The Paradox of Tolerance

Someone on Reddit took the time to read the article I wrote titled GIGO is a Thing, or Why Freedom of Speech Isn’t Free (weird, isn’t it? That someone would actually read links provided as feedback?) and offered some commentary feedback of their own,

you’re probably already aware of paradox of intolerance, which applies perfectly to your article.

What I learned from that feedback is that I need to read more Karl Popper. Once I went looking for the paradox and found it as well as Popper’s name, I was happy to be reintroduced to some of his thinking. For those who haven’t run across this concept before, the paradox is stated as follows,

…if a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant is eventually seized or destroyed by the intolerant.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Having refreshed the idea in my head, I remembered running across the paradox of intolerance before, or heard someone expressing it before, back in the seventies. Sometime in the immediate aftermath of white supremacy first being separated from federal power. The idea that we had somehow encouraged this evil in our midst.

None of us thought of it in the terms of unlimited tolerance, back then. We just knew, causally, that neo-Nazis started to appear among us. The subsequent discussions were about how to respond to them. The ACLU, rightly or wrongly, defended the rights of the neo-Nazis and Klansmen to speak. Many other Americans condemned them for this action, but I don’t think we’ve ever successfully dealt with the problem. It simply keeps re-emerging every generation to be dealt with again. Perhaps that is the human curse, to always be weeding out the bad ideas.

It’s only in hindsight, with a view towards history, with increasing experience, that you can see the unlimited tolerance as the weakness that needs to be offset, because it is a weakness as Popper rightly observed. It is a weakness and also a strength. How to filter the garbage without filtering the learning that comes from being exposed to the garbage? That is the crux of the paradox. You can’t see authoritarianism as an ill to be avoided from inside the authoritarian bubble. You only see it from the outside once you emerge. From inside it seems like a just use of power, like an anti-abortionist might see stopping what they deem murder or anti-vaxxers stopping harm to children. Until you stop believing a thing and look at it from outside that thing, you can’t test its falsity. While you believe, state power looks like the answer to stopping the sickness that you see.

This is why critical thinking is an absolute good that needs to be taught to everyone. Without critical thinking you simply do not have the tools to determine whether your beliefs are false or not. As I said in the GIGO article,

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty

To be eternally vigilant is to practice due diligence as often as required when it comes to the things you believe as well as the things you are told. What is due diligence? Caveat Emptor. The two states of mind are interchangeable. Healthy caution and skepticism. If you want to be at liberty, if you want to maintain liberty, then you must be skeptical of all things that are not immediately apparent. Due diligence is another way to describe critical thinking.

This is the difference between a belief and a philosophy. Between knowledge and belief. You can believe any damn fool thing you want, even demonstrably false things (doublethink) a philosophy (specifically scientific philosophy) requires that you test new beliefs against old beliefs to determine which is the sounder thing to believe in. Whether or not this new idea conforms to the other things you think you know already. When an old idea fails it should be rejected in favor of the new thing which at least appears to be more true.

Do You Believe in a Secular America?

Author: RAnthony

I'm a freethinking, unapologetic liberal. I'm a former CAD guru with an architectural fetish. I'm a happily married father. I'm also a disabled Meniere's sufferer.

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