This OTYCD entry originally posted in August 2017.
Learn about the Paradox of Tolerance, a philosophical concept that allows tolerance to survive and thrive.
Philosopher Karl Popper first elucidated the Paradox of Tolerance in 1945. Notice the timing there? 1945? Remember what happened in 1945, and what had happened over the six or so years leading up to it? Yeah, not an accident.
Here is Popper’s quote defining the Paradox of Tolerance, taken from his work The Open Society and Its Enemies:
“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if e 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.”
This is going to be a gross simplification of what Popper is talking about, but at its core, the paradox of tolerance means that at some point, we who uphold liberal democracy have to protect tolerance itself by practicing intolerance toward those who would destroy it if given a chance.
To be dead clear–we don’t practice intolerance towards those who we simply don’t like, or whose ideas we find merely distasteful. Do not go medieval on people who insist that Creed is the best band ever. People are allowed to be wrong.
People are NOT allowed to act on beliefs that would extinguish the life and liberty of other people. Exhibit A: The Nazis, whose worldview included killing the disabled, imprisoning (and eventually starving to death) minorities and political prisoners, and trying to wipe out all the Jewish people in the world.
The neo-Nazis who showed up in Charlottesville in August meant business. They were testing, trying to see just how much they could get away with now that Trump is in power. They chose a smallish college town and chose to come when college was not in session. They came armed. They chanted Nazi slogans. They carried torches. Some came dressed to look like a militia or a police force. They threatened counter-protestors. And one drove his car directly into a crowd of protesters, killing one and injuring 19.
The only silver lining to this–and it was a brightly polished one–is that Americans who had been dismissive or skeptical of what the white supremacists and neo-Nazis had been on about snapped to attention after Trump made his comments offering the bad guys aid and comfort. The next big scheduled protest after Charlottesville happened in Boston on August 19. About 20 neo-Nazis and white supremacists showed up; at least 20,000, and by some reports, as many as 40,000 counter-protesters came out to meet them.
That is what should have happened, and that is what did happen. Keep showing up to oppose them. Keep being non-violent. Keep calling them out. And yes, let them feel the full force of their terrible choices. If you stand up in public and embrace fascism, Nazism, and racism, you should suffer social stigma. Period. Full stop.
So, yes, be intolerant of the intolerant. Be bigoted towards the bigots. But stay nonviolent. Chant. Play instruments with comedy value, like bagpipes, tubas, and kazoos. But don’t go raring to punch Nazis. That’s what they want–they want you to hit back, they want you to hit first. Don’t give them the satisfaction.
If the neo-Nazi clown show comes to your town, show up. Turn out in hordes, in swarms, in droves. Show them that their ideas suck and we ain’t having it. But let them have their dumb little meeting and let them come and go unmolested. And never, never give them what they want.
Read Popper’s quote on the Paradox of Tolerance GoodReads:
See a cartoon on the Paradox of Tolerance that went viral:
Read The Careful, Pragmatic Case Against Punching Nazis in New York magazine: