On the paradox of tolerance in relation to fascism and online content moderation

It’s common in the last decade or so to see people invoke Karl Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance as a justification for de-platforming sufficiently fascist, reactionary, or bigoted content.  Here’s a comic that’s been shared a lot:

The message from this is: “Nazis are bad, if you ‘give Nazis a chance’ (by e.g. listening to them or allowing them to express their views to others), they’ll end up taking over and silencing and possibly killing lots of people including you, so you should kick them out of society when they start saying things that imply not tolerating others.”

An immediate problem that comes up is that pretty much all political philosophies refuse to tolerate some things, e.g. crimes like theft. Of course one could draw distinctions between intolerance of behavior versus intrinsic identity, but this gets into nuances not determined by simplistic arguments about “intolerance”.

Who is intolerant according to Karl Popper’s criterion?

What did Karl Popper himself have to say about the matter? Quoting The Open Society and its Enemies:

Less well known [than other paradoxes] 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 most 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.

(emphasis mine)

This adds some detail that helps to better specify the claim.  It would be unwise to counter positions with suppression when they can be argued against; if our position indeed has better evidence behind it and the opponents are willing to submit their position to rational argument/debate, then we should expect our position to “win” in such a rational argument, and it would be unwise to suppress the position.

Why might suppression be unwise? If those disagreeing are rationally persuadable, then suppression removes an opportunity for dialogue that could convince them of the truth. Even if they are not themselves rationally persuadable, rational third parties will be more convinced if the position is argued with rather than suppressed; suppressing the position can make it look better than it is, since supporters of that position can claim that it’s being unfairly ignored and suppressed by the establishment.

Another consideration against suppression is that it’s sometimes hard to be certain of who the “intolerant” one is. After all, suppressing speech is the kind of thing intolerant people do; if we’re designing rules that are supposed to be applicable by a diverse population, some of that population will be “intolerant”, and ideally these rules would advise these people and those watching them about how to determine whether or not they are.

Luckily, Karl Popper clarifies later in the section who is intolerant: “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.”

Hmm, who does this describe better in the contemporary political argument? The first example I think of is people who say that debating reactionaries is futile, who think debate leads to fascism, who think fascists should be punched instead of debated.  The New York Times recently published an article about debate on college campuses, in which a student reported that college campuses are less receptive to debate than they used to be, instead producing a climate of fear about speaking one’s mind.

There are good criticisms of this article, for example in noting that the student complained about a group of people including a teacher all disagreeing with her statement; that reflects unwillingness to debate fairly. However, in response to this article, some “leftist”-identifying commentators said things along the lines of “debate is bad, it leads to more fascism”. That debate itself is the generator of fascism, not merely an arena that fascism utilizes.

To be fair to such arguments, debate is an adversarial process, but it’s an adversarial process much older than the fascism of Mussolini or Hitler, engaged in by the likes of Ben Franklin and Abraham Lincoln. Chess and football are also adversarial processes, and probably have more in common with fascism than debate does, due to chess being a war simulation and football being a physical team-versus-team activity similar to military exercises.

Under Karl Popper’s criterion, those saying that debate itself leads to fascism (and is therefore not worth engaging with, and worth dis-endorsing in general) would certainly be “intolerant”; they denounce rational argument, encourage their followers to do so, and posture towards committing violence against those who debate by labeling those in favor of open debate as “fascists” who can be punched under a “punch fascists/Nazis” rule. (The call for “punching Nazis” is, ironically, concordant with Nazism: Triumph of the Will approvingly depicted Nazis punching Nazis in a burst of masculine passion.)

It’s important to remember that the historical Nazis did not take power through means that were legitimate in the Weimar republic; they took power in large part through paramilitary units that clashed with police forces, and are strongly suspected to have started the Reichstag fire, which led to emergency powers being granted that reduced the freedom of speech of the German citizenry.

These are not the actions a political unit who thought that open rational debate was on its side would take. These are, instead, the actions of a political unit that thinks it can only take power by violently disrupting the legitimate societal processes, and being in hiding most of the time while taking power. In general, if someone in a fight is hiding, they are hiding because they believe that they would lose an open fight; if they thought they would win an open fight, they would likely initiate such a fight. In RPG terms, a warrior will generally win an open fight with a thief, and the thief tries to win through stealth and picking surprising engagements; warriors are more likely to win in well-lit areas, thieves in poorly-lit areas.

