Is Tolerance a Paradox?

Last week week, I published a post that, among other things, advocated for a broad spectrum of tolerance based on the Wiccan Rede: Let people do their own thing, without criticism or condemnation, so long as what they’re doing doesn’t bring harm or distress to others. As you might guess if you have read other posts here or followed the blog’s Facebook page, I lean liberal. I try to minimize bringing politics into this operation, but I’m not afraid to make a statement either. Writing that post, plus following the comments on some recent news stories about protests against Donald Trump rallies that turned violent, lead to these classic, recurring gems:

“Look at these ‘tolerant’ liberals!'”

“Where is our tolerance, huh?”

“Liberals believe in free choice…just not yours.”

“Oh look. The ‘peaceful’ and ‘tolerant’ left shows their real colors.”

Then in response to the Orlando shooting tragedy, we were gifted with these gems of intelligence:

“Gays don’t deserve to live.”

“I’m so happy someone decided to start shooting perverts instead of innocent people.”

“Sinners being taken out by sin.”

“50 less pedophiles in the world.”

tolerance blood pressure
OK, stopping reading the comments now.

But, is opposing intolerant behavior truly a violation of a vow of tolerance? (Violence aside, because that isn’t cool from either camp.)

The Paradox of Tolerance

A cheap shot often taken at those who advocate tolerance is that they betray their stated principles by not ‘tolerating intolerance,’ that opposing supposedly intolerant views is itself intolerance. Philosopher Karl Popper considered the nature of this apparent contradiction and opined in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies:

“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.”

He then concluded that proponents of tolerance have the right to not tolerate intolerance in the name of tolerance. Conversely, philosopher John Rawls stated an opposing view in his book A Theory of Justice:

“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.”

In layman’s terms, Popper believed that not opposing intolerance was a threat to a tolerant society, while Rawls countered that people should be free to hold intolerant views unless those views drive them to become a physical threat to free society. Typically (and we’re talking broad strokes here), social liberals subscribe to Popper’s interpretation, while social conservatives who come under attack for views they hold that others may consider intolerant (such as opposition to LGBT rights based on religious conviction) will use Rawl’s view as a defense.

But enough about intricacies of positions of dead political philosophers, it’s time to examine how this supposed paradox fits into modern discourse, or more aptly, the day to day arguments about whatever the hot button issue is both online and in real life.

tolerance thanksgiving
And the inevitable arguments during holiday dinners.

“I’m not racist/homophobic but…”

And now we veer into personal opinion territory, this post is under the ‘Musings’ section for a reason. During college at Montana State University, I participated in activism often for, you guessed it, liberal causes. A particularly fun citywide flamewar was the adoption of a non-discrimination ordinance. In both internet arguments and public hearings (also known as ‘real life’) that same “intolerant liberals” crack came up about as often as ‘Your Mom’ comments come up in X-Box Live. Particularly enjoyable were people who would take the stand at public hearings that would precede their piece with “Now I have gay friends/family, but…” and then follow with some kind of hateful or uninformed opinions.

When it was my turn to take the stand, I responded with this snipe: “If you claim to love your LGBT friends or family, but advocate for permission to discriminate against them, then you’re a terrible friend or family member.”

The next man to take the stand straight up said he wasn’t bothering with the pretense of loving LGBT friends or family and that he plain doesn’t like gay people. The honesty was refreshing.

tolerance lord of the rings hobbit gandalf
“A fool, but an honest fool.”

And therein lies my my view on the tolerance paradox. When people claim they should be free to hold supposedly intolerance views, my challenge to their retort is this: If someone is stating hateful things about one of your friends, are you being a good friend if you don’t take a stand against it?

A Friend Indeed

To take up the banner of tolerance is to take a stance of brotherhood and sisterhood with your fellow man, and more often than not, it becomes about solidarity with the outcasts of society since they become targets of discrimination and subjugation. To be tolerant is to practice the Golden Rule: I don’t want people coming down on me for who I am, so I do not wish to do that to others. To return to the friend example, to take on a view of tolerance is to extend a hand in friendship to all who would take it.

I would be a terrible friend if someone blatantly and publicly insulted someone I care about and did nothing. Therefor, I consider it my obligation to take action in word and deed against people who practice hatred. Simply proclaiming intolerant opinions is one thing. That can be responded to with discussion, which could possibly lead to a changed or at least challenged opinion, or flamewars, which accomplish precisely nothing. Taking action becomes more important when it comes to legal matters (laws) or public figures.

With social issues, there seems to be very little room for compromise. Either gay marriage is legal, or it isn’t. Abortion is legal, or it isn’t (or heavily restricted to the point of being de facto outlawed). Discrimination for race/religion/sexual orientation/disability/gender identity/favorite Pokémon is legal, or it isn’t. In that situation, yes, we have to fight and we have to win against the opposition. It is a disservice to those affected by discriminatory law if we don’t. When it comes to stirring controversies against major public figures, whether it be Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric or Phil Robertson’s comments about homosexuality, protesting is important because it prevents an echo chamber. Yes I’ll be the first to admit a crowd of protesters outside a rally would usually only fortify the opinions of those inside, but more importantly, it sends a message to the rest of the world that “-ist” and “-phobic” opinions are not an acceptable thing.

tolerance 30 rock tina fey

Prepare Flame Shields

It is the obligation of tolerant people to, yes, oppose intolerance. It’s a cliche to cite it, but it has endured for a reason; Edward Burke’s immortal declaration that, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” If we want to live in an open society where people are free to live and do as they please (so long as they are not harming others), we have to oppose intolerant actions and behavior. Without resistance, intolerance will run free, and things can all too quickly go from rhetoric to harassment, assault, or worse.

All of that is, of course, just my perspective. I’m naturally drawn towards causes and have a major Kamina Complex, so I desire to act like a champion of justice, for better or worse. But seriously though, inflicting violence on someone you disagree with isn’t cool, under any circumstance, whether it’s the tolerant or the intolerant side. Bad move guys, bad move.

Oh, and if you were wondering, I said some variation of the word ‘tolerance’ (tolerance, tolerant, tolerate, intolerant, intolerance) forty-six times, excluding the title and this closing sentence.

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