The Paradox of Tolerance

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Karl Popper

The essayist William Hazlitt wrote, “We may be intolerant even in advocating the cause of Toleration, and so bent on making proselytes to free-thinking as to allow no one to think freely but ourselves.” Hazlitt was anticipating what we’ve come to call PC or political correctness. In this country, as one recent study showed, those who favor or support PC culture are in a very small minority. I personally don’t know anyone who favors it. I do read, however, a fair number of right wingers on twitter who seem utterly consumed by a hatred of it and of anyone for whom they believe stands for it. So let’s return to the central concern of Hazlitt’s quote, “the cause of toleration.” Whether it’s PC culture or the right wing reaction against it, we have people and groups of people who are very intolerant and even some of whom push ideas that are anti-democratic and potentially, given enough time and political chaos, dangerous to the Republic. That’s not, by the way, an opinion; that’s demonstrated history.

So should there be limits to our tolerance? I think it’s a fair question to ask. At what point is being tolerant and open minded a foolish idea? Or should we be tolerant, personally and as a society, of all views, regardless of their danger-to-democracy nature? Should we, for example, regardless of the potential destruction it may bring, be willing to tolerate, say, a Nazi party, or something like it, establishing itself in America, in government? One would hope that couldn’t happen, but just for a moment imagine that it could. Consider that in 1939 there were actually a fair number of Americans open to that idea. If you doubt that, just take a few minutes and watch A Night at the Garden, a video that should haunt anyone’s casual dismissal of the idea.

In a democratic society we should be open to debate and civil discussions of various ideas, especially those we disagree with. But what about anti-democratic, authoritarian, ideas? What if, as some fear now, those ideas start catching on? As history demonstrates, a number of violent and destructive movements—costing the lives and freedoms of millions—could have been stopped had the society and its leaders acted to arrest its growth.

Germany and other European nations currently have laws that constrain hate groups, hate speech, and the symbols used by these groups. These nations are Western liberal democracies, but they have a well founded fear of how things, like the tolerance of the intolerant, can ultimately cause things to get out of hand. These are very tolerant societies to be sure, but only up to a point. We Americans have never had to suffer what many Europeans have, so we can be naive about what could happen in our own country.

And yet being tolerant, I agree, is an important virtue. But when and at what point, I’d ask you to consider, does this virtue potentially empower a virulent set of vices that could threaten our democratic society and the liberties and way of life we cherish? The answer isn’t easy, and yet the question should, I think, be something each of us considers as we observe the forces of reaction in this country and in other places around the world.

Let me close this post with some words and ideas to ponder. Here’s a quote from Karl Popper’s book the Open Society and its Enemies:

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.

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