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Alex Jones and the “Paradox of Tolerance”

(About a 7 minute read)

I think it can be said of Alex Jones that he is the poster-child for the “American disease” of tolerating the intolerable.  Perhaps out of all major democracies, America’s democracy is the most susceptible to the disease.  That’s because we tend to be extremists when it comes to protecting freedom of speech.

To be sure, America does limit free speech somewhat, but the limits are absolutely minimal.  You cannot advocate physical violence against someone and/or their property, nor can you “yell fire in a crowded theater” for the mere sport of it, since that might lead to physical injuries.

But apart from those restrictions, the government has no right under the Constitution to restrict what anyone — citizen or non-citizen — says in this country.

In fact, Americans are such zealous proponents of free speech that many of us — perhaps even a majority of us — firmly believe that even private citizens and other entities are bound to the same rules as the government.  It is not uncommon to hear some outraged person claim that a private website, an employer, a church, or something else, had no right to censor them — regardless of what they said.

It’s almost as if a number of us might actually believe in the right of some stranger to enter our home and scream obnoxious political opinions at us in our own living room — such have we Americans made a fetish and cult of free speech.

Now, if you are among the world’s lucky people who have never heard of Alex Jones, then you should be forewarned my aim here is to grossly understate how immoral the man is.  That’s because I doubt you — or anyone who was not familiar with the facts — could believe me if I summarized the truth for you.

That’s to say, I could describe the man’s character with surgical precision, and you would almost necessarily be reduced to disbelief.

You would need to study him, read up on the details, to be convinced of my words.  Unfortunately I do not have the space here to get into the volumes of things he’s done.

So please allow me to mention one — just one thing alone — that is, however, utterly characteristic of him, that is not even Jones at his worse.

Following the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre of 20 children between six and seven years old, as well as six adult staff members, Jones fabricated the story that the murders had been staged by anti-gun folks in order to convince people to regulate firearms.

He repeated his lies frequently to his radio and internet audiences — audiences that apparently number well over ten million people. Among other consequences, some of the murdered children’s grieving parents received death threats, and at least one man was stalked.

None of which caused Jones to retract his allegations, nor to stop spreading them.

I believe that encapsulates the kind of man we’re dealing with here.  Nothing about Jones suggests to me that he is ever anything less than that sort of person.

Call Jones what you must, think of him as you might, his right to free speech is protected not only by the Constitution but — I believe — by the culture as well.  The latter fact was recently illustrated by the outrage that took place, and that is still taking place today, against private people and corporations that have recently tried to restrict Jones’ speech and influence.

Last month and this month, a number of internet social media sites have taken down Jones’ own sites, and sites supportive of him.  They include FaceBook, YouTube, Spotify, Linkedin, Apple, and Pinterest.

Tellingly, the sites and their owners have come under assault — mostly from far left-wing extremists — for the perceived sin of censorship.  The extremists, of course, have simply ignored the right and liberty of the private sites to regulate content, and — in the finest American tradition of going hysterical and ballistic at the merest fart of a housefly — the extremists have indulged themselves in false and misleading rhetoric.

The folks who dare to defend the rights of private owners and businesses to control their own content are no less than, “foam-brained livestock” defending “their beneficent Silicon Valley overlords”, and so forth.

Of course they are.  What kind of person defends the likes of Alex Jones without to some extent channeling the man’s ridiculous language of gratuitous outrage?

As an aside, it seems to me the extremists drive more people into the arms of the right these days, than they convert to their hysterics-driven thinking.  But that’s just a hunch.  I have seen no science on the subject.

Naturally, the extremists proudly indulge themselves — either intentionally or unintentionally — in missing the point.  Glenn Greenwald, for instance, tweeted on August 7th his “criticism” of those who defend the social media sites:

“The world’s dumbest and/or most deceitful people have always been those who equate “I defend X’s right to speak” with “I defend X and their ideas.” It’s the scummiest tactic there is.”

Given the impressive intellectual standards of all sides today, Greenwald probably is right that some folks involved in this issue have been accusing the extremists of “defending Jones’ ideas”.  If so, he is certainly correct that that is a “scummy tactic”.

Yet, the core issue here is not — so far as I can see — whether anyone is defending Jones. Rather, the core issue is whether the private owners and their corporations have a right to limit Jones’ speech.

I myself believe they do.  In the first place, the Constitution does not apply to privately imposed restrictions on speech, but only to government imposed restrictions.  Apparently, that comes as news to many people, albeit it is nevertheless true.

In the second place, I am a staunch proponent of Karl Popper’s notion that societies have a right to be intolerant of intolerance — a notion he himself called, “The Paradox of Tolerance”:

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.  — The Open Society and Its Enemies Vol. 1 (in note 4 to Chapter 7), 1945. [Emphasis Mine]

The key take-away here — besides the notion that societies have a right to suppress “if necessary even by force” intolerance — is that the justification or trigger for such suppression is the refusal of the intolerant folks to “meet us on the level of rational argument.”

Now, I have written elsewhere about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s brilliant analysis of willfully stupid people.  Bonhoeffer’s willfully stupid people are precisely the people who refuse to be swayed by rational argument.  And — as Bonhoeffer tragically notes — those people present an existential threat to any society in which they threaten to get the upper-hand over the more rational people.

