According To The Paradox Of Tolerance, Unlimited Tolerance Leads To The Death Of Tolerance

Tolerance is generally regarded as a good thing. Just ask the United Nations, which recognizes November 16 as the International Day for Tolerance. To quote UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, "The United Nations promotes tolerance as a matter of its fundamental identity. When tolerance is upheld, we encourage the world to emulate those fine examples. When tolerance is threatened, we must speak out." But hang on. Did you spot the catch-22 in there?

This Book Keeps Poppin' Up

Austrian-British philosopher Sir Karl Popper (1902-1992) is considered to be one of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century. Though published in 1945, his first book, "The Open Society and Its Enemies" has stood the test of time, dotting history's timeline as a relevant read in conjunction with various current events.

"If our civilisation is to survive," Karl Popper begins in the book, a rallying cry for western liberal democracy, "we must break with the habit of deference to great men." The work, a pick by The Guardian as one of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time, was inspired by the Nazi invasion of Austria in 1938. The book became a hugely influential text of the 1960s.

Can't Have One Without The Other

Introduced in Popper's totalitarianism-tackling 1945 book is the paradox of tolerance, a concept that has resurfaced in 2017 for, uh, reasons. Quartz describes the paradox very simply:

  1. A tolerant society should be tolerant by default,
  2. With one exception: it should not tolerate intolerance itself.

This is a paradox because it implies that a completely tolerant society must also be intolerant. But how can you call yourself fully tolerant if you're squeezing some room for a little intolerance in there? Popper not only argues in his book that not tolerating intolerance is the only way to defend tolerance, but it is crucial for the survival of tolerance itself: "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." Well, that's a downer.

But he goes on, proposing a solution to the potential destructive nature of unlimited blanket-tolerance: "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, Science, and Pseudoscience: Crash Course Philosophy #8

Written by Joanie Faletto September 8, 2017

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