March 15, 2023
Have you ever been online discussing a controversial social issue or the merits of a certain protest and someone that disagrees with your position comes at you with a comment like this one?
Ah, the old “intolerant of intolerance/paradox of tolerance,” line. Ironically, it is a common go-to for some of the most intolerant among us – those that subjectively define what is “tolerable” as that which is compatible with, or not threatening to, their preconceived conclusions and desires. This is regardless of whether or not said conclusions or desires are moral, reasonable, or warranted in themselves. Such a definition bypasses all debate and renders anyone “intolerant” that disagrees with said conclusions and/or challenges the premises upon which they are based. The smears of “fascist,” totalitarian,” or “extremist” usually accompany the “intolerant” charge, as evident in the example above. Of course, these people usually do not understand they are quite intolerant themselves (or consider whether or not their beliefs, actions, or behaviors may be wrong or worthy of criticism), hence their misuse of the concept. This is all intellectually lamentable but the real danger – and what is really the ironic part – is that usually the same people are heavy advocates for expanding government in unjust ways that will use force to back up their preferences; whether through bans on that which they hate, or mandates of that which they desire. The result is the weaponization of (real) intolerance in the name of (fake) tolerance.
As we will see, the “paradox of tolerance,” in America, is handled quite well by adherence to our moral and political foundations. The stronger the adherence in society, the less we need to worry about the negative effects of lingering intolerance in the minds of unvirtuous individuals. Our objectively-derived moral foundations – stemming from natural law – recognize the primacy of our inherent, fundamental, and inalienable rights, which are secured from infringement by our Constitutional system of government. If we abide by our moral imperatives and the Enlightenment/American Foundational principles derived from them, we are provided with an unbiased criteria for judgment. We can use this to separate what is truly a threat to the system that upholds rights and maintains order (threats we shouldn’t tolerate) from that which should in itself be tolerated as honest disagreement or manageable unvirtuous activity (protected by the First Amendment). We will never all completely agree on everything in a complex, diverse society such as ours – and this is a good thing. We should not want to fall into a trap of demonizing everyone with which we disagree and trying to shame them out of protest or expressing opinions by equating any dissent with the worst rogues in history. When confronted with someone making an argument that seems disagreeable to you, ask yourself; What is the essential argument they are making? Is it inherently immoral? Are their actions or proposed actions violent or threatening in themselves? If we ask these questions and match the answers up to our criteria for judgment as indicated above, it provides us with a guide as to what can be tolerated without injury and what cannot.
Just as important, using such criteria provides us a guide for determining the proper use of government. We must ensure “intolerance” does not shift into state-sanctioned oppression via misuse of the term. On the flipside, “tolerance” must not result in societal factions making existence unliveable for victims of harmful ideologies and beliefs due to the government being derelict in its duty to secure their rights. This type of recognition is reflected in public accommodation laws, for example. There is always a balancing act to be done and only the properly principled will be able to do it for long. We see examples of this in society and in Supreme Court cases including the Masterpiece Cakeshop case and the pending decision in the 303 Creative case.
“Paradox of Tolerance”
The recent misuse of the phrase “paradox of tolerance” probably increased in our discourse due to the proliferation of internet memes like this one:
As the meme indicates, Karl Popper’s book, The Open Society and its Enemies is the point of reference for most of the people that cite the concept today. That book, (which I am not intending to critique at length here), includes commentary related to an argument that our (Western) civilization, “…has not yet fully recovered from the shock of its birth, the transition from the tribal or ‘closed society’, with its submission to magical forces, to the ‘open society’ which sets free the critical powers of man. It attempts to show that the shock of this transition is one of the factors that have made possible the rise of those reactionary movements which have tried, and still try, to overthrow civilization and to return to tribalism. And it suggests that what we call nowadays totalitarianism belongs to these movements, which are just as old or just as young as our civilization itself” (from the Introduction). Such cycles throughout history are undoubtedly true (with arguable causes) and our modern attempts to break this cycle with government/societal systems based on respect for the rights and consent of individuals that I mentioned above will only work so long as a norm of objectivity is universal – too far a shift towards the subjective mentality in society and divisions will inevitably shift us back into that tribalism Popper referenced.
