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The Tolerance Paradox – When Being Tolerant Will Make You Intolerant

Do you just tolerate those who you agree with, or do you tolerate everything and everybody (to include racists and the closed-minded)? Or do you just not tolerate the intolerant? Or something else? In this article, I’ll explain the Tolerance Paradox and what choices you have when dealing with the intolerant.

Intolerance Will Not Be Tolerated.

tolerance paradox
An Intolerable Family Gathering

I have seen signs and posters with the slogan “Intolerance Will Not Be Tolerated”. Seemingly, people who use this catchy slogan value tolerance. Indeed, the intent of this poster is to send a message to people who are intolerant. In particular, this includes such people who are racists or some other group who are closed minded. Hence, there lies the paradox. By a tolerant person using this catchy, but generalized slogan they (the “tolerant“) become intolerant. Now if the sign said “Racism Will Not Be Tolerated“, this would not necessarily be a paradox. Slogans like “Intolerance Will Not Be Tolerated” highlight the challenges of a supposedly tolerant person falling into the Tolerance Paradox trap.

Tolerance Paradox Described.

The philosopher Kari Popper describes the paradox of tolerance as the counterintuitive idea that “in order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance.” The paradox of tolerance raises the question, “at what point should we stop tolerating intolerant ideas?” When does a tolerant society have the right to infringe on the individual rights of the “intolerant“?

See Academy4SC’s Paradox of Tolerance: To Tolerate or Not to Tolerate? for more of the description of the Tolerance Paradox.

Tolerance Paradox Choices

John Rawls expands on Popper’s Tolerance Paradox where he postulates where exactly a tolerant society should draw the line on intolerance. John Rawls argues that complete tolerance by a society should be superseded in the case of self-preservation of the society itself. In other words, “if a society believes that intolerance in its midst would infringe upon the liberties of its people, it can refuse to tolerate the intolerant. Society can only limit the freedoms of the intolerant when the intolerant’s ideologies and actions limit the freedoms of others.” So based on this insight the Tolerance Paradox choices are:

  • Tolerate Only Who You Agree With. If this is your choice, you are now intolerant. Indeed, this choice makes you closed minded and intolerant yourself – “Intolerance Will Not Be Tolerated”.
  • Tolerate Everything and Everybody. This choice is where a society, usually democratic, tolerates any one and everything. With this choice over time, a society starts to lose its cohesiveness and eventually ushers in a repressive regime of the intolerant.
  • Recommended –Tolerate What Does Not Infringe On the Liberties of Others. This choice balances both the values of tolerance and civil liberty. The society tolerates and suffers intolerant people and their ideas within limits. Specifically, society will not tolerate people who truly threaten civil liberties and the very fabric of a tolerant society.

See Stanford’s Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Toleration , Injustice Magazine’s The Paradox of Tolerance, and R Street’s One Year After Charlottesville’s “Unite The Right” Riots: Following Karl Popper, We Should Tolerate Intolerance, Within Reason for more on the Tolerance Paradox and the different types of toleration.

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