The limits of tolerance

The limits of tolerance

There has been much talk over recent weeks about the potential threats to our tolerant society and concern about the possible threats from growing fascist groups. However, much of this has been both wrong and counter-productive.

It has been wrong as there has been no real growth in neo-nazi numbers, no true rise in racist beliefs and generally we are a more mixed society which doesn’t have real concerns that its people come from any various backgrounds. Our past history, often dreadful on account of its racist biases and bigoted attitudes, has not been undone but there has been general steady progress. What modern society considers appropriate and acceptable behaviour now is greatly different to a generation ago. To imagine that a few dregs, washed out from under stones, indicates we are heading back to the 30’s is puerile and wrong. It is also counter-productive for the simple reason that it magnifies the effect that this small group of odious people. They have made a mark much bigger than they could ever have hoped for on their own, and this is largely due to the work of the, so called, “Antifa“.

But Antifa have not just acted as the publicists for these loathsome groups they have also advanced the very cause that they purport to oppose. The best way to counter odious ideas is to demonstrate that they are wrong, to make those undecided aware that those ideas are erroneous and to make the convinced aware that most people do not share their opinion and find them despicable.  The chubby young man below now knows this and also knows he is a figure of ridicule. The likelihood of him being a successful recruiting agent for his views have been destroyed by the expression of counter opinion.

599329463d1d1.image In the UK it is arguable that the thing which stopped the National Front (a local extreme right racist and fascist party) which had been gaining popularity in elections (local and national) was the appearance of their leader, Nick Griffin, on the BBC’s “Question Time“. When he, and his party, were exposed to scrutiny and tackled in debate their bubble burst and they faded away from significance in UK politics. Defending and promoting free speech is the best safeguard against fascism.

Karl Popper, in “The Open Society and Its Enemies was aware of the “paradox of tolerance“. He knew that” We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant”  recognising the great dangers that can sometimes exist in a tolerant society :-

Less well known 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 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

He was clearly aware that there were lines that could not be crossed in a tolerant society if we wished to keep it tolerant. That line was the refusal or denouncing of argument – the blockage of free speech – and the use of violence (fists or pistols) to answer arguments. Antifa’s actions cross these lines, they do not permit other groups to state their ideas and use violence to suppress their expression, they strike at the core of our tolerant society. They also do this so inexpertly that they give ammunition and succour to the enemies of the open society. When Antifa attacks groups simply because they are on the right, not because they are fascist (as happened in Boston for example), they give strength to their enemies who can claim moral superiority and they also alienate their natural supporters (such as Noam Chomsky ).

These activists really should think about their actions. If you find yourself dressed in a black-shirt, in a militaristic gang, waving banners, and making threats of violence in order to intimidate your political opponents  and silence their arguments then you are not part of the solution – you are the problem, the fascist is staring back at you from the mirror.

antifa-berlin.jpg

 

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Kerosene is nothing but perfume to me.

Kerosene is nothing but perfume to me.

Many writers had commented that 17880067George Orwell’s “1984” had made its way back into the best sellers lists on Amazon and elsewhere. The general opinion was that the concerns with “fake news” and fears about the growth of the popularity of right-wing populist politicians had driven this resurgence of interest in a great classic. It is excellent that this book is being re-read as it is an excellent warning about the dangers of limiting free speech and a clear exposition of how those who control language and discourse also control thought and opinion. However, an interesting article suggested that this book was not the best guide to the recent events, to which we are witness, but rather another dystopian classic, Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451″, held that distinction. It was for this reason I reread the book.

This book has not aged at all in the 55 years since it was published. It is still a fresh, fast-paced exciting read today and I can imagine if feels even more urgent now than it did then. It describes a frightening future when literature is banned, thought and discussion discouraged and, as an alternative, an overstimulating popular culture full of noise and movement is provided (with adjunctive psychotropic drugs as needed). In this future the duty of the fireman is to find and burn books.

Unlike “1984” in this future the  state has not forced these changes on an unwilling public but rather has promoted the changes as necessary and beneficial, as a means to protect a diverse community from distress and harm.

‘Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities.’

‘It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God.’

‘Coloured people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace,’

It was also seen as a way to ensure the avoidance of distress of all. Choice requires decisions and decisions can be difficult and promote conflict, best to avoid them. Any discomfort, no matter how integral to the human condition, could be used as an excuse to restrict choice and action.

‘You can’t build a house without nails and wood. If you don’t want a house built, hide the nails and wood. If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one.’

‘Funerals are unhappy and pagan? Eliminate them, too. Five minutes after a person is dead he’s on his way to the Big Flue, the Incinerators serviced by helicopters all over the country. Ten minutes after death a man’s a speck of black dust. Let’s not quibble over individuals with memoriams. Forget them. Burn them all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean.’

Indeed in this nightmare of a future all we need is pleasure and fun and just enough knowledge to allow us to be productive.

‘School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?’

‘So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your dare-devils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex.’

This is a libertarian novel, one which clearly promotes the individual over the group, one which warns against conformity, no matter how enjoyable, and promotes responsibility and cooperation with our fellows. There is no wastage in this novel, each page carries the story forward, either adding to the adrenaline rush of the chase or offering interesting and challenging insights into our society. We are often warned that if we ignore history we may repeat our mistakes and this is true. But when we also have warnings as clear as this, about our future dangers, we really have no excuse if we end in trouble.

‘But remember that the Captain belongs to the most dangerous enemy of truth and freedom, the solid unmoving cattle of the majority. Oh, God, the terrible tyranny of the majority. We all have our harps to play. And it’s up to you now to know with which ear you’ll listen.’