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The Boston protests and the Paradox of Tolerance

There is a comic floating around the more liberal parts of the Internet entitled “The Paradox of Tolerance” that makes the argument that it is immoral to tolerate intolerance. “When we extend tolerance to those who are openly intolerant,” it says, “the tolerant ones end up being destroyed. And tolerance with them.” This argument came to mind this past Saturday, Aug. 19 at the counter-protest on the Boston Common.

The purpose of the gathering was to protest a self-professed “free speech” rally happening in reaction to the white supremacist rallies that occurred in Charlottesville, NC, the previous weekend. The “free speech” rally consisted of several dozen people who all fit inside the Boston Common bandstand. The counter-protest, kept away from the original rally by a police perimeter, consisted of at least 15,000 people according to Newsweek, though the Washington Post reports upwards of 20,000 protesters. Suffice it to say that security and police escorts for the rally-ers were not superfluous.

For the most part, marching in the counter-protest was an excellent experience. It felt like nourishment for the soul. It was satisfying to be outside with other people who validated my disgust with the current state of our political climate, and the sheer number of people who turned out gave me hope that those of us who disagree with the values of the Trump administration and the followers it attracts really could make a difference, or at least make our voices heard.

The catch came when the free speech rally-ers started to disperse. As one man walked through the crowd of angry counter-protesters surrounded by his police escort, people started first chanting “Go home!” and then “Boston hates you!” The former was appropriate but redundant; he was leaving. The latter went too far for my taste. I was struck by the hypocrisy of people carrying signs that said, “Love trumps hate” or “Hate is unwelcome here,” and also screaming “Boston hates you!” at a man walking peacefully through a public park.

It’s easy to justify this particular variety of hatred. “He deserves it,” we say, “because he is a Nazi.” Or a white supremacist. Or a member of the KKK. I am inclined to hate these people, but I also feel conflicted about the concept of hating anyone. I am angry with these people, too. I feel sad, sick and sometimes personally threatened when I hear them speaking, and I definitely do not want them in my community. But I also cannot help but feel repulsed by hatred—towards anybody. I feel bad about hating the man walking through the park because hate is so inherently ugly. But then I remember what this man stands for, and I feel bad about feeling bad.

It simply does not make sense to me that hating anyone would be a viable way forward. Actively hating someone does not just feel ugly; it is also an ineffective strategy for changing someone’s mind. How can we expect that man to listen to what we have to say? How can we expect him to join our side of the fight? How can we expect him to want to share the cause of the angry crowd telling him that his city hates him? Hating not only brings the morality level of our counter-protest closer to the level of the people we are protesting, but it also makes it more difficult to spread our message of love, peace and acceptance to the very people who need to hear it the most.

We can refuse to tolerate hatred without stooping to the level of hatred ourselves. Recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of each person, even if they are a Nazi, does not mean that we also have to ignore the paradox of tolerance. It just means that we express our intolerance in a different way, and the counter-protest on the Common used these alternative means as well. Refusing to listen to bigoted rhetoric, pressuring hateful people to take their discriminatory practices out of our public spaces and preaching tolerance are all methods I can get behind. Hating them back is where I draw the line.

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