Charlottesville: Tolerate or Condemn?

Tolerance and resistance should not be mutually exclusive.

A placard at a protest in Pittsburgh against the violence in Charlottsville. Photo by Mark Dixon

The images from Charlottesville this summer were truly horrific. The actions of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in killing a counter-protester, making racist, anti-Semitic, and intolerant statements shocked the conscience of the United States.  The dark underbelly of American society was uncovered for all to see.

There is absolutely no questioning that what these violent, fascistic individuals did was wholly and unquestionably wrong.  The only people equivocating about these have completely detached themselves from any coherent understanding of right and wrong.

 I will not seek to go through all of the ways in which their actions were wrong. Instead I will discuss how we should respond to such vile actions.

The concept of tolerance is often considered to be central to any liberal society. In a liberal society that respects individual autonomy it is necessary that we allow people to form their own opinions, pursue their own goals in life, think what they choose, and to express themselves in public.

The rights to do these things are central to our understanding of what it means to be a liberal and open society. We must tolerate those who we disagree with. What happened at Charlottesville, however, stretches the concept of tolerance to its breaking point.  

Mary Robinson has described tolerance as “the first and necessary step in overcoming fear of the stranger”.  This is what places tolerance at the heart of a liberal society; we are diverse, varied, different and tolerance is what allows us to live together and to thrive as a society.  By tolerating each other we ensure that society is a  place in which everyone can be comfortable and themselves. They can pursue their own ends, live their own lives, and we all benefit.  

Tolerance renders our society a diverse and lively place and we all reap the rewards of diversity. Without tolerance society would lack diversity.  This is what makes the challenge of Charlottesville so difficult; without tolerance we lose a big part of what is important in society.

But the views and actions of the neo-Nazis and white supremacists at Charlottesville seek to undermine tolerance itself, so how do we protect our diverse and vibrant society from hate speech without ourselves undermining tolerance?

Hate speech, as seen at Charlottesville, is defined by the political theorist Jeremy Waldron as something that actively diminishes the dignity of its target audiences. The neo-Nazis in Charlottesville actively sought to diminish the dignity of their targets,  anyone who is not white, and to present American society as inhospitable for ethnic minorities.

 This is what challenges toleration, as Robinson says toleration “is not indefinitely self-sustaining. It provides immediate breathing time for both parties.”  When what we are being asked to tolerate is intolerance then this breathing time is not possible and the ultimate goal of tolerance “recognition, acceptance and celebration of the stranger” recedes from the realm of the possible.  We may then think that the answer is to jettison tolerance by not tolerating the intolerant.  Unfortunately it is not always as simple as this.

 Sacrificing our toleration of others by legally repressing their ability to express their views, even hateful and intolerant ones, is sacrificing part of what is valuable about our society and culture.

In his 1981 article titled “A Right to Do Wrong”, Waldron argues that if we are committed to the importance of rights, then sometimes we have to accept that people have a right to do the wrong thing to support the British National Party, to rudely rebuff someone on the street, or to protest the removal of the statue of a deceased violent slave-owner. We are committed to this to allowing people to be and do wrong in our opinion.

 In Charlottesville neo-Nazis exercised their rights to be wrong.  How should we respond to this? What is the correct response to someone who is so egregiously wrong? Should we tolerate them?  The answer is yes. However, this does not mean that we should do nothing.  To tolerate something is to firstly recognise that we believe it to be wrong.  We cannot tolerate something with which we agree.

We can, however, tolerate the individuals who are wrong whilst actively opposing and resisting what they say and stand for.  A good example of this is the small German town of Wunsiedel which found an ingenious way to both tolerate Neo-Nazis whilst resisting everything they stand for.  They sponsored the neo-Nazis who had organised a march so that the further they walked the more money was raised for a charity that specialised in helping people to escape neo-Nazi organisations. They tolerated the neo-Nazis — they were allowed, even encouraged, to march but they also resisted everything that neo-Nazis stand for.

How can we put this into the Charlottesville context? One of the most common arguments in favour of free speech, known as  the incorrigibility of knowledge thesis, comes from John Stuart Mill  and states that any opinion might contain a kernel of truth.  In the case of neo-Nazis this is clearly false: there is nothing true about their opinions.  However, we still maintain a commitment to free speech.  This is because being able to speak our minds without fear of persecution is an important component of showing respect for our individual dignity.  

A society that prevents people from being able to speak their minds is a society that does not respect individual dignity.  Similarly, neo-Nazis that engage in hate speech do not show respect for individual dignity.  So we have a problem: how do we resist Nazi speech and ideology without showing a lack of respect for individual dignity? Simply put, tolerating Nazis does not mean that we cannot, or should not, speak out against them by counter-protest; writing condemning them; and refusing to give them a platform on which to speak.

 This last option is somewhat controversial; denying platforms to  controversial speakers has been cited, particularly in a University context, as a violation of free speech.  This is false.  A free speech violation is when someone is censored or gagged. When we refuse to invite, or disinvite, a controversial speaker we do not violate their free speech, rather we exercise our right to resist hateful individuals.  Refusing to give a platform to hate is not violating free speech. It is ensuring that society is a hospitable place for minorities and the downtrodden.

Free speech and toleration are central planks of a liberal society. If we jettison them then we jettison crucial components of what makes our society valuable.  However, if we simply stand by and do nothing in the face of such horrifically misguided and hateful actions then we are allowing it to thrive.  As Edmund Burke is, apocryphally, supposed to have said “all that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing.”  We are committed to the right of free speech and so we are committed to the right to say things that are wrong.

We are not committed to doing nothing.  So, the answer of whether to tolerate or condemn is yes.  We should tolerate and condemn. We should tolerate that which we believe to be wrong and we should condemn that which we believe to be wrong.  To give up toleration is to give up part of the very heart of what makes our society valuable.  To refuse to condemn is to stand by and allow evil to succeed.  We must use every weapon in our arsenal to resist the growing tide of populist fascism around the world.

This arsenal does not include intolerance; it does include counter-protest, our own speech, and refusing to give a platform to hate. After everything that we have seen over the last few months, the sight of the dark and racist underbelly of western culture, it is more important than ever that we maintain our ability to tolerate and to build our willingness to resist.