Does Democracy Demand the Tolerance of the Intolerant? Karl Popper’s Paradox

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In the past few years, when far-right nationalists are banned from social media, violent extremists face boycotts, or institutions refuse to give a platform to racists, a faux-outraged moan has gone up: “So much for the tolerant left!” “So much for liberal tolerance!” The complaint became so hackneyed it turned into an already-hackneyed meme. It’s a wonder anyone thinks this line has any rhetorical force. The equation of tolerance with acquiescence, passivity, or a total lack of boundaries is a reductio ad absurdum that denudes the word of meaning. One can only laugh at unserious characterizations that do such violence to reason.

The concept of toleration has a long and complicated history in moral and political philosophy precisely because of the many problems that arise when the word is used without critical context. In some absurd, 21st century usages, tolerance is even conflated with acceptance, approval, and love. But it has historically meant the opposite—noninterference with something one dislikes or despises. Such noninterference must have limits. As Goethe wrote in 1829, “tolerance should be a temporary attitude only; it must lead to recognition. To tolerate means to insult." Tolerance by nature exists in a state of social tension.




According to virtually every conception of liberal democracy, a free and open society requires tense debate and verbal conflict. Society, the argument goes, is only strengthened by the oft-contentious interplay of differing, even intolerant, points of view. So, when do such views approach the limits of toleration? One of the most well-known paradoxes of tolerance was outlined by Austrian philosopher Karl Popper in his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies.

Popper was a non-religious Jew who witnessed the rise of Nazism in the 20s in his hometown of Vienna and fled to England, then in 1937, to Christchurch, New Zealand, where he was appointed lecturer at Canterbury College (now the University of Canterbury). There, he wrote The Open Society, where the famous passage appears in a footnote:

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.

This last sentence has “been printed on thousands of bumper stickers and fridge magnets,” writes Will Harvie at Stuff. The quote might become almost as ubiquitous as Voltaire’s line about “defending to the death” the right of free speech (words actually penned by English writer Beatrice Evelyn Hall). Popper saw how fascism cynically exploited liberal toleration to gain a foothold and incite persecution, violent attacks, and eventually genocide. As he writes in his autobiography, he had seen how "competing parties of the Right were outbidding each other in their hostility towards the Jews.”

Popper’s formulation has been been used across the political spectrum, and sometimes applied in arguments against civil protections for some religious sects who hold intolerant views—a category that includes practitioners of nearly every major faith. But this is misleading. The line for Popper is not the mere existence of exclusionary or intolerant beliefs or philosophies, however reactionary or contemptible, but the open incitement to persecution and violence against others, which should be treated as criminal, he argued, and suppressed, “if necessary," he continues in the footnote, "even by force" if public disapproval is not enough.

By this line of reasoning, vigorous resistance to those who call for and enact racial violence and ethnic cleansing is a necessary defense of a tolerant society. Ignoring or allowing such acts to continue in the name of tolerance leads to the nightmare events Popper escaped in Europe, or to the horrific mass killings at two mosques in Christchurch this month that deliberately echoed Nazi atrocities. There are too many such echoes, from mass murders at synagogues to concentration camps for kidnapped children, all surrounded by an echo chamber of wildly unchecked incitement by state and non-state actors alike.

Popper recognized the inevitability and healthy necessity of social conflict, but he also affirmed the values of cooperation and mutual recognition, without which a liberal democracy cannot survive. Since the publication of The Open Society and its Enemies, his paradox of tolerance has weathered decades of criticism and revision. As John Horgan wrote in an introduction to a 1992 interview with the thinker, two years before his death, “an old joke about Popper” retitles the book “The Open Society by One of its Enemies.”

With less than good humor, critics have derided Popper’s liberalism as dogmatic and itself a fascist ideology that inevitably tends to intolerance against minorities. Question about who gets to decide which views should be suppressed and how are not easy to answer. Popper liked to say he welcomed the criticism, but he refused to tolerate views that reject reason, fact, and argument in order to incite and perpetrate violence and persecution. It’s difficult to imagine any democratic society surviving for long if it decides that, while maybe objectionable, such tolerance is tolerable. The question, “these days,” writes Harvie, is “can a tolerant society survive the internet?”

Related Content:

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Rare 1940 Audio: Thomas Mann Explains the Nazis’ Ulterior Motive for Spreading Anti-Semitism

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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  • David A Johnson says:

    I’m a conservative and not really a Republican. I want everyone to succeed. I don’t understand the focus on right wing hate. Yes there are skinheads and idiots who want to practice racial segregation. That is obviously a flawed premise.

    The intolerant folks are pretty much on the left side of the ideological divide. When I say planned parenthood needs to be shut down, I’m not calling for women to lose their health care. How is abortion health care? The answer to that question eludes me.

    I realize Openculture leans left. But man, cannot differing viewpoints be openly discussed, without the racist, homophobic, islamophobic labels being thrown around?
    These are serious issues that need to be talked about, not shut down.

    How is wanting a secure border racist?

  • William Geoghegan says:

    OK. You said “How is abortion health care?” The consequence of making abortion illegal and the enforcement of that law turns unwanted pregnancies into forced pregnancies. How is a forced pregnancy compatible with freedom?

    One may hold a religious point of view that abortion is wrong but another person may equally hold that the right to an abortion is also a religious point of view. Freedom of religion is not about forcing everyone to obey your religion. Freedom of religion is about allowing each person to practice their religion without fear of reprisal. Check out Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty by John M. Barry.

    Abortion becomes healthcare when the pregnant woman chooses to have the abortion. She is able to choose what is good for her. In a free society others don’t get to choose for her.

    The global gag rule imposed by Reagan and continued by Republican presidents violates free speech. It is an attempt to prevent anyone from teaching about options to pregnancy along with ways to prevent pregnancy.

    You asked “How is wanting a secure border racist?” The answer is when the issue of a secure border is a cover for racism and the great white fear of the whites becoming a minority.

  • Charles Justice says:

    David Johnston, let’s be Popperian then. Anti-semitism leads to Fascism. Anti-semites see social and political reality in such a distorted way that they open themselves to deceit and manipulation by fascists. Lesson: as a society we cannot tolerate anti-semitism because of where we know it will lead.
    People who focus on abortion as a moral issue are being played by political operatives who offer extremist politics and social darwinist ideology in exchange for pushing anti-abortion as a dominant policy. When we get the result of an evangelical cult blindly supporting Donald Trump, we know something is very wrong. The German people supported Hitler, and refused to see the ugliness and evil of Nazism. American evangelicals are blindly supporting Trump, he can do no wrong, because he is an instrument for banning abortions. Modus Tollens: If you get a bad result from your reasoning, something is wrong with your premise – focusing on the morality of abortion.

  • Elisabeth Roche says:

    Seems good to bring to bring historical context to our immediate problem.

    How can we stop the hatred of others we have now, Mexicans, Muslims, blacks, Jews(don’t care if Jared is Jewish) plenty of anti-semites to go around our country.

    Locally there are projects in sustainability and vocal compassion building and water jugs set in desert for deep summer migrants stuck in organ pipe monument. Rescues. Nor ever before forced invented backlogs of migrants who now are “National Security Risks.” Caravans. Why does that smell of anti-gypsy reference?

    While all this talk is going on, real policy changes are being attempted, luckily lots of organizations are sueing and getting some results. Work for Medicaid stopped for now in Kentucky and Oklahoma. Article drilling, both for now.

    The lack of science understanding in politics is astonishing. In the people running bills all the time to restrict this or that. To say you can’t have an abortion at 5 days boggles my zygote. Which probably doesn’t exist anyway. Know how many take? Same at 12 weeks, the size of a peanut without a shell. often when you get your period because it didn’t take. Never even knew.

    Who are they using.? Us. They are all talking to each other about us to govern raise money based on their own gossip about what happens in her womb, or his synagogue or his mosque.

