The Paradox of Tolerance

In a free society, tolerance means that individuals put up with ideas and actions that they don’t necessarily agree with. Evelyn Beatrice Hall famously expressed the Voltairean principle as “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Every free citizen is at liberty to act as they please, as long as they don’t infringe on the freedoms of others.

Tolerance does not imply freedom from consequences. Don’t do stupid things or say hurtful words and expect others to be okay with it. And if you intentionally make false statements that cause harm to others, tort laws may catch up with you.

The ‘paradox of tolerance’ refers to the idea that when a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant is eventually destroyed by the intolerant. When ideas of intolerance are given a free rein, these ideas can take root in a critical mass of people with the power to impose their own will on the populace. Moreover, it is only a matter of time before incentives align to make this happen.

According to Karl Popper, this paradox doesn’t imply that ideas of intolerance should not be tolerated at all. Society may continue to tolerate these ideas to the extent that they can be kept in check through rational argument and public opinion — in fact, it is preferable to do so unless force is necessary.

One way to rationalize this paradox is that if you’re a tolerant person in a tolerant society, you’re playing by a set of rules and expect everyone else to do the same. Someone espousing intolerance is effectively trying to change the rules of the game. If they convince enough people to join their cause, you’re at a disadvantage because trying to stop them is against your ethos. If things get out of hand (as they’re bound to eventually, if enough people believe they will benefit), your only option is to break your own rules and shut them down.

Sadly, once you say it’s okay to break your own rules, the intolerant in positions of power will eventually take advantage of this loophole to further their own agendas.