Cancelling the Cancellers: Douglas Murray, Herbert Marcuse, and The Paradox of Tolerance

Vice News recently reported that several employs of Penguin Random House Canada were so upset by news that their company was planning to publish Jordan Peterson’s new book that they “cried and expressed dismay” at a town hall meeting. This prompted the following response from Douglas Murray, an acerbic critic of political correctness, on Twitter.

Murray’s reference is to President Ronald Reagan’s decision in 1981 to fire over 11,000 striking air traffic control workers, who refused to obey his orders that they return to work. The implication is that these crying ninnies should be fired en masse, too.

Many observers on Twitter were quick to charge Murray with hypocrisy or at least inconsistency. Murray is an advocate of free speech; doesn’t that cover saying that it would be a Very Bad Thing if Penguin published Jordan Peterson’s new book? If there’s a norm against cancellation – roughly, non-governmental punishment for having or expressing the wrong views – then shouldn’t it also protect those who are in favor of cancelling others?

This brings to mind what Karl Popper called the paradox of tolerance. In the Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper writes:

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 most 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.

Everyone recognizes limits to tolerance. The US government certainly does. You can be an open Nazi and vote, assemble with others who share your views, and speak your mind like anyone else. However, if you are found to have affiliations with the Aryan Nations or any other such group, you won’t be allowed to join the military. This is reasonable. Likewise, it’s reasonable for liberal countries to forbid jihadists to immigrate there. Senator Joseph McCarthy is not a universally beloved figure, but he wasn’t being unduly authoritarian for thinking that the US State Department shouldn’t employ Soviet sympathizers during the Cold War.

No one is, or should be, willing to say: “We must have absolute tolerance though the stars fall!”

Suppose we want free speech, understanding this to include freedom from certain harsh non-governmental punishments (e.g., firing). There must then be some sort of norm limiting the degree to which we sanction people who have views we think are epistemically or morally bad. But in the overall interest of tolerance, we must be intolerant to those who would “cancel.” These people should face social sanctions for attempting to suppress the speech of others. Or, more plausibly, people who express views like this should be sanctioned when they occupy positions that are critical for the dissemination of views. Employees of publishing companies satisfy this criterion.

A bit of selective intolerance can prevent the “free market of ideas” from deteriorating into the “command economy of ideas.”

This is a coherent position, but the reasoning it relies on is a two-edged sword. Murray’s opponents could just as well say that racist, sexist, and transphobic views are threatening and intolerant positions, so that we must in the name of tolerance refuse to tolerate people who hold such views. Perhaps this includes Jordan Peterson. This reasoning can be pushed further. Consider Herbert Marcuse’s essay, “Repressive Tolerance.” Marcuse asserts that “Tolerance is an end in itself” but then adds this tiny qualification:

Tolerance itself stands subject to overriding criteria…. In other words, tolerance is an end in itself only when it is truly universal, practiced by the rulers as well as by the ruled, by the lords as well as by the peasants, by the sheriffs as well as by their victims. And such universal tolerance is possible only when no real or alleged enemy requires in the national interest the education and training of people in military violence and destruction. As long as these conditions do not prevail, the conditions of tolerance are ‘loaded’… tolerance is de facto limited on the dual ground of legalized violence or suppression (police, armed forces, guards of all sorts) and of the privileged position held by the predominant interests and their ‘connections’.

The essay makes clear that Marcuse’s endorsement of “tolerance” implies no duty for Marcuse and the faction of the left he agrees with to tolerate political opponents in non-idealized conditions. This seems a bit perverse. But Marcuse notes that no less an apostle of liberalism than John Stuart Mill believed that there are preconditions for freedom which uncivilized societies do not meet. This leaves an opening for left-wing thinkers like Marcuse to argue that these preconditions don’t obtain in supposedly civilized societies, either.   

It’s not difficult to imagine a right-wing counterpart to this view according to which, say, Christian virtue is a precondition for freedom and tolerance. It will, however, be a challenge for either Marcuse or a right-wing communitarian of this sort to explain how a society is supposed to come to meet the relevant preconditions without any norm of tolerance in place. Are we to believe unrelenting thought and speech control is the right way to condition a society for liberty and tolerance?

Here’s another quandary. Supposing that we do come to meet the preconditions, what would there be left to tolerate? As a matter of definition, there cannot be be tolerance without some kind of pluralism. It would be meaningless to say “I accept religious toleration” if a precondition for religious toleration was that everyone be a member of your religion. Likewise, it’s meaningless to say you value political tolerance if a precondition of that tolerance is the suppression of all views you strenuously disagree with.

In sum, the paradox of tolerance poses a challenge for anyone who in some sense believes in tolerance. It also creates an opening for cynical actors who are willing to exploit the tolerance of others. What this means for the so-called “culture wars” or anything else depends on what other commitments one holds.   


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