The Paradox of Tolerance

Tolerance is putting up with an opposing viewpoint because you value the person holding it.


Recently I read a quote from the philosopher Karl Popper that said, “Defending tolerance requires to not tolerate the intolerant.” It really got me thinking about how much of our society has accepted this viewpoint, the issues with that, and the nature of tolerance as a whole in America today.

I believe the intent of the Popper’s Philosophy and the interpretation by people today to be quite different. The context of Popper’s quote that I came across implied being intolerant of others intolerance. Fighting hate with hate. I think the misinterpretation comes from two sources: a lack of (or blatant ignorance of)
a clear definition of tolerance or more importantly intolerance, and that society has made tolerance a moral imperative over more moral values.

Cornell University defines tolerance as, “willingness to accept behavior and beliefs that are different from your own, even if you disagree with or disapprove of them.” Most people seem to agree with this but the tension comes in when asked what intolerance is. Is intolerance a way of thinking, can speech be intolerant, or is intolerance based in action. If intolerance is based in thought, then how is one to disagree with someone or oppose a societal evil (assumed or real)? If intolerance is speech how are we to express differing opinions and beliefs? These questions leads me to the conclusion that intolerance must be belief that another human is less valuable than another and action upon these discriminatory and/or immoral beliefs and feelings.

This leads me to the second problem: conflating equality with morality. Everyone I’ve asked about Popper’s quote reached the same conclusion that tolerance cannot be achieved through intolerance, and furthermore, that tolerance shouldn’t be the end goal. Accepting everyone’s opinions all the time is impossible and much too subjective to be a moral value. Instead of striving for tolerance we ought to be striving for mutual respect of others humanity. Tolerance can be a way to achieve this, but tolerance itself can only achieve so much. At the very least the line should be drawn where the value of human life demanded by the law is infringed.

Furthermore, it is important to differentiate between not tolerating something and being intolerant of something. Not tolerating something is a defensive practice, whereas intolerance is offensive action (as discussed previously). Attacking someone you disagree with (regardless of whether they are “intolerant” or not) cannot be viewed as a “tolerant” action. Defending someone from an injustice is quite different. Opposing intolerance need not be violent. In fact violence ought to be avoided at all costs. Only when a threat to the stability of society or the immediate threat to the safety of another human should violence be considered.

To make this applicable to the real world we can look at what happened during the recent presidential election. Supporting a presidential candidate is not an act of tolerance or intolerance (regardless of the presidents views). Democrats demonstrating at Trump rallies, Republicans demonstrating at Clinton rallies, and counter protesters at both were all within there Constitutional, and arguably human, rights. That is, up until the point they actively tried to oppress and attack the other side.

Holding conservative views is not “intolerant” of homosexuals, those in poverty, or immigrants. Holding liberal views is not “intolerant” of religious freedom, the right to bear arms, or free market. Violence and mistreatment of others ensuing from those views is.


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