What did Popper actually believe about speech and tolerance in a liberal, pluralistic society?
Karl Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance has gotten a lot of attention lately. With good reason: We Americans are wondering what to do with the neo‐Nazis among us. Maybe we’d like to tolerate intolerant views, but isn’t that risky?
Popper spoke to that fear when he wrote:
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.
But this passage – in a footnote to volume 1 of The Open Society and Its Enemies – isn’t his clearest, and it’s been grossly abused by both the far left and the far right.
The far right reads it and says: “See? Even tolerance itself is intolerant! So let’s persecute whomever we please. Unlike so‐called ‘tolerant’ people, we’re not being hypocrites!”
And by this thin, almost imperceptible difference, they imagine themselves the moral superiors.
This though is a gross misreading of Popper. The liberal society that defends itself in the face of deadly violence is in no way comparable to the groups that would destroy it.
That’s because to preserve itself, a liberal society first tries things like rational thought, open debate, voting, and a system of laws that allow even odious beliefs to be explored and held without fear of persecution. Liberals reach for violence only as a last resort, if ever, and only when the preferable methods have failed. We use violence only rarely and only defensively, with the aim of returning to a more civilized mode of existence as soon as we possibly can.
For illiberal groups, violence is not the last resort. It is the first resort, or nearly so. Popper’s paradox notwithstanding, there is a world of moral difference here.
With one exception: it should not tolerate intolerance itself.
But Popper never believed anything like this. Rather, he wrote:
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.
This is no warrant here for laws against hate speech. On the contrary, Popper appears to have called such laws “unwise.”
To Popper, intolerance is not to be deployed when the utterance of intolerant ideas might make you uncomfortable, or when those ideas seem impolite, or when they get you really mad. Intolerance – if that’s the right word for it – is only warranted when we are already facing “fists and pistols,” or, presumably, worse.
We know this not merely from a close reading of the passages I’ve quoted, but from a look at The Open Society and Its Enemies more broadly. The entire book is an exposition of intolerant ideas, a dissection of them, and a sustained, reasoned defense of pluralism. Here Popper proved himself liberal; his first resort was to make a rational argument. It was only in a footnote that he considered the possibility of using violence, and he did so with obvious disdain.
Liberals must resolve always to prefer reason and argument to violence. To deviate from this principle is to invert the moral preference hierarchy that gives liberalism its superiority in the first place. It is to become akin to our enemies, at least in our choice of methods. To do so is to concede to the far right its charge of hypocrisy.
Now, occasionally reaching for intolerant methods, that is, reaching for self‐defense in the face of a threat to the liberal order, may mean the renunciation of a kind of philosophical consistency. It is far from clear, however, that this is so damning to Popper’s way of thinking. Elsