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Monday, January 21, 2013

Misquoting Popper: Tolerating Intolerance

"The doctrine of toleration requires a positive as well as a negative statement. It is not only wrong to burn a man on account of his creed, but it is right to encourage the open avowal and defence of every opinion sincerely maintained. Every man who says frankly and fully what he thinks is so far doing a public service. We should be grateful to him for attacking most unsparingly our most cherished opinions." - Leslie Stephen

***

A Karl Popper quote I've seen used in many places:

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

I have seen this quoted simplistically to justify being intolerant of tolerance.

Yet, a look at the context reveals that Popper's condition was more subtle:

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. 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.

--- The Open Society and Its Enemies

In other words, the sort of intolerance Popper is against tolerating involves at least one or preferably both of the following:

- Those who refuse to engage in rational argument, or even denounce argument
- Those who reply to rational argument with violence

In this light, we go to meta-meta-tolerance (i.e. should we tolerate intolerance about 'intolerance'?)

For example, death threats against those who oppose gay marriage.
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