Opinion: The paradox of tolerance

Matthew Olienechak

I don’t think I need to be the one to tell you that our national climate has been a bit tense lately.

Even the most uninformed among us could tell you that our nation is one divided, be that via political lines or any other number of hot-topic issues. 

Certainly, one of the most pressing of those issues is how to deal with the rise of white nationalism, a construct pushed to the forefront of public consciousness by recent events. 

Philosopher Karl Popper grappled with this issue in his work “The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 1,” written during the final year of World War II.

In the piece, he ponders how a tolerant society deals with its intolerant members.

If the tolerant do not tolerate the beliefs of the intolerant, then they betray those ideals that they seek to uphold. But if the intolerant are shown tolerance, then they will cast aside the tolerant alongside the very tolerance they were trying to save. 

That paradox seems particularly relevant today where the “alt-right” openly fights against antifa and other leftist groups in a war of ideas.

Neither side is willing to compromise, if a compromise is even possible. These aren’t academics debating the various merits of differing political theories; these are everyday citizens arguing their chosen ideology.

Both are diametrically opposed and utterly convinced of their own righteousness. They are not going to back down until their side wins or is destroyed.

The difference, however, is what those absolute beliefs actually are.

On one side, we have the white nationalist. Possessed by the belief that their ethnicity somehow dictates their superiority over those of differing races. They call for violence ranging from deportation of the undesirable to the ultimate expression of hate: genocide.

And do not mistake it for anything other than hate, least of all some valid manifestation of their “freedom of speech.” 

On the other, we have those whose main goal is preventing the proliferation of that hateful rhetoric. Of course, there are various beliefs making up that movement, like socialism, equality and anti-capitalism.

Yet, not a single one of those seeks to deny an individual their humanity, let alone call for their extermination.

Do I think that society should condone the violent actions they take in pursuit of those beliefs? I honestly do not think that’s my place to say.

However, I would like to point out that we have no issue praising those brave men who stormed the beaches of Normandy to take on of the greatest evils this world has ever known, or those who stood against police and the U.S. National Guard alike to protest against a society that violently discriminated against them on the color of their skin alone.

No, I think that, regardless of our present feelings on the matter, history will look upon the counterprotesters kindly.

I feel that Popper would certainly share a fondness for them, at least.  His final thoughts on the paradox of tolerance was that a tolerant society was morally obligated to fight back against those who would seek to do away with ideals of tolerance, regardless of potential hypocrisy.

To quote Popper: “We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”

I, for one, think those are wise words to live by.  

Matthew Olienechak is a columnist, contact him at [email protected].