The possibility for everyone to express his own ideas, to demonstrate with other people and to contribute to organize groups, movements or parties is usually seen as a positive political fact. The idea I want to argue for, in this brief article, is that this is not always the case. Some situations, well exemplified by some political situation in Europe, show why a proper democracy should put some limits to these rights.

The point being, that the common liberal idea, according to which we should guarantee the highest possible amount of “freedom” to each individual, is very problematic. Even if we agree on the idea – and we can debate it – that a state should leave every person free to take every choice she wants, until what she makes does not restrict the possible choices of someone else, then there are still many problems about this very conception. The first one, that I will call the problem of the sphere’s metaphor, is about how we can understand when one is restricting the freedom of another person and when one is not. The second, which I will call the democratic context, is the fact that we should also consider the problem from the point of view of the relationship between individuals and the state; we do not live in a world populated just by individuals, but in a democratic context made by institutions. My idea is that, from these two perspective, it is possible to show two parallel reasons according to which we should put – in some cases – some forms of limitations to what we call tolerance.

With reference to the first problem, a metaphor often guides us. We imagine each individual in a sort of sphere, where she is completely free to do whatever she wants. Problems start when someone does more, and enters in the sphere of someone else, forcing her to do something she does not want. A classical source of this very idea comes from Thomas Hobbes’ masterpiece, the Leviathan: “Liberty, or freedom, signifieth properly the absence of opposition (by opposition, I mean external impediments of motion); and may be applied no less to irrational and inanimate creatures than to rational.” (Chapter XXI – Of the Liberty of Subjects). The big problem of this conception – excluding for the moment the fact that it is just one possible way to interpret what freedom is – is that it is not easy to understand when someone is causing an “opposition”, an “external impediments” to someone else. Usually this idea is developed just in a minimalistic way: the opposition is viewed as something physical (a chain, a jail, and so on) that limits someone’s movement. However, this interpretation is definitely unsatisfactory: we should be more conscious about the causal efficiency of words, sentences, ideas and so on. A politician who speaks savagely against minority groups, who contributes to the spreading of racist ideals or who incites violence, is not creating a physical impediment, but is still contributing to create a context where someone’s freedom is strongly in danger.

The second problem consists in the fact that we do not only live in a world of individuals with their “spheres” of freedom. We live in a public context, in states organized with institutions that provide democratic methods to rule the country. With reference to this aspect, we should keep in mind that even if it consists in a competition between different and opposite parties, this competition has some rules that the participants have to follow. Even if freedom is a fundamental aspect of politics, it is not everything. We have to let it exist within a democratic context, avoiding the risk which perverse uses of freedom can cause to democracy. Even if we support democracy, it does not mean that we accept that everyone can join this method without accepting some rules and restrictions.

These are two problems of the idea of a complete tolerance towards everyone; now, after this pars destruens, what remains is to develop a pars costruens, whose goal is to explicit which kind of restriction we should accept, and which not. Trying to draw the consequences of what I have just said, we can consider what the practical meaning of this position is. What we should do is not to prohibit people to express ideas that are fascist, racist, or violent from some other point of view. Even if these positions are regrettable and disgusting, this is surely an inacceptable limitation, an excessive constraint against the principles of freedom of speech. However, we are totally legitimated to force the supporters of these positions within precise limits. For example, we should not give to their newspapers public funding, we should not give them space in public broadcasting and we should prohibit their meeting or their eventual constitution of a party. Briefly, whereas it would be an error to limit the personal freedom of the supporter of these ideas, it is not the same for what concerns the political legitimacy of these positions. Even if we maintain everyone’s right to believe whatever they want, we should show, at the same time, no tolerance for the public expressions of these very ideas.

Lastly, I would like to close this article with a concrete example, taken from recent Italian politics. Some people complain that every time Matteo Salvini holds a speech, there is a counter-manifestation organized by social centres and left parties or organizations. I am perfectly conscious that this is the particular method that this kind of politicians use to gain public attentions and space in televisions and newspapers. Nevertheless, I hold the idea that this is not just a legitimate way to express personal dissent against the regrettable ideas of “Lega Nord”, but also a respectable way to confirm that the kind of positions that this party support should not be allowed. The people, who were demonstrating in Bologna few weeks ago, were not restricting other’s freedom, but they were rather renewing values of antifascism and of substantial democracy.


See https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Leviathan for the complete text of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan.

See http://ilmanifesto.info/le-relazioni-pericolose-del-carroccio, about the relationship between “Lega Nord” and extrem fascist right.

Photo taken from “Reppublica Bologna” (http://bologna.repubblica.it/cronaca/2015/11/07/foto/_salvini_le_zecche_sono_qui_-126841391/1/#5), by Michele Lapini (Eikon Studio).



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