Karl Popper's paradox of tolerance (and where the woke fit into it)

James Lindsay posted an interesting podcast today about what philosopher Karl Popper called the paradox of tolerance. If that sounds pretty far afield at first, stick with me because as you’ll see in a moment this has a lot to do with the moment we find ourselves in.

In 1945 Popper wrote a book titled The Open Society and its Enemies and the paradox of tolerance is described in a footnote of that book. The idea was pretty simple: If society is completely tolerant, then the intolerant will rule society because there will be no one willing to stand up to their intolerance. Therefore, it is sometimes necessary for a tolerant society to be intolerant toward those who are themselves intolerant.

Lindsay points to this infographic about the paradox which simplifies the idea into a simple cartoon.

You can probably see how this plays into certain Antifa arguments about “punching Nazis” and using street violence against the intolerant. However, as Lindsay points out in detail, this is only a partially accurate description of Popper’s paradox. The people who created this infographic have left out some important caveats.

“We live in the world that Karl Popper was warning about,” Lindsay said. He continued, “This graphic is a bit disingenuous to his actual argument.” He then quoted Popper’s words:

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.

“So far so good, the very first part and that’s about as far as the woke went…That’s as much of his expression as they put on the graphic,” Lindsay said. He added, “But Popper had more to say.” Quoting directly again:

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 most unwise.

In other words, it’s a bad idea to silence people who are willing to talk, even if they are wrong. So long as rational argument is enough, at least for the vast majority of people, then tolerance is the correct approach.

Looking again at the cartoon above, Lindsay said, “Popper didn’t say we had to respect intolerant ideas…So the setup of this graphic is pure propaganda…It completely misses…what Popper actually wrote.” Here’s the remainder of Popper’s footnote:

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.

His point seems pretty clear. A tolerant society should only suppress the intolerant when they refuse to debate and instead answer arguments with violence.

“This is exactly what the woke do,” Lindsay said. “They are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument but begin by denouncing all argument,” he quoted. This hearkens back to something Lindsay wrote earlier about why the woke won’t debate you. I wrote about it here. Here was my summary of his argument:

Most of us look at a disagreement over some topic as an ongoing debate in the public square. Some believe one thing and some another and there’s a give and take over which views hold up to scrutiny and which don’t. But for the truly woke, there’s a deep skepticism of the entire process which has its roots in postmodernism. For these academics, the debate itself is really a kind of falsehood which exists to reinforce structures of power. And because the ultimate goal of critical theory is social justice, anything which gets in the way needs to be dispensed with, even if that includes things like reason and argument.

Over and over we see this wherever woke ideologues are in charge. It was true at Evergreen State College where a student arguing with Professor Bret Weinstein said, “You need to stop demanding that everybody use logic and reasons and white forms of knowledge to f**king prove yourself to the world.” And it’s true among the field’s top diversity trainers who have an animus toward capitalism, rationalism and “scientific, linear thinking.” It’s also true in the case of some of the left’s woke extremists who openly adopt violence. CNN once even headlined a story about Antifa “Activists seek peace through violence.” They later changed the headline but screenshots live forever:

And of course there is no argument allowed about any of this by the leading lights of the movement. The whole premise of Robin DiAngelo’s bestseller White Fragility is that any effort to argue with her is proof of one’s racism and need for more anti-racism training. The woke truly are not interested in a conversation only in telling you what you must accept or else. They are the people who begin by denouncing all argument.

Here’s Lindsay’s full podcast. The first 10-12 minutes of this are mostly spent describing the cartoon infographic above in detail so you can skip forward a bit.