Misconceptions of the Paradox of Tolerance

paradox of tolerance

In 1945, the philosopher Karl Popper wrote in his book, The Open Society and Its Enemies that “in order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be tolerant of intolerance.”

This is now referred to as “the paradox of tolerance.”

Popper argues that unlimited tolerance is self-defeating. If a tolerant society is tolerant of the intolerant, the intolerant will defeat the tolerant. Therefore, tolerance is all well and good, but to defend itself, it must maintain a certain degree of intolerance towards the intolerant.

It it this defense of intolerance that radicals use to justify violence against their political opponents.

If one dares to question the legitimacy of “direct action” from communist groups against their political opponents, these groups will quickly cite this paradox of tolerance. When fascists are shooting up mosques and synagogues, it’s difficult to defend them against mere milkshakes.

Which is why the paradox of tolerance is constantly brought up to defend violence: It’s hard to argue against. Only the most strict pacifist will argue against violence in (the name of) self-defense. Karl Popper was right to point out that a tolerant society that is tolerant toward its enemies will be destroyed.

Does this mean recent violence from the extreme left (or any extreme) is justified? Absolutely not! If anything, it actually is quite the opposite.

What Karl Popper Actually Said

It’s very unlikely that the violent communists using the paradox of tolerance as a defense have actually read what Karl Popper said in full. They will cite a general summary and ignore the full context of what was actually written.

In note 4 of volume 1, chapter 7, of Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, he clarifies his position on how best to deal with intolerant philosophies:

“… 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.”

It is clear from Popper’s writing that it would be unwise to resort to violence against an intolerant group that is willing to discuss and debate their ideas. So long as the intolerant group is tolerant enough to agree to debate and discuss their intolerant ideas rather than resort to violence, it is better to handle them with words.

The problem is, some groups, like Antifa, respond to arguments with violence. And it is these sorts of groups that Popper claims must not be tolerated. If a group is so intolerant that they are unwilling to discuss ideas and instead rely entirely on violence, then they must be met with violence. In other words, Popper is simply saying that a nonviolent society must, at the very least, believe in a right to use violence as a form of self-defense.

The response to this would likely be that fascists are already engaging in violence, and communists responding with direct action is just self-defense. The problem with this defense is that it is an overly-simplistic collectivist generalization of their opponents.

Attacking “Fascists”

Popper would agree that it is perfectly justified for communists to respond to murderous fascists with violence. But that’s not exactly what they’re doing. When a fascist commits an atrocious mass shooting, the far-left responds by throwing bricks (or milkshakes) at the nearest classical liberal or moderate conservative.

Rather than taking a moment to understand different political ideologies and treat each person as an individual, the radical left (much like the extreme right) maintains a collectivist “us vs. them” mentality of the world. If one opponent commits an act of violence, all opponents of communism are guilty.

This is the major flaw of collectivist ideologies. Instead of declaring the individual to be the moral unit, as individualism does, collectivism assigns a shared guilt to all members of the group. And when a fascist, who is part of the “anti-communist” group, commits an act of violence, suddenly all members of the “anti-communist” group are guilty and deserve violence.

And this is why Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance really works against the violent communists. There are many different individuals who take part in many different ideologies, and this nuance is not accounted for. By grouping all of their political opponents together into one collectivized guilty group, they quickly begin justifying violence against innocent people.

If they didn’t slander everyone they disagreed with as being far-right, their actions might be justified. But instead, they have become the intolerant ones, and the paradox of tolerance, if anything, actually condemns their own actions.

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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]


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