The Paradox of Tolerance: We Must be Intolerant of Intolerance

It feels like many have forgotten one of the important the lessons of history. With the recent Charlottesville violence and the failure of the United States president to condemn white supremacists perhaps a reminder of one of the lessons came of out World War 2: tolerance needs to be limited to intolerance. We learned the hard way that sitting by and watching hate spiral out of control has disastrous consequences. Even before Britain and France declared war the Jewish in Germany suffered a downward spiral of hate and violence. It went, roughly, as follows:

  1. A powerful reminder of what happens when we tolerate intolerance.

    Rumours and conspiracies: When world War 1 was ending front-line German soldiers felt like they were winning. They were gaining ground and morale was high. When the treaty of Versailles came Germans were forced to stop fighting and give up some of the territory they had captured, they felt betrayed. The rumour circulated among front-line soldiers that it was a Jewish and communist conspiracy. They took their resentment of the Jewish and Communists home with them.

  2. Blame: A few coincidences such as a few of the leaders of the räterepublik being Jewish exasperated anti-Jewish hate in Germany.
  3. Generalized Bigotry: A steady increase in antisemitism started occurring in Germany and gave strong anti-Jewish political establishments like the Nazi’s a chance at election.
  4. Loss of homes and businesses: After the Nazis were elected in addition to the yellow badges of shame was the seizing of Jewish homes and businesses.
  5. Escalated Violence: As if losing everything and facing hatred wasn’t enough violent incidents such as the Kristallnacht (Night of the Long Knives) became acceptable in Germany.
  6. Segregation: Shortly before the establishment of concentration camps jewish Germans were all moved into fenced off neighborhoods and forced to fend for themselves where they either starved our sold off the last of their belongings for food through the fence. They also had no medicine and they suffered crime driven by desperation.

All of this was known in the free world at the time and we did nothing, we all know what happened next: Industrialized killing, torture, torment and all other kinds of suffering and misery of millions of people because of their religion. And of course the invasion of peaceful countries that lead to a world war that killed over 60 million.

After the war Karl Popper outlined The Paradox of Tolerance:

“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…We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.” Karl Popper

This is spot on correct, it’s only through zero tolerance that we defeat the ugly beast of intolerance. There is no question that a person or a group should be allowed freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, no matter how much we disagree with the ideas and opinions of that person or group.  A person or group must be allowed to hold an an ideology no matter what, even if it is as ignorant Nazism/White Supremacy. However these are only legal protections in a free society, not social. There is nothing to stop a person from speaking out against hate and we can certainly have nothing to do with them. Being intolerant of intolerance is really the only way of ensuring the hateful do not succeed. It’s not an easy process because human beings tend to categorize people, places and things to make thinking easier. The difference is racists and bigots don’t draw a line or understand that things like skin colour and religion are superficial reasons to judge a person.

This blog tries to stay away from politics but Trump not condemning the racists was, in this blog’s opinion, his biggest failure in leadership yet and  very damaging to anything a humanist (or any decent human being for that matter) stands for.


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