Should We Tolerate the Intolerant?

Karl Popper's 'paradox of tolerance' has been reemerging, for good reason.

Should We Tolerate the Intolerant?
A member of the Ku Klux Klan shouts at counter protesters during a rally, calling for the protection of Southern Confederate monuments, in Charlottesville, Virginia on July 8, 2017. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

Does free speech have a limit? This question has been repeatedly asked since the birth of the Internet. Ok, it’s been asked for thousands of years, but online communications have made it all the more pertinent. 

We’re well aware of the dangers of trolling and the growing lack of critical thinking in an age of short attention spans. But when is enough enough? When is too much really too much? Vienna-born philosopher Karl Popper devoted a lot of time to this critical question, and his response, published over seven decades ago in the classic, The Open Society and Its Enemies, is worth revisiting. 

Karl’s father, Simon, was literally a Bohemian, as in being born in Bohemia, providing a fitting parallel to Karl’s upbringing. His family was Jewish but converted to Lutheranism shortly before his birth. Being secular they were not concerned with religion, yet were occupied with social positioning. Staring down the barrel of World War II, however, Karl’s ancestry did not protect him from growing anti-Semitic sentiments. He emigrated to New Zealand. 

Distance from Europe allowed him to write The Open Society, though a paper shortage during the war made it impossible for him to find a publisher. The subject matter did not help his cause. Popper’s scathing critique of three pillars of Western thought—Plato, Hegel, and Marx—was not readily accepted. Long story short, Routledge, based in London (where he would eventually settle), published it in two volumes in 1945. Today the book is considered one of the twentieth century’s most important philosophical works. 

Popper felt that centuries of fawning over Plato’s ideas allowed scholars to miss overt totalitarian themes. For example, the notion that one great man is worth more than collections of mediocre men create the conditions for tyranny. He is equally unforgiving of Hegel and Marx. While his reasons vary from thinker to thinker, he believes this trinity is guilty of promoting totalitarian ideology. 

Popper is not without his critiques. By decoupling Plato from Socrates critics feel he missed central points. But we’ll leave aside broader themes to home in on the ‘paradox of freedom,’ which Popper attributes to Plato: What if the free man elects a tyrant? What if a democracy willingly places into power someone who will destroy their freedom? 

Popper quotes a number of instances in the Republic in which Plato states that only democracy has the potential to lead to tyranny, “since it leaves the bully free to enslave the meek.” Popper follows this with one of his most famous assertions: 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. 

Popper memes usually end here. Yet what he follows it up with is equally informative. He does not advise suppressing the intolerant. Let them speak, he says, as society’s rational mechanisms and popular opinion will have their way with such bigoted sentiments. Apparently Popper never met Alex Jones.

And still, like Gandhi, Popper knew violence was sometimes unavoidable. Popper went a step further: if the intolerant persist, if they refuse to even listen to arguments put forward by opposing factions, then we must stop them by “fists or pistols.” He concludes,

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. 

In the end Popper hopes for a government that provides equal protection to all parties willing to tolerate opposing ideas, which is, in many ways, at the heart of a liberal democracy. Each party should be held accountable to the public—a public, he feels, that should be reliably informed through the media. 

Sounds so nice on paper. It would be interesting to see how Popper would respond to the Internet. He lived until 1994, but his ideas have to be reconsidered in light of anonymous movements, trolls, and election manipulation by foreign hackers. That an open society would ever be this open requires a new definition of tolerance. 

Unfortunately, there is no overarching sentiment of what should or should not be tolerated. In his extensive book on human behavior, Behave, Robert Sapolsky scours the data on the formation of morals. Sifting through many conflicting claims, he writes, 

Our moral intuitions are neither primordial nor reflexively primitive. They are the end products of learning; they are cognitive conclusions to which we have been exposed so often that they have become automatic.

In the West we’ve generally agreed that slavery, child labor, and animal cruelty are non-starters, even though segments of the population haven’t read the news (or read "alternative facts"). Add genetic superiority—essentialism, the lingo goes—to that list. Gut instincts are dependent upon learning, and what we learn is relative to the time and place we live, the people we surround ourselves with, what we pay attention to.

This does not imply that morality is a free-for-all, though. Politics is the legislation of morality, yet when politicians express outright intolerance we have to turn to our better angels for guidance. Sure, we can debate moral minutia, but what’s blatant cannot be ignored. And lately American culture has been rather blatant.

Popper knew that letting all voices to the table ruins the feast. Instead of communing together we dine upon each other. That’s the paradox we’re currently living through, and so long as we let “all sides” be treated as equal, progress will forever be stunted. 


Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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