How Much is Too Much?

arrow up or downA debate about ‘tolerance’ sparked by the recent rise of violent confrontations in the streets of Western democracies has drawn new attention to an idea that’s nearly eight decades old: the paradox of tolerance. The idea comes from Karl Popper, one of the great philosophers of the 20th Century, who argued that the intolerant cannot, must not be tolerated. He argued that intolerance eventually will overrun tolerance if allowed to. Unfortunately, Popper is being misquoted and misunderstood, either through ignorance or intent. Here is a more generous portion of the quote in question:

…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. 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.”

—from The Open Society and its Enemies, by Karl Popper, 1946

Some people have been debating the meaning of the words tolerant and intolerant which turns the issue into a definitional dispute with lots of opportunity for equivocation. Definitional issues are easily solved with a dictionary. Anyway, at the most fundamental level, this is not a ‘meaning’ issue but an ethical issue.

Some others claim Popper is calling for violent restraint of the intolerant. I think those people are overlooking the last sentence. Popper acknowledges the possibility of violent restraint but sees it as a last resort, and a bad one, to be used only after every attempt has been made to educate and redirect the intolerant. He seems to prefer legal restraint through law enforcement.

Some questions to consider: are there any hidden assumptions that have not been shown to be true? Are there any errors in the logic of the argument? Are there any alternatives? What’s the scope of the problem—how many intolerant people are there and what damage do they cause? Who is hurt in this situation? Who benefits from it? What course of action would be best for most people? Who decides who needs restraint?

paradox: a statement that appears to be self-contradictory but is actually true (it’s also what you need if you own a pair of boats—sorry, couldn’t resist)

equivocation: shifting the meaning of a key term in the middle of the argument

Author: Craig Butcher

Craig Butcher is an award-winning educator who has taught critical thinking skills for more than two decades. In addition, He has worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional aide and has been a top-rated broadcaster.