“Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: 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. — In this formulation, 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. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.”

― Karl Raimund Popper, The Open Society, and Its Enemies

Tolerance-Khalid-Hussein

A society based on freedom and liberal humanism must value tolerance just to exist. But it must value itself more highly than any culture or alternate system of government if it is to survive. When the Mohamed cartoons controversy arose we were faced with another culture protesting the rules of our own. There were threats of murder, and outraged demands to change our rules on their behalf. Demands to essentially to add a dogma of Islam (not depicting Mohamed) as an amendment to western values from now on.

The west responded with a mix of:

  1. Cowardice: “OK! Done.”
  2. Nationalistic grumbling.
  3. Assholes taunting Muslims by burning Korans.
  4. Liberal appeasement, which volunteered to alter our way of life because other cultures naturally take precedence.
  5. Indifference, the deciding vote of many disputes.
  6. Worry by those who know that there are no take backs when you hand over any part of your autonomy.

The conciliatory impulse when someone is (or even seems) deeply offended is to apologize and seek accommodation. It’s a good impulse because peace is good. In seeking peace you ask what will make it right.  The clear message from the Islamic protesters was: “You aren’t allowed to do that, it must never happen again.” Claiming the right in a non-Islamic, free speech culture to determine not only what they see in newspapers but what everyone else sees too.

Many European politicians acceded instantly, deploring the cartoons, many in the media acceded to cowardice really but cloaked as respect for feelings. There have been roughly 200 deaths related to the cartoon controversy since 2005 and anti-blasphemy laws have sprouted up in many places giving more control over speech to those who feel offended. Tolerant European societies began dismantling their foundations partly from fear of religious thugs and partly out of the desire to be nice people and not cause offense.

This hardly constitutes the death of a tolerant culture, but it was surrendering the autonomy of a tolerant culture to the demands of an intolerant one. This is “proof of concept” for Popper’s thesis.  What possible polar corollary can we dream up where Europe is offended by an Islamic meme and Islam is sorry and wants to make it right?  There is no such situation. In fact, throughout Islamic cultures, things we would find outrageously offensive are common-place: Horrible anti-semitic cartoons are daily fare, hateful denouncements of everything in the west and hope for their prompt destruction is the stuff of coffee chat on TV.

All impulse to appease travels one way, and that is through the hole in our cultural defenses wrought by tolerance. The values we thrive on and hope to leave in place for the future will be further weakened by the culture of being too “nice”. Our cultural immune system recognizes certain hot topics for special handling. We maintain our Nazi defenses, we recognize that this hateful speech is something to be watched cautiously. We also recognize that it would permanently fracture society if we cripple free speech to silence Nazis. The problem now isn’t recognizing an overt enemy but a more subtle one. We are vulnerable on our left flank to the idea that all cultures are at least equal; and that any culture that has suffered insult or injury from the west at large deserves to have a say in our own. The welcoming tolerance of pluralistic cultures must be maintained, yet for it to be maintained it must have limits.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: “We should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.”

In other words, it ought to take a matter nearing our imminent destruction to make us consider hitting the pause button on freedom of speech, not the first complaint raised against it.

UPDATE: Insulting Prophet Muhammad not ‘free speech,’ ECtHR rules

 

 

 

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