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Why We Must Tolerate Intolerance

The Paradox of Tolerance

Back in the 1940s, a philosopher named Karl Popper came up with something called “The Paradox of Tolerance.”

He said that if everyone tolerates every idea, then intolerant ideas will emerge. Tolerate people, being the soft pushovers they are, will tolerate this intolerance.

However, the intolerant will not tolerate tolerant people. So, eventually, the tolerant will get rammed up the backside.

Popper concluded that the tolerant must be intolerant of intolerance to maintain a society of tolerance. Hence the paradox.

There’s just one issue. What defines intolerance? Where do you draw the line exactly?

It’s easy to say Fascism, of course. But what about a joke about Fascism? In case you weren’t aware, most jokes are a way of satirising attitudes. 

You say the wrong thing because you know (one would hope) what the right thing is. That’s what makes it funny!

Should we not tolerate such jokes? If I quote a scientific study that shows men and women are fundamentally different, is that a form of intolerance?

Does any topic that makes us feel uncomfortable constitute a form of intolerance?

Our Intolerance Immunity

This is where Popper’s idea starts to fall apart.

The moment we start to define anything controversial as a form of intolerance (that we mustn’t accept), we shut down a meaningful conversation.

What happens when we avoid these uncomfortable conversations?

  • First, we deny people the opportunity to learn and change their points of view.
  • Second, we become less capable of dealing with the emotions required to challenge our own beliefs.

Eventually, it gets to a point where people believe no one should ever have to feel uncomfortable (or challenge their beliefs).

So you have things like trigger warnings and give students a free pass not to attend lectures in case it might upset them.

Just like banning peanuts from schools makes peanut allergies more likely, not less, shutting down uncomfortable conversations makes us less able to stomach them.

Our intolerance immunity takes a hit! As a result, we become more likely, not less, to treat others like shit.

We judge that someone has said something unacceptable and that because we must be intolerant of their perceived intolerance, we’re entitled to paint them as the antichrist.

This is the real paradox of tolerance: Being intolerant of intolerance breeds greater intolerance. 

An Extraordinary Story

Let me tell you an extraordinary story.

It’s about a black musician named Daryl Davis. During his career, Daryl did gigs all over the US south. As a result, he ran into a few white supremacists.

Something that perplexed Daryl from a young age was the idea that someone could hate another based on the pigmentation of their skin. 

He couldn’t wrap his head around it.

So, what did Daryl do? He set up a meeting with and befriended the head of the Ku Klux Klan. 

The leader of the Ku Klux Klan allowed Daryl to attend several rallies, where Daryl, in turn, befriended many more members of the Ku Klux Klan. He did this for 30 years.

Here’s what’s truly astonishing about this story. Daryl convinced over 200 Ku Klux Klan members (including the head) to give up their robes.

But he didn’t march in on his high horse of righteousness and demand they stop these rallies. He didn’t place himself on a pedestal and say racism is wrong.

No. Daryl wasn’t intolerant of their intolerance. On the contrary, he went in with a mind so open you fear his brain must have fallen out! But it hadn’t. He genuinely wanted to understand the so-called “other side.”

He went in with that one simple intention.

In the process of trying to understand them, it was the members of the KKK who came to understand him. For many, it was the first time they had befriended a black person. 

And this called into question everything they believed.

The Answer to Intolerance

This is the real answer to intolerance: understanding. Intolerance cannot be defeated with intolerance. Fire with fire. Hate with hate.

As Gandhi eloquently said, “An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.”

If Daryl had gone on the offensive. If he had set up a meeting with the head of the Klu Klux Klan to do harm, he would have merely reinforced their hateful beliefs.

He would have made the issue of intolerance worse.

Fundamental to changing one’s point of view is understanding. But we cannot simply be told what is right or wrong. We have to experience it for ourselves.

Without a society that tolerates intolerance enough to have the conversation, we deny people that opportunity.

Martin Luther King said, “We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.” What is love, I ask, if not understanding?

What is intolerance, if not a lack of understanding?

24 thoughts on “Why We Must Tolerate Intolerance

  1. That’s an amazing story. I agree with you about the pitfalls of declaring something too controversial for engagement. It’s an understandable and perhaps necessary position at times, but at the same time, it does go against the virtue of tolerance, and it could be a missed opportunity.

  2. Fascinating and thought provoking blog post fellow Blogger. Well, this post is packed with details about intolerance, tolerance and what society thinks about tolerant and intolerant people. Reading this post reminded me of my high school days learning history, I think I remember a group called “THE KKK” KLASS KHAN thing.