While the comic citing Popper uses the phrase “preaching intolerance”, which Popper also uses, reading the full passage shows that Popper’s concern is about directing causing intolerance, “inciting” it, rather than rationally arguing for it. Rational arguments for intolerance (including the “paradox of tolerance” itself) can be dealt with at the level of rational argument, and those that the evidence is against can be defeated by opposing rational arguments. The problem comes in eschewing rational argument and encouraging others to do so as well.

It’s especially ironic for debate to be considered fascist (therefore antisemitic) when Judaism itself involves a lot of debate. There’s a long tradition of technical argumentation about how to interpret the Torah, including accounts of what happened historically and what laws Jews are bound to follow. I heard about an inter-faith dialogue event in which the Jewish speaker said that the essence of Judaism was that when speaking with someone you love, you should be willing to rationally argue against their beliefs, and be more willing to “lay into them” harder the more you love them, as becoming more right through rational argument is beneficial. I remember my Jewish father and grandfather being proud as I developed logical arguments for atheism around age 11. And I recently talked with some Hasidic Jews who believed it was important for social media not to censor Nazis, since they deserve a fair shot in open debate. These are signs of a culture that is enthusiastically in favor of open debate.

Given this, suppression of debate is directly anti-Semitic, even when it claims to be indirectly preventing future antisemitism by suppressing antisemitic fascists.

To add some nuance, this doesn’t imply that all behaviors that look like “debate” are actually the sort of attempts at intellectual improvement that help correct incorrect beliefs and which are valued by Judaism. Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Anti-Semite the Jew” (summary by Sarah Constantin here) discusses the traits of antisemites. These include laziness, people-orientation, impulsiveness, bullying, conformity, irrationality, mysticism, anti-intellectualism, and being part of a mob. Quoting the “irrational” section of Sarah’s summary:

They are irrational. “The anti-Semite has chosen to live on the plane of passion.” They like being angry (at the Jews), and seek out opportunities to work themselves up into a rage. They deliberately say trollish things that make no sense: “Never believe that anti‐Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti‐Semites have the right to play.”

Antisemites troll the process of rational discourse itself by saying things that make no sense, but which take more difficulty to refute rationally than to say, since the refutation has to abide by the laws of reason whereas the initial statement does not. The statements can, instead, be statements about who to affiliate with and who to bully, thinly disguised as rational arguments.

This is a consideration against continuing to platform someone after they make enough absurd arguments that are easy to demonstrate false; continuing to argue with them is wasting one’s time, since most of what they say is noise or, worse, deliberately-misleading statements, or instructions to others to commit violence in opposition to reason.  It would be rare, however, to find someone on the “pro-debate” side of contemporary discourse who wouldn’t agree that debate is in some cases simply not worth the effort due to the irrationality of the other side.

There are open questions in terms of which acts of speech are practicing intolerance and how they should be suppressed. At one extreme, criminal conspiracy and death threats are forms of speech that intrinsically move people towards harmful, “intolerant” actions. Someone who is only pretending to give rational arguments may still be whipping up an irrational mob, e.g. someone who proposes a law pardoning anyone who murders <some particular person> on <some particular date> is likely to be trying to stoke mob violence towards this person, rather than propose a law they think will be passed and which has good reasons for it.

Elon Musk, Twitter, and free speech

This brings us to Mike Solona’s article (posted on Bari Weiss’s substack) about the response to Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter:

“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated. I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans.”

“Freedom,” “open source technology,” and “man, I really hate these spam bots.” The media’s reaction to these ambitions was instant and apoplectic. They were akin, we were told, to literal Nazism

Out of the gate, it was incoherent fury, with no consensus motive. We were told that Elon, who explicitly opposes censorship, intended to deplatform, and ultimately destroy, all of his critics, who are themselves explicitly in favor of censorship. We were told that Elon was building a propaganda engine. We were told that Twitter, which was until last week apparently a peaceful, utopian haven for principled discourse, would now revert to some earlier, imagined world of carnage (very bad tweets). The case was made, with zero evidence, that Elon is a racist. It was all just table stakes, really. 

After a week or so, in brutal, Darwinian competition for attention, arguments against Musk blossomed into something more colorful. From Axios, a company committed in writing to never sharing an opinion, it was “reported” that Elon, once likened to Iron Man, was now behaving “like a supervillain.” His ownership of Twitter would lead to World War III, the case was made elsewhere. In one of my favorite moments of derangement, NPR helpfully reminded us that Elon is an imperialist. The basis for such an incredible charge? In the tradition of America’s Apollo Moon landing, one of the most celebrated accomplishments in human history, Elon wants to settle Mars, an uninhabited desert planet 155 million miles from Earth. This is just like colonial-era Britain’s brutal conquest of half the world, when you think about it. 

The takes were all extraordinarily stupid, and yes, I loved every single one of them.

The worst people on the internet, delirious with rage, couldn’t stop themselves from saying the dumbest things they’ve ever said since last week and listen, again, yes, I love this. But as funny as the insanity is, it’s important to remember it’s all just that—insane. Irrelevant. Not remotely about what is actually at stake.

The incoherence of the anti-takeover arguments shows an attitude towards rational argument similar to the antisemites profiled by Sartre: absurd replies that can hardly be interpreted as corresponding to rational considerations. Mike Solana “loves” them because the over-the-top absurdity reveals the charade unambiguously.

Given how little Elon has said about how he plans to change the platform, there is little that his critics could be going off of to decide to criticize the takeover in this manner. The most obviously criticizable thing he said is that he is in favor of “free speech”. (I would, personally, most object to “authenticating all humans”, as that would harm many pseudonymous accounts I know and love, but that hasn’t been the main focus in the mainstream discourse.) An outside observer (e.g. foreign) would take from this that the mainstream American media is against free speech.

Now, it’s certainly possible to invoke “free speech” asymmetrically to only protect opinions that are endorsed by current power structures, but the natural way for a pro-free-speech person to object to this is to point out the asymmetry (as some anarchists do), not to give up the very idea of “free speech” to power worshippers. This whole discussion reminds me of the era of Reddit where there was a social justice subreddit called “ShitRedditSays” in which posters often made fun of redditors saying they were having their free speech rights violated by misspelling “free speech” and “freeze peach” and posting emojis of peaches, dissolving any semantic content of “free speech” into an absurdity.

Why would it make sense to cede the ideal of “free speech” to “right-wing fascist sympathizers”, when fascists are against free speech and liberals are for it? I think that’s the wrong question because it’s assuming that the strategy is selected because it makes sense, whereas it may alternatively (by Sartre’s model) be a mob strategy for synchronizing with others around an irrational pseudo-worldview. Someone might join such a mob if they find that they themselves cannot speak freely, and cannot unironically invoke the idea of “free speech” to un-silence themselves; they may see those who do so as “privileged” since only they find this strategy successful, and be encouraged to inflict their trauma of being silenced on such privileged, so as to level the playing field. (Such traumatized people would, of course, be “intolerant” under Karl Popper’s definition, and illiberal.)

It is in fact the case that many “outsider” platforms with light moderation, such as Gab, attract a high concentration of fascists and Nazis. I’ve heard from a friend who tracks various political discussion groups that a common pattern is for subreddits/forums that allow Nazis to be taken over by Nazis, and the resulting group then goes on to take over the next most Nazi-tolerant forum, and so on. However, this is in large part an artifact of the fact that Nazis are suppressed from mainstream discussion fora. The situation with light moderation implemented more generally (e.g. on Twitter) would be more like the days of the early Internet (Usenet, early Reddit, and so on), which did not have a high concentration of Nazism.

It would be hard for me to come up with better propaganda for Nazism as the supposedly anti-Nazi statement “As we say in Germany, if there’s a Nazi at the table and 10 other people sitting there talking to him, you got a table with 11 Nazis.” Imagine replacing Nazi with “fan of Rammstein”, for example: “As we say in Germany, if there’s a fan of Rammstein at a table and 10 other people sitting there talking to him, you got a table with 11 fans of Rammstein.” That makes Rammstein sound like a really compelling band, one that can quickly convert people by mere exposure. If I’d like Rammstein upon giving them a listen, doesn’t that mean Rammstein scores highly according to my preferences at an approximation of reflective equilibrium, and is therefore a great band?

The fact that this saying comes from Germany should not at all dissuade us from the idea that it’s Nazi propaganda; after all, many Germans were once Nazis, or are near descendants of former Nazis, Nazism was originally developed in Germany, and most Nazi propaganda has historically come from Germany.

If the saying were literally true, that would suggest a possible resolution to the Nazi-Jewish conflict: put some Jewish leaders (who are often in favor of open debate) in the same room as a Nazi, and soon almost all Jews will, through the Jewish tradition of debate, be converted to Nazis, accepting their own racial inferiority to the Aryans to the point where there is no longer any conflict, and Judaism can become a subsidiary of an international Nazi order.

The fact that this hypothetical is so ridiculous suggests that this saying is, in fact, not true.

