Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The False Paradox of Tolerance

Censors love Karl Popper's Paradox of tolerance:
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.
Popper's theory is probably as old as the idea of tolerance. Many thinkers disagree with him, noting that intolerance is intolerance, even if it's intolerance of intolerance. I like Thomas Jefferson's observation in his first inaugural speech:
If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.
People who say we must be intolerant of intolerance are failing to ask what feeds it. They think intolerance is only a belief that grows by being told, so if you stop the telling, you'll stop the intolerance.

But intolerance is a reaction to the world around us. When people feel they must compete, they tend to become intolerant—fascism needed the Great Depression to thrive. When people's needs are met, they tend to be tolerant. There's no reason to be intolerant of intolerance when times are good—the intolerant are powerless then. And in hard times, it's better to show the virtues of tolerance while working to solve the problem that's manifesting as intolerance.