On the Paradox of Tolerance

 or: The Violent Pacifist

In grad school, I spent quite a lot of time with John Rawls. Not only does his idea of the veil of ignorance help strip away a lot of the bullshit around justice and open avenues for better applied fairness within a reasoned society, but also a good friend (incidentally, still one of the smartest people I’ve ever had the privilege to know) is pretty much John Rawls’ fanboy Number One. (He knows who he is and I’m not calling him this in a disparaging way.) And since I try to play catch up with people smarter than I, I spent a fair amount of hours with A Theory of Justice (though likely fewer than I should have). Ergo, JR and I got decently well acquainted.

Of late, I’ve seen great and brilliant friends bandying about Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance. Popper asserts that, ultimately, applied tolerance requires intolerance of the intolerant. This starts to sound like Dr. Seuss Goes to The Hague, so let me use Popper’s own words (emphasis mine).

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.

We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.

The Open Society and Its Enemies, 1945

Rawls countered, some significant years later, that absolute intolerance of the intolerant would lead to an intolerant society writ large. In other words, if we are absolutist toward intolerance, we threaten to become that which we seek to reject. Rawls argues that only in times that intolerance undermines the security and institutions of liberty should a just society treat intolerance as an existential threat.

With the recent and rapid developments regarding Muslim refugees and travel bans, I now argue that our tolerant society is on the precipice of that existential threat which Rawls outlined. Dissent and discussion are vital aspects to any reasonably democratic society – I say “reasonably” because the United States was just downgraded to a “Flawed Democracy” from “Full Democracy” by The Economist Intelligence Unit – but with a religion-based move to ban immigration and the freedom of travel brought down upon the United States, we have surpassed the time for discussion of the degrees of tolerance. Our leadership is wholly intolerant, not only of Muslims and, generally speaking, brown folk, women, and more, but of the foundational ideas of discourse that could once counteract the effects of intolerance and hate of an out-group. This is evinced by this fuckwit‘s personal adulation of Darth Fucking Vader and, of course, his disdain for the Fourth Estate.

With all that has happened, it has become apparent to me that while some of those who supported the Cockwomble in Chief are deeply (and rightly, though painfully belatedly) regretting their decision, others are becoming more assured in their moral misstep, fomenting their own intolerance into something of a bilious art form. As someone who has long been respectful of Rawls’ warnings outlined above, I have tried to maintain the idea that intolerance of intolerance is an untenable position from which to examine our current state. That is, I’ve read and heard your bullshit and while I will disagree (and loudly), I have had no desire to remove you intolerant folk from my life. Of all the venial evils of the world, hypocrisy is the most offensive to me.

That said, it is important to note the following:

mindyourpsandqsIntolerant and hateful people are not welcome in my home. Even if you mind your Ps and Qs around me or toward me, make no mistake that I know who you are and what you think. You are not welcome on my property, you are not welcome in my life so long as you maintain this morally corrupt view. This is less because I am intolerant of your views quite so as much as you represent – and in fact are – an existential threat to the (relatively) just society in which we all once coexisted.

This whole post, I am well aware, will fall prey to the stubborn deafness of those for whom it is intended. There is nothing so frustrating as living out Hannah Arendt’s warnings regarding the logic and lies of authoritarians, not because I don’t believe in reason, but because I’m stubbornly committed to trying to use it in the face of obvious and willful ignorance.

In the meantime, I’ll be out back cleaning the barn.


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