All around social media it seems that a particular little comic has been making the rounds. It makes a claim that “Defending tolerance requires society to not tolerate the intolerant” which is intended as the paradox that unlimited tolerance leads to a weak society being overcome by intolerance. I’m sure I may end up saying “Tolerance” way too much and lose all the meaning of the word but, let’s dive in!

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First of all the comic establishes one thing most people can agree with, Nazis are a bad influence on society. This sentiment is then uttered alongside “If you want more tolerance, then we need to let Nazis speak” The paradox is that if we want to be more tolerant, then we have to allow something we disagree with. I can imagine most will think this is reasonable. The issue is that they made the mistake that plenty of people make in thinking that more tolerance is always good.

Tolerance is not equal to morality and nor is it always a good thing. In fact, we live in a remarkably intolerant society.

Tolerance is “The willingness to accept views, beliefs, or behaviour that differs from one’s own” there are certainly good things that tolerance brings about, such as equality for women, or the acceptance of different cultures among other things. However, we don’t want a society that allows all behaviours, as this would create what we would see as an immoral society. I’ll present this in a set of simple premises;

  1. Intolerance is the unwillingness to accept views, beliefs, or behaviour that differ from one’s own
  2. As a society, we are unwilling to accept the behaviour of murder
  3. Society is intolerant of murder

As a society, we are intolerant of many things that we have a valid reason to be intolerant of. We only tolerate practices that aren’t harmful to others. This is probably why inciting violence isn’t allowed under free speech as we can tolerate crazy ideas but not if they threaten others. We shouldn’t allow violence against others for having opinions or speaking their mind, but we also shouldn’t accept beliefs that cause harm. This sentiment, however, starts to become tricky when you apply it to the real world and realise that there is a fundamental disagreement on what causes us harm hence why we stick to broad principles such as freedom of speech.

Karl Popper made the assumption of unlimited tolerance in this statement “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance.”. This statement is entirely reasonable, and it helps to highlight the point I am making that we shouldn’t go down a road of unlimited tolerance, but neither do we want to be equally intolerant either as we would lose what liberty we have attempted to gain.
Let’s go back to logical premises so we can break down why unlimited tolerance doesn’t apply to us:

  1. Tolerance is the willingness to accept views, beliefs, or behaviour that differs from one’s own.
  2. An unlimited amount of tolerance would accept all behaviours with no consequence.
  3. Our society doesn’t accept all behaviours.
  4. Therefore We do not live in a society of unlimited tolerance.

The comic only actually applies to a theoretical society, and it’s debatable whether we’d even want it to exist in the first place. I probably wouldn’t have bothered to come up with a rebuttal to this issue if people hadn’t been using Karl Popper’s work to justify violence.

I feel like the logic in people’s minds goes something along the lines of “If we are too tolerant with Nazis we’ll be overrun, so we have to be just as bad as them to stop them” which is precisely the same warped logic racists (or possibly Batman) use to justify all sorts of horrific behaviour. Probably the best counter to this is that two wrongs don’t make a right, but, I don’t suppose that would convince anyone.