The Paradox of Tolerance

Further to the Newman/Sahgal nonsense at the weekend, someone in the Harry’s Place comments (no, seriously) points me to a passage from Karl Popper that seems apt in this situation.

The so-called paradox of freedom is the argument that freedom in the sense of absence of any constraining control must lead to very great restraint, since it makes the bully free to enslave the meek. The idea is, in a slightly different form, and with very different tendency, clearly expressed in Plato.

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 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.

Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol. 1, Notes to the Chapters: Ch. 7, Note 4


One Response to “The Paradox of Tolerance”

  1. monkeyfish Says:

    Popper’s great on all sorts of stuff like this. Unfortunately he seems to have dropped from the radar largely I think because the right don’t actually find that much to their liking in much of his work…although Open Society is or, at least was seen as the definitive demolition of Marx and Marxism, it is anything but..and is actually fairly liberal in many of its prescriptions. It is really only an argument against historicism and of course totalitarianism. Popper retained a huge respect for Marx (in marked contrast to two of his other notable targets: Wittgenstein and Freud) and his characterisation of capitalism…it was the dialectical materialism which he took issue with and to be honest..that had been a mute point since the turn of the century or even when ‘false consciousness’ had to be ‘invented’ to explain the proletariat’s failure to revolt.

    I think the reason that he’s so little referred to by the left is his reputation as Thatcher’s favourite philosopher and his friendship with Hayek…the left just don’t bother with him anymore. This is a shame because he is,as often as not, a bastion of liberalism and tolerance, writes lucidly and provides a firm underpinning for much that the left holds dear; all the more ironic when you look at some of the more eccentric ‘philosophers’ the left has turned too over the last few decades. In comparison with the likes of Althusser, Foucault, Virilio or the wilder side of Chomsky he stands out like a beacon of sanity and objectivity in a sea of turgid relativist drivel

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