So you think you’re tolerant: the paradox of tolerance

August 10, 2018

College students live in a near-constant state of paradox. We’re supposed to be pushing boundaries while also following the blueprint for success. We’re in a time of transition, but are expected to grow roots nevertheless. One particularly stark example is the idea which philosopher Karl Popper so aptly termed the “paradox of tolerance.” We regularly see this presented by college students clamoring for a nouveau culture of tolerance — encouraging the practices of compassion, understanding, and empathy above all else. But all of this comes with the caveat that it only be the specific brand of tolerance of these students. This painfully undermines the entire premise of “tolerance.”

It is this widespread embrace of “tolerance” as an absolute ideal which results in Popper’s “paradox of tolerance.” His principle states that humans naturally struggle to be tolerant of everything because being wholly tolerant requires tolerating those who are intolerant. Therein lies the paradox. The fact that tolerance so easily leads to this paradox means many people actually advocate against full tolerance — and thus, advocate for intolerance to be the norm. This is plainly concerning and flies in the face of the empathy and compassion college students tend to preach.

A good example for more deeply examining this phenomenon is the disinvitation of speakers on college campuses. Students, like many of my peers at Georgetown, call for speakers to be disinvited or to not speak because they hope to limit the bounds of acceptable discourse in the name of social progress. Simultaneously, many of these same students call for increased tolerance of various cultures and attitudes, many of which may not have traditionally or historically been accepted into mainstream thought.

There is a deep irony here. So much social progress was the direct result of robust free speech protections that provided tools that historically marginalized groups were able to use to challenge the status quo to ultimately win societal acceptance. Without that culture of free expression, those marginalized groups and their visions of a fairer society may never have gained acceptance.

It is for this reason that college students should not shut down people with ideas they find offensive. It is an exercise in empathy to attempt to understand from where hateful or disgusting ideas arise.

Rather than arguing that certain people should not be granted platforms at college campuses, we should employ other, more effective tactics — and ones that don’t allow attention-seeking provocateurs to claim to be “free-speech martyrs.” If an idea is so atrocious that we believe it is dangerous to the welfare of our society, we can do several things. First, we can ignore it. A fire does not burn in a vacuum. Second, we can respond articulately and reasonably. Whether this means counter-protesting, publishing refutations, publicly calling out half-truths and lies, or simply asking someone questions until their position falls apart, we do have recourse. Third, we can use humor or parody to poke holes in their ideas and subvert their stature.  

Paradoxes are natural, so we must exist in the tension they create, rather than letting ourselves be defeated by them. Rather than succumbing to the paradox of tolerance and embracing intolerance, we must be tolerant of all ideas. As Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Emma Vahey is a rising junior at Georgetown University and FIRE summer intern