What’s going through the minds of people who say things like this? One might imagine Nazism as a forbidden fruit, something we’d find delicious if we gave it a real chance, but would corrupt us, a veritable infohazard on par with the original forbidden fruit granting knowledge of good and evil…

…that starts sounding really awesome and appealing, an Eldritch horror that can “turn” people by mere exposure, as our brains are saturated with hedonic reward that overcomes all other faculties.  But wait, in such a world, why did the Nazis lose WWII so that we have so much anti-Nazi propaganda in the present moment? Couldn’t they just airdrop copies of “Mein Kampf” (translated to English/French/etc) on opposing territories to convince everyone of the greatness of Nazism, winning the “war” without any resistance?  If Nazism is so convincing in an open discussion, there is no explanation for fervent Allied resistance to Nazism.

The fact that Nazis took over using violence indicates that Nazism doesn’t win through rational debate of the merits of one regime or another; a look at the Nazi regime by foreigners reveals a terrifying, suppressive order with a high death rate and no end in sight, not a utopia that anyone would rationally prefer to the alternative systems of government. Rather, Nazism wins by convincing everyone that Nazis are powerful, that brownshirts will kill you if you stand up to it; people are terrorized into not wanting to be the first target, and thereby go along with the Nazi regime without resisting. It is, therefore, Nazi propaganda to exaggerate the degree to which Nazis are powerful, including the degree to which they’re effective at spreading their political views.

In discussions of the threat of “Nazism” or the “far right”, it is rarely clear how big the threat is, statistically. Is the number of Nazis in America more like the number of avowed neo-Nazis (~thousands), or more like the number of conservative Republicans (~tens of millions)? Is it a niche position, largely discredited, and dying out, or is it gaining ground and approaching a quorum?

Umberto Eco names, as one of the 14 elements of “ur-fascism”: “[…] the followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.” That sounds familiar…

Really, it’s not possible to even know what a Nazi or fascist is without reading something about their political beliefs, e.g. Mussolini’s The Doctrine of Fascism; otherwise, how could someone possibly know that they are opposing rather than promoting fascism? It makes no sense for people concerned about fascism to isolate themselves from any material written by fascists, which might help them know anything at all about what they’re supposedly concerned about, rather than generating fear about a mysterious foreign Other, as the original fascists did.

What do the speech regulators even want?

Consider a proposal to regulate everyone’s speech in a uniform manner to oppose racism and allow many cultures to thrive. Now, there’s an immediate contradiction in such a proposal: regulating everyone’s speech uniformly requires a discourse community to impose its norms on everyone, which is a form of imperialism that would extinguish alternative cultures of discourse.

Okay, but what about just regulating white people’s speech? This may be implied by the idea that “it’s not possible to be racist against white people”, that the objective of anti-racism is to frustrate pro-white racism, not anti-white racism which is more likely to be defensive. However, this is still pan-ethno-nationalist: it’s grouping together white people (a diverse, multi-ethnic group) who live in many places around the world into a single nation-like regulatory order, which, among other things, groups Jews in with Germans and regulates their speech the same way, absorbing them into the same speech-regulating nation. This does not seem like a proposal that a significant number of non-white people or Jews would be in favor of.

Moreover, the fact that white people’s speech is being regulated doesn’t mean that white people’s power is taken away. Quite the opposite: it’s typical in class societies for higher-class people to obey (and enforce upon each other) norms that are not enforced upon the lower classes. This allows the higher classes to distinguish themselves from the crowd, considering themselves refined enough to follow tighter social norms. In legal terms, there is discussion of a “right to be sued”: if you can be sued for not doing something, that means you can be accountable for doing it, which enables more trade opportunities. Similarly, uniform regulations within a nation can enable larger-scale social organization such as large freight transport and commodities markets.

Maybe the problem isn’t white people as a whole, it’s Anglos, i.e. cultures that are largely downstream of Great Britain from the 1700s-1900s. Since Great Britain colonized and enslaved so much of the world, maybe that’s what to be concerned about. It’s common for social justice people to cite German, German-Jewish, and French sources (Hegel, Marx, Heidegger, Adorno, Habermas, Sartre, Simone de Beauvior, Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida…); this is predicted by “social justice” being grouped into “continental philosophy”. One gets the sense that the target of such discourse is to expand the reach of German philosophy beyond German masculine intellectual culture into a variety of differently-colored and differently-gendered contexts, which are basically “re-skins” of German masculine intellectual culture in that they cite the same sources and have the same talking points, just with different aesthetics for different identity groups. One has to notice how similar social justice discourse is to itself, despite the diversity of identities; even relatively small ideological deviations are easy to classify as reactionary heresies. The resulting anti-Anglo censorship regime would, then, be quite consistent with German nationalism, as it would take out Germany’s main intellectual competitor (the Anglos, with the French being much more easily defeated by Germany historically, therefore a useful short-term ally) while promoting German intellectual culture; laid out this way, it’s not confusing what it is.

