“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance,” argued English philosopher Karl Popper in his work The Open Society and Its Enemies, revealing a moral paradox rooted in Plato’s dialogues.
Without going too far, Popper — Austrian-born British who saw first-hand the rise of Nazism and fled to New Zealand in 1937 — reflected in 1945 on the extent of argumentative passivity in society, especially when it gives rise to despotic behavior that eventually becomes “the will of the people.”
“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,” Popper wrote.
The thinker defended his position with the urgency of “rational arguments” to counteract unchecked intolerance and even suggested “suppressing them if necessary even by force,” since ensuring a “level of rational argument” is virtually impossible.
For Popper, the risk of uncontrolled intolerance was its potential to pave the way for the “benevolent despotism” that Plato once advocated.
Although all this may seem idle talk, Popper’s approaches have regained strength at a time when world politics has abandoned the midpoints, and tolerance and radicalism are taking their toll at both ends.
A May ’68, American style
The material and spiritual destruction that Europe suffered during the first half of the 20th century was not in vain. The questioning of the government’s systems, of supposedly “representative” democracy and the political surrender of Soviet communism, brought about a cultural and ideological revolution concentrated in France’s streets and exported to the entire globe.
The French on the streets rejected capitalism, consumerism, the then-famous “American imperialism” and the overthrow of traditional institutions. Philosophers, thinkers, critics, authors, and artists were all looking for a way out of political absolutism that fled from the idea of communism as if fleeing the Black Death.
That French ideological germ was not alone. It had an early echo in the American Summer of Love and its ensuing civil struggles in the streets.
As was the case at the time, but with the acceleration of the digitized world and its social networks, it seems that the arrival of Donald Trump in power has awakened this impugning germ, and transformed it into a genuine crisis of identity.
Who tolerates who?
Democrats and Republicans; liberals and conservatives; men and women; heterosexuals and LGBTQ; Whites and Blacks… The last six years have seen the ideological and moral continents further separated by a deep divide, as elected officials begin to resemble those bigots Popper warned of so cautiously.
It seems that, after fifty years of movements for simulated tolerance, muzzles have begun to fall one by one, revealing how civility has been a disguise under the cover of economic protectionism for those who know the impact of social upheaval on the stock market.
And then came Donald Trump, a man who personifies the archetype of the bigoted — racism, sexism, and despotism included.
Moreover, it seems that the American president has become the outlet for the intolerant tolerated for so many years, those who proudly raise the Confederate flag, who take pride in a family legacy that is a participant in the KKK, and who often cling to a cross and a historically blurred God to demand their constitutional rights.
While many denounced — before and after 9/11 — the incongruity of tolerating religious groups perceived as “intolerant” in the West, the post-Barack Obama transition seems to have reversed the pattern, and it is now people of color and immigrants who reject institutionalized protectionism to the radical white.
While European democracies have sanctioned the distribution of intolerant political messages — such as Holocaust denial or references to white nationalism — in the United States, citizens are protected by the principle of freedom of speech, which, with the emergence of social networks, has become the focus of heated debate.
Again, the presidency of Donald Trump is the best example of this.
It was not until pressure from Congress and the general public became untenable that platforms such as Twitter and Facebook decided to sanction private groups, pages inciting violence and racial hatred, and even comments by the president himself.
From discursive intolerance to political positioning
However, in the United States today, intolerance in speech is framed by a political stance — whether electoral or identity-based — and marked by a disturbing lack of judgment.
When Colin Kaepernick decided to make a stand breaking with the tradition of standing up to hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the third preseason game of the 49ers in 2016, the intolerant accused him of disrespect, in one of the unspoken examples of Popper’s paradox.
The professional soccer player’s argument had moral and political underpinnings based on personal experience.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said. “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
The intolerant – including the president – attacked the footballer’s gesture and suggested, “maybe he shouldn’t be in the country.”
Similarly, when state governments imposed a lockdown to control the new coronavirus pandemic and asked their citizens to wear masks to protect each other from a fatal respiratory syndrome for which there is no vaccine yet, the intolerant took to the streets demanding their right to a haircut.
While some may interpret the street demonstrations against pandemic control measures as a way to “make a stand,” a close assessment of the priorities and motivations, often associated with individual interests that obviate the collective emergency, is enough to disarm the argument.
And for apologists for “benevolent despotism,” the one that advocates from the White House “the freedom of speech” on the podium of hate and bluster, the suggestion is the same as 75 years ago: “We should claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”