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Paradox of tolerance

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When I am weaker than you, I ask you for freedom because that is according to your principles; when I am stronger than you, I take away your freedom because that is according to my principles.
—Quote commonly misattributed to French philosopher Louis Veuillot

The Paradox of Tolerance is a concept advanced by the philosopher Karl Popper which claims that unlimited tolerance necessarily results in the destruction of the tolerant by the intolerant, resulting in a society in which tolerance is no longer possible. Therefore, while paradoxical to the concept of free speech, it is necessary to be intolerant of intolerance. The concept is important in discussions on free speech, its limits (if they exist), and to whom the right to speak must be afforded — generating endless controversy and bad arguments from people of all colours of the political spectrum.

What Popper actually said[edit]

There is a degree of misunderstanding regarding the tolerance paradox, since Popper is not always quoted in full. This is his 1945 statement:

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.[1]

Effectively, some people are prepared to abandon the realm of logic and reason, instead turning to violence. If society tolerates violence for tolerance's sake, the result is that this society engenders its own extinction. With the demise of the tolerant, the bigots and hate preachers of society will prevail. Therefore, in his opinion, it is valid to suppress such agitators before they take advantage of and destroy the society that extended them the benefit of the doubt (effectively stopping them from biting the hand that fed them, by not feeding them at all). This is why even in countries that allow freedom of expression to a liberal degree, there are some restrictions, such as the incitement of violence. A good example would be the radical Islamic cleric Anjem Choudary, who was jailed in the UK for violent speech.[2]

It makes sense, doesn't it? Free speech is all fine and dandy, but let's stretch that to the limit. A and B are promoting their ideologies. A-ism is based on reasoned arguments — they may not yield correct conclusions, or they may, but A is speaking in good faith. B-ism is based on calls to violence and insurrection. If both are afforded the right to speak freely, modelling things out, B will necessarily inflict violence, or threats of such, on A — but violence and violent threats have the effect of silencing others, which indirectly impedes their right to speak freely — you are not 'free' to speak if someone will hurt you for doing so! Thus, free will is replaced with coercion, and society suffers as a result.


Unfortunately, the name of the concept has made it ripe for abuse and misuse by moonbats and wingnuts alike. Some on the right use similar logic to the "everyone is racist" argument, stating that because no one can be perfectly tolerant, the concept of tolerance is tenuous to begin with, and this gives them free reign to oppress groups that don't align with their ideal society — namely women and ethnic minorities (this becomes especially true in the case of white nationalists). "Everyone is intolerant, at least we admit it,"[3] they might claim, which confuses internal consistency with rationality — simply having a consistent moral framework doesn't mean that those morals are good. In addition, there is an argument for pre-emptive suppression of groups that are likely to turn violent — the alt-right, for example, may not be consistently violent, but there has been an uptick in attention paid to right-wing terrorism recently. Should we tolerate at the cost of lives? (Or is that a false dilemma?)

Likewise, many liberals and others on the left make the argument that because of the paradox of tolerance, intolerant views cannot be tolerated, and this is thus to be used as a defence against intolerant views. The keyword here — intolerant — being however they choose to define it, making for some interesting takes, to say the least. However, it too is based on a fallacy if used as an argument for censorship, since Popper explicitly states that he considered such laws to be unwise. In defence of deplatforming, Popper is often quote-mined[4] to suggest that the default position on intolerance is suppression, when this really only applies to violence (for which the definition and extent are up for debate). And ironically enough, given that some communists argue for 'violent revolution' and joke about 'killing/eating' the rich, this actually hurts them as well as the far-right.

Joseph Goebbels[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Joseph Goebbels

Nazi Minister of Propaganda Goebbels was well aware of this paradox as early as 1935 and exploited it to the Nazi Party's advantage:[5][6]

This will always remain one of the best jokes of democracy, that it gave its deadly enemies the means by which it was destroyed.
(Das wird immer einer der besten Witze der Demokratie bleiben, daß sie ihren Todfeinden die Mittel selber stellte, durch die sie vernichtet wurde.)

The point?[edit]

Free speech, like any other right, ends where other rights begin.

See also[edit]

Want to read this in another language?[edit]

Se você procura pelo artigo em Português, ver Paradoxo da tolerância.

External links[edit]

  • Toleration at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


  1. The Open Society and Its Enemies. Volume 2: Hegel and Marx by Karl Popper (1966) Routledge. ISBN 069101972X. 5th edition. Note 4 of Chapter 7.
  2. Radical cleric Anjem Choudary guilty of inviting IS support. BBC, 16 August 2016.
  3. Why the "Paradox of Tolerance" Is No Excuse for Attacking Free Speech. Foundation for Economic Education, 21 August 2017.
  4. The Paradox of Tolerance. Reddit.
  5. Intolerant Democracies by Gregory H. Fox & Georg Nolte 1995) Harvard International Law Journal 36(1):1-70.
  6. Hans Schwarz van Berk, Die Dummheit der Demokratie. In: Joseph Goebbels (Autor), Hans Schwarz van Berk (Hrsg.), Der Angriff, Aufsätze aus der Kampfzeit, Franz Eher Nachf., München 1935, S. 61.