OPINION: The paradox of tolerance in an open society

A post-WWII philosopher’s recognition that unlimited tolerance of intolerance is dangerous

As the Second World War ended 74 years ago and the nations of the Earth reeled from a horrific, multi-year enmity based on fascism and hatred, philosopher Karl Popper came to the paradoxical conclusion that unlimited tolerance might just be the problem.

Remembrance Day is behind us, but as we’ve seen south of the border, in extremist corners here in Canada during the recent election and with Don Cherry’s comments this week, some Canadians are forgetting the lessons of the Second World War.

• READ MORE: PHOTOS: Remembrance Day ceremonies in Chilliwack

• READ MORE: Sportsnet fires Don Cherry after negative comments about immigrants

In our open society, we accept a very broad diversity of perspectives from the far left to the far right of the over-simplified political spectrum. Freedom of speech is critical. But what if a perspective we are asked to accept is one that is intolerant, designed to oppress minority segments of society, be it women, racialized groups, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community?

Popper’s realization, put after the Western world won a war against Hitler’s plans to destroy certain minorities, is that there is what he called, the “paradox of tolerance” in his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies.

Summarized: “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.”

We’ve seen several displays of intolerance locally in recent months. Last year’s school board election was a great example as a slate opposed to an LGBTQ anti-bullying policy came out in full force. A local Facebook page even included the quote from American televangelist D. James Kennedy that said, in part, “Tolerance is the last virtue of a depraved society.”

• READ MORE: Outgoing Chilliwack board chair says anti-SOGI trustees won’t be allowed in schools

Utterances from candidates for the People’s Party of Canada (PPC) during the recent election expressed extremist ideas about women, in addition to xenophobic, nationalist rhetoric along with anti-science disinformation.

But no one should suggest (Popper wouldn’t either) that the local school board or Maxime Bernier and his devotees shouldn’t be allowed to say what they say. Some have suggested that least some of these perspectives shouldn’t be given such a high profile. Maybe allowing the spread of bigotry under the guise of free speech is a tolerance stretched too far.

Again, to be clear, Popper did not suggest the intolerance such as what we’ve seen should be physically suppressed so long as it can be countered by rational argument and kept in check by public opinion.

Lately we’ve seen some PPC candidates making Orwellian claims that they aren’t allowed to make certain statements lest they be called racist. I’m quite certain that no PPC candidate has had members of any “thought police” knock on their doors. But some have been called ducks for quacking like one.

The world saw what happened in the 1930s in Europe when bigotry and intolerance grew and were deemed acceptable under the guise of free speech. If violence comes to the streets – as is feared by some in the U.S. given a possible impeachment of an intolerant president – then the intolerant will indeed need to be suppressed to maintain tolerance.

“We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant,” Popper wrote in 1945. “We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.”

Given most of the intolerance we see in Canada today is of the keyboard warrior variety, I doubt things will ever come to that.

But it’s important to keep in mind.


@PeeJayAitch
paul.henderson@theprogress.com

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