Is pushing people with intolerant views to resign just another form of intolerance?

When the CEO of Mozilla recently stepped down amid anger about his political views, many on the political left and right worried that this was a sign of intolerance, a sort of totalitarian progressivism. Is it?

 Philosophers call it the “paradox of tolerance”: defending tolerance may require intolerance of intolerance. Is this liberalism turning illiberal? 

Liberal democracies like the United States protect citizens’ freedom of speech, religion, and conscience. So you should be free to argue against gay marriage, right? Absolutely, at least as far as the government and laws are concerned. You are also free to believe and argue that all blacks should be deported to Africa if you like. Being a bigot is not a crime. But that doesn’t mean others cannot be angered by your beliefs and protest against them. Legal rights and protections put limits on the government, not the people. Views the majority in society see as distasteful will be punished in the court of public opinion. You are not protected from the consequences of your speech, only from the government trying to suppress it. That majority may be wrong, of course, but more on that below. 

The second problem is when people say things like “isn’t pushing a person out of a job because of his/her beliefs just as bad as doing the same to a gay person?” Frankly, no. Sexuality, like race, sex, gender, physical capabilities, ethnicity, etc. are immutable aspects of identity. They are NOT beliefs. Arguing with someone, pushing them out of a job, refusing them service, etc. on the basis of their identity is discrimination. It is unfair, unjustified, and unjustifiable in most circumstances (you may want a black actor to play a black role in a movie, so there are a few exceptions, of course). Beliefs are changeable and, unlike identities, they may be harmful to others. 

The harm caused by beliefs is how we judge where to draw lines. This is highly problematic, however. Throughout history, people have been harassed, cast out of societies, and even killed because they held beliefs that challenged the status quo. This continues today, though in “liberal” countries people, thankfully, are usually not killed for their beliefs. We rightly condemn racist beliefs. We also limit freedom of religion and speech when these may harm others, for example when Christian Scientists deny their children life-saving medical treatment or when fundamentalists incite violence in the name of their god(s).

But people have been treated poorly for all manner of beliefs many in society thought were harmful at the time. Where do we draw the line? The test is harm. Does preventing gays from marrying cause harm? Those effected would surely say so (take me, who was prevented for 10 years from moving back to my home country due to marriage and immigration discrimination). Does believing the sun is at the center of the solar system? Not directly, but if it spread, it would damage the progress of knowledge that benefits humanity. Likewise, creationism is not harmful unless it spreads by being taught to children who are then deprived of a proper education. You are thus free to teach your children creationism, but the government should not teach things for which there is a consensus that they are not true. At the same time, such beliefs should not be “respected” in the sense that they remain unchallenged. This is how a liberal society functions.

 What do I mean by “challenge”? The judgment about which beliefs are harmful will always, to some extent, be subjective and relative to current social conditions. Try as we might, we cannot escape the societal context in which we exist and cannot see things completely “objectively.” Harm is a good guiding principle, but it is imperfect. In most cases, the best move is to counter ideas rather than people. The best way to do that is through open debate. This means exercising our right to free speech to call out things we consider harmful. Beyond what the law says, however, we also need to listen and take time to consider. 

As for Eich, a gay commentator on the Colbert Report, an American comedy talk show with a large following, recently opined that protesting against and boycotting the state of Arizona for its proposed anti-gay law was OK, but suggested that what happened to Eich was not. In fact, Mozilla customers angry about its CEO’s political views protested and boycotted, exercising their rights to free speech and their economic right to choose. There was nothing illiberal about it. A portion of the United States has come to realize that preventing same-sex couples from marrying is just as wrong as preventing any other two consenting adults from doing so. Saying otherwise is increasingly indefensible (literally: there are no good reasons for it, that side has lost the debate). That is free speech and open debate in action, resulting in intolerance of an intolerant view. A liberal democracy in action, in other words.


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