Karl Popper, The Paradox of Tolerance

"The paradoxical problem can be stated as the following: a tolerant person may be hostile toward intolerance; thus, a tolerant person would apparently be intolerant of something–namely, intolerance. Is it possible to have too much tolerance? Does tolerance involve being tolerant of the intolerant? Are there any limitations to tolerance and, if so, how do we define them? This is the problem in the so-called ‘paradox of tolerance’. In order to attempt to understand the issue, I will recount some of the history and meaning behind the idea of tolerance (aka, toleration), and then present my own current preferred method of defining and applying the idea of tolerance for practical use in our modern political and social context."

~  Karl Popper 

Life very often presents one with attitudes and behaviors that simply do not stand the smell test. The controlling person who knows all the answers and is not open to negotiation or compromise; the acquiescent person who seems  to have no thought of his or her own, who takes on beliefs of the nearest person; the person who thinks only of him/herself without regard for the price others pay for selfish, narcissistic values; the person who only thinks of others, sacrificing oneself for everyone else without thought to personal safety and health, the sacrificial lamb of society. 

Is the highest value tolerance? Is there a time when intolerance is not only appropriate but wise? 

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The paradoxical nature of tolerance of cultural difference struck me, in a case where a Muslim immigrant young man who became extremist and violent. After the study of his trajectory, the explanation came down to him feeling rejected by his British age mates because they accepted his bigotry against women as a cultural difference. They would never have put up with that amongst themselves, they'd have challenged it. By failing to hold him to the same moral standards they held for themselves, they projected a lack of respect. In essence they treated him as an inferior by tolerating what they considered intolerable.

It's a catch-22. If you "respect" the abhorrent cultural practice, as the practitioner demands, you subtly disrespect him as not your equal. Sort of the way you'd make allowances for a child or an impaired adult, bowing to cultural differences you actually abhor signals that the person is "special".

Ruth, that is an interesting perspective! And is true, upon reflection. If one tolerates the intolerable, it can create a barrier of disrespect and thus a hierarchy, "I won't hold you accountable because of your religion". Intolerance of intolerable speech or behavior sets a tone, a value line. 

In the case of theist and atheist, theists normally set a tone, a value line. If atheists remain silent, they imply agreement. If making a statement of being an atheist, or expressing atheistic values, there are choices:

Do nothing, remain silent, bite your lip, run away, keep your secret;

Honestly state your values without aggression, with self-respect, dignity and confidence;

Blame, accuse, attack, and call theists names; 

Submit to theists as having more rights to their opinion and acknowledge and submit to their values. 

That is why it is so important to set a tone. Each person has a right to his/her personal religious or non-religious thinking and one cannot impose upon the other. There is to be a separation of church and state. The church can maintain its tax-free status as long as it does not make political pronouncements from the pulpit or lectern. They have the right to gather outside of and away from the church on political matters. Even street evangelists have rights to attract a crowd and preach salvation. Religion has no say in national issues involving women's right to choose or gays' right to marry. The government's job is to maintain safety and insure individual rights and restrict the influence of money on the electoral process.

The greatest flourishing of Medieval times was when Islam held a leadership role in exploration of science, mathematics, art, and music. They included Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Asian religions.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson - The Islamic Golden Age: Naming Rights

Their criteria for inclusion in that society was pursuit of knowledge. A change occurred, the collaboration ended and our cultures have been at war ever since. When revelation replaced investigation, the planet became victim to "dominionists".

Tyson describes in this video, the incredible achievements during Islam's Golden Age.  

The great Christian Crusades provide proof of dominator values. 

This is a graphic illustration of what happened to science under the influence of Christian beliefs and values.

USA, under the influence of theists, fails to live up to our full potential as a nation. We limit people by gender roles and exclude gays, even as race and gender limitations have improved ... not under the influence of theists, but under the influence of humanists and other of their character. 

Responses by followers of intolerable values reveal individuals under the influence of sick, distorted thinking. Silence is not the answer. 


Personally I've always taken the idea of 'tolerance' to be an insult. When one of these local yokel preacher types says 'We need to be tolerant, of so and so...' it sets my teeth on edge, because they are assuming the position of superiority.

This is part of why I'm not a philosopher.  The idea of "tolerance" as a general word is not the same as tolerating (accepting) difference from myself - that is respect for human dignity and diversity.  The spread of hate does not respect human dignity and diversity.  Accepting, or tolerating, hate, is wrong.   Xenophobia, scapegoating, bigotry, all undermine the value of life and human rights.  If I say I'm against them, someone who is good with wordplay might say I'm "intolerant", but they are really dancing around the underlying issues of justice and fairness and respect for life.  There are other times when "tolerance" seems disrespectful - saying "You are different from me and I have to put up with it" - in those cases, embracing diversity would be more to my liking.  But that does not mean I accept it when people are hateful, abuse others in the name of culture or religion or power or politics.  

Sentient, well spoken, and something of which I am aware, even as I rant. I have often been labelled "arrogant" and I accept the label. However, I acknowledge that your process is wiser and easier on the blood pressure. My statement is "You (not you, Sentient, the collective "you") are different from me and I don't have to put up with it." 

I like the phrase embracing diversity - however, I do use the term "tolerant toward others" myself.
I agree with you Sentient. I do not accept hateful mean "intolerant" people.

Diversity is one thing.  Irrationality amounts to chaos, and chaos serves nothing desirable.  Even diversity has its appropriate limits, and if those limits are not observed ... well, look at what we got.

Yes I get your point Loren. Chaos is not desirable.

Okay, question for the group:

Why should we be tolerant of ignorance, particularly purposeful or intentional ignorance?

Certainly, there are people out there who are not informed as to everything going on on the scientific or technological frontier.  I do not and will not claim to know it all and I delight when I pick up a new and fascinating piece of information. 

But the brand of ignorance which insists on its point of view, despite hard data to the contrary, does not deserve tolerance.  It deserves unremitting scrutiny, criticism, and optionally, mockery.  It costs our society by hanging onto falsehoods, holding back progress, and indeed its attempt to perpetuate its nonsense by codifying it in law or making specious appeals in the name of multiculturalism or diversity.

Purposeful, determined ignorance is no longer tolerable in a society which lives and moves and grows based on knowledge.  It does not deserve a pass, nor does it deserve tolerance.  We can't afford it any more.

One reason to be tolerant is that we consider some ignorant people to be handicapped - I remember my elderly neighbours who couldn't have had an IQ of more than 60, but who knew everything better than other people. Because they couldn't read it never came to them that they were morons. Even so, give such people enough space and they'll do the most horrible things - like threatening to kill me because they thought I was a witch...

Religious people are often handicapped in the same way - because they are unable or scared to think outside the box. But I find it hard where to draw the line.




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