In my opinion, Alex Jones is not only a preeminent example of an irrational man, but also a leader of an irrational multitude.  Moreover, I believe he and others like him are genuinely existential threats to our nation.

Hence I would feel no regrets at all were the government to shut Jones down by seven in the morning today — let alone feel any regrets that a number of private sites have done just that to the extent that they can.

But you might wonder, “Paul, are you not advocating a risky course?  Are you not setting the stage for ever greater and more heinous oppression.”

Yes, that is indeed a risk, and it should not be lightly dismissed by anyone.  However, in this case, I believe the risk is outweighed by the threat to democracy posed by Jones and others like him.

To me, the single greatest threat to any democracy — exceeded only by a great disparity between the rich and the poor — is the threat that public debate and discussion will become dominated by irrational discourse.  Discourse that soon enough will drive out all reasonable discourse, and thus reduce the democracy to governance by willful stupidity.

In my view, no democracy can long withstand such a thing, and yet, I believe that’s what we are seeing — increasingly seeing — these days.  Were I forced to guess, I would not give us much longer than a decade more of it before the practice comes to destroy democracy in America.

Last, I much prefer that Jones be shut down by private initiative than by government suppression. The former seems somewhat less dangerous to me.

Questions? Comments?

12 thoughts on “Alex Jones and the “Paradox of Tolerance””

  1. It would appear, from a safe distance, that the U.S.
    presidential elections, is a
    media run beauty contest.
    Look who won Mister Universe!
    Here, the previous leftist
    government introduced
    legislation making it a legal
    right not to be offended by
    someone else’s words.
    Consequently, the lawyers
    here have had a field day …
    with a christmas hamper,
    and a big picnic basket.
    The current government has
    tried to repeal this legislation,
    but are repeatedly blocked by
    the P.C. armchair moralists
    lurking in the swamp of our
    federal parliament ( yes, we
    have a swamp in need of
    some draining).
    Freedom of speech is
    always a matter of balance.


  2. Yes, it’s the lawyers imbeded
    in our political system who
    have stopped this zealous
    law from being repealed.
    Obama was actually asked
    if the U.S. should have a
    similiar law, and he stated
    that public sanction and
    rebuke is the appropriate
    way to treat extreme and
    offensive speech.


  3. I agree with your conclusion and don’t understand why folks seem to think a private enterprise has no right to run their business as they see fit (I know that statement could open up a can of worms — or a bakery of cakes not for sale to those who go against one’s religion — but will let it stand as it applies to this post/argument). Those same folks are usually okay with it when it’s infringing on the rights of someone they disagree with.

    I do question one thing because it might be something I’ve missed. You mentioned left-wing extremists in connection with the taking down of Alex Jones. On Twitter (and this might relate to the bubble I’m in — no matter how hard I try not to be, Twitter seems to put me there with their algorithms) it has appeared to me that it is the right-wing extremists crying foul the loudest, clutching their pearls and the first amendment. I had not noticed anyone on the left, even the far left, who seemed to care (probably because they don’t agree with or like Jones).


    1. I think that arguing against discriminating against LGBT people can be done on the same grounds as race or sex — it’s not your choice to be Black or White, nor to be gay or straight.

      I wasn’t as aware of right-wing attempts to censor people as I have been of the extremist left recently — mainly because I follow Jerry Coyne’s excellent. He’s solid left, but not extremist left. He also focuses on where the activity is the most prevalent today — university campuses.

      It certainly doesn’t surprise me in the least the right is more active than I thought.


  4. I must say that I disagree with your conclusion. Too often safety is chosen over freedom, safety and freedom do not and cannot coexist. Allow people to speak and allow people to choose for themselves. The more we are led down this path by unforeseen forces, always telling us what is right or wrong, why safety is of utmost importance, etc. etc. etc. (the buzzwords are always the same, marganilized, minority, children, women, safety and happiness) the further we will be from being free and choosing for ourselves.

    Let people choose whom they want to listen to, what they want to eat and where they want to live. With that being said, the more the government stays out of our way, the more we are forced to actually get along with one another. If a company doesn’t want to host Alex Jones or bake a cake for a gay wedding, let them, let them kick out the press secretary from a restaurant.

    The more people are allowed to act however they desire, the easier it becomes to actually identify people and their motives. Between racism, sexism, homophobia and all of the other ics, ists, and whatever other slander can be labeled on someone. All of these labels are used against us, let people call each other names, let people discriminate. Let people choose and sunlight is the best disinfectant.

    Is Alex Jones truly that powerful? Or are the majority of his followers, lost children who were never raised by a mother and father. Our society as a whole is gone, men do not know how to be men anymore and women do not know how to be women anymore.

    I’ve written about these issues in the past. Check them out when you get the chance.

    I have many more articles.

    I look forward to your response.


    1. Thank you for dropping by to comment. You have some very strongly held views there that are, of course, diametrically opposed to my own.

      As you will note, should you read my sidebar, my goal in blogging is “to provoke thought and conversation without attempting to persuade anyone to adopt my beliefs.”

      I see debate as virtually useless since the science strongly indicates it does nothing to change opinions and instead causes people to dig in their heels and resist change. Consequently, I just state my opinions and am done with it when I feel I have said all that needs be said about something.

      Naturally, I invite others to do precisely the same.

      Again, thank you for dropping by to comment.

      Liked by 1 person

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