Karl Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance and What It Teaches Us About Political Polarization

Nick Shereikis
November 17, 2021

If you've paid any attention to American politics lately, or even lived in the country for longer than a week, you might have noticed that it can be pretty difficult to reverse the disease that is tribalism. It's an inherently complicated problem, especially given the almost definitional complexity of connecting two individuals who have themselves chosen to segregate. And, for many, it stems from a belief that cross-partisan conversation is fundamentally pointless.

So the obvious question here is as follows: how, and why, am I expected to have a civil conversation with someone who might refuse my right to exist or threaten my identity? It’s a phenomenal challenge to the feasibility of dialogue, and one that we need to answer in its totality if we want to move forward.

It’s in light of this consideration that I am reminded of Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance. Popper, an Austrian-born British philosopher and social commentator, wrote on a diverse array of epistemological political issues — including the concept of tolerance, and its applicability to political thought.

Popper spent significant energy working to reconcile several contrary political ideologies — socialism, classical liberalism, libertarianism, and conservatism — into one cohesive political philosophy to support liberal democracy. It’s his 1945 work, “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” that’s directly relevant to this discussion of polarization, which Popper published in direct response to the outbreak of Nazism and, consequently, World War II. In it, he prescribes a simple course of action to take in situations where we are encouraged to tolerate intolerance: don’t.

“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...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.”

In summary, if we demand uninhibited tolerance, we are forced to tolerate even the most oppressive and unfounded ideologies in our society — and, consequently, we provide a tacit endorsement of those values. Subsequently, we must retain the right to ignore or censor the intolerant, or risk harming our most vulnerable citizens.

So, then, here’s the answer to our dilemma. We are obliged to engage in conversation and debate to safeguard our open society, but not to engage with anyone unwilling or uninterested in broad rational dialogue. If we’re asked to tolerate an idea or policy that operates at the expense of someone else’s existence or well-being — i.e., any supremacist ideology, or any other thought that threatens someone’s existence on basis of identity — our obligation is actually not to tolerate it, in the name of maintaining democratic ideals.

Conversation, as an answer to political polarization, is not an outright solution. It’s just one element of a much larger strategy, and I hope you'll join us on this journey.

Our Newsletter

Subscribe to our newsletter for alerts about new blog posts, notifications when podcast episodes are published, and more.