    How can we stop this first. Then get back to the long long road of healing America, before all this new bs is on us. Close my Saguaro National Park? For mining? Rosemont, tear up our land? Close the border?

    Full circle. How can we stop a,( if not totalitarian leader ) a total “problem” was president from ruining our country?

  • Dr. Ray Scott Percival says:

    I think Popper here got into a muddle. One thing that stands out for me is the conflation or vacillation between “intolerant philosophies” (that is, texts, words and beliefs) and the people who may have adopted them and their personal intolerant actions – meeting arguments with guns etc. He should have stuck to drawing the boundary of tolerance at incitement to violence. However, incitement to crime is not an easy concept to determine, it being given a wide interpretation in English common law. This problem needs to be solved for any one who values liberty, and so is of great interest to libertarians. In the Serious Crime ACT, 2007, which replaces elements of common law, “incitement” is replaced by “encouragement and assistance”. It’s worth delving deeper into this issue. As for his assertion that the leaders of intolerant groups “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”. I deal with the issue of openness to argument in my book The Myth of the Closed Mind. Although a Popperian, and my book takes much from Popper great work, I’m far more confident about the power of argument to head-off violent ideologies than Popper was. I’m closer to John Milton than Popper, although Popper admired Milton.

    https://www.amazon.com/Myth-Closed-Mind-Understanding-Rational/dp/0812696859/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=the+myth+of+the+closed+mind&qid=1554242472&s=gateway&sr=8-1

  • Optimistic Skeptic says:

    Karl Popper’s threshold was clearly different than current thresholds. If the threshold is to be intolerant of coercion and violence, there would be little argument. That is not the current threshold popularized by the Left. To suggest as much is disingenuous.

  • Eric says:

    “How is abortion health care?” Women’s reproductive health is a health care issue. Planned Parenthood provides essential services to women who have nowhere else to turn. If it did not exist, it was cause great harm to society. Banning all abortion is impossible, it will always be available, only far more unsafe without Planned Parenthood. You believe closing planned parenthood would be a moral good, but it would make things much worse.

    Why is there so much concern on right wing extremism. Since 2015 there has been huge increase in violence from those folks. A few examples:

    Kroger Shooting – Oct. 24, 2018
    Pittsburgh Synagogue – Oct. 27, 2018
    New Zealand Mosque Shooting – March 15, 2019

    Just a few examples of right wing ideology morphing into hate crimes. Not to mention Jewish Cemeteries being desecrated since the 2016 election (under reported by mainstream media). Hope that clarifies you not understanding “all the focus on right wing hate.”

    How is wanting a secure border racist? Every nation has the right to secure its borders. When leaders start to demonize others as rapists and thugs, then it gets racist.

  • Zan says:

    Planned parenthood provides much more affordable female related healthcare, other than abortions. People who are able to afford going to the doctor here and there would not even know the wealth of various other healthcare provided to women by planned parenthood, and would only focus on abortions. Although, I am prochouce, I have never chosen abortion myself, nor have had one. But I’ve gone to planned parenthood for many things in my past, including treatment for urinary tract infections, yeast infections, annual Pap smears, as well as for birth control. This is why “wanting to close down” an entire organization based on one service they offer is extremely toxic!

  • Jennifer says:

    Speaking of intolerance: From the highest levels of government,narratives persist to show force and to maintain racial dominance over groups of people that some consider as unwanted or inferior. For example, to stay in power they claim the narrative of “voter fraud” as a pretext for restricting and intimidating black voters, people of color and their advocates. The intolerant deplorables call themselves “conservatives” as a sophisticated method to mask their repressive repertoire of suppression by any means necessary. They give praise to idol thieves to lead them in these modern times, the so called leaders who display intolerance as in a government machinery. By design, they develop institutions and structures of intolerance that demonize ethnic immigrants and poeple of color. As history has shown, intolorant or inhumans have enforced policies and practices that create the perpetuation of white supremacy…so far, because they have gotten away with it…and by now their weapons can harm too many in their own tribe.

  • Parrot Bernard says:

    Can you get your message translated into English?

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