Like most news outlets, the East Bay Express website is often assaulted with questionable comments from some of its readers. Though most of them do not violate our rules against hate-speech or threats, many barely meet our policy’s standards. This has led to a discussion of what constitutes an acceptable, though objectionable, comment, and if we need to expand our parameters to include “intolerant speech” in the age of Trump and Black Lives Matter. But what constitutes “intolerant speech” in outlets and publications that pride themselves on tolerance, debate and an open exchange of ideas?
In a 1945 essay, British philosopher Karl Popper called this “The Paradox of Tolerance” in his book, An Open Society and Its Enemies.
“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance,” he wrote. “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 most unwise.”
For decades, journalists referenced Popper to what speech would and wouldn’t be allowed in their newspapers, newscasts and now, websites and social media, but recently a change is taking place, due in no small part to the consistent mendacity and divisiveness of the current administration.
On June 29, Kaitlyn Tiffany, technology writer at The Atlantic wrote, “Reddit Is Done Pretending The Donald Is Fine,” covering how the social media platform banished “The Donald,” a Reddit group that supported Donald Trump.
“The Southern Poverty Law Center published a detailed report on r/The_Donald in April 2018, highlighting the subreddit’s paranoia about ‘white genocide’ and its support of ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Myanmar, its vicious anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism, and its fascination with imagining violence against the media,” she wrote. “Still, the community was a favorite of Trump himself, who hosted a question-and-answer session there during the Democratic National Convention in 2016 and appeared on several occasions to pull content directly from the subreddit to use in his tweets.”
On the same day, Huffington Post writer Josephine Harvey wrote, “Twitch Suspends Trump’s Account For Violating ‘Hateful Conduct’ Rules” about Amazon’s relatively new live-streaming platform that already has sexual harassment issues.
What we are witnessing is a process known as “de-platforming.” The removal of platforms for obvious white supremacist websites began with the dismantling of the website Storm Front, followed by InfoWars and eventually Alex Jones. Though all of these media outlets still exist in some form, their audience and reach are significantly smaller than before. What’s unusual is not only the president of the United States getting de-platformed for the first time since the birth of social media, but that it no longer requires direct hate speech or threats of violence to take action against intolerant speech.
On June 30, Salon reporter Matthew Rozsa weighed in with, “Twitch, YouTube, and Reddit punished Trump and other racists — and that’s a great thing for freedom,” where he concludes, “Ethically speaking, media platforms have a responsibility to create a culture in which all voices are welcomed. There should be a diversity of people and a diversity of viewpoints, with the only restrictions being on thoughts and words that could limit one or the other. It is for this reason that kicking those racists off of their platforms doesn’t make us less free, but more so.”
Though journalists have often referenced the previous quotation from Popper as their yard-stick for what is and isn’t protected speech, they often leave out the entirety of his quote:
“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.”
Intolerant speech is easily identified because it is against rationality and has no intention of coming to consensus through argumentation, and always comes with an implied violence should it be shut down. Being tolerant does not mean we must tolerate codified support of bigotry, injustice and oppression. From the perspective of a Black journalist and editor, this transition is long overdue. The argument that “free speech” is being hindered on social media and media outlets when we refuse the language and intention of intolerance has been an abhorrent “necessary evil” for far too long.