The term at issue itself, “paradox of tolerance,” is only found in Popper’s notes to Chapter 7, and is in reference to discussion and critique of Plato’s work (see below). It is not necessary to quote Popper, Plato, or anyone else for this discussion. The idea of the “paradox of tolerance” as it relates to our moral and political foundations in America can be made clear through an analysis of the concepts. As Popper says himself in the preface to the book, “…if we wish our civilization to survive we must break with the habit of deference to great men. Great men may make great mistakes; and as the book tries to show, some of the greatest leaders of the past supported the perennial attack on freedom and reason.”
In America, we do not necessarily erect statues of our Founders because of who they are, but because of what they believed and what they did to help bring about this great nation built on ideals. As a nation, we are still attempting to make it more perfect through the application of those ideals in real world circumstances. That is no easy task in itself and it is a near miracle the Founders were even capable of starting us off on this journey, never mind that we were able to keep it going up until 2023. In addition to the constant challenge of better applying our principles, we also must continue to defend them from attacks by people that do not see their worth. So the war is being fought in both a practical and ideological sense. We can tolerate quite a lot of dissent because of the strength of our ideals and the system we built to defend them.
Consideration of Tolerance and Intolerance
We know tolerance is an inherently good concept because it is logically necessary for the free will among equal rational actors to be expressed without coercion. The notion of free will and relations based on consent and mutual respect for individuals of equal worth would not work if there were no tolerance for disagreement. Choice would be an illusion. The only prohibited choices are the ones that result in the inherent contradiction of these concepts and result in the violation of the rationally-derived rights of others. It is a logical necessity. So the phrase “we are only intolerant of the intolerant” is really just another way to express agreement with the notion of objective morality and the existence of a mutual moral community made up of equal members with certain rights that cannot be infringed without creating an inherent contradiction. So the phrase and the concept are not necessarily the source of the problem. The problem is in the concept’s misapplication in real world settings and this stems from a failure of some individuals to separate out the maxim of acts (for moral judgment) from the acts themselves (which carry bias and emotional baggage).
Once we recognize the practical application of the “paradox of tolerance” in America is necessarily a redundant iteration of our objectively-derived moral principles that demand we respect rights and free expression so long as there is no coercion (real or implied) against the genuine rights and well being of others, we can begin to see what is permitted and what is not. It also helps us identify what should be the focus of debates and what is just noise. Take the example of the recent protest of drag queen story time in Royal Oak, MI. This is the event that spawned the comment at the top of this post. Is a protest of such an activity one that warrants accusations of “intolerance,” “fascism,” and undeserved free speech? Is such a protest in support of fundamentally immoral behavior? Should the government move to ban such protest? Are some of the actions of counter-protesters (Shouts of slurs, ripping up protest signs, etc) warranted because they do not like the message of the protesters?
Broken down to its most essential elements, the protest is based on the idea it is inappropriate for drag queens (usually men dressed as women) to hold events catering to young kids (in this case 3-9 year olds). As the argument goes, drag has an inherent sexual dimension to it that makes it inappropriate for minors, therefore relegating the activity to the same realm as other sexual activity already deemed suitable for limitation for exposure to minors. In this regard, the argument would be based on the notion of holding drag queens to the same standards as everyone else. A split emerges as to the extent of such limitation. On the one hand, protesters may be simply making an appeal to parents to willfully choose to keep their kids away from such activity. On the other, protesters may go a step further and suggest the relevant governmental jurisdiction place age restrictions on such shows or prohibit them altogether (for minors). This particular protest in Royal Oak was being held at a private establishment, but another popular aspect of this debate is opposition to drag queen events catering to minors being held at publicly-funded venues such a libraries. Given that the Royal Oak event was at a private venue, this argument does not apply to this protest, but it indicates the concern has a larger societal dimension and acts as a counter to the pure parental rights argument in favor of allowing parents free rein to expose their children to whatever they deem fit (since a myriad of activities are often prohibited from minors both publicly and privately).
