Popper and the Paradox of Tolerance

In the days since the recent tragedy in Charlottesville, there has been a new addition to the online/social-media meta-discourse on the problem of protected political speech in the context of the open and ongoing resurgence of white nationalism and Nazi iconography in American politics. It is a series of memes based on Karl Popper’s idea of the “Paradox of Tolerance,” which he introduced in his 1945 work of political philosophy entitled The Open Society and Its Enemies. Most of the memes are of the usual text-on-photo style, but there is also a popular cartoon version, which I’ll reproduce below:

Most of the memes paraphrase or otherwise do not include the full text of the relevant passage for reasons of space, but since it is relatively short I will also reproduce it here:

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, 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 to not 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. [1]

The appeal of this passage to those seeking philosophical justification for suppressing the political rights of Nazis and white nationalists (who, after all, are practically the definition of intolerance), should be obvious.

But while Popper might at first seem to be providing a clever loophole in the traditional arguments around free speech that would allow only the most dangerous ideas and ideologies to be censored or otherwise suppressed, he has in fact only managed to disguise the problem by shifting the goalposts. Even if we answer the question of “what kind of political speech should be suppressed” with “intolerant speech,” we are still left with the same old problem wherein the arbiters of what kinds of ideologies are considered “intolerant” and worthy of suppression will inevitably be those who operate the levers of state power.

Given the current political situation in the US, where Republicans control all three branches of the federal government and the vast majority of state governments, there is simply no reason to think they will use that power in ways the left find agreeable or just. Quite the opposite: right-wing critics of Islam have already invoked Popper to justify further abrogating the rights of Muslims, and Republican and alt-right media personalities and provocateurs have spent years painting the left as “regressive” and “intolerant” of other viewpoints, sometimes violently so.

The actual merits of any case for one group being more intolerant than another are unfortunately immaterial in the larger context; once the meta-argument is conceded that intolerance justifies suppression, the targets of the oppression will depend more on who is in power than how intolerant their ideology might actually be.

This is the other half of the paradox, and why Popper includes all that softening language that doesn’t make it into the memes: it is preferable to keep toxic ideas in check with argument and public opinion precisely because the last resort of trying suppress them by force can also prove very dangerous to an open society. In an important sense, once you get to the point where neither argument nor public opinion can keep a dangerous and intolerant ideology in check, you have already lost.

[1] Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, ed. Alan Ryan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 513.



Dan has a PhD in historical musicology and has taught music history and theory at a major Canadian university. He mainly studies music from the Italian Renaissance when he's not busy performing stand-up comedy or playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. He occasionally tweets as @incontrariomotu and blogs about geeky stuff at The Otaku Skeptic. He is also the glorious editor-in-chief of School of Doubt.

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  1. August 18, 2017 at 2:27 pm —

    Yep. Already lost. We had the option, when the south lost, to state, clearly, that certain ideas where not tolerable, and didn’t. When Hitler was defeated, most western countries, including his own, decided that “his” brand of ideas where unacceptable, and we… decided not to “cross that line”. What is the result? We are now in a position where its pointless to have a public discussion about what sort of stuff isn’t allowable, because the moment you bring the issue up the freaking president himself, and who knows how many Republicans (if the current mess wasn’t scaring the hell out of them regarding their own prospects of keeping their jobs in the long run), start babbling, and have been babbling, about how they think protests by people opposing intolerance and injustice are “dangerous and threatening, and should be suppressed!” Yep.. we already lost – because we refused, when it was still possible, to make a clear declaration as to what was allowable in the first place, so the intolerable now have the reigns.

    And, before you say this would be un-American (never mind the obvious flaw that pushed far enough this sort of thing would erase America), the problem is that we “know” what isn’t acceptable, in that we have groups of people being watched, we have statutes against hate speech, etc. We have dozens of things in place, which state, “This isn’t acceptable, and it is a danger to the country.”, but.. the only paradox here is that, kind of like with other dangers, we refuse to act “before” someone gets killed. No, we wait, invariably, until something obvious, and inevitable, happens, then we pass legislation, because thread of intolerant have already gotten into the very groups deciding the law, which end up targeting “everyone” in some heavy handed, sloppy, lazy, and often beneficial to some other, different, hate group, or totalitarian want to bes, to “fix the problem”. The result – the problem isn’t fixed, but everyone’s rights get infringed, not just a select number of racists, or people plotting against the government (how ever ineffectually), or what ever.

    Other countries manage to recognize that speech isn’t just speech, and *do* place sensible limits on some of it, we.. tolerate it all the way into the white house, then we run around with our hands waving in the air going, “How did this happen!!!!” But, is it fixable at this point, or.. as stated here, in this article, would any act we do take be tainted, at this point, by those, still in power, and still making the laws, to create something that would stifle all speech, instead of just intolerance? Have we already doomed ourselves, by not taking such steps when it was relatively safe to do so? Or, was the poison already there, among our political system, and its members, and incurable? What, if the latter is the case, does it say about this countries real ability to combat any of it, never mind end such intolerance permanently?

    • August 21, 2017 at 2:58 am —

      “No, we wait, invariably, until something obvious, and inevitable, happens, then we pass legislation, because thread of intolerant have already gotten into the very groups deciding the law, which end up targeting “everyone” in some heavy handed, sloppy, lazy, and often beneficial to some other, different, hate group, or totalitarian want to bes, to “fix the problem”. ”

      Yeah, ain’t that the truth?

      Fuck that false equivalence.

  2. August 21, 2017 at 2:52 am —

    As a regular visitor to the US, I have to sign a document to say (in summary) that I will not go there for the purpose of being an active Nazi.

    So that precedent is already there in your law, and rightly so.

    I was pleasantly surprised, in view of the McCarthy era hysteria, that I am quite free to go there to be a Communist or any other thing.

    • August 24, 2017 at 10:09 pm —

      You’re only free to go there to “be a communist” if that doesn’t involve overthrowing the government of the USA. Restrictions on visitors are savage and widely accepted, and it’s troubling that when those are extended to “anyone near a border” people seem to shrug and ignore the problem. Part of it is racism and classism (“won’t happen to me”), but more of it is people buying the narrative that “we must sacrifice liberty to have liberty” especially around borders and immigration.

  3. August 24, 2017 at 10:06 pm —

    In the US context there seems to be a conflict between the first amendment “right to speech” which includes a great deal of action, the second amendment which allows the carrying of firearms on the one hand, and basic sanity on the other. We are seeing more and more “threatening people with weapons is protected speech” and that’s really problematic.

    I think we need to see some court decisions winding back the definition of “speech” to limit it to actual speech, rather than the much broader “communication”. We already see an awful lot of those limits, especially directional limits – the president is permitted to threaten individual Muslims, but they aren’t permitted to threaten the president.

    It would be possible to thread that needle and end up with something like the usual protest rules: you can talk, you can brandish printed material, but anything that is being used as a weapon will be confiscated. You object to that, but if you do you will be arrested and the argument will be carried out in court (where, incidentally, your right to carry a firearm is removed). Apply those to every protester, and every public gathering, and I think a lot of the problems would be diminished.

    But we also see that many things that would be easy for people of goodwill… are not possible in the US. That one, I can’t solve :)

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