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The Paradox of Tolerance

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"Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: 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 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."

- Karl Popper  "The Open Society and Its Enemies" (1945)


The Cowardice of Tolerance by AmericanDreaming  Tolerance, Respect, and Courtesy by AmericanDreaming  The Paradox of Freedom by AmericanDreaming

See more in my Quotes- Science, Philosophy, and Religion folder.


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Comments26
anonymous's avatar
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MihTimak's avatar
Of course, the tolerance must not extend to those who are intolerant. We must defend our tolerance with a sword in our hand against intolerant people.
AmericanDreaming's avatar
Hence the paradox.
MihTimak's avatar
As they say, "if you want peace, be ready for war". Sometimes it is quoted in Latin, but I do not remember how.
Spiritswriter123's avatar
Spiritswriter123Hobbyist General Artist
:iconyodawgplz: Yo dawg, I heard you like tolerance...
shadono's avatar
shadonoHobbyist Digital Artist
I thought Popper was muddled when he wrote this when I first read "The open society and its enemies" 40 odd years ago. 

What can not tolerating the intolerant mean in practice? Criminalize many religions. Criminalize Marxists (INTOLERANT of capitalism, haters of the bourgeoisie, the rich, anybody not a Marxist.... ). Criminalise the more extreme feminists who are INTOLERANT of men looking at pictures of attractive women as their ideology sees this as a bad thing, where most of us probably see it as perfectly normal and quite okay. Even, yes, INTOLERANTLY criminalize those who wish to "criminalize the intolerant" as they are themselves being INTOLERANT of others - INTOLERANT of freedom of speech. Oh dear, there is no end to a vicious circle.

Properly functioning free democratic liberal societies permit the expression of a wide variety of views, where "intolerance" of certain things are to be found, but draw a line where these views are imposed on others by physical force or by directly and clearly inciting others to impose them by physical force. Anything going beyond this takes us into the Orwellian world of thought crime. To repeat in other words - a free society allows the expression of ideas/views. It allows people to try and encourage others to share those views, but it won't allow the use of force in pursuance of them, or the incitement of others to use force to forward them.

My own country long ago started to stride blindly and foolishly down dirty and dangerous thought crime alley with new authoritarian legal bullying to get people to (publicly at least) conform to certain attitudes or face state punishment. When the state decides what opinions will be permitted and which ones subjected to criminal sanction, you have a thought police state. And we have had a lot of these in history - indeed, many centuries of struggle were spent trying to free western civilization from a prevailing thought conformity in which the powers that be decided which opinions/beliefs could be permitted and which would be suppressed by the state, in order to maintain a society which largely conformed to a widely held "norm" - the particular official dogma of the time. By the enlightenment this sort of stuff was beginning to be challenged and beaten back, in the west at least. Here things generally changed - ideological/religious/social opinions stopped being matters of regular state control with criminal sanctions and censorship, though in quite a number of powerful countries in the 20th century the trend was dramatically reversed by the new, radical totalitarian regimes.

Popper was writing in 1945, in the aftermath of the Nazi despotism and when the worst excesses of the terroristic Soviet "experiment" in the USSR were recent events. He could correctly see the terrible "consequences of intolerance" with those regimes in mind. But they were states where the intolerant were in power to use force to impose their brand of particularly extreme and wide ranging ideological intolerance on everyone else. These were the opposite of free liberal societies. In those cases, the extreme intolerant had a monopoly on state force (as racists and anti Semites the Nazis were in a very extreme category of those who held such views, and Bolshevism was an extremist and integrally violent and coercive form of socialism). But the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century were just that, totalitarian ones - ones with often limitless state power over their citizens, where any checks and balances, rights and protections, had been removed or were often rendered practically ineffective - the regimes were created on the basis of ideological dogmas with intolerance a central criteria for their function in the real world. In the backwash of the Stalinist and Nazi horror, it's understandable that damning "intolerance" as "intolerable" became such a shibboleth; but the evils created by such regimes are not merely due to their rulers attitudes of intolerance in themselves (though they held extreme versions of their ideological positions to start with) but because they represented totalitarian state intolerance, intolerance with the whole machinery of a modern dictatorship firmly set on intolerating anything it didn't like out of existence. Extreme cases can create bad laws, and they are not the surest guides when it comes to socio political principles. Popper seems to know this in 1945,  but his thinking in this paragraph comes over as incoherent and misleading. He makes strident bald statements like he's laying down universal laws, and then, more soundly, he tries to qualify them. He talks about the intolerants refusal to listen, and then lurches a few words later to them using force, linking these things as if one invariably is a part of a "tolerating intolerance" package. He slides quickly from "argument" into talk of "fists or pistols". While not listening and disagreeing is surely anyone's right in a liberal society and should be a perfectly acceptable free choice, "force" has been seen and treated differently to the former in such countries - it has almost always been a criminal matter, not put into practice without the state's sanctions coming into play. Karl Marx was free to write his ideological books and journalism and advocate the overthrow of capitalism and class warfare in Victorian London, but he was not free to hurl bombs at "the bourgeoisie"/ruling elite to forward his ideology there (being Marx,he probably wished he had been).

