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One of the most common rallying cries of right-wing conservatives is that liberals, who love to preach about “tolerance,” are actually being intolerant when pushing back against arguments of the right. Well, according to philosopher Karl Popper, this is precisely the right thing to do. Outlined in 1945, his “paradox of tolerance” predicted that the “intolerant” would appeal to the ideals of tolerance, using it to gain power and attempt to end tolerance once and for all.
Who Is Karl Popper?
Karl Popper was one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. Much of his work had to do with science. One of his theories was the concept of “falsification” — what he called an answer to the “problem of induction.”
The problem of induction is the question of whether or not inductive reasoning leads to knowledge. For example, if we know the sun rises every morning, can we “know” that the sun will rise on any given morning?
Popper’s idea of “falsification” answers that, yes, we can know that — or at least adopt that as a theory. And should it turn out that on one morning the sun doesn’t rise, then we can throw out that theory and figure out a new one. But until then we’ll just keep working, assuming that the sun will rise again. (Besides, if the sun stopped rising, we’d have bigger issues to worry about.)
But Popper was also very interested in politics. He began his political life as a Marxist, but after his friends were shot by the police during a Communist riot he was disillusioned when he realized the leaders of his sect were fine with people getting killed if it meant power.
Though Popper stayed on the left side of the political spectrum, he was a proponent of liberal democracy, and one of the central tenets of his philosophy was that the death of any individuals for the “greater good” was something that should not be taken lightly.
The Paradox of Tolerance
Though throughout his life Karl Popper argued for the importance of hearing other voices and praised “tolerance” as a virtue, he warned that tolerance has a limit.
If “tolerant” people tolerate the “intolerant,” the intolerant will take advantage and eventually take power and outlaw tolerance. Karl Popper called this the “paradox of tolerance.”
Or, as he put it in his 1945 work, The Open Society and Its Enemies, “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.”
Karl Popper points out that a tolerant society should not suppress all intolerant speech, but instead should counter it with rational argument and work to keep public opinion on the side of the tolerant. But if those methods fail, Popper writes:
“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.”
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The United States has generally been opposed to the hate speech laws you’d find in Canada or abroad. But Karl Popper would be in favor. He has said that allowing freedom of speech to those who would eliminate freedom of speech is paradoxical. He also clearly delineates the difference between “homophily,” the preference for interacting with people who agree with you (you might have heard this concept described as a “bubble”) and true intolerance.
Using Karl Popper’s “Paradox of Tolerance” to Take Down Conservatives
So the next time a right-winger opposing LGBTQ civil rights comes at you saying you’re being “intolerant” of their religious beliefs (or whatever other outdated basis they’re using to deny our community full rights and benefits), let them know that’s not how it works.
Tell them Karl Popper uncovered more than 70 years ago that “tolerance” requires being intolerant of intolerance. (Yeah, it’s a bit of a tongue-twister.) And to ensure that America remains the tolerant society it was always intended to be, it’s required that we not tolerate intolerant ideals.
Anything else would eventually result in the death of tolerance altogether.