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kottke.org posts about Karl Popper

The paradox of tolerance

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 17, 2017

Corey Long Charlottesville

In his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies, political philosopher Karl Popper asserted that tolerance need not be extended to those who are intolerant.

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. In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. 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.

The last part bears repeating:

We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. 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.

The photo above was taken by Steve Helber of Charlottesville resident Corey Long pointing an improvised flamethrower at a group of white supremacists this past weekend. Yesha Callahan of The Root interviewed Long about that moment:

“At first it was peaceful protest,” Long said softly as he spoke. “Until someone pointed a gun at my head. Then the same person pointed it at my foot and shot the ground.”

Long said the only weapon he had was a can of spray paint that a white supremacist threw at him earlier, so he took a lighter to the spray paint and turned it into a flame thrower. And a photographer snapped the photo.

But inside every photograph is an untold story. If you look closely at Long’s picture, there’s an elderly white man standing in between Long and his friend. The unknown man was part of the counterprotests, too, but was afraid, and Long and his friends were trying to protect him. Even though, Long says, those who were paid to protect the residents of Charlottesville were doing just the opposite.