On Speech, Boundaries, and the Danger of Tolerating the Intolerable

As you no doubt have heard, and have likely experienced, Twitter has devolved into a cess-pit of hate speech. That’s all because its new owner and self-proclaimed Chief Twit claims to love free speech.

After acquiring Twitter, Elon Musk gleefully announced that comedy was legal again. Of course, comedy has never been outlawed on Twitter.

And, for most people, cruelty and hate speech aren’t knee-slappers.

But everyone knew what he was saying.

And so that is how a billionaire opened the floodgates to the orcs and the trolls of the internet, under the guise of “fairness” and “free speech” and “democracy.”

So I thought this week was a good time to talk about something called the Paradox of Intolerance.

Back in 1945, a philosopher named Karl Popper saw the rise of a dangerous group that was given a great deal of leeway in the guise of “free speech” and free thought. Even though their positions were discriminatory, hateful, and vile…

Their intolerance was … well … tolerated.

Until suddenly the tolerant were themselves targeted by the intolerant – and destroyed. And suddenly only the intolerant views were tolerated, by law.

Of course, he was describing the rise of Nazism and the Nazi party.

And this is the gist of the Paradox of Intolerance: allowing intolerant, hate-based speech to have completely free rein is dangerous because the intolerant will simply overwhelm and extinguish the tolerant. In our most recent, real-life Twitter example, the orcs will swarm the universe and scream hate-filled, conspiracy-theory-laden content so loudly that everything else is drowned out.

We value free speech. But we also value people. And so there’s a sticky point here for Democrats. Because in a society that’s based on democratic ideals, protecting facts and people’s intrinsic value and, frankly, their right to exist is really important.

In fact, if we sit back and do nothing, we simply embolden the intolerant. (Which we are seeing in real time.)

Here’s Popper’s description of the Paradox of Intolerance:

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. 

He continues, and clarifies the importance of twin guardrails – reason and public opinion:  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 what happens when those guardrails are gone? Popper explains: 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.

(This paragraph – which I believe is the most famous of his entire book The Open Society and Its Enemies, – is in a footnote. As my Civ Pro law professor used to say: the best parts are in the the footnotes.)

So, to protect a democratic society, there must be boundaries. Guardrails. And when, as Popper says, the guardrails fail and the intolerant instruct their followers to “answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols,” we’ve got ourselves a situation.

This has never been more clear.

Over the weekend there was an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Speaker Pelosi that put her 82-year-old husband Paul in the ICU. A 42-year old man who had been radicalized by MAGA talking points broke into their home in the middle of the night by shattering a sliding glass door with a hammer. Paul Pelosi was able to call police from the bathroom, but just as the police arrived – and stood in the open doorway – the MAGA intruder struck Pelosi in the head with the hammer, fracturing his skull.

According to the criminal complaint, the man planned to interrogate Nancy Pelosi, and if she did not answer “truthfully” (at least, according to the truth as he understands it) he would kneecap her to make an example of her.

And yet, there has been no outrage – no unified condemnation of the attack – from Republican lawmakers.

Instead, they have made excuses and blamed Democrats, a message that has been parroted and spread around the right wing ecosystem. On Friday, before the attempted assassination, the National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Tom Emmer (R-MN) tweeted himself shooting a rifle with the hashtag #firePelosi. In an interview on CBS news he refused to apologize for or denounce it – even after the brutal attack. As of today, it’s still on his feed.

What conclusion are we all to draw, other than he believes shooting the Speaker of the House to be a punchline? (And that is a charitable read.)

I know that we’re no longer surprised at how far Republican public officials will go to delight their red-meat base, but just step back for a minute and appreciate how dangerous this is.

Pelosi has long been the favorite subject of right-wing attacks, which often use violent imagery. McCarthy has joked that he’d like to gavel Speaker Pelosi on the head. Marjorie Taylor Greene has claimed Pelosi is guilty of treason saying “And it’s, uh, it’s a crime punishable by death is what treason is.”

