The Paradox of Tolerance

I discovered this little gem from (Philosopher of Science) Karl Popper today. In regards to the ongoing global rise of the far right-wing and a certain authoritarian-flavoured nationalism, this is not so much prescient (“it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument“), more that this expresses a perennial truth:

“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. In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.”
– from ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies

Sid Vicious
Mostly Harmless: Portrait of Sid Vicious bass guitarist for the Sex Pistols, taken at his mews house in Maida Vale, London, January 1978 (Photo by Steve Emberton/Getty Images)

The questions which arise may include:

• Where (and when) to draw the line ?
• How much is too much ?
• Is a little intolerance acceptable ? (If so, how much ?)
• When (and how) does arrogant ignorance escalate into hate speech ?
• Should we accommodate (and try to educate) people who do not know any better ?
• When do we censor public assertions of hate and intolerance without becoming overly censorious and unwittingly disassembling the open society ?
• Who defines the limits of tolerance ?

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