Season 2,
45 Min

Episode 66: The Paradox of Tolerance

August 28, 2017

Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance.” Karl Popper’s famous Paradox of Tolerance seems something important to explore in light of recent events and what seems ever-increasing strands of extreme intolerance from terrorists to NeoNazis.  But what is Tolerance? Is it still something to strive for? And where are the limits of tolerance?

This week Clay and Sarah discuss the Paradox of Tolerance.


In this episode:

* a discussion of the whole of Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance (including ways it is often misquoted)

* what is Tolerance? (Malcolm Gladwell claims we often misinterpret the meaning of Tolerance)

* is truth more important than tolerance?

* The limits of tolerance

* Tolerance with different relgious and political opinions and how this differs in extreme cases such as the recent NeoNazi rally in Charlottesville

* The Dalai Lama on Tolerance – a Buddhist perspective


It was a really enlightening process to think about tolerance in more depth. For instance, we often think tolerance as something entirely good. “Live and let live.” But in an interview, Malcolm Gladwell points out that what we often consider tolerance is when “people who are unlike us want to be like us and we decide to accept [them].” His example is gay marriage, but we can think of times past in terms of the end of apartheid, in the US the end of ‘separate but equal’ laws etc.

This is not tolerance, Gladwell rightly points out. “You don’t get points for accepting someone who wants to be just like you.  You get points for accepting someone who doesn’t want to be like you — that’s where the difficulty lies.

But what about those rarer instances when someone or some group espouses views that threaten to harm others? Or end aspects or what we consider free society? Should we abandon tolerance in the face of the intolerant?

Karl Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance is often misquoted, or rather only partially quoted, and used to argue there should be no tolerance for the intolerant.  However, his full explanation goes on —

“If we extent 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 be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force…”

Similarly, Thomas Jefferson is quoted as responding to groups who threatened to destabilise the country with, “Let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated and where reason is left free to combat it.”

Yet what are the limits of Tolerance?  When, as Popper advises, do we shift from tolerating intolerant ideas/groups in the name of free speech to drawing the line and saying No More? Even using force to end their intolerance?

And what does that look like? What does being “intolerance of intolerance” mean in action?

According to an article by Jason Kuznicki, intolerance is not to be deployed when the utterance of intolerant ideas might make you uncomfortable.”  And interestingly, it has been argued that it is often more effective to allow intolerant people/groups to express their views publicly so that their views may face the judgement of public opinion and be defeated by argument, reason, rationality and public opinion itself.  If not allowed to be expressed, this line of argument goes, these views might continue to grow underground.

Certainly we should be more nuanced about our understanding of how to combat intolerance before resorting to violent suppression (either in our words or actions).  We should ask ourselves whether this view is really harming self or others. Is it simply a difference of opinion? Is it a view that threatens harm to others or is it simply a disagreement of perspective?

As the Dalai Lama expresses in his talk on ‘Resisting Intolerance’ , only by interacting with those who differ from us can we learn about different perspectives.

Ironically, Civil Rights Activist Ruby Sales has a similar perspective when she argues that part of our problem is teaching tolerance because tolerance doesn’t encourage you to understand the other person. 

And yet, resisting intolerant views can feel complicated. Is non-violence where we should look as an effective means of resistance? Remember this is how the British Empire was defeated in India, how apartheid was fought in South African, and how Martin Luther King defeated some of the intensest racial prejudices in the U.S.  However, for all of us, the memory of WWII and Nazi Germany looms large and stopping extreme intolerant groups such as the NeoNazis may require the use of physical force by the state.

Yet the reality, thankfully, is that these instances are rarer than the everyday instances of intolerance we meet. And it is up to us to use our wisdom to decide what resisting intolerance looks like in action in each situation.

What do you think? Is tolerance the ultimate goal? Or are there limits to tolerance — and if so what does this mean in action? We’d love you to join the conversation. 


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