If I translate what speech regulators are asking for into an implied political philosophy, I can’t come up with any alternatives to universal cultural imperialism, white pan-ethno-nationalism, or anti-Anglo German colonial nationalism. Maybe this is in part due to a deficit of creativity on my part, but even if so, it’s even more due to the incoherence of the political position being taken, and/or lack of clarity about the consistent principles (if any) behind such a position.

What seems most likely is that general opposition to free speech in the name of anti-fascism is ironic: its surface-level expression is in tension with its actual situation. Such ironic anti-fascist expression leads to the sort of ridiculous pseudo-arguments cited in Mike Solana’s article. Being ironically against fascism is, in the general case, being in favor of fascism, since ironic expressions of anti-fascism displace actual anti-fascism while providing cover for fascism in the ensuing confusion (including confusion about what fascism even is).

Simulacra have originals; “anti-fascism” would not be an appealing target of ironic imitation if there weren’t at some point an anti-fascist movement that had some good properties, that people could believe in and assign moral authority to. Given the current situation, one has to conclude that antifa has been infiltrated and usurped by this point.

So, what is actually good about anti-fascism? Time to get object-level!

Fascism focuses on the status of people and groups within society rather than the overall freedom and prosperity of the society itself. However, this does not systematically lead to higher quality of life for fascists. It is preferable to, over a lifetime, fall socioeconomically by a decile (within the population) while the society becomes significantly more free and prosperous, rather than rising two deciles while society becomes significantly less free and prosperous. Only a false assumption that quality of life of zero-sum could lead to the opposite conclusion.

It is somewhat inauthentically idealistic (therefore easy to “cringe” at) to trade one’s own rank position in society for the flourishing of society at a rate that is self-sacrificing. However, it is also self-sacrificing to cause society to flourish less while increasing one’s own position within a way that causes one to need to protect oneself rather than being protected by society from a succession of ever less abstract, more short-term dangers.

There is always some misalignment between the interests of an individual and the interests of society; incentives are not perfectly aligned. However, self-interested individuals will seek to reduce the degree of misalignment, creating good incentives, which include opportunities to authentically signal virtue (i.e. take actions that make others think one is actually likely to in general improve one’s society, rather than take actions that make others think one is only pretending to do so to an undiscerning audience; the latter are what is more often called “virtue signaling” in contemporary discourse.)

The individual who opposes improvement of society and signals vice is actually more self-sacrificing than the individual who improves society more than is actually selfishly optimal, in the general case; it makes a big difference to treat the interests of the individual and society as opposed rather than similar but somewhat misaligned. It is unnatural to be confused into thinking that the life of a gang leader is safer and nicer than the life of a postal worker.


While people cite Popper’s “paradox of tolerance” to justify suppressing fascist, reactionary, or bigoted speech in a generalized fashion, Popper’s argument actually only supports suppressing speech that enacts intolerance in contradiction to rational argumentation, and explicitly rules out suppressing speech that remains at the level of rational debate, even if this speech is an argument for some form of intolerance.

There really is such a thing as fascism, and it really does have negative consequences and involves mob violence in opposition to reason. However, general instructions to avoid talking with fascists, without clarifying what fascism even is (e.g. with material written by fascists explaining their political position), will serve this agenda, as they are also mob violence in opposition to reason, the kind of intolerance Karl Popper’s argument implies should not be tolerated.

2 thoughts on “On the paradox of tolerance in relation to fascism and online content moderation

  1. You asked on twitter for the form “1 Nazi and 9 non Nazis enter a room, 10 Nazis leave,” but most of what you found was not about a sequence of one event following another, but two descriptions of the same group: a group with 1 Nazi is a group of all Nazis. I think that these are not causal claims about debate, or even descriptions of the world, but descriptions of the speaker’s use of the word Nazi: guilt by association / threat of secondary boycott.


    1. While that’s a plausible non-self-explanatory interpretation, there are other cases of people interpreting it the way I did, e.g. https://www.reddit.com/r/germany/comments/8r5dkr/comment/e0pefo1/?utm_source=reddit&utm_medium=web2x&context=3

      The coalitional strategy you’re describing doesn’t make sense without some original meaning of “Nazi”; presumably a lot of the concern had to do with conversion (or else the number of Nazis would not increase so quickly), and a common contemporary argument given for censoring Nazis is conversion.


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