Lately, a concept has been creeping around social media. It’s an image titled “The Paradox of Tolerance,” and it’s credited to Karl Popper. The basic premise is simple. It argues that unlimited tolerance of things like Nazism by a society will inevitably lead to the destruction of that society.
The image in question:
It seems pretty bleak, and is being used as a justification currently for any number of things including violence against so-called racists (be they actual racists or just people accused of it) or laws against hate speech.
Unfortunately for leftists, all it really does is reveal their own cluelessness about what tolerance actually is.
Tolerance simply means “to tolerate.” Nothing more, nothing less.
However, leftists seem to believe that tolerance means something more akin to acceptance and celebration. This is obvious through so many of their positions these days. Christianity is supposedly intolerant because the Bible has some pretty harsh things to say about homosexuality, for example. None of the “love thy neighbor” or “judge not lest ye be judged” counters that, because it’s not enough in the progressive mind to simply live and let live.
So, when they see Popper’s Paradox, they interpret it as “tolerance=acceptance.” In the case of Nazism, that’s something they simply cannot and will not do, which is fine. I refuse to accept Nazism, racism, white nationalism or anything of the sort myself.
In their newfound embracing of intolerance, many see no issue with crossing the otherwise forbidden line and embrace violence as a tool of political discourse.
Yet it’s all predicated on a mistake, a false definition of tolerance that has no real bearing on what it means to tolerate someone or something.
Tolerance simply means to put up with something. It doesn’t mean approval, support, or celebrating. It simply means accepting its existence and nothing more.
Besides which, radical groups like neo-Nazis aren’t unlimitedly tolerated.
You see, whenever there’s a racist rally, there’s the inevitable counter protestors. Any time you see someone post hateful rhetoric online, they’re immediately dogpiled by others calling them down. It’s almost impossible to utter white nationalist talking points without being besieged by others refuting everything you said.
At every opportunity, racism has a strong tendency to be blasted.
There’s a reason why neo-Nazis tend to need their own websites and web forums. They feel a need to express their vile hatred, but they can’t in the open. They’re allowed to think, to be, and even to speak, but they’re not allowed to speak unchallenged.
Where the line gets crossed is when shouting down their hate isn’t enough. It’s crossed when someone decides to throw a brick or swing a baseball bat. At that point, you’ve gone well beyond what Popper suggested.
Meanwhile many on the far left have also misread Popper, again to no good ends. As stated here, and not altogether fairly, the paradox runs:
1. A tolerant society should be tolerant by default,
2. With one exception: it should not tolerate intolerance itself.
But Popper never believed anything like this. Rather, he wrote:
"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."
This is no warrant here for laws against hate speech. On the contrary, Popper appears to have called such laws “unwise.”
To Popper, intolerance is not to be deployed when the utterance of intolerant ideas might make you uncomfortable, or when those ideas seem impolite, or when they get you really mad. Intolerance – if that’s the right word for it – is only warranted when we are already facing “fists and pistols,” or, presumably, worse.
In other words, Popper had no interest in destroying the right of free speech. He had an interest in preserving a free society, which is precisely what progressives are trying to destroy today.
So maybe it’s time for liberals to revise their idea of what makes up tolerance, and recognize that you can meet intolerance and combat it, giving it no comfortable place to take root, without becoming the very thing they claim they’re trying to prevent.