Community, Karl Popper’s the Paradox of Tolerance, Mutant’s Rights, and learning to apply history
This week, a friend of mine reached out to me about a community management problem. Last newsletter, I’d linked to an article about how to improve your communities by banning bigots outright, and he’d been curious about how to do this when your community is both online and offline.
His community had a new member, who seemed fine at their in-person gathering, but then proceeded to post ‘COVID-19 is a hoax’ nonsense and became further abusive toward the moderators when they removed the posts. He was worried about a possible confrontation at their next in-person meetup. As we discussed various possibilities, scenarios, and some of my own experiences banning people from in-person events, my friend left our conversation with a good plan for dealing with this person.
Our conversation made me consider all the times I hadn’t outright banned someone when I should’ve because they already told me who they were. When a white cis man sealioned about men’s suicide statistics in a post about equal pay, I didn’t ban him. Then that same man left conference “feedback” around how all the women speakers were of lower quality than the men and how we cheapened the conference with speaker binary gender parity. (Ironically, when his individual speaker scores were tabulated, he didn’t actually rate the women any lower or higher than the men on average.) And then, friends, this same man tried to get hired at this company.
This summer, my mother hit me with a right-wing talking point about how intolerant I am of bigots and intolerance and isn’t that just so closed-minded of me. In fact, I was possibly the most closed-minded person she knew. I hadn’t had my morning tea, so I wasn’t exactly on my toes to discuss Karl Popper’s the Paradox of Tolerance. I probably yelled something about how I’m not going to tolerate people who want to kill me and others.
Popper wrote in 1945: “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.”
Popper was, of course, writing directly in the face of Nazism and fascism during WWII, but his paradox remains. The “intolerant” Popper addresses are those with hateful beliefs toward other people, whether they are outright exterminating/killing those they hate or just those who believe they are superior. Because ultimately, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc., and their intersections are the beliefs that “those people” are less than human and lead directly to subjugation and death, whether through direct action or inactive consequences, by groups of their “betters.”
The Paradox of Tolerance only shows the losing cards in a society of “both sides,” inviting bad faith debates, and quote RTing to dunk on bigots. This tolerance of intolerance only allows the growth of intolerance and its inevitable reflection in society, movements, and systems.
Magneto was right
Marvel comic book character Magneto would 100% align with Popper. Magneto’s most agreed-upon backstory is that he is a Jewish child survivor of the Holocaust. After discovering his Mutant ancestry and associated superpowers, Magneto becomes an ardent supporter of Mutant Rights and a leader in the movement. He does not want to see a second Holocaust, this time against Mutants.
In their original 1960s framework, Magneto is the Malcolm X to Professor Charles Xavier’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.(1) Magneto is intolerant of intolerance and willing to take direct action against it. He proactively attacks and destroys military installations designing weapons to use against the “Mutant threat” and kills, kidnaps, or harms politicians who legislate against Mutants. He is the villain to Professor X’s tolerant beliefs and Professor X’s use of his X-Men to show a bigoted world that Mutants are human too.
The problem is that Professor X tolerates intolerances, and in many X-Men stories and films, he sends in the X-Men to protect or save those who hate them and continue to hate them. One such character William Stryker is a high-level military colonel who designs WMDs to track and kill Mutants and experiments on Mutants to turn them into his own personal brainwashed soldiers. Without getting too in the weeds, Stryker’s programs and ideas gained public support and built a mass movement with both laws and public sentiment on Stryker’s side. This culminates in a Mutant Holocaust.(2) Magneto was right that Stryker, his beliefs, and those like him needed to be stamped out.
Learning and applying history
I used the fictional example of Magneto and Mutants Rights above because, honestly, it’s far less painful than talking about reality. Reality is the attack on abortion rights in Texas and the group behind it, seeking to repeal Roe V. Wade and also marriage equity and the ruling saying anti-sodomy laws are unconstitutional. Reality is many states passing laws against trans kids playing sports or receiving gender-affirming care from their doctors. Reality is the anti-Critical Race Theory grift paid for by the Koch family billionaires and mass school book bannings.
A key in dismantling oppressive movements and systems is accurately learning our history and what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, and what work needs to still be done. We must accurately and effectively teach about the history and the continued struggle to dismantle oppressive systems and then apply those lessons. The application being the hardest and most actively fought against part.
We’re not canceling Columbus Day from 2021 as a judgment on a historical figure who was a slaver, mass murderer, and rapist, but someone who, in his own time, was punished for these crimes. We’re not, as Seattle City Council candidate tried to claim, trying to make sure your 911 calls aren’t answered thanks to another candidate calling to defund the police.(3)
We must cut all “cultural war debates” because they focus away from real issues and on to the trivial. Bad-faith actors do this on purpose, so either you don’t direct your ire toward them (see: billionaires) or simply to make money off the grift. And worse, these trivial, made-up problems often end up oppressing and harming already marginalized groups of people. This is why the “COVID-19 is a hoax” man couldn’t be tolerated in my friend’s community.
Even if we manage to eliminate prejudices, oppression, and hate systemically, we must keep the knowledge of how this was done and what these harms really mean in the lessons we learn.
In the fictional YA novel Pet by Akwaeke Emezi, society has eliminated “monsters” from the world and dismantled oppressive systems. However, the adults make the mistake of no longer believing that these monsters and other evils can rise again. The book centers on a teen girl Jam, born to this gentler and kinder society, who discovers one of these evils (spoilers) child sexual abuse is happening to someone she knows. Jam is not only rightly shocked and horrified, but she’s also ignorant of the existence of abuse as a concept and must learn about it by accessing wardened off knowledge before she and others stop it.
While Jam’s world seems far away, there’s a reason Nazis and their symbols and ideology are on the rise as WWII falls out of living memory. Because the tolerant forget why the only good fascist is a dead fascist and why Magneto was right.
1. There’s not space here to discuss the problems around these white characters being written and drawn by white men as an allegory around Blackness and Civil Rights. But since their introduction in 1963, Mutants have been a fictional substitute for many additional marginalized groups, including queer people, unhoused people, and disabled people.
2. Yes, this was all fixed through time travel because comic books. This was what the X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) film was supposed to be about if you watched it and were correctly confused.
3. In Seattle, 911 services have been moved out of policing and into a service that will only send police on appropriate calls, like an active shooter situation. (Though cops also run from those.) Additionally, the Seattle PD has only been defunded by about 5-10% since 2020, and the current Mayor just authorized more overtime pay for SPD, so they’ll have a budget increase overall.