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Explaining the Paradox of Tolerance

An essential element of a democratic society is the universal tolerance of all political perspectives. Through tolerance, interactions between the multitude of perspectives within the spectrum take place. Democracy is the product of these interactions being expressed at the ballot. 

It is because of tolerance that political ideas can coexist and that no one perspective is held sacred. Citizens are free to form opinions and vote based on those opinions. However there exists a concept that has become increasingly relevant in the past decade, the idea that universal tolerance is dangerous. 

In his influential work The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper posited a self-contradictory idea known as the ‘paradox of tolerance.’ This concept holds that a tolerant society should not have unlimited tolerance. The reason for this contradiction is that unlimited tolerance implies the toleration of those who are intolerant. 

He argues that without tolerance limits, those who are intolerant will work with impunity to subvert those whom they consider to be the ‘other.’  If these intolerant ideas are allowed to exist and eventually spread, they will bring about the dissolution of the tolerant society from within. 

It is a paradox because a tolerant society must fortify against intolerance by being tolerant. Popper states “We should claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. Furthermore, he says intolerant ideas should be “placed outside of the law,” in other words, certain ideas should be made illegal.

Currently, there exists a debate along this line of thinking. Should democratic societies allow for intolerant and anti-democratic ideas to persist, despite their implied protection under the democratic principle of tolerance?

It has long been understood that there is a political spectrum and that at either side of that spectrum lies extreme political ideologies. Both of these ends of the spectrum include intolerant ideas. The extreme right generally is intolerant of modernist ideas like egalitarianism and multiculturalism. The extreme left is generally intolerant of traditionalism, nationalism and hierarchical structures. 

Antifa serves as an example of the manifestation of Popper's thought. It is a far-left organized political movement that looks to prevent the spread of intolerant racist and neo-fascist ideologies. These ideas are detested by Antifa based on their intolerance and potential for violence. Passively denouncing or exposing these ideas as falsifiable, bigoted and unsophisticated is not enough–as that allows the ideology to persist and continue its intolerant bigotry. Instead, Antifa kinetically persecutes those who hold intolerant beliefs. Put simply, Antifa does not tolerate ideas that are perceived as intolerant and seeks to eradicate them by force. 

Political extremes are defined by their distance from the center. While extreme ideas are not favored by the majority of citizens due to their deviation from the norm, they exist because of the right to hold any opinion and the principle of universal tolerance. To counter intolerant extremism and protect a tolerant society, Popper suggests overriding the democratic principle of universal tolerance.



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