Paradox of tolerance

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The paradox of tolerance was described by Karl Popper in 1945. The paradox states that if a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant will eventually be seized or destroyed by the intolerant. Popper came to the seemingly paradoxical conclusion that in order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance.


Philosopher Karl Popper defined the paradox in 1945 in The Open Society and Its Enemies Vol. 1 (in note 4 to Chapter 7).[1]

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.

In 1971, philosopher John Rawls concludes in A Theory of Justice that a just society must tolerate the intolerant, for otherwise, the society would then itself be intolerant, and thus unjust. However, Rawls also insists, like Popper, that society has a reasonable right of self-preservation that supersedes the principle of tolerance: "While an intolerant sect does not itself have title to complain of intolerance, its freedom should be restricted only when the tolerant sincerely and with reason believe that their own security and that of the institutions of liberty are in danger."[2][3]

In a 1997 work, Michael Walzer asked "Should we tolerate the intolerant?" He notes that most minority religious groups who are the beneficiaries of tolerance are themselves intolerant, at least in some respects. In a tolerant regime, such people may learn to tolerate, or at least to behave "as if they possessed this virtue".[4]

Thomas Jefferson had already addressed the notion of a tolerant society in his first inaugural speech, concerning those who might destabilise the United States and its unity, saying, "...let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it."[5]

Tolerance and freedom of speech

The paradox of tolerance is important in the discussion of what, if any, boundaries are to be set on freedom of speech. Popper asserted that to allow freedom of speech to those who would use it to eliminate the very principle upon which they rely is paradoxical.[6] Rosenfeld states "it seems contradictory to extend freedom of speech to extremists who... if successful, ruthlessly suppress the speech of those with whom they disagree," and points out that the Western European democracies and the United States have opposite approaches to the question of tolerance of hate speech.[7]

Others argue that intolerant speech, which is merely a signalling of exclusionary attitude, ought to be subject to a different standard of justification than violent or repressive (direct) action based on exclusionary attitude. “Violent action on the basis of ‘my’ dogma justifies violence everywhere, on the basis of everyone’s dogma.”[8]

Criticism of violent intolerance against instances of intolerant speech is also characteristic of Discourse Ethics developed by Jürgen Habermas[9] and Karl-Otto Apel.[10] "The means of reaching agreement are repeatedly thrust aside by the instruments of force." (Ibid. Habermas)

Homophily and intolerance

The relation between homophily (a preference for interacting with those with similar traits) and intolerance is manifested when a tolerant person is faced with the dilemma of choosing between establishing a positive relationship with a tolerant individual of a dissimilar group, or establishing a positive relationship with an intolerant in-group member. In the first case, the intolerant in-group member disapproves the established link with an other-group individual, leading necessarily to a negative relationship with his tolerant equal; while in the second case, the negative relationship toward the other-group individual is endorsed by the intolerant in-group member and promotes a positive relationship between them.

This dilemma has been considered by Aguiar and Parravano in Tolerating the Intolerant: Homophily, Intolerance, and Segregation in Social Balanced Networks,[11] modeling a community of individuals whose relationships are governed by a modified form of the Heider balance theory.[12][13]

See also


  1. ^ Popper, Karl, The Open Society and Its Enemies, volume 1, The Spell of Plato, 1945 (Routledge, United Kingdom); ISBN 0-415-29063-5 978-0-691-15813-6 (1 volume 2013 Princeton ed.)
  2. ^ Rawls, John (1971). "A Theory of Justice": 220. ISBN 0-674-00078-1.
  3. ^ Ding, John Zijiang (December 2014). "Introduction: Pluralistic and Multicultural Reexaminations of Tolerance/Toleration" (PDF). Journal of East-West Thought (4 ed.). 4.
  4. ^ Walzer, Michael (1997). On Toleration. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 80–81. ISBN 0-300-07600-2.
  5. ^ "Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, Chapter 4, Document 33". The Founders' Constitution. The University of Chicago Press. 1. 1801-03-04.
  6. ^ Cohen-Almagor, Raphael (1994). "Popper's Paradox of Tolerance and Its Modification". The Boundaries of Liberty and Tolerance: The Struggle Against Kahanism in Israel. University Press of Florida. p. 25. ISBN 9780813012582.
  7. ^ Rosenfeld, Michel (April 1987). "Review: Extremist Speech and the Paradox of Tolerance". Harvard Law Review (6 ed.). 100: 1457–1481. doi:10.2307/1341168. JSTOR 1341168.
  8. ^
  9. ^ Habermas, Jürgen (1990). Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. Polity Press. p. 106.
  10. ^ Apel, Karl-Otto (1996). Selected Essays: Ethics and the Theory of Rationality. Humanities Press International. pp. 210–211.
  11. ^ Aguiar, Fernando; Parravano, Antonio (2013). "Tolerating the Intolerant: Homophily, Intolerance, and Segregation in Social Balanced Networks". Journal of Conflict Resolution. doi:10.1177/0022002713498708.
  12. ^ Heider, Fritz (1946). "Attitudes and Cognitive Organization". Journal of Psychology. 21: 107–12.
  13. ^ Heider, Fritz (1958). The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. New York: Psychology Press. ISBN 9780898592825.

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