“The so-called paradox of freedom is the argument that freedom in the sense of absence of any constraining control must lead to very great restraint, since it makes the bully free to enslave the meek. The idea is, in a slightly different form, and with very different tendency, clearly expressed in Plato. 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.”
Karl Popper in “The Open Society and Its Enemies” (1945)
My own thoughts on the quote:
It is notable that Karl Popper wrote this text in the fateful year of 1945. When one remembers the state where the world was just then, one can easily understand his motives. The toleration of intolerance did, in fact, lead to the rise of power of the Nazis in Germany in the beginning of the 30’s. On the other hand, he had also the the then very current example the extreme intolerance of Communist Russia.
This idea is still a hard one to swallow for a person like me, who has preached tolerance all his life. The basic idea is that a tolerant society really can stay tolerant only if it does not allow intolerance to take it over.
Of course, there remains the enormously difficult task of defining which level of intolerance cannot be allowed. The intolerance that Karl Popper had in mind was not just the critique of ideas of others and even religions. First and foremost he did believe in rational argumentation. Karl Popper thought that all human ideas need to be rationally analyzed and criticized for the best solutions and ideas to be able to emerge in a society.
Popper's ideas apply well also to the kind of intolerance that was found in Rome in the first centuries of the first millennium. This happened when the Christians did crush without mercy all other religions and all schools of philosophy, after they first had gained the full support of the Roman emperors and the ultimate power in the Roman Empire.
Paradoxically, the earlier Roman emperors who had fought against the rise of extremely intolerant Christianity had, in fact, in practice fought in defense of tolerance. It may come as a surprise for many that until the rise of Christianity the Roman Empire was, in fact, a heaven for religious tolerance.
Conquered nations were generally allowed to worship whatever, and whenever they wanted. This was the case as long as this local worship did not in any way challenge the total political power of the Roman Empire. So, even the Jews were allowed to practice their for the Romans quite strange religion. Their religion was not really touched even after their political rebellions were crushed without mercy.
Romans had the wisdom that all successful empires have had, as all of the successful empires have allowed local cultures to exist in peace, as long as the political power of the empire is not challenged (as Amy Chua tells in her fine book "Day of Empire - How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance - and Why They Fail")
With the rise of Christianity, this basic tolerance was lost and soon there was no Roman Empire either. Of course, the rise of Christian intolerance was not the only factor that did contribute to its downfall, but it is one that very many historians have been avoiding.
In the end just openly opposing and criticizing the ideas of others is not intolerance in a democratic, open society. It is part of the normal political process, as long as other people are allowed freely to choose which ideas they want to support.
This critique just must apply to religions too, even if many religious people want to protect their pet ideologies and keep them taboo from criticism.
In a truly tolerant society, any person must be free to criticize any religion and its ideas. However, the line into intolerance is crossed in the very moment when it is suggested that the followers of a certain ideology or religion are to be treated differently in a society than others, or on the other hand they should not be given equal opportunities.
The difficulty lies in finding the crucial difference between mere criticism of ideas and the intolerance towards other people. It is a very common defense mechanism of religious people that all critique of their own religion is labeled as intolerance. In fact, it can be a case, for example, of defense of tolerance against an intolerant religion.
The waters are, of course, muddied to the extreme by those who attack, for example, a religion because of their own very intolerant ideology or religion. So, if one criticizes an intolerant religion, the defender of tolerance can end up in a common front with some extremely intolerant people.
These two very different groups might just happen to oppose the same intolerant religion because of very different motives. Others might be protecting tolerance and others just forwarding their own extremely intolerant ideas.
There is, however, commonly one clear difference. The defenders of tolerance tend to criticize ideas, when the intolerant tend to attack the people or the followers of certain ideas.
Followers of intolerant and monolithic ideologies just often seems to have great difficulty in understanding that ideas and people are totally different things. All too often they seem also not to realize that both ideas and people can always change.
(This piece was completely refurbished on 7th of December, 2012)
Karl Popper is in Facebook at:
"Sir Karl Raimund Popper, CH FRS FBA (28 July 1902 – 17 September 1994) was an Austro-British philosopher and a professor at the London School of Economics. He is regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century; he also wrote extensively on social and political philosophy. He is known for his vigorous defense of liberal democracy and the principles of social criticism that he came to believe made a flourishing "open society" possible."