On The Paradox of Tolerance

Jaime Andres Fernandez | June 6, 2021

One of the things I enjoy the most about studying philosophy is seeing how arguments that have been developed decades, often centuries ago, provide us with ways to make sense of modern problems. Most of the technologies we develop improve our quality of life, but instead of resolving long-standing questions, they actually give us new spaces in which paradoxes that we have dwelled on for a long time manifest, often with new complications. The internet and social media are prime examples of new technologies that bring us back to long-standing questions — of particular interest to me are those relating to censorship and politics, two concepts that cannot be easily disentangled.

On Jan. 8, 2021, Twitter instaurated a censorship ban that substantially caught people’s attention and further stirred up the turmoil that was already in place. In the midst of Trump supporters taking the Capitol by storm, some of them fully armed, Twitter decided to ban Donald Trump’s Twitter account as they feared it would incite further violence. Twitter’s rationale behind the ban was highly context-based. It signaled a collapse between cyberspace and physical space, for although Trump’s tweets were causing trouble inside the platform, the most worrying aspect was how they interacted and influenced what was going on outside the platform. After all, Trump has had a history of questionable and disrespectful tweets. This goes to show that in a way, Twitter is aware that what happens on their platform has real-world repercussions. Subsequently, a ban from the platform is not just a ban from the platform itself, but also a restriction that limits the individual’s possibility to shape reality outside of the platform.

Public responses to Trump’s ban were varied, and a good percentage of the conversation, mistakenly, orbited around the first amendment of the US constitution, which regards freedom of speech. Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia noted that this conversation was misguided, for the first amendment is there to safeguard citizens from being censored by the government and not from private companies. The more difficult questions that the ban brings to light are those relating to how we should deal with big tech companies that have in a way, monopolized the space in which public discourse takes place. With regards to this, Jaffer tweeted that it was perfectly coherent to believe that both (a) banning Trump was right and that (b) social media’s excessive power poses a problem for democracy. Jaffer’s tweet implies that he believes there are some cases in which social media bans could be bad for democracy, but Trump’s ban is not one of them. Thus, we are left wondering in virtue of what was Trump’s ban earned, and in which cases does excessive power pose a problem?

There are several layers of complexity at play here, and so there is no easy way to argue in favor of Jaffer’s view. However, let us try to bring a possible answer to the table. Firstly, it is worth noting that Trump’s ban is one of many bans that social media has instaurated. For instance, a lot of left-wing activists have also had their accounts censored or blocked by big tech, and this is a phenomenon that has been happening in much larger and cautious ways. In this article, Akin Olla, a Nigerian-American political strategist and organizer, ends his commentary on Facebook’s banning of his own and others’ accounts by stating that, “an organization which finds it so difficult to distinguish fascists from Black left-wing activists should not be trusted to make such decisions [of banning others].”

Much like Jaffer, Olla calls to question big tech’s ability to determine what is right and wrong. Facebook (and every social media platform) has the right (and duty?) to determine what they render intolerable. Olla’s criticism is that Facebook seems to have rendered all types of intolerance censorable when perhaps intolerance against intolerance should be condoned. Olla’s argument gives us one way to fill the gap Jaffer leaves open, by proposing an answer to the question of what makes Trump’s ban earned whilst still making social media’s excessive power an issue. The answer is that on one hand, Trump’s actions threatened democratic order significantly, as shown by the events at the Capitol. And, on the other hand, Olla’s activism also challenged the status quo but it was not anti-democratic. Thus, Trump’s ban is a ban on a person bringing forward ideas that threaten democracy, whereas Olla’s ban is a ban on someone who attempts to strengthen democracy and equality. In a sense, Olla’s argument is an embodiment of one of the many paradoxes of tolerance — namely, that in order to protect tolerance, one must not tolerate intolerance. But what does a philosophical scope tell us about this type of reasoning?

