The Paradox of Tolerance

“Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.” –Mahatma Gandhi

America was founded on the principles of freedom and tolerance of differing beliefs, but we seem to be at a crossroads.  How tolerant can we be to the hate and violence that seems to permeate our media. defines tolerance as, “The ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.”  The problem is that when we have tolerance of intolerance, the problem doesn’t go away and those who are intolerant become emboldened.  Karl Popper wrote the book, The Open Society and Its Enemies while in political exile during WWII.  The two-volume book was published in 1945.  The book has been called a philosophical defense of the importance of democracy.  One of the points he discusses is the paradox of tolerance.  Popper states, “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.  There is a major point here.   Can we be tolerant of intolerance?  How do we change intolerance?  Peace and acceptance of differences depends on us, as a society, coming to consensus on when to be tolerant and when to be intolerant.  To me it comes down to a simple question.  Does the intolerance cause suffering for someone else?  If the answer is yes, someone is suffering due to intolerance, then we need to be intolerant of their intolerance.  If there is no suffering, then it can be tolerated.  I can be tolerant of other’s opinions and beliefs, but if their words, actions or behaviors cause suffering to another person, that becomes intolerable and must be addressed.  Popper goes on to state, “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.”

What would the world look like if every individual spoke out about intolerance which causes suffering?  It is time.  Our future depends on the choices we make today.  Peace can only happen when we are truly tolerant of everyone and intolerance is not tolerated.

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