can provide on short notice.

Well said, but what if the dissenting opinion is false anyway? In that case, John Stuart Mill makes the argument that challenging our own ideas ensures that our foundational knowledge makes sense:

There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.

Ideas are powerful because they have been proven to be true against alternatives, not because they have been shielded from critique. Moreover, it’s worth noting that largely correct opinions can be refined by new information, but we can only get new information if we are allowed to ask questions.

But what if a dissenting opinion is false, and we know it’s false? Well, unfortunately we have to point back to Mill: our certainty can only be increased by fighting off challenges to our ideas through discussion. Sometimes things we know turn out to be false, and we need to understand the magnitude of those errors.  One of the best pieces Scott Alexander has ever written is a strong defense of liberalism and tolerance. My favorite quote comes when he discusses his past skepticism of the concept of transgender people, but as a classical liberal/libertarian, he nevertheless defended their rights. His ideological opponents instead promote intolerance towards the intolerant:

But it could have been worse. I didn’t like transgender people, and so I left them alone while still standing up for their rights. My epistemic structure failed gracefully. For anyone who’s not overconfident, and so who expects massive epistemic failure on a variety of important issues all the time, graceful failure modes are a really important feature for an epistemic structure to have.

God only knows what Andrew would have done, if through bad luck he had accidentally gotten it into his head that transgender people are bad. From his own words, we know he wouldn’t be “pussyfooting around with debate-team nonsense”.

Failing gracefully is important. It underlies the concept of tolerance and likewise the First Amendment; we don’t know what the “right” ideas are, so everyone should have a chance to put their ideas forward.  Asserting we should not listen to a person because we have already dismissed their ideas implies that some ideas and people are beyond question.  More absurdly, it implies that the current state of knowledge of the world is all we will ever need.  Anyone who holds this level of confidence in their beliefs limits their knowledge and makes society worse off.  In fact, it is this exact same argument that progressives made in the past when challenging traditional values.  Challenging commonly held beliefs is just as important today as it was in the past, even if different political groups are doing the challenging.

A final thought on the Tolerance Gradient: these “levels” are not absolute and just because some actions are “higher” on the gradient, we don’t always have to do them.  Using silencing speech isn’t illegal, but it would help dialogue if we didn’t do it. Likewise, it would help us as a society if we could have as much engagement and discussion as possible, but we as individuals just don’t have the time to always think about every issue.  Moreover, some speakers are not interested in having honest conversations and would rather score political points through moral grandstanding. For this reason, there are specific topics (like a presidential candidate that rhymes with dump) I choose to ignore (a “level 3” approach) rather than engage with (a “level 4” approach).  To be frank, avoiding silencing speech is very difficult. It’s fun to morally excoriate the enemy and try and make them look evil and stupid, and we all slip into it.  But even if someone was advocating government persecution or warfare against their political opponents, it would be counterproductive to try to silence those voices no matter how satisfying it might be.

We’ve been having open discussions for centuries though, why do we need to rethink things now? Well, I don’t think anything too radical is needed.  It’s not as if great strides in human knowledge have never been accomplished; we’re not talking over a stone age fire. We generally already know and believe the thesis I’ve put forward here: discussion and engagement, not silence and censorship, drive science and innovation. The only reason it is worth mentioning now is that recent technological developments have changed the way we communicate and tremendously amplified everyone’s speech. This is a good thing, but it also means we have to think about speech more carefully.

So next time you find someone you really disagree with, and you can’t believe how evil they are, instead of trying to excoriate your opponent, demonstrate exactly where their argument has gone astray.  If they aren’t willing to honestly engage in conversation, point out that their tactics are detrimental, and move on. And then write a blog post about tolerance.

  1. Scott Alexander (Slate Star Codex) has been writing about social justice for a long time, and is, in my opinion, the best critic of the movement by far: why he doesn’t like the movement, the lack of social science evident in support of some social justice positions, the weaponization of language, and the toxicity of the community.
  2. If you are not convinced of the value of free speech, this blog post will still be useful, but I might also recommend the ACLU, Christopher Hitchens, and Connor Friedersdorf.
  3. xkcd used to be my absolute favorite thing on the internet, it was witty, nerdy, and gave me a place where science and math were celebrated. It was even a big inspiration for me to learn more about IP, computer science, and other areas. But comic #1357 is just awful, and promotes intolerance and normalization of outrage-driven decisions rather than rational discussion. I’m very disappointed Randall Munroe decided to post it, as he is a respected source in many communities I inhabit, and if anyone reading this sees someone reference that comic, call them out on it.


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