Paradox of tolerance problems

This article quotes the paradox of tolerance as pointed out by Karl Popper. Let’s look at the actual quote from Popper (from “The open society and its enemies” (OSE) note 4 to chapter 7):

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 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. 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.

Popper wants to stop tolerance from being destroyed. If intolerant people are a tiny minority, then they don’t pose much of a threat. And if there are some intolerant people who don’t pose a threat, they shouldn’t be suppressed if they can be kept in check by criticism. But this paragraph is a bit vague and inconsistent. For example, if somebody advocates starting up the slave trade but doesn’t specifically say some particular groups should do it, should he be prosecuted according to Popper?

There is also some vagueness in the paragraph quoted above about what tolerance means. Chapter 24 Section III of OSE gives a better idea of what Popper is referring to when he discusses tolerance:

But, as I have said before (in chapter 9), the attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell. It leads to intolerance. It leads to religious wars, and to the saving of souls through the inquisition. And it is, I believe, based on a complete misunderstanding of our moral duties. It is our duty to help those who need our help; but it cannot be our duty to make others happy, since this does not depend on us, and since it would only too often mean intruding on the privacy of those towards whom we have such amiable intentions. The political demand for piecemeal (as opposed to Utopian) methods corresponds to the decision that the fight against suffering must be considered a duty, while the right to care for the happiness of others must be considered a privilege confined to the close circle of their friends. In their case, we may perhaps have a certain right to try to impose our scale of values— our preferences regarding music, for example. (And we may even feel it our duty to open to them a world of values which, we trust, can so much contribute to their happiness.) This right of ours exists only if, and because, they can get rid of us; because friendships can be ended. But the use of political means for imposing our scale of values upon others is a very different matter. Pain, suffering, injustice, and their prevention, these are the eternal problems of public morals, the ‘agenda’ of public policy (as Bentham would have said). The ‘higher’ values should very largely be considered as ‘non-agenda’, and should be left to the realm of laissez faire. Thus we might say : help your enemies; assist those in distress, even if they hate you; but love only your friends.

So Popper seems to regard tolerance as being about not using political and coercive means to impose your ideas on others.

Popper continues:

This is only part of the case against irrationalism, and of the consequences which induce me to adopt the opposite attitude, that is, a critical rationalism. This latter attitude with its emphasis upon argument and experience, with its device ‘I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort we may get nearer to the truth’, is, as mentioned before, closely akin to the scientific attitude. It is bound up with the idea that everybody is liable to make mistakes, which may be found out by himself, or by others, or by himself with the assistance of the criticism of others. It therefore suggests the idea that nobody should be his own judge, and it suggests the idea of impartiality. (This is closely related to the idea of ‘scientific objectivity’ as analysed in the previous chapter.) Its faith in reason is not only a faith in our own reason, but also—and even more—in that of others. Thus a rationalist, even if he believes himself to be intellectually superior to others, will reject all claims to authority since he is aware that, if his intelligence is superior to that of others (which is hard for him to judge), it is so only in so far as he is capable of learning from criticism as well as from his own and other people’s mistakes, and that one can learn in this sense only if one takes others and their arguments seriously. Rationalism is therefore bound up with the idea that the other fellow has a right to be heard, and to defend his arguments. It thus implies the recognition of the claim to tolerance, at least of all those who are not intolerant themselves. One does not kill a man when one adopts the attitude of first listening to his arguments. (Kant was right when he based the ‘Golden Rule’ on the idea of reason. To be sure, it is impossible to prove the rightness of any ethical principle, or even to argue in its favour in just the manner in which we argue in favour of a scientific statement. Ethics is not a science. But although there is no ‘rational scientific basis’ of ethics, there is an ethical basis of science, and of rationalism.) Also the idea of impartiality leads to that of responsibility; we have not only to listen to arguments, but we have a duty to respond, to answer, where our actions affect others. Ultimately, in this way, rationalism is linked up with the recognition of the necessity of social institutions to protect freedom of criticism, freedom of thought, and thus the freedom of men. And it establishes something like a moral obligation towards the support of these institutions.

Again, tolerance seems to be about not using physical violence. So then one read is that inciting intolerance seems to be the same as inciting violence according to Popper.

What does the article say?