No, "unlimited tolerance" of intolerance does not  invariably lead to the destruction of tolerance and the tolerant. Popper, as I said, knows this, but it doesn't stop him writing -

"We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant".


That sweeping statement can apply itself to the suppression of a huge amount of non violently expressed opinion which some Jack in office regards as "intolerant" "unacceptable" etc. I refer to my earlier examples; people can come up with a host of others themselves.

Popper then qualifies his prior statement, adding -

"We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder...."

But that has been a widely accepted norm in the modern liberal state anyway, KP (though it is now being gradually perverted by a western establishment political class increasingly attracted to thought policing as well). Few living in such societies have a problem with coercion being illegal, but plenty of us do when it comes to repressing and criminalizing the expression of an opinion, however many may be upset by it and disagree. It is only where the extremist totalitarian intolerant control the machinery of the state where that intolerance creates large scale repression/carnage based on ideology - the immediate background to Popper's book. These states represented the antithesis to liberal free societies. In actuality, Popper isn't saying anything in the whole which I would disagree with - but the piece is clumsy and invites cherry picking of bits from it to bolster the justifications made by the myriad opponents of free expression /advocates of selective "tolerance".
 
It may be difficult  for those in a country such as the USA, with its constitution and bill of rights, to properly appreciate what life is like in nations where the mere expression of a personal opinion, whatever it may be, can lead to a raid by the police and imprisonment. But that is the reality today, not just in old style dictatorships and  the theocracies, but, to their shame, in many once free western nations. The right to free expression should be nurtured and protected and we should resist the temptation to support the repressing of any opinions which we don't happen to agree with (a temptation many, unfortunately, cannot bring themselves to resist -  the "safe spacism" cancer is just another devious justification of censorship). As even some "progressives" are now finding, this can lead on to the day when their own opinions become subject to repression/ censorship. The mind of humanity becomes enslaved when we set up institutions which decide what can and can't be said, that censor and punish those who transgress its edicts. Intolerance of "intolerance" does not produce a happy clappy nirvana, but a sheep like conformist police state /informer society, where everyone is constantly looking over their shoulder, fearful of being found uttering "wrong" opinions, and parents dread that their own children will report them to the authorities over their private utterances. The (so far) limited moves to police speech /criminalize private consensual behavior, things increasingly happening in the western "liberal" world (which ceases being liberal at all when these things take place) should be vigorously resisted (and often aren't being).


“The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous. Is it, perchance, cherished by persons who should know better? Then their folly should be brought out into the light of day, and exhibited there in all its hideousness until they flee from it, hiding their heads in shame. True enough, even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred. He has no right to preach them without challenge.”
― H.L. Mencken


"I believe that liberty is the only genuinely valuable thing that men have invented, at least in the field of government, in a thousand years. I believe that it is better to be free than to be not free, even when the former is dangerous and the latter safe. I believe that the finest qualities of man can flourish only in free air—that progress made under the shadow of the policeman’s club is false progress, and of no permanent value. I believe that any man who takes the liberty of another into his keeping is bound to become a tyrant, and that any man who yields up his liberty, in however slight the measure, is bound to become a slave. . . .In any dispute between a citizen and the government, it is my instinct to side with the citizen . . . I am against all efforts to make men virtuous by law."
— H.L. Mencken

I would advise anyone wanting to ban/criminalize opinions they don't like to beware of what they wish for.
AmericanDreaming's avatar
The quote's language is speaking in generalities, yes, and any pragmatic application of this reasoning would need much more specificity in defining terms like tolerance and intolerance. I did not read this at all the way you did. I saw this not as an argument for banning opposing opinions, but rather an argument for not bending over backwards to appease intolerant cultures, people, behaviors, etc in the name of tolerance, multiculturalism, etc, as we are seeing in parts of the West today. It is interesting how we read this so differently, and you do make valid points. I just uploaded a picture today about how opinions shouldn't be banned, in fact. I made a picture of one of those Mencken quotes, too.

The Way to Deal with Superstition by AmericanDreaming
victauron's avatar
victauronHobbyist Digital Artist
Tolerance can never work around the intolerant people.  By tolerating intolerant individuals, those incredibly bigoted, uncompromising and fanatical in their ideals, the tolerant society cannot work.  A completely tolerant society cannot function, and in order for society to properly thrive, there was be some sort of intolerance against the intolerant.  

Such as allowing criminals to freely run lose in society and cause chaos will destroy society but intolerance for that kind of chaos and then cracking down upon those actions will allow society to thrive.  Nor is allowing militant extremists to freely trample upon others' rights in the name of their ideology.
AmericanDreaming's avatar
Well said. :nod:
kumdang-2's avatar
kumdang-2Hobbyist General Artist
:iconlemerchant:- Tolerance will defeat racism and prejudice.  XD
LeMerchant's avatar
LeMerchantProfessional Traditional Artist
Ehm,.,. WRONG! Noo toleranc to RACISM NACISM WHITE PRIDE! Yes to tolerance with poor refugees that brings new blood :3 
kumdang-2's avatar
kumdang-2Hobbyist General Artist
and new culture. XD
LeMerchant's avatar
LeMerchantProfessional Traditional Artist
No more racist whites thats for sure a BIG PROGRESS :3
AmericanDreaming's avatar
They are the only thing we must be intolerant of, ironically.
kumdang-2's avatar
kumdang-2Hobbyist General Artist
OMG! you used the word "intolerant", it is so racist.    XD

What about violence and stuff? should we be intolerant of them too?
AmericanDreaming's avatar
I'm a real violenceophobe, what can I say.
kumdang-2's avatar
kumdang-2Hobbyist General Artist
What about Religious supremacy and indoctrination and stuff? should we be intolerant of them too?
AmericanDreaming's avatar
These are "when did you stop beating your wife?" 'gotcha' questions you're asking me!
kumdang-2's avatar
kumdang-2Hobbyist General Artist
Problem?  Yepp, especially when I saw your comment "They are the only thing we must be intolerant of", when actually there are many things we have to be intolerant of.
lisa-im-laerm's avatar
lisa-im-laermHobbyist Traditional Artist
Made me think about, what happened lately here:

"German police hunt for group of up to 1,000 men 'of Arab and North African origin' who sexually assaulted numerous women and threw fireworks into crowds at Cologne train station on New Year's Eve..."


www.dailymail.co.uk/news/artic…

Psych Girl - Luna by Vusiuz
AmericanDreaming's avatar
Sad. They have to face justice like anyone else. You obey the laws of the land, or you go to jail.
lisa-im-laerm's avatar
lisa-im-laermHobbyist Traditional Artist
Hopefully, they will get them and bring them to justice. Some of them are already known by the police, it was said. So there are chances, that it doesn't become like it it seems to be in Berlin now, that whole arab families gained so much power, that the police has difficulties to bring that under control, even a little bit :(
Sliced Face Test by TR-B
madmadman01's avatar
madmadman01 General Artist
Christ on a cracker, this man speaks true.
Senecal's avatar
SenecalProfessional Digital Artist
I assume this is targeted at the Klingons.
Greatkingrat88's avatar
I've seen this common complaint among conservatives, either unwilling or incapable of understanding the point made here- "liberals are only tolerant if you agree with them", sometimes even extending to the rather delusional "liberals are the real bigots here". Of course, we could never be tolerant of intolerance without betraying our ideals of tolerance and acceptance. We cannot entertain the notion that an idea that somebody is inequal is of equal worth and consideration as an idea that that somebody is, in fact, our equal and worthy of fair, equal treatment. It is for this reason we can no more tolerate conservative racism or homophobia any more than we can tolerate misguided liberal apologism of islam (such as the infamous conversation between Ben Affleck and Sam Harris). Intolerance does not give and take, it just takes and takes until there is nothing left to take, which is why a meek "all ideas are equally good" approach is asinine.

Good quote, good poster.
anonymous's avatar
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