Paradox Of Tolerance: Can You Be Intolerant Of Intolerance?

The paradox of tolerance is when a person of tolerance holds a negative, combative, or hostile stance toward intolerance. In other words, the tolerant person is indeed intolerant, at least when it comes to intolerance, hence the paradox.

The paradox of tolerance is a term defined by philosopher Karl Popper in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945).

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.

I’ve often told people the only acceptable intolerance for someone who considers themselves to be tolerant, is intolerance of intolerance. But let’s be very careful here, because we shouldn’t mistake tolerance for acceptance. Tolerance means you “allow” something, while acceptance means you “approve” something. Tolerance is not a badge of honor. That space is reserved for people who truly accept the rich tapestry of the human experience.

The reason its important to understand the paradox of tolerance is because opponents of cultural diversity often invoke it when they judge advocates of acceptance, even if they don’t use the term itself.

It goes something like this:

  1. Tolerance means accepting that there are different views.
  2. But Jack does not recognize, let alone accept, view xyz.
  3. Chloe says, “Jack, your intolerance is showing because of your scorn for xyz.”
  4. Jack says, “Damn it, Chloe! You’re intolerant because you do not respect my right to forsake xyz.”

Okay, to be a tolerant person I must be tolerant of all viewpoints.

Neat how that works, huh?

Nonsense I say!

Its bullshit because it demands equality of viewpoints without critical examination of those viewpoints.

If view xyz is a belief that Muslims should be banned from entering the country, then Jack’s rejection of xyz is quite reasonable and hardly intolerant, and it could well be said that Chloe is being intolerant. However, if view xyz is a belief that American Muslims are just as American as you and I and should not face discrimination, especially from the government, then it is indeed Jack that is intolerant and Chloe is rightfully trying to point that out, and by doing so the only intolerance Chloe is guilty of is having intolerance for Jack’s intolerance.

Let’s say you are against same-sex marriage. That makes you intolerant of the idea that same-sex couples should enjoy the same right to marry as opposite-sex couples. Now, you might say it’s not intolerance, it’s just your religious belief. You certainly have the right to hold such a belief, but should that belief become realized, it would infringe the rights of same-sex couples. On the other hand, when a same-sex couple marries, you experience no loss of rights, no infringement of your religious freedom. Your viewpoint is intolerant because you think your beliefs have greater merit than the rights of others. You have a right to believe what you want, but your beliefs shall not be imposed upon others. A same-sex couple is not imposing their beliefs upon you when they marry. When a person does something that does not conform to your religious beliefs, you might not like it, but they are not infringing your rights or your religious beliefs, and they are not being intolerant toward you.

Tolerance of same-sex marriage does not need one to then also show tolerance for, say, the KKK, because we can put critical and rational thought to use in deciding what is tolerable. The paradox of tolerance argument assumes tolerance requires absolutism, which rarely is a good idea when it comes to just about anything, even constitutionally protected rights like freedom of speech. Tolerance can and should have a cutoff point.

So yes, you can be intolerant of intolerance, because as it turns out, it’s the only way tolerance exists at all.

#intolerance#KKK#paradox#racist#same-sex marriage#tolerance


  1. Zippy - June 10, 2017 @ 4:15 pm

    Where does tolerance land on at “Lolita” type situation of consensual statutory rape? If a 15 year old boy wants to have sex with his 27 year old teacher and she agrees, is society being intolerant for condemning her and vetoing his desires?

  2. David Sutton - June 22, 2017 @ 2:56 pm

    Your question is one of illegality rather than tolerance. Yes, you could say what we deem illegal is akin to what we find intolerable, but your example enters into the area of conduct that society has collectively deemed criminal, which really is outside the purview of the paradox of tolerance, or at the very least is beyond the scope of this article. In other words, we don’t have to say as a society that we are intolerant because we condemn criminal conduct.

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