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

Pho­to via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

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:

20,000 Amer­i­cans Hold a Pro-Nazi Ral­ly in Madi­son Square Gar­den in 1939: Chill­ing Video Re-Cap­tures a Lost Chap­ter in US His­to­ry

How Did Hitler Rise to Pow­er? : New TED-ED Ani­ma­tion Pro­vides a Case Study in How Fas­cists Get Demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly Elect­ed

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.–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?

  • Im says:

    You for­got misog­y­nist. That’s what you are. You oppose abor­tion? Fine. You’re free not to have one. Leave my pussy well alone.

  • WW says:

    Inter­est­ing arti­cle. My only ques­tion is, who gets to define, apply, and enforce it all? The results can be hor­ri­fy­ing. One right-wing Ger­man guy killed 12 mil­lion, and a left-wing Sovi­et guy killed an esti­mat­ed 80 mil­lion try­ing to answer that ques­tion. Recent­ly, I put a gar­den-gnome in my front-yard, it coin­ci­den­tal­ly had a red-cap. Liv­ing in a Pro­gres­sive neigh­bor­hood, my gnome, my per­son­al-prop­er­ty, was smashed after 2 days, and some­one spray-paint­ed “f*ck Trump” on my dri­ve­way. That baf­fled me, as I’m mod­er­ate-Lib­er­tar­i­an, and nev­er vot­ed for the guy! Also, the red-hat­ted gnome was the only one Wal­mart had, FFS. That’s where this coun­try is at now, you can’t even put-up a lawn orna­ment with­out some­one’s feel­ings get­ting hurt, and going into full-melt­down. We’ve lost our com­mon-sense, and thick-skin, choos­ing shal­low pet­ti­ness over rugged indi­vid­u­al­ism.
    In the 20th Cen­tu­ry, yes, there was sociopo­lit­i­cal ten­sion, but at the end of the day, two peo­ple argu­ing pol­i­tics or what­ev­er over a beer, could agree to dis­agree, and still walk away friends. That, and peo­ple mind­ed their own busi­ness, with a live-and-let live atti­tude. Civ­il-dis­course, being an ADULT, ruled the day. That men­tal­i­ty of the things I just men­tioned, end­ed in the mid-1990’s abouts. I don’t care what you do with your per­son­al life, just don’t use my tax-mon­ey to do it! Amer­i­cans need to take care of Amer­i­cans first, and to love one anoth­er, as our­selves, as Christ commanded…some peo­ple here would con­sid­er that idea to be “dan­ger­ous” and “extrem­ist”! Weird.
    I don’t care if you’re Right or Left, that’s your busi­ness, but me (and us) n the mid­dle, leave me the f*ck alone! I don’t want any part of the cur­rent nation­al-sociopa­thy! It’s a men­tal dis­or­der that I hope will be cured soon, Although I wor­ry that our ene­mies abroad may do that FOR us. Good day, and enjoy your respec­tive-riots, whether it be storm­ing the Capi­tol, or burn­ing the local cour­t­house. I will be tend­ing my gar­den.

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