The paradox of tolerance- an overview

The paradox of tolerance had become embedded in our national identity and politics, and I have become of the opinion that it is one of the things that is tearing us apart and creating a chasm in our political system that has filtered down finally into even our interpersonal relationships. In the coming posts, I want to explore briefly what the paradox of tolerance is, where it has affected us in daily life, our life of faith, and how it is slowly, but surely tearing us apart. This will require some brief explorations of the history of political philosophies in our country. By necessity, these explorations will be broad strokes. I do this with the full understanding that not everyone fits into every broad stroke. The exploration is about a basic philosophy, not about specific individuals. Let us begin….

To begin with, we must first understand a simple reality, and the basis for the tolerance paradox. In order for tolerance to exist, there must, by necessity, be an intolerance of the intolerant. Both Karl Popper in ‘Open Society and It’s Enemies’ (1945) and John Rawls in ‘A Theory of Justice’ (1975) explored this idea. The idea was alive and well in modern liberalism however long before this. We will explore that a bit later on. While they disagree on when and where the intolerance of the intolerant must exist, both agree that there is a point that it not only appropriate, but necessary. This is done to benefit and better society as a whole. We see this expressed politically in the idea that we must protect groups legally that might otherwise be marginalized or victimized. By protecting these groups, society is bettered, people are bettered, and everything progresses forward toward a more perfect society. Karl Popper describes it this way:
Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: 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 most unwise. But we should claim the right even to suppress them, 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 anything as deceptive as rational argument, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists. 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, exactly as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping; or as we should consider incitement to the revival of the slave trade.”
We see these ideas further manifested in hate crime laws, many European countries that have hate speech laws, and many in America who call for hate speech laws. We see in in protections for minority groups in guaranteeing public services, work protections, and the like. All of this of course relies on the idea that the tolerant are morally superior to the intolerant., tempered by societal opinion at large. Society determines that which is moral and the leaders then enforce that morality via the legal systems and structures available. Some, like Rawls, would say that you do not restrict the intolerant until they take action that causes harm (by this is meant actually direct physical harm, not hurt feelings), others would say that you prevent it from getting that far, but the basic theory remains the same.

For an example, let us explore the recent LGBTQIA events in our nation. Please, let’s just look at the facts of what occurred and leave out rhetoric and personal moral judgement. This is an example that we can all look to and not a commentary on the issue itself. In 1924, The Society for Human Rights in Chicago becomes the first gay rights organization (their description) in the United States. From that time forward, numerous other groups arise desiring better treatment for this segment of the population. The vehicle for this is public opinion, as public opinion decides societal morality, and societal morality governs the paradox of tolerance. We see very similar things in the civil rights movement as well. I chose the example of the LGBTQIA movement specifically because it is here we see a drastic change as even a sitting president changed his views based upon this. It is consistent with what we have spoken of above. Now, by the paradox of tolerance, one must be intolerant of anyone who disagrees with any aspect of the movement that society has accepted. This must be done for the good of society. It is moral because society has said so. The motivations of individuals in society for calling it moral will vary a great deal of course, and are not really the issue. At this point, it should be simple and easy to see how this contributes to the divide that we have both politically and socially.

I want to sum up this section by highlighting a couple of key points. The tolerance paradox relies on the moral superiority of the tolerant. In order to be properly tolerant, that is to be intolerant of the intolerant, you have to make a simple right or wrong judgement and then enforce that judgement. This is what the tolerance paradox hinges upon after all. You must be intolerant of the intolerant, and of course decides whom that is. The tolerance of paradox also follows the philosophy that when you protect the rights of groups of people, you better society and propel it forward to a more perfect form. The value of the group (society) becomes greater than the value of the individuals composing it as by protecting the group, you, by extension, protect the individual. In short, you are entitled to an opinion, so long as it conforms to the parameters that have been established. If it is outside of that, you are intolerant and must not be tolerated.

Nest we will explore modern liberalism and progressive theories in politics, a brief history of it, and how it fits in with the tolerance paradox. Stay tuned…


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3 Replies to “The paradox of tolerance- an overview”

  1. Scott, basically I agree with you. For instance, I definitely am intolerant of an organization like ISIS as well as people who adhere to, and act upon, this extreme example of intolerance. On the other hand, I wonder about one of you closing statements: “In short, you are entitled to an opinion, so long as it conforms to the parameters that have been established.” Circumstances change, e.g., societal interpretation of LGBTQ issues. I guess we sometimes find ourselves in the situation that an issue for which we once were intolerant can in the future be worthy of tolerance as societal parameters change?

    1. That is actually a huge part of the point of it. Because it is now socially acceptable, any opposition, even on a moral basis, must therefor not be tolerated. Society is pushing that which is tolerable, and rejecting anything that does not conform to it. That is not really public discourse in the least.
      For example, I have no issue with same sex civil marriage. I have a huge issue with the SCOTUS ruling because I find it to be judicial over reach and an intrusion on states rights as I find little in our founding documents that leads me to believe marriage is a right bestowed by our creator so to speak. So, even though I have no issue with states allowing for same sex marriage as they see fit, that must not be tolerated because it does not conform to the prevailing view…even though I agree with the principal and my disagreement lies in the execution of it. Civil discourse would be asking why I think this way, how the establishment clause might work in those situations, etc. The paradox of tolerance would result in things like being called a bigot or homophobe which has occurred. I try to get into how it has seeped into all aspects of our lives and how our political systems have reinforced it in the later posts.
      For the record, I can not recall a time when I have engaged with you and you have been anything less than civil.

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