The Intolerable Speech Rule: the Paradox of Tolerance for tech companies

A woman dressed in 19th century European black clothing sits in a defiant pose with a sword across her lap. Letters at the top say in Latin
Use the sword on behalf of justice only

On Monday, I’ll be giving a talk at Airbnb about the Paradox of Tolerance and how tech companies can use it to decide whether or not to allow white supremacists to use their products. Here’s the TL;DW version:

The Paradox of Tolerance says that a tolerant society should be intolerant of one thing: intolerance itself. This is because if a tolerant society allows intolerance to take over, it will destroy the tolerant society and there will be no tolerance left anywhere. What this means for tech companies is that they should not support intolerant speech when it endangers the existence of tolerant society itself.

I propose the following rule for tech companies to use in deciding which content to host or clients to support.

The Intolerable Speech Rule

If the content or the client is:

  1. Advocating for the removal of human rights
  2. From people based on an aspect of their identity
  3. In the context of systemic oppression primarily harming that group
  4. In a way that overall increases the danger to that group

Then don’t allow them to use your products.

This isn’t the only rule you should use – you should use this rule in addition to all your existing rules against spam, fraud, illegal activity, etc. Implementation is key. Be proactive in seeking out violations, have a diverse empowered decision making team, and collaborate with outside experts.

Update: Cory Doctorow wrote an article about this talk, including a longer exploration of issues around the implementation of the Intolerable Speech Rule at scale.

Slides (PDF) (transcript)


Examples of tech companies implementing the Paradox of Tolerance

Tech company terms of service relating to the Paradox of Tolerance

Article on the Paradox of Tolerance as it applies to white supremacists in the U.S.

Wikipedia entry for the Paradox of Tolerance

Talk on legal talismans (misuse of “free speech” and similar legal terms) by Kendra Albert (transcript)

Policy and code of conduct consulting from ReadySet and Y-Vonne Hutchinson

Freeze peach comic by Naoise Dolan

Freeze peach pendant by Gretchen Koch

Freeze peach graphic by Stephanie Zvan

A post-election guide to changing hearts and minds

Please take a moment to read the guide we wrote about standing up for your values firmly, compassionately, and persuasively, whether you are speaking to family, friends, or colleagues:

A post-election guide to changing hearts and minds

On November 8th, the cost of allowing everyday acts of cruelty and oppression to go unchallenged became clear with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. Ally skills are now a crucial part of the fight to prevent a massive expansion of state-sponsored oppression around the world, and the rolling back of 50 years of progress in the U.S. towards equality and justice for people of color, women of all races, religious minorities, disabled people, LBTQ+ folks, and many others.

If you can act as an ally, part of the work ahead is to take every opportunity you have to influence and persuade the people who respect and trust you the most. We hope this guide will help you recognize and take advantage of opportunities to change the hearts and minds of people who currently support oppression of any kind.

Better comebacks for *-ist jokes: Ally Skills Workshop in NYC

Wish you had a better comeback whenever someone makes a sexist joke at work? Tired of reading racist comments on your community’s mailing list and not knowing how to respond without getting in a flame war? The first ever public Ally Skills Workshop in the New York City area is on Saturday, March 5th, from 1pm to 4pm at the Recurse Center in Manhattan (register here). In this workshop, participants spend most of the time in small discussion groups talking about real-world situations and sharing their knowledge and experience with each other.

We welcome and encourage people of all genders, races, sexualities, and ages to attend, with tickets available on a sliding scale from $25 to $150 (and free tickets for folks from the Recurse Center – DM @frameshiftllc for details). The workshop works best with a wide variety of people who can share their personal experiences as both an ally and the target of systemic oppression. Some of the scenarios we talk about include:

A woman is standing alone at an event that is mostly men. What can men do to make her feel included and welcome, without coming across as a creep?

A black person in your community is frequently criticized for being too “angry,” “aggressive,” and “abrasive” while white people who are far ruder and more aggressive are accepted. What can white people do to reverse this dynamic?

An email on your project’s mailing list starts, “Imagine you are explaining this to your girlfriend,” – and you’re pretty sure they aren’t thinking of the one out lesbian on the project. What can straight men say to stop this behavior without getting the point lost in a flame war?

Here are some things people have said about the Ally Skills Workshop:

Loved the format, it was super interactive and didn’t feel like a drag, 3 hours just flew by. — Anonymous participant

Valerie was awesome! It was interesting seeing situations many of us have encountered, and seeing hearing the right/appropriate ways to react. Being in groups and hearing peoples thoughts about the situations was cool too – there were lots of things that were brought up that I probably wouldn’t have thought of myself. — Anonymous participant

It’s kind of strange thing to say, but my favorite part about the workshop was the structure. I’ve been in a bunch of conversations and/or workshops about inclusiveness and I find that they often don’t have enough direction. – Jesse Pollak

Join us on Saturday March 5th!

Click here for a list of upcoming classes from Frame Shift Consulting.