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The protection of freedoms is a curiously double-edged sword. On the one hand, we want to support the open and free expression of thoughts and behaviors. Conversely, we need to protect against the expressions that harm others. This creates an exceedingly gray area. By what measure do we determine which forms of expression are protected freedoms and which are so corrosive to long term social and personal well-being that they must be restrained? Perhaps a critical look will make the question, if not the answer, clearer.

Let’s first take a look at the term “tolerance” which has been so broadly used as a desirable virtue. Tolerance implies that we must attempt to endure something unlikeable. In this sense, I have never agreed with the use of the word when discussing the acceptance of different cultures and ethnicities into the social weave of our democracy. When we talk about extending tolerance to groups of people, we have created an underlying presumption that the inclusion of different people is an unpleasant imposition that we must manage with gritted teeth and silent acquiescence. This then leads to a sense of superiority, as though we have now positioned ourselves to say, “After all I have done for you, you are now indebted to me.” In this way, tolerance is not a virtue.

In situations where there is an opportunity to include other cultures and ethnicities, we should instead consider the term “appreciation”. I don’t want to tolerate the differences of others, I would much rather appreciate that difference. The broadening of social expression in its diverse forms is to be embraced. And though I realize that stretching can be a painful process, it is far preferred to the kinds of rigidity and stagnation that ultimately lead to downfall.

So, let us set aside the use of the term tolerance as it is applied to people and turn instead to its use as applied to forms of speech and opinions. Here is where we are really tested. We are living in times of heightened polarization of opinions and a severe erosion of civility. We seem to be falling into one of the most immature pitfalls of debate, and that is that we are resorting to attacking the speaker as opposed to responding to the speech. We must take care to first understand what is being said so that we can assess and formulate our own position without regard to what the polarized positions are.

But beyond understanding what is being said, we must also determine what covert agenda may also underlie speech. Only then are we in a position to present a reasoned position in regard to ideas.

That would be an ideal discipline to stand by. But we are emotional creatures, often swayed more by gut reaction than logic. I am certainly not immune from emotional responses to certain expressions of free speech. When I hear stories of the Westboro Baptist Church using the right of free speech to disrupt funeral services for soldiers killed in war because they hate gays, I have a visceral emotional response that tempts me to imagine ways to shut them down. But, does that truly serve the long range common good?

This is the main point — how broadly shall we tolerate speech that professes intolerance of others? The judicial support for the constitutional first amendment is fairly strong in the United States. Speech and the presentation of beliefs, no matter how hateful or unreasonable, are protected. However, when that speech goes beyond presenting beliefs and opinions, and incites people to commit crimes, it is no longer under the protection of the first amendment. Further, hate speech crime is when that speech incites action against someone “because of the race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation and national origin or ancestry of that person.”

In an over-simplified summary, when criminal action is the direct result of speech, that speech or form of expression is outside the law. That sounds agreeable. But when speech simply expresses hatred, it needs to be allowed. Why?

The reason for the right to free speech, even if it is fear-based and unintelligent, is that ideas need an unfettered arena for expression. After all, some people are fearful of others. Some people are unintelligent. These predispositions cannot be left out of the public discourse. Suppression can only increase the desire for expression until it finally erupts in violence. That is human nature. And so we are compelled to stand by the law that permits even hateful expressions because we feel that we are strong enough as a society to not just withstand, but to become stronger because of free expression.

But this confidence is not always justified. Germany is now struggling with certain anti-Islamic protests that are triggering the hypersensitivities of Nazi era anti-Semitic fallout. Germany is all too aware of the power of fear-based rhetoric that scapegoats ethnicity and the speed at which social order can break down. There are strict laws in Germany that prohibit the display of swastikas and the use of the phrase “über alles” (“above all”). The association these have to the unspeakable crimes of Nazi rule are still very incendiary in German culture, and their mere appearance is considered too inflammatory to be tolerated. In the United States and most other democratic countries with strong free speech laws, there are no such restrictions.

So, now that there are anti-Islamic protests by the political group PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West), how should these expressions of intolerance be legally handled? Keep in mind, these protesters are not condemning the actions of terrorists in the wake of the murders at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, they are condemning an entire religion. The painful answer is that free speech must prevail. And one reason for this is that each successive protest by PEGIDA is attracting fewer and fewer people. It is as though the freedom of expression has the effect of deflating the energy of the organization. These protests in Dresden fear the “Islamization of the West.” And yet, only 0.1% of Dresden is Muslim. Less than 6% of Europe is Muslim. It’s like the alarmist fear-mongering of Fox news fomenting hatred against Muslims by suggesting that America is soon to be subjected to Sharia law.

No person capable of rational thought believes this. But fearful people need a path by which to express their fears in a rapidly changing landscape. Not everyone is as adaptable as others, and they require a place to express that fear.

In Germany, the United States, and other places in the world, we often see counter protests to hate speech. It is not uncommon to see counter demonstrations where the opposition outnumbers groups like the KKK or the Westboro Baptist Church. So, one built-in safeguard to social stability is the right for mainstream points of view to be louder and more reasonable than fringe hate groups. We must not sink to the same lack of civility and behaviors that we do not like from others.

The sooner we can get past polarizing thought and excoriating those with whom we disagree, the sooner we can get to a thoughtful dialogue that will require less tolerance and foster greater appreciation.


Tim Sunderman is a graphic designer in the San Francisco bay area who does most of his art without a computer, using traditional techniques in drawing, painting, photography, calligraphy, and even sculpture. He is a graduate of the Academy of Art in San Francisco. He eschews speaking of himself in the third person, as he is here, but doesn't mind too much for shameless self-promotion.

Read this article in Vhcle Issue 17

Read other articles by Tim Sunderman

Visit Tim’s website: www.timsunderman.com

Tolerating Intolerance –

The Complexities of Democratic Ideals


Tim Sunderman


Vhcle Magazine Issue 17, Life