White supremacists are really, really hoping that you don’t keep reading this article. They don’t want you to learn about the Paradox of Tolerance, because then they’d lose a powerful weapon in their fight to make society more racist. Ready to make a white supremacist mad?

The author of the article wants to make people mad. This is a bad idea if he is concerned about violence.

Fortunately for us, the Paradox of Tolerance, a concept coined by philosopher Karl Popper, is easy to understand and remember. The “paradox” part makes it sounds complicated and hard, but it’s really just a rule with one exception. It goes like this:
1. A tolerant society should be tolerant by default,
2. With one exception: it should not tolerate intolerance itself.
To give a specific example, a tolerant society should tolerate protest marches in general, but it shouldn’t tolerate a white supremacist march advocating for the oppression and killing of people of color – like the march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 that ended with white supremacists beating and killing people who were opposed to their message of intolerance.

Here’s another way to think about the Paradox of Tolerance: a tolerant society must protect its own existence if tolerance is to exist in the world. If tolerating intolerance results in the destruction and disappearance of tolerant society, then that tolerant society has a right to self-protection – in the form of refusing to tolerate intolerance. The Paradox of Tolerance suggests that we should view advocacy of intolerance and persecution as a criminal behavior in and of itself. Many European countries do have specific laws making advocacy of white supremacy illegal, in contrast to the United States.

As I noted above, Popper is ambiguous on this subject. As a result, what he wrote has problems as a guide to action and legislation.

It would be better to have a bright line about what kind of conduct should be legal or illegal. A person or group poses a threat to the extent that they actually advocate and use violence. So if a group advocates and uses violence, the government should prosecute the people involved in the violence: those who order violence, or use violence, or direct resources to be used for violence.

What about people who aren’t involved in violence but have horrible ideas? Those people shouldn’t be prosecuted for two reasons. First, you might just be able to persuade non-violent racists (or other intolerant people) to change their minds. Second, sometimes people adopt bad ideas as a result of a genuine problem. Suppose a person has a negative view of black people cuz a black criminal harmed him. Prosecuting him for hating black people might stop others from pointing out real problems. For example, if black people are more likely to commit crime for some cultural reason, pointing that out might be too close to racism for most people to risk it. So then fixing such a problem would be more difficult.

The article has another problem. There are left wing groups who initiate violence and who use violence on their own members.

The clearest single account I have found of what happened in Charlottesville sez that some people on both the right wing and the left wing were violent.

The paradox of tolerance article doesn’t mention left wing violence at all. So the author either doesn’t know about and understand such groups, or he is fine with intolerance and violence as long as it comes from the left. In either case, the article is bad.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

3 Responses to Paradox of tolerance problems

  1. Pingback: The Limits of Toleration - Open Inquiry

  2. NameNotRelevant says:

    Awful article. How can the author read Popper’s own words and come to these completely bullshit conclusions?

    No you DO NOT want the intolerant to stick around in small number, you’d be better off if there were no intolerant people. The problem is that “the intolerant” are NOT A GROUP. It’s a state of mind where you do not tolerate ideas other than your own. Which is especially harmful and dangerous if you also happen to be wrong, which you likely are as human’s operate with incomplete knowledge of pretty much everything. So you can’t really get rid of “the intolerant” as you might yourself act intolerant from time to time. So you should rather learn to guard yourself against being intolerant yourself and help people see and overcome their intolerance.

    So for Popper the problem isn’t so much about being wrong (everybody is sometimes), but about the refusal to engage in a fair discussion about it. Like religious cults or other groups that claim to “know the truth” and reject even any conversations about their dogmas. So essentially you’d be free to contemplate about pretty much anything as long as your engaging it in good faith. That is you’re honestly searching for an answer and reject what isn’t working and seek what is, while accepting that you could be wrong.

    He argues that intolerance even with good intentions can have problematic results and argues more for a laissez faire and step wise improvement and reflection than some great plan. But he’s also pretty explicit on where to draw a line:

    >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.

    How does any sane mind come away with this conclusion?

    >For example, if somebody advocates starting up the slave trade but doesn’t specifically say some particular groups should do it, should he be prosecuted according to Popper?

    Slavery alone is already a gross violation of any form of tolerance. What do you guess a slave trade would be considered? And unless you’re a racist does it really matter who is doing it?

    Seriously a pathetic display of right wing ignorance and the inability to read.

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