One of the most common questions I get while speaking on college campuses is this – “How can you be tolerant of ideas that are not tolerant? Wouldn’t a society that embraces true tolerance ultimately lead to an intolerant one?”
This argument is often called the Paradox of Tolerance which Austrian-Hungarian philosopher Karl Popper formulated in 1945. For many college students, this argument is used to justify their efforts to silence speech and “cancel” those they view as intolerant.
Surely, hate speech is un-American and unbecoming of a decent and tolerant person. Yet, unlike many English-speaking nations, we give this type of speech legal protections in America. Why is this?
When I first got this question, I went straight into an anti-censorship monologue.
The first issue with censorship is the question of “Who decides what is hateful and what is not?” Throughout history, much speech and behavior that is now considered appropriate was deemed hateful. Similarly, there are many types of speech that were once the norm but are now taboo. And, even today, people disagree on what constitutes hate speech. By giving government – or any entity – the power to ban hate speech, society enables the abuse of power vis-à-vis censorship.
But more importantly, silencing so called “hate speech” has a chilling effect on legitimate speech that touches on sensitive subjects. We as Americans have freedom of speech not just to talk about the weather. Freedom of speech is most useful when we use this freedom to challenge social norms in an effort to achieve higher truths. Censorship, even censorship of allegedly “intolerant” ideas, silences honest voices asking tough questions that need to be asked.
Intolerant ideas are only intolerant when those people speaking refuse to engage with others and challenge their own beliefs. It’s ok to have disagreements. But, coming together to solve our problems is what makes us American. To be tolerant means to tolerate all those who are willing to come together to build a better society.