Karl Popper is famous for a number of publications and ideas, but the one that has lodged most firmly in my head over the years is what is called Popper’s Paradox or The Paradox of Tolerance. It goes like this: if a society is so dedicated to tolerance and freedom of speech that it permits intolerant people to preach their intolerance freely, it runs the risk of allowing them to prevail, and thus losing its openness and tolerance. This is what happened to Weimar Germany, and some of us fear it’s happening to the US in recent years.
An absolutist interpretation of the First Amendment has been used for many years to protect the “free speech rights” even of those who unconditionally oppose both freedom and speech for selected demographics among their fellow citizens — women, LGBTQ, immigrants, people of colour, etc. America, confident in its (indirect and compromised but somewhat functional) democracy, therefore on principle allows Nazis to hold marches and rallies — and instinctively protects the most lunatic xenophobic, racist, misogynist, antisemitic, and homophobic ravings on the Internet.
For the average American, Censorship = Bad. And that’s all there is to it.
The First Amendment absolutist argument is simple and fairly convincing: if we allow the State to silence any particularly noxious political opinion today, that is a very dangerous power — one which could be used against your own political opinions or mine tomorrow. The cost of freedom… is that we must tolerate Nazis and other enemies of freedom. I have myself, for many decades, reluctantly conceded this point.
Popper, however — far more familiar with real, historical Nazis than we 21st century folks — warned us specifically about this absolutist defence of all speech regardless of content or intent (boldface mine):
Less well known [than other paradoxes] 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. — 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 most 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.
Karl had practical experience; he published this thought in 1945, when the strategy and tactics of totalitarianism were fresh in everyone’s minds. In hindsight he seems eerily prescient as well; could he possibly have known how frighteningly relevant his words would be in 2022?
Let’s revisit those conditions under which Popper warns us that tolerance of speech and expression is no longer a defensible absolute value: if intolerant people are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument. Could he have described the MAGA/QAnon phenomenon more accurately? Well, only by adding the next few words, 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.
“The intolerant” are no longer a smallish contingent of malcontents lurking in shady dives. They are mainstream. What we would once have considered a lunatic fringe seems to have captured one of the parties in the American political duopoly.
We now hear every day from this lunatic core that everything in the “mainstream media” is a lie, that all Democrats and liberals are criminals (indeed, they may be space aliens or paedophilic vampires!), that even non-Ultra Republicans are RINOs who should be purged from the Party or even shot, that any disconfirming information is by definition “fake news,” and that armed force is the only answer to political disagreement. Often, these sentiments are accompanied by images of grim-faced men with automatic or semi-automatic weapons.
There are elected representatives in high office repeating these slogans, soundbites, threats and conspiracy theories. Their more unhinged followers are starting to plan and execute violent attacks on opposing politicians.
We have reached the exact conditions under which Popper — staunch believer in the open society, the democratic process, and freedom of speech — believed it becomes necessary “not to tolerate the intolerant,” and indeed to exercise a right not to tolerate them.
The brouhaha over Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter and subsequent bizarre management decisions illustrates our current predicament with regard to tolerance. When Musk and his followers proudly trumpet the overarching absolutist value of “free speech,” the practical expression of that value is a torrent of racial, ethnic, and sexual slurs and abuse on the Twitter platform in fresh defiance of previous moderation policy.
Moderation policy is the site-internal, extralegal version of exercising Popper’s right not to tolerate the intolerant: for sufficiently ugly, hateful speech attacking other people, for verbal attacks based on their race, ethnicity, sexuality or gender, users may be banned or their posts removed.
By using such slurs (and by the context in which they are used) these users are both explicitly and implicitly advocating for intolerance, promoting bigotry and hate. They fall within the category of speech which Popper warned us we must not allow to flourish within a tolerant and open society, for fear that we may lose that tolerance and openness. We can and should, according to Popper, exercise a right not to tolerate the promotion of hate and intolerance. Karl Popper would thoroughly approve of rigorous moderation.
The influence of far-Right, Far White hate media online in modern politics substantiates Popper’s musings in every detail. The Ultra faction of the Republican party is indeed scheming to undo all the advances in tolerance and human rights that America has achieved in the last generation or so. Some of them are eager not only to ban abortion entirely, but to outlaw contraception, invalidate gay marriages and perhaps even return to a ban on interracial marriage. We face a rising wave of classic intolerance — intolerance based on gender, race, and religious zealotry — and that wave has been fuelled, fed, organised and increasingly weaponised by copious hateful speech… which we have, as a society, collectively tolerated because of our deep attachment to Free Speech as a foundational value.
As hateful speech morphs increasingly into hateful action — harassment, threats, intimidation, violence, an attempted autogolpe — I think it’s urgent that we engage seriously with Popper’s Paradox and its implications for our times. If we don’t do something to check the tsunami of white supremacist, misogynist, xenophobic, homophobic and neofascist propaganda saturating the airwaves and the internet, we may learn the lesson Karl Popper learned from the fall of Weimar, all over again.
If you liked this essay, it’s just possible that you might also enjoy…