On Tolerance

Karl Popper famously said that intolerance shouldn't be tolerated.

This thought seems to be widely understood nowadays. The question, of course, is whether we are so wise and morally superior to our 1930 counterparts that we would stop Hitler before he could do any harm or whether we just use Popper's advice as a convenient pretext for hating whoever disagrees with us, very much like people in 1930's did.

Because, and that's not often stressed, Popper's maxim presupposes that we are, in essence, tolerant.

It says that we should tolerate everything by default, intolerance being the single exception to that rule.

Yes, it sounds easy. But then you are cast into the real world and things cease to be black and white. You see all shades of grey and you are not sure. You surely won't tolerate a neo-Nazi with a swastika tattoo and a baseball bat. But what about a guy who sieg-heils but doesn't beat people to a pulp? Well, he may not be beating anyone personally, but he's inciting others to do it. So let's not tolerate him. Good. What about a guy who doesn't incite anyone to anything but believes that Jews are an inferior race? No, that's not right. Let's not tolerate him either. What about this other guy who doesn't say anything about inferiority, but who uses rethoric similar to that of the previous guy. Well, let's be on the safe side and not tolerate him either. Next guy is a mathematics professor. He doesn't really say anything. But he writes books and uses term "bell curve" a lot. Let's punch him in the face.

Popper's maxim cuts both ways: You should not tolerate intolerance, but by not tolerating a lot of people you become intolerant yourself.

And once you are intolerant, everyone else, backed by the very same Popper's maxim, is free not to tolerate you.

Look at it from a different angle: Imagine a society with 1% of "hang rich on the lampposts" leftists and 1% of genuine "blood and soil" rightists. Those 2% live in a constant state of war. They are hated by everyone else. They are frequently interrogated by police. They are getting jailed. Remaining 98% is relatively safe though. There are 2% of dangerous people, but police can keep those at bay.

Now imagine that population becomes more virtuous, or to put it differently, less tolerant. It tightens its standards and instead of small 1% fringes we suddenly have 5% of leftist thugs and 5% or rightist henchmen. And now, with such a strong popular support it's time to jail all of them! And while everybody rejoices that extremists are being rightfully punished, police has troubles keeping up. Jails are full, but crime rate still increases.

At 10% people start worrying about speaking their minds for a fear of being mistaken for an extremist. That jerk in your office who used to be annoying but harmless once is now carefully listening to everything you say and if he can find a way to twist is so that it looks like an extremist statement he'll report you to the secret police. You start fearing knocking on the door in the middle of the night.

At 15% people finally realize that no amount of caution about what they say will save them. They secure themselves by forming allegiances with the powerful. Full subservience in return for safety from the secret police or, for that matter, from the extremists on the other side. And hey, if you don't swear allegiance your kids are not going to be admitted to the college.

At 20% at each fringe all the hell breaks loose. You hear gunfire at night. The "who's not with us is against us" attitude takes over. You are forced to choose either left of right. If you don't you are dead meat. Your family is dead meat as well.

Finally, there's 50% at each fringe and nothing in the middle. At night you watch TV and the news anchor calls it a civil war.

So, to get back to Popper and finding the elusive line between what you tolerate and what you don't: It is you who's going to decide. You have a free will and a mind to reason. Nobody is going to make this decision for you. It would be nice if some kind of moral superman arrived out of the blue and told you what to do. But he won't. You are left alone to choose.

And here's my plea: When deciding whether to tolerate someone or not, don't make the decision lightly. Yes, they may be wrong. They may be morally repugnant. But before deciding not to tolerate them ask yourself whether it's worth making a small step towards a civil war.

If it is, then by all means punch them. Do punch them hard.

But if not so, overcome your disgust and tolerate them.

Because you can choose to be super virtuous and not tolerate a smallest bit of ideological impurity. You don't have to tolerate anyone, if that's what it takes. But then one day the Nazis will come for you and there will be nobody to fight for you.

Martin Sústrik, August 17th, 2017

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