Fear of Confronting Intolerance

January 12, 2023

Occasionally, I’ve found myself in the vicinity of people who are not as progressive as I wish they were. Family members, people in [digital] social circles, and people who work in places I frequent. I’m growing disappointed.

I grew up and found community on the Internet. When I didn’t find people like me around me, I found them here. And, for the most part, these friends were like-minded in terms of my own personal beliefs whenever I met them.

It’s disheartening to discover anyone around me differs significantly from my views, especially when they are critical views. I don’t want to associate with anyone who is anti-trans. I don’t want anything to do with someone who is racist or sexist. Or a nationalist. I don’t just want to shield myself from that rhetoric. I don’t want to give that person any of my time. They don’t deserve that relationship.

I read something recently from Ram Dass:

When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree. The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying, “You’re too this, or I’m too this.” That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.

I find this kind of beautiful to think about. I believe in radical acceptance of people as they are.

But of course, who people are differs from who people choose to be. I cannot accept or tolerate those who do not accept—let alone tolerate—people based on their identities. That’s the paradox of tolerance. “If a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant is eventually seized or destroyed by the intolerant.” From Karl Popper:

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.

This presents a conundrum not just in the paradox itself, but how to act on intolerance to preserve or defend a tolerant society. I’ve been thinking about the Nazi bar problem. If you’re a bartender, and a Nazi walks in (with visible iron crosses and swastikas, for example), what do you do? As the original anecdote went:

You have to nip it in the bud immediately. These guys come in and it’s always a nice, polite one. And you serve them because you don’t want to cause a scene. And then they become a regular and after a while they bring a friend. And that dude is cool too. And then they bring friends and the friends bring friends and they stop being cool and then you realize, “Oh shit, this is a Nazi bar now.” And it’s too late because they’re entrenched and if you try to kick them out, they cause a problem. So you have to shut them down.

I think about this a lot. I deeply believe you have to immediately eject horrible people as soon as they reveal themselves to be horrible. As much as I want to believe education can be a great tool for someone to turn around, that must start with curiosity. But a word of caution: feigned curiosity is a popular tool that bad actors employ. It’s very easy for someone to get sucked into “debate” that starts with “genuine curiosity.”

Tolerating any horrible perspective, really bad take, or terrible opinion— this tolerance makes the next one easier to exist in that space too. While it cannot be ignored, you also cannot afford to give it space. We simply cannot give these kinds of things any sense of legitimacy. You just have to shut them down.

This doesn’t just apply to physical locations, but also our digital spaces like forums, social networks, and your own social circles.

And this is where it becomes tricky. A lot of people are terrified of confrontation. But without confrontation, you just have tolerance. If you don’t nip it in the bud, you let it exist. And shitty behavior should not have air to breathe. We’ve got to be unafraid to punch Nazis (whether literally or metaphorically).

I don’t want to fear confrontation. I don’t want those around me to fear confrontation. It is a necessary means for an accepting society.

I want to be braver. I want to more-quickly nip it in the bud myself—and by extension, shut down any relationships with those who won’t nip it in the bud if they see it. I want to surround myself with people who also believe that we can’t afford to give bad actors space at all. Not in our physical spaces, not in our digital spaces, not in our minds. They don’t deserve it.