Mike the Mad Biologist

Sunday Sermon: Popper on Intolerance

Here’s an interesting little bit about intolerance by Karl Popper from The Open Society and Its Enemies: The Spell of Plato:

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 most 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. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.

Argue away.

Comments

  1. #1 Tyler DiPietro
    February 25, 2007

    I think Popper’s core argument is sound, but his overall argument is too far reaching. One thing you always have to worry about is what exactly is considered “intolerant”, as there is always the chance that such a zeal to eliminate it could bite you in the ass: case in point, the EU and their rush to pass laws prohibiting “defamation of religion”.

    Sometimes you are justified in suppressing freedom of speech for the reasons Popper mentioned. I think it would be difficult to argue, for instance, that the De-Nazification of Europe immediately following WWII, in which people promoting Nazi/Fascist ideology were jailed to prevent provocation, was not justified. The iffyness comes, however, when you have the current situation in Europe. I think the laws banning Nazi imagery and Holocaust Denial have outlived their purpose in Europe and now consistitute and unnecessary abridgement of freedom of speech, but they remain on the books and are unlikely to be removed.

  2. #2 qetzal
    February 25, 2007

    We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.

    Wrong, wrong, wrong. (Is that intolerant?)

    Incitement to commit crimes should be criminal. That’s why incitement to murder & kidnapping are crimes.

    Incitement to simply “be intolerant” should not, per se, be a crime. Incitement to actually commit criminal acts due to intolerance should be prosecuted.

    Example: if Mr. X argues that people of a certain race are generally bad people, he is being intolerant and deserves to be denounced, but he should not be prosecuted as a criminal. If he actively incites others to act illegally against people of that race, he’s commited a crime and should be prosecuted.

  3. #3 Corkscrew
    February 25, 2007

    I’d say, and I think this is what Popper is getting at, that intolerance isn’t so much a matter of what you say as the means you use to say it.

    So, disliking religion cannot possibly be intolerant unless you express your feelings in some fashion. Saying you dislike religion isn’t intolerant because religion can happily say in response that it’s not keen on you either. Going out and shooting a bunch of religious people, by contrast, would be very intolerant, because it inhibits rather than aids this fundamental quality of openness. It is hard to be open about your views when they may get you shot.

    What Popper seems to be drawing our attention to is the issue of organised intolerance. So, for example, whilst a preacher may never have so much as swatted a fly in their entire life, their words may directly encourage lots of people to go kill infidels. In this situation, the only appropriate response is something broadly analogous to a RICO statute – a legal defence against people who, whilst individually law-abiding, nonetheless have blood on their hands.

    Yes, there is an issue here as to how to draw the line. But I would say that it’s less an issue of any inherent fuzziness to the situation than it is a lack of clarity on what concepts like openness mean and why they’re important.

  4. #4 derek
    February 25, 2007

    Popper failed to predict that the intolerant would be able to devalue all argument, not by their fists, but by simply talking utter nonsense and claiming the right to “have the debate”, “teach the controversy”, and “tell all sides”.

    Hence the modern giant media corporations.

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