North Texas Daily

Letter: UNT faces the paradox of tolerance

Letter: UNT faces the paradox of tolerance

Letter: UNT faces the paradox of tolerance
February 28
11:00 2022

Editor’s Note: This story was submitted to the North Texas Daily by Adam Briggle, associate professor and director of Graduate Studies at the UNT Department of Philosophy and Religion. 

Freedom of speech is vital for a university because it allows us to seek the truth. It is rooted in pluralism and fallibility. We all approach the world from different perspectives. Thus, we are all limited and need the aid of others.

This is an open-ended process. Indeed, the university is crucial to what the philosopher Henri Bergson called the “open society.” Like an open mind, an open society is receptive to new ideas. By contrast, a closed society is static. It is monistic (allowing only one perspective), not pluralistic, and it is dogmatic (certain of its view) rather than fallible.

An open society, in other words, is tolerant. This speaks to our strength. The word “tolerance” means to endure. An open society, like an open mind, must have the fortitude to withstand the clash of ideas. Witness the bruises on our nation, the first modern experiment in democracy. To be open to change is unsettling. What if I am wrong? Far more comforting is the lure of certainty.

The philosopher Karl Popper noted a paradox at the heart of the open society: “unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance.” The strength of an open society is also its weakness. In tolerating the intolerant, we endanger pluralism and fallibility, which are the fonts of freedom. Yet, in not tolerating the intolerant, we risk the same outcome. The open society lives on a high wire, forever in danger of falling into tyranny.

This week, the university will host a discussion with Jeff Younger, a candidate for the Texas House of Representatives. This event thrusts us into the paradox of tolerance. Mr. Younger has been the engine driving legislative attempts to prohibit gender-affirming care for transgender youth. This care includes puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones. Every major medical association supports this care and has opposed the bills seeking to ban it.

Mr. Younger wants to classify the provision of such care as a form of “child abuse,” which would result in the removal of transgender youth from supportive homes. Of course, the destruction of loving families would itself be an act of abuse.

Mr. Younger is extrapolating from his family’s own custody battle to everyone in Texas. He denies the identity of his own child and, on that basis, of all transgender youth in Texas. To presume that your experience is the same as everyone else is the hallmark of a closed mind. To then wield state power to coerce everyone into your mold is the essence of a closed society.

So, yes, Mr. Younger is preaching intolerance. It would be one thing if he and his supporters were calling for a reasoned discussion of the risks and benefits of gender-affirming care. To isolate this topic from their wider platform, however, would be a grave mistake. Their agenda is premised on denying the existence of transgender people, especially youth. To them, this aspect of our plurality is a mirage propped up by an ideology. And on this core conviction, they have no sense of fallibility. They know better than families, doctors and even transgender people.

On his campaign website, Mr. Younger writes banning gender-affirming care is “the easiest moral question ever put before the legislature.” Anyone who finds such fraught terrain “easy” is dangerous. He is ready to deprive youth of healthcare and to rip them from their homes. Despite the medical consensus and cherished ideals of privacy and autonomy, this would be “easy” for him to do. To be clear: he is advocating harm.

Our bar should be very high for suppressing speech. Yet there is a bar. Sometimes an issue is settled. Not everything can be forever up for debate. How would we progress? Shall we tolerate continued doubt about the Holocaust? Some things are intolerable because they are false or narrow the range of humanity, extinguishing aspects of our plurality.

Popper argued that we should tolerate intolerance only insofar as it remains amenable to rational argument. He cautioned about “incitement to intolerance and persecution,” when leaders convince their followers that the “enemy” is not capable of reason and must be dealt with through force.

I believe we are perilously close to this situation in the case of Mr. Younger. Perhaps my perspective is biased due to the threat his candidacy poses to the integrity of my family and the health of my child. I think we are long past the point where the humanity of transgender people is a settled matter. Evidently, though, even what we might call the sympathetic mainstream has not reached this conclusion. Otherwise, how would a university even consider platforming someone like Mr. Younger?

This is a bruising chapter in our history. It is the chapter where we demand transgender people to tolerate the pain and humiliation of being splayed open for public debate. Sometimes tolerance comes easy because only a few bear its massive weight. How long until this open society learns that lesson? When this chapter is over, I hope we remember the strength of those who so long tolerated our ignorance.

Image source 4TU.Centre for Ethics and Technology

About Author

Adam Briggle

Adam Briggle

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