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?