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Most People Who Invoke the Paradox of Tolerance Have Badly Misunderstood It
And you should not take them seriously
If you’ve spent any time recently voicing opinions that are currently unpopular among the woke left, for example, opinions like “men aren’t women” or “sex is real,” then you’ve likely been hit with the cartoon above by some pseudo-intellectual salivating at the opportunity to make censorship seem virtuous.
More often than not, they use it to argue the opposite of what the source material actually says.
Known as the paradox of tolerance, this cartoon and the ideas expressed in it come from the first two sentences of a footnote in The Open Society and its Enemies by philosopher Karl Popper, a book about the rise of totalitarian movements in the 20th century.
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.
The way that this is often translated by people (like Victoria Fielding, who I previously wrote about, for example) who want to control and silence others goes something like this:
I don’t like your ideas and I deem them to be intolerant. Therefore, I don’t think you should be allowed to express them but I still get to claim the moral high ground even when silencing you.
Sometimes, it evolves into something as downright hysterical as this:
You are an intolerant bigot/transphobe/TERF/right-winger/Nazi and, because we cannot tolerate the intolerant, it is my moral obligation to remove you from society, to get you fired from your job, to ensure you are socially ostracized, and to use force and violence if necessary to exclude you.
Anyone whose takeaway from Popper’s quote is “we must silence the intolerant” is giving the quote an absurd, naive, and highly unsophisticated reading. Most people who invoke the paradox are twisting it, whether unknowingly or on purpose, for their own ends.
Those who take this reading also don’t bother to ask themselves who gets to be the arbiter of what does and doesn’t constitute tolerance, and which ideologies are deemed “tolerant” and which ones are not.
They don’t think that far because they are busy rubbing their hands together with glee at the prospect of a loophole around free speech. They think they have found a justification for silencing their political and ideological opponents, and it terminates all other thought.
What’s ironic is that, while it is the left that generally likes to invoke the paradox today, it wasn’t that long ago (when Trump was president) that the left was complaining about it being invoked by the right, particularly by right-wing critics of Islam. There was even an updated cartoon made to illustrate the point:
Right or left, whoever invokes the paradox almost always does so without including the bulk of the footnote itself because, when taken together, it paints a different picture of Popper’s meaning.
Here is the rest of it [bolding mine]:
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.
I am strongly reminded of calls by trans rights activists not to read J.K. Rowling’s essay. Of the torrent of death and rape threats she received and that other women who speak about this issue receive all the time. Of “punch TERFs” and “kill TERFs” memes. Of the mob that surrounded Kellie-Jay Keen in New Zealand, finally taking all this rhetoric to its logical end.
I do not mean to compare the trans movement to Popper’s intolerant in order to do the exact same thing I am complaining about everyone else doing—namely, to argue that we shouldn’t tolerate them in the name of tolerance.
While the growing physical violence of the trans movement should not be tolerated as it is, after all, already against the law, I have no problem letting trans activists and gender ideologues speak and express their views.
This isn’t because I don’t think their views are dangerous. I do. I think the ideas pushed by trans activists are atrocious. Gender ideology encourages the sterilization of children and the destruction of women’s spaces and boundaries. These are no small harms. I am horrified every day at what this terrible movement is doing to individuals and to society as a whole.
But I would never use my concerns to justify violence or to call for violence. I counter their views by writing and speaking and protesting. I listen to their views and I want to sway public opinion with my own. This is the spirit of Popper’s quote.
And where they do enact or incite physical violence, I expect the law to be used against them as it is meant to be, and as it would be used against anyone else, even me and my “side.”
This is how it should work in a liberal democracy. This is how you avoid the paradox. In the chapter where the footnote is found, Popper is actually dealing with the question of political leadership and how to organize our political institutions so that bad rulers can be removed without violence. Free speech and political freedom are crucial for this.
At the end of the day, Popper raised an interesting and thought-provoking idea in a single footnote out of his many writings, and it has been co-opted by the very same kind of people it was meant to warn about.
No one who invokes the paradox of tolerance in order to silence others deserves to be taken seriously. They are not philosophers, deep thinkers, or even particularly good readers. They are authoritarians who want to control you. That's all.
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