Karl Popper, John Rawls & The Paradox of Tolerance
Ought we tolerate intolerance?
A Neo-Nazi is invited to speak at one of the world’s most prominent and best-regarded Universities.
A backlash occurs almost immediately.
In the ensuing social media furore, his appearance is cancelled.
So much for the tolerant left, his followers cry.
Are they right?
By refusing to tolerate Nazis, far-right hate-figures, racists, bigots, are we (anyone to the left of them, I suppose) in fact being just as intolerant as they themselves?
It’s a question that has plagued political philosophers since the conception of democracies, at least.
Karl Popper and John Rawls, perhaps two of the 20th centuries greatest thinkers, had similar ideas on the concept of tolerance, but different conclusions on how it should be treated in practice.
For Popper, who coined the idea of the Paradox of Tolerance, his formulation can be summarised thusly:
“In order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance.”
For Popper, this is because any society which tolerates the intolerant is destined to eventually see itself destroyed by the intolerant.
If you give them an inch, they will take a mile.
Rawls takes this principle into account in his theorising of the value of tolerating intolerance.
For Rawls, there must be a “self-preservation” clause — i.e. if the intolerant are intent on destroying a society, that society has the right to suspend tolerance in order to preserve itself.
However, unlike Popper, Rawls does not believe that this is necessarily pre-destined to occur in the case of all intolerant groups.
As such, Rawls believes that the default state of a just (and therefore tolerant) society ought to be that it tolerates the intolerant, until it has any reason not to do so.
Such philosophical theorising has contemporary real-world implications, of course.
The ongoing free-speech debate and the concept of no-platforming is the political embodiment of this paradox.
When you allow a fascist, or a nazi, like Steve Bannon, the right to propagate their ideas far and wide, are you in fact laying the foundations for the overthrow of your society by these very actors?
Popper would suggest that Bannon be banned from any public discourse.
Rawls would ask that we deeply consider how much of a threat to our tolerant society Bannon poses, before we act.
However, what neither had the opportunity to consider, was the impact that fully democratised communication technology — the internet and social media — would have on the debate.
Because, though we can block the likes of Bannon from appearing at prestigious university talks or on television, neither is any longer a prerequisite for legitimacy, thanks to the internet.
If Bannon can direct his online troops through alternative media, if he can spread his poisonous message with or without the aid of “old” media and public appearances, then what point is there is banning him from those avenues?
Some suggest that by blocking off those routes, at least we’re doing something. We’re saying “you may have your internet minions, but your hate speech isn’t welcome in “polite” society”.
To a certain type of figure, that would be a silver bullet. Some, like Nigel Farage and Tommy Robinson, are desperate to be part of the mainstream agenda. Taking away that privilege will hurt them.
But on the other hand, doing this may instead result in the opposite effect. It further alienates, castrates, and you end up wounding a beast that is very much willing to retaliate.
Banning these hate-figures from talks and TV can create a siege mentality; that there is in fact a conspiracy against these sorts of ideas. It creates and enhances sub-cultures and groups like the alt-right, who then go off to their online forums to circle-jerk over their collective discrimination.
There isn’t an answer.
Neither Popper or Rawls can offer us a solution, because neither was working within the parameters of the dislocated and disparate, technology-fed system we now inhabit.
So instead, we must ponder and allow the answer to crystallise.
We must take heed of Popper’s own famous statement that “all life is problem solving”.
It will come, but the urgency is ever-growing.
Should we tolerate the intolerant?
Perhaps the question is; for how much longer will the intolerant tolerate us?
Jackson Rawlings is a political philosopher, writer and thinker with some big ideas about how we can change the world for the better.