There is a natural counterargument to this response which brings out the paradox in it, "if toleration always implies a drawing of the limits against the intolerant and intolerable, and if every such drawing of a limit is itself a (more or less) intolerant, arbitrary act, toleration ends as soon it begins — as soon as it is defined by an arbitrary boundary between “us” and the “intolerant” and “intolerable.”" This is known as the paradox of drawing limits. There is no objective tolerance-meter, and this complicates things. This paradox has been exploited by the political right to criticize the left, see for example these videos (1, 2) from PragerU. But, there is also a way out of the paradox.

In order to exit the paradox, one must concede two interpretations of intolerance: “the intolerance of those who lie beyond the limits of toleration because they deny toleration as a norm in the first place, and the lack of tolerance of those who do not want to tolerate a denial of the norm.” In other words, some people hold views that deny tolerance as a norm from the start, whereas others deny tolerance as a response to the former group. Someone who discriminates against others denies toleration in the first place. This presupposes that we can delineate the limits of tolerance in an unbiased way, and it is far from being a flawless solution. However, it is a way to respond to the most common claims that Olla’s and Jaffer’s reasoning are subject to. Olla’s wording implies the analysis I have fleshed out — or so I like to think — but taken word for word; the idea that, “an organization which finds it so difficult to distinguish fascists from Black leftwing activists should not be trusted to make such decisions [of banning others],” is subject to the superficial criticism explained above as it allows one to entertain ideas, knowing that one must be on the lookout for ideas that deny tolerance from the start. What I think Olla is saying, and what I think we should criticize big tech for, is its inability to differentiate between these two types of intolerances.

One may still contend, as Harvey Mansfield did back in 2010, and some conservatives still do, that some liberal activists are worse at exercising tolerance than those traditionally flagged as intolerant. Furthermore, one may find it compelling to think that just like Trump was banned to ensure public order, it is also fair to ban left-wing activists that incite protesting and disrupting public order. I think the discussion above gives us tools to understand why this reasoning has some flaws

Firstly, I would like to clarify that I am not justifying any violent disruption of public order, but peaceful protest. Secondly, it is a lot easier to live and let live when one holds all the cards, and when one is benefiting from the status quo. It is easier for a cisgender heterosexual male to say “let business owners choose whether they want LGBTQ+ people in their businesses or not” than it is for an LGBTQ+ identifying individual to say that, because for them “letting live” involves putting themselves down. So perhaps we must entertain that those who are defending themselves from a sort of a priori intolerance may often need to disrupt normality.

Perhaps then, it makes sense for us to add this line of reasoning to that which we look for in an ethical company. Just like the expectation is that a good company does not test on animals, we should expect that a good company recognizes that in their pursuit of respect and recognition of their basic humanity, some groups may have to disrupt public order. However, we are left with the longstanding problem of figuring out how to demand cooperation from corporations in challenging the status quo. After all, social media platforms are first and foremost corporations that benefit from the established order which we strive to re-shape.

The conversation is far from over, and I am aware that the analysis I bring forward is not free of criticism. However, I hope it is a move away from superficial approaches to censorship and tolerance in the digital age and how they relate to politics. More than a particular reading of the situation, I hope that the biggest takeaway for you, dear reader, is both the understanding of how important philosophy can be to understand our modern problems, and how it provides us with a set of conceptual tools which we may use to further articulate our thoughts around political activism and censorship in this day and age.

We believe in furthering the conversation on digital tolerance beyond this article. Here are a few resources from Jaime to get that started:

1. Hate group community-building online: A case study in the visual content of internet hate | B.A. Barnett

2. How Big Tech is Becoming the Government | Rodrigo Fernandez, Tobias J. Klinge, Reijer Hendrikse, & Ilke Adriaans

3. Toleration | Rainer Forst

4. Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age | Bernard E Harcourt

5. In the Swarm: Digital Prospects | Byung-Chul Han

6. How social media took us from Tahrir Square to Donald Trump | Zeynep Tufecki