    Also, racism is one subject that does seem intolerable and in my view, hating a person due to the color or pigmentation of the skin is inhuman and abnormal. At the end of the day we are all God’s people and we need to be heard.

    Wow, it is a long time since I have heard of the word “Tolerance”👏

  3. The thread of your initial part of the blog seems confusing .
    But the end with a story is excellent .
    Love and understanding goes a long way in dealing with intolerance.
    Thank you for this wonderful blog .

  4. I had the same conversation with my son-in-law. He is very narrow minded and ripped me a new one becuase I had friends and acquantiances that did not fit his ideas. As I explained to him, having a wide avriety of friends etc, with varying opinions, socio-economic, religious backgounds and nationalities I am far more tolerant then he will ever be. Thus my life is far more enriching and satisfactory. Unfortunately, the enjoyment of a lively debate is long lost to intolerance.

  5. While I like your post very much, I agree with Karl Popper, not because he is Popper but because I behave as he stated as I consider myself a tolerant person who is intolerant of intolerance.

  6. I love the quotes especially this one: “An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.” I believe that we need to be open to all ideas and not destroy our First Amendment. The KKK is allowed to march, because of the First Amendment, not that we approve of what they are doing. I also enjoyed Daryl’s story.

    1. Agreed. It was through open meaningful dialogue that Daryl discovered many of the members had been brainwashed since childhood. He was always respectful of them and their beliefs. He merely rebutted their arguments using himself as a case in point. Over time they came round. Thank you adding your thoughts 🙏

  7. A difficult issue to write about, AP, but you have succeeded in making it understandable. I will be thinking about this topic for some time. I normally follow a live-and-let-live path in life when it comes to other people, but I try to address the issues without attacking people directly. We are both entitled to free speech.

    I do draw the line at people like Donald Trump, Putin, Kim Jun Un, Hitler…These sorts of people do not seem to have any inclination to stop attacking and killing others or destroying the environment for personal gain. I suppose, technically, they are not beyond redemption. What do you say?

    1. It’s a tough one. Not even Hitler believed he was a bad person. Perhaps they are beyond redemption, I don’t know. I think it’s important to recognise that the capacity to become like such people exists in all of us. You’re right to say the line has to be drawn somewhere. I think that line is when someone infringes on another persons freedoms. It’s the freedoms we must protect and stand for. That has to include the right to say whatever you want/believe however hateful it might be. If we start to limit those who hold deeply intolerant views we undermine freedom of speech. We say you can have opinion but only if it’s the right one (whatever that is). Whereas those who are truly intolerant undermine their own argument by preaching against tolerance in a free and democratic society. Thank for adding your thoughts Cheryl 🙏

    1. Education is key. That’s the root cause of our issues. If we prevent these difficult conversations from happening in our schools/university we are setting ourselves up for disaster as a society later on. Thank you Tamara 🙏

  8. Thanks, AP2. I studied some Popper’s work in “philosophy of science” (really epistemology pertaining to and informed by science), but not his political thinking. I do suspect he equivocates on the terms ‘intolerant’ etc. , although I don’t think that invalidates the point you’re making.

    1. Thanks Seekerfive. I believe you’re right. He talks about not suppressing intolerant ideas but retaining the right to suppress them if need be, which I disagree with. As far as freedom of speech goes you have to let the haters hate. We need to empower those who feel afraid to speak up for the right reasons to do so rather than shut down those who seek silence others. It’s important that dialogue takes place. Thanks for adding your point 🙏

      1. It’s interesting that Popper should advocate (under certain conditions of course) suppressing ideas. What I did learn of Popper’s political thought has him advocating an open society where ideas are neither suppressed nor compelled. I wonder if it is informed by the Nazi German takeover of his homeland?

  9. Interesting post, I feel that intolerance can only be defeated through understanding, not through further intolerance.

  10. One on one can often work, but can be hard to get to happen. I have a shirt that says, “Tolerance is a virtue, not a sin”. However, when I am presented with bad behavior that threatens kids or women my tolerance has to be set to the side. Old man view.

  11. A truly brilliant and excellent post AP2!!
    I’ve heard Daryl Davis play live in my hometown- the local paper told his KKK story as a lead up to his show- amazing!

  12. I posted a while back about how today’s society seems to have “zero tolerance for intolerance”. And what I mean by that is when someone is branded as a racist, a sexist, a homophobic, or a bigot, they are effectively treated as such forever. We never stop and think that something can be a teachable moment; that a person could see the error in their ways and grow and learn from it.

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