Upon identifying the essential point of the debate, the argument would then move on to the specifics of exactly what is allegedly harmful to minors, to what extent, and why. This would include all the arguments we normally hear regarding the sexual nature of drag performances, the aspect of grooming or sexualizing children, the potential for enabling pedophiles, etc. It would also include arguments about the appropriateness and authority of government to intervene. Counter-protesters are free to disagree on all this and make their points against them (they should keep their actions virtuous and not cause harm however, as should the protesters). But that is all separate from the essential point of whether or not such protest is of the nature that is inherently “intolerant” in an immoral way or dangerous in a manner that would warrant prohibition on speech according to the criteria listed above and/or even according to the criteria set by Karl Popper as he used the term in relation to the Paradox of Tolerance. It cannot be, unless we wish to argue any attempts to restrict behavior related to minors is of this nature, or we wish to suggest any argument in favor of rejecting such activities is a danger to our entire system which upholds our rights. Doing so would be absurd and this notion should therefore be rejected.
When the counter-protesters in Royal Oak chanted “bigots go home” at the protesters, they were essentially bypassing the legitimate debate and were assuming evil intent in the hearts of the protesters, which is of the same error as assuming the drag queens are inherently pedophiles (a notion they vehemently reject). They of course can do this, I am simply suggesting they should not and are acting hypocritically. When the counter-protesters suggest the protesters should not have the right to conduct such a protest because it is “intolerant,” when they rip up the signs of protesters and justify it on “paradox of tolerance” grounds, they are being hypocritical as well. The difference however is that it is their direct actions that are wrong in these cases, whereas their claims about the protesters are merely assumptions based on common stereotypes (unless they are engaged in a debate with a specific protester that makes specific arguments that may be bigoted or advocate for illegal behavior).
I cannot speak for all of the protesters in Royal Oak, but I agree the protests are legitimate. I also agree the counter-protesters have a right to come and defend their position. Drag and drag shows, in my opinion, do fall within a certain class of activity that can be regulated according to long established precedent and sound logical reasoning, especially around children. I do not support banning drag, or drag shows, however I do support regulating and prohibiting the actions and behavior that can be conducted around children and in public (similar to the amending of the law in Tennessee to clarify such prohibitions apply to male and female impersonators). I do not think drag queens get a pass from rules on behavior that apply to everyone else just because it is part of their claimed lifestyle or there is a claimed close association to their identity as LGBT, a result of gender dysphoria, etc. (protected group status in certain respects). I think that is incidential because we are talking about actions and behaviors in this case. I do not support telling parents they cannot take their kids to a private event such as the one in Royal Oak, however I would caution them against it because it appears to be part of a larger effort to unnaturally nudge children towards a lifestyle and values set that is contrary to virtue, harmful, and wrong in many regards. I do support keeping the associated ideology related to sexuality and the promotion of such actions and behaviors out of publicly-funded venues and schools. It is not the place for such ideas and out of respect for the fact public money is being spent and people expect a certain emphasis on basic services we must be tolerant of disagreement and think about the opportunity costs. We cannot discriminate against the people associated with such activity in unrelated affairs or deny them access to public accomodation, and we should not treat them with less equality or worth as members of the mutual moral community. However, this requires reciprocal action in regards to expecting them to comply with the rules of the community, including checking actions and behaviors that have legitimately been deemed “harmful to minors” or otherwise illegal. Respect and tolerance must go both ways.
We have in this general case example, as with many other examples, several conflicts of interest. They are all very important and consequential, but they do not rise to the level of conduct that could be regarded as calls for violence or direct threats to others that would justify curtailing speech, gathering, or protest. It certainly is not “fascism” or “extremism.” Ideas can be countered with other ideas in the realm of reason and a practical middle between competing principles and values can be found in regards to official use of regulatory power. This is why these protests, and indeed most peaceful protests, ought to not only be allowed, but celebrated and encouraged. It is the call for their suppression that is problematic, and one that usually comes from the most unamerican (at heart) among us. Societal norms and expectations of proper conduct change over time, but we must ensure they do not come at the expense of the rights of others and we ought to attempt to foster naturally occurring change in accord with reason and free will, not enable manipulations at the hands of ideological bullies and advocates for top-down coercion.