During January 6, insurrectionists could be heard yelling “Where’s Nancy? Where are you Nancy?” in the same sing-song cadence of a horror film.

And I don’t recall the Republican caucus denouncing that mob searching the Capitol for Nancy Pelosi, clearly intent on harming her. Do you?

But Pelosi isn’t the only Democratic lawmaker who’s been targeted. A group of right wing radicalized men called the Wolverine Men planned to kidnap and assassinate Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Similar to DePape’s plot for Pelosi, their plan was to capture Whitmer, “interrogate” her, and if her answers were insufficient, hang her. Just last Wednesday, three more men were convicted of aiding the effort.

In response, there’s been no national – or even Michigan-based – movement among Republicans to rein in their violent rhetoric. In fact, Whitmer’s Republican opponent has joked about the plot, flipping the script and saying “The sad thing is Gretchen will tie your hands, put a gun to your head and ask if you are ready to talk.”

The audience laughed and applauded.

Speech that encourages political violence cannot be condoned. But it has been.

Political violence cannot be condoned. But it has been. In fact it’s been celebrated, in some circles.

Recall that Marjorie Taylor Greene publicly prayed over a conservative activist who – in a weird sort of performance art piece – spent a day crying in a mock jail cell, protesting the treatment of the January 6th so-called political prisoners. https://news.yahoo.com/marjorie-taylor-greene-prayed-over-002028236.html

Republican ads show candidates shooting long guns as they talk about how they’ll fight Democrats in D.C. Last year Marjorie Taylor Greene’s campaign posted an image of her holding an assault rifle next to images of “The Squad,” captioned “Squad’s worst nightmare.” Heck – one Greitens ad in Missouri showed the failed candidate and a team of military men hunting RINOs (Republicans In Name Only).

It’s not subtle.

And it’s not harmless.

Folks, it’s way, way past time we reined things in.


That’s where we are. With a Paradox of Intolerance that’s allowed more and more violent imagery from the Right to intoxicate millions of radicalized white men.

And a massive social media infrastructure that’s just eliminated the very few, inadequate guardrails it had.

That’s a lot to take in on a Tuesday morning.

So I spent a lot of time last night and this morning thinking about how to end our conversation today. Because I’ll be honest – this isn’t the “hey it’s one week before the midterms let’s run through the tape hooray!” post that I was expecting to write.

This is supposed to be a pep talk. Not a doomsday scroll.


I’ve not been one to sugarcoat things before. I don’t think I should start today.

So I think the best way to end our chat is to go right back to our power. Because we do have the power to rein in the violence and the lies: by defeating Republicans – soundly – one week from today.

That’s truly the best way to send a message.

It’s exhausting to yet again be in an election where the future of democracy is on the line. If you weren’t sure that was our situation before, their response to an attempted assassination should be pretty persuasive.

If we don’t beat Republicans in the midterms, we can expect the House to be led by some of the most violent and radical among them. If you think they’re hard to manage now, imagine what it will be like with Marjorie Taylor Greene as the Speaker – and third in line to the presidency.


So as you get overwhelmed and tired this week, use that thought as motivation.

Then pick up the phone for that phonebank, or that text bank, or to call three friends to remind them to vote.

Get in the car and drive that neighbor down the street to the polls.

Sign up to knock doors with a local Democratic candidate.

Do a few last minute postcards.

There’s a lot of work to do.

And if we all work together, and we all vote, we can win.

In fact, I think we will.

Let’s get to it.

Actions for the Week of November 1, 2022

Gah! Do All of the things!

This election is going to be close. Every last vote matters. So do everything you can now so you can rest easy on November 9 knowing you laid it all on the line.

Last minute postcards are still going out from Postcards to Voters. Text HELLO to (484) 275-2229.

Go to Mobilize’s “GOTV” heading to see how you can GOTV in your actual neighborhood: https://www.mobilize.us/events/get-out-the-vote/ (Also see the Neighbor-to-Neighbor project below.)

Text and call your friends to make sure they’re voting (you can use SwipeBlue or write your own message).

Literally every candidate needs help at the polls right now. I don’t know of a single one that’s got all of their Election Day GOTV volunteer opportunities filled up. Go pitch in!

Here are more things going on this week:

Join Heather Cox Richardson & Red Wine & Blue Tuesday, Nov. 1!

Tonight, historian Heather Cox Richardson will remind us that defeating extremism IS possible–but not without a fight. We have it in us. History is watching. Join Heather and Red Wine and Blue for this highly interactive event where Heather will answer our most pressing questions as we rally our friends to vote. Bonus: For every 10 friends you contact about voting, RWB will donate $50 to women in critical need of access to abortion services. It only takes 2 mins to set up your dashboard at https://go.redwine.blue/vote or by texting RALLY to 59868. Sign up for the event HERE: https://secure.everyaction.com/dI5xfIJBzkO22AHayROtsQ2

Knock on YOUR NEIGHBORS’ Doors!

It’s GOTV time! We all know that it’s easier to turn out folks you know. So I’m finding the Neighbor-to-Neighbor project from Indivisible pretty interesting. In a nutshell, you sign up at this link: https://indivisibleproject.formstack.com/forms/neighbor_to_neighbor

Then, Indivisible will send you a list of up to 5 likely progressives near you, a short script, best practices, and an optional printout to leave if they aren’t home. Then? You just knock on your five neighbors’ doors and remind them to vote.

It’s a simple way to make sure we’re getting every last voter to the polls. A note that this is only available in some states (AK, AZ, CA, CO, GA, MI, NC, NH, NJ, NV, NY, OR, PA, TX, WA, and WI.). Hopefully there will be good results from this cycle and we’ll see an expanded program next election.

Texting/Phone Bank Party

Indivisible is hosting a virtual Phonebank/Textbank party to support West Coast Give No Ground Candidates. 

This will be a “pick your own adventure” type of virtual party. Everyone will come together on a Zoom call and they will have breakout rooms for each activity. So, you can do both texting and calling for some really amazing candidates in tight races!

Here is who they will be texting and calling for: 

  • Texting for Marie Gluesenkamp Perez in WA-3 (available from 5pm – 7pm PT)
  • Texting for Kim Schrier in WA-8 (available from 5pm – 7pm PT)
  • Calling for Mary Peltola in Alaska (available from 5pm – 7pm PT)
  • Calling for Mark Kelly in Arizona (available from 5pm – 7pm PT)
  • Calling for Will Rollins in CA-41 (available from 5pm – 7pm PT)
  • Calling for Jamie Mcleod Skinner in OR-5 (available from 5pm – 7pm PT)

They will have training available to any first-timers or anyone who needs a refresher. 

Sign Up to join the West Coast Phonebank and Textbank Virtual Party on Thursday, November 3rd at 5pm PT.

Cure Ballots H/T Jessica Craven (Join here)

Joan’s Democracy Cafe is beginning their ballot-curing efforts in Nevada, which has already rejected thousands of ballots. For these critical votes to be counted, those ballots need to be cured. Joan’s Democracy Cafe will be calling Democratic voters to walk them through how they can cure their ballots.  

Please join JDC for these pivotal calls, on Mondays and Fridays only, from:

  • 4:30pm to   7pm PDT
  • 5:30pm to   8pm MDT
  • 6:30pm to   9pm CDT
  • 7:30pm to 10pm EDT

Click here to sign up (Mobilize), select Mon and Fri for Curing. And yes, they will train you!


P.S.: Why don’t you make someone’s day and send this pep talk to a friend or two? I bet they need it.

If you’d like to sign up to get this pep talk and action list in your in-box each week, you can do that here. Welcome, friend!

P.P.S.: If you want to help support this work you can do so via Patreon at
https://www.patreon.com/smalldeedsdone or via paypal at https://www.paypal.me/smalldeeds
My deepest gratitude in advance.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for writing. I read and respond to every email! We’re in this together. Don’t you forget it.

Have a thought? A small deed to suggest? Share it here!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s