Shaving the intolerant barber (a continuing series)

Shaving the intolerant barber (a continuing series) September 7, 2016

(What you’re reading here is a third draft. My initial response was basically, “Gag me with an ouroboros — not this crap again!” Hoping that this draft will be a bit more patient and charitable now that I’ve deleted the first two and gotten some of that out of my system.)

After seeing this tweet from Christianity Today, I had to click through to read George Guthrie’s essay on Ed Stetzer’s blog because I was hoping — desperately — that the quote highlighted here was being used in some playfully ironic way:


Screenshot 2016-09-05 at 5.12.07 PM

Alas, it was not. This was not a deliberate bit of Carrollesque whimsy, with Guthrie et. al. playfully trespassing the boundaries of language and logic to revel in the absurdities on the far side of both. Poor Guthrie is, indeed and in earnest, racing around and around on an Escher staircase of his own devising, certain that he’s about to win something when he gets to the top. And Stetzer and the social media editors at CT seem to believe this, so they’re cheering him on, imagining that each futile cycle around the stairs is some kind of victory lap.

So, yet again, we have encountered — in the wild and in full bloom — that rare and fragile flower, “Your tolerance must tolerate my intolerance.”


This statement is not an argument. It’s not even a statement. It is, rather, as Lenore Beadsman describes it in The Broom of the System, “… a sort of joke. A what do you call it. An antinomy.”

The sort-of-joke being discussed there in David Foster Wallace’s novel is Bertrand Russell’s Barber Paradox, which is a funnier and more potentially insightful joke than the sloppy reformulation of it presented above by Guthrie (and by too many other stalwart opponents of tolerance to be counted). Russell and Wallace and Lenore were playing with such antinomies. Guthrie et. al. imagine they are being serious.

But it’s not possible to take them seriously because it’s not possible to engage with the Moebius pretzel of this “you must tolerate my intolerance” absurdity. It conveys no meaning, no logic, no substance. It employs words not to express ideas, but to express contempt for the utility and meaning of them. Like the unstoppable force confronting an immovable object, it passes by without any effect whatsoever.

What Guthrie is doing is precisely like some chatroom troll posting, “Oh yeah? Well if God is all-powerful, can He make a rock so heavy that even He can’t lift it? Checkmate, theist!

This is always what we find when we encounter those presenting an antinomy as though it were an argument rather than a sort of joke. The crucial part of this absurd performance has nothing to do with the nothingness being stated, but with that triumphalist “checkmate!” shouted at the end as they turn to high-five their fellow trolls, pretending they just said something, rather than nothing, and thereby won … something or other.

Transparently bad-faith arguments always rankle, but the addition of this self-congratulation makes it all even more unseemly. “Dude! Your brazen disingenuousness rules! Up here, bro!” [High fives all around.] It will be hard not to remember that the next time I encounter anything from Guthrie, Stetzer, or CT’s Twitter feed.

I’ve written about this “tolerance must tolerate my intolerance” nonsense quite a bit over the years, see, for example:

• “A tolerable response to intolerable sophistry”

“The intolerant antinomy revisited”

“Cossacks and Prairie Muffins”

The Intolerant Barber in the World’s Worst Books

“The Stupid Brigade”

That last one, from nine years ago, is also a bit impatient. But since what I wrote then is still true, let me quote a bit of it here:

It’s not very nice to call them the Stupid Brigade, and it’s probably not particularly constructive. But then again nothing can be constructive with these folks because, well, they’re kind of stupid. They’re not open to persuasion, nor are they interested in trying to persuade others. All they’re really interested in is showing off what they consider to be their irrefutably clever wordplay and their semantic Gotcha! games:

Aha! You say you’re for tolerance, but that just means you’re intolerant of intolerance!

Aha! You say you’re opposed to authoritarianism, but that just means you’re trying to tell the authoritarians what they can and can’t do!

Aha! You say you’re for “love,” but that just means you hate hatred!

You can try to respond to such people, if you have the patience, but there’s nothing there to respond to. They offer nothing that can be engaged: No coherent argument; no apparent capacity for recognizing coherent argument; no sense of the ability to distinguish between sense and nonsense.

And anyway, they can’t hear you. After firing off one of their tail-swallowing semantic pretzels, they’re too preoccupied with their undeserved victory lap to listen to any attempt at a response.

To be clear, when we say that these folks are “kind of stupid,” we’re not referring to some innate intellectual shortcoming. This is a willful stupidity. It is chosen, voluntary. It is a performance of stupidity by people capable of choosing differently — people capable of choosing to be reasonable rather than unreasonable. That’s the tragedy of embracing bad-faith nonsense, it makes you pretend to be kind of dumb. Keep that up and eventually you’ll no longer be pretending.


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