Free Speech and the ‘Paradox’ of Tolerance

I was recently debating free speech with a forum-goer on Facebook’s ‘Young Liberal Society’ group, and they wrote something that rather surprised me. As a justification for violence, they quoted Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies and suggested to me that we cannot afford to tolerate intolerance.

It was a good point, and I had to go away and think about it. Is there not something inherently self-defeating in the argument that we should tolerate people who would not tolerate us?

I did eventually come to a conclusion, and this is that.

Before I proceed, I should set out my exact position: The passage in question is as follows:

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.


From the Right

As I came to realise, there are some issues with reading this passage as a justification to intolerance. For instance, a member of the far-right could read this and say “See? Even tolerance itself is intolerant! So let’s persecute whomever we please. Unlike so-called ‘tolerant’ people, we’re not being hypocrites!” And then, could they not imagine themselves the moral superiors?

I would consider this a gross misreading of the paragraph, however. A liberal, open society that defends itself in the face of deadly violence is in no way comparable to a group or groups that would work to destroy it.

Principally, this is because, in order to preserve itself, a liberal society first explores peaceful means like rational thought, open debate, democratic voting, and a system of laws that allow even odious beliefs to be explored and held without fear of persecution.

Liberals reach for violence only as a last resort, if at all, and only when all other preferable methods have been exhausted. We use violence only rarely and only defensively, with the aim of returning to a more civilized mode of existence as soon as we possibly can.

For illiberal groups, violence is not the last resort. It is the first resort, or the second, or third, and so on. Popper’s paradox notwithstanding, there is a world of moral difference here.


From the Left

As my fellow forum-goer, who introduced me to this issue, demonstrates, misreadings of Popper are not isolated to the right. Many on the left fail to comprehend the meaning of an open society, and I suspect that this is down to reading this single paragraph (itself a footnote in the original work) in isolation.

In as simplistic and brief a summary I can present, here lies the paradox that is said to be highlighted by Popper in this section:

  1. A tolerant society should be tolerant by default…
  2. …with one exception: it should not tolerate intolerance itself.

But Popper never believed anything like this. Rather, he wrote:

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.

As you can see, Popper offers no warrant here for legislating against hatred or hate speech – in fact, he appears to call such initiatives ‘unwise.’

To Popper, intolerance is not to be deployed as a countermeasure when the utterance of intolerant ideas might make you uncomfortable, or when those ideas seem impolite, or when they get you really mad. Intolerance – if that’s the right word for it – is only warranted when we are already facing ‘fists and pistols,’ or, presumably, worse.

We can deduce this not only from a close reading of this one section but from a look at The Open Society and its Enemies more broadly. The entire book is an exposition of intolerant ideas, a dissection of them, and a sustained, reasoned defence of pluralism. Here Popper proved himself a liberal; his first resort was to make a rational argument. It was only in a footnote that he considered the possibility of using violence, and he did so with obvious disdain.


In Defence of Liberty

Liberals, by definition, must always resolve to prefer reason to violence. To deviate from this one simple principle is to invert the moral hierarchy that gives liberalism its superiority in the first place – to abandon that is a concession to the far right that we are hypocrites, as I mentioned earlier.

Now, occasionally reaching for intolerant methods – reaching for self-defence in the face of a threat to the liberal order – may mean the renunciation of a kind of philosophical consistency. It is far from clear, however, that this is so damning to Popper’s way of thinking; elsewhere in the same work, Popper argued that all forms of sovereignty entail inconsistency to some extent, and liberal sovereignty no less than any other. He held this to be the result of a deep confusion in the history of political thought, one that wrongly made the state the ‘ordering principle’ of our social life. His paradox of tolerance aimed to support this claim.

My anarchist friends may find themselves nodding in agreement here. I don’t think that they would be wrong, even while Popper was no anarchist: He hoped, rather, for a liberal society in which the state had a limited and auxiliary role, not a directing one, where people were liberal by choice and reason, not because some great organisation was compelling them to be. Understood correctly, Popper is, socially speaking, an ally neither of the far right nor of the far left, but of classical liberals like F. A. Hayek. To make him a friend of hate speech laws, or worse, of persecution, is to distort his thought beyond recognition.

How useful is the paradox of tolerance? In practice, an effective defence of a tolerant society is almost always straightforwardly and logically compatible with the practice of tolerance itself. The paradox only rarely arises. Still, in a few extreme cases, and if we use a tendentious definition of the word “intolerance” – one that defines self-defence as intolerance – then yes, tolerance and intolerance may have a superficial resemblance. But it’s possible to make too much of that, and I fear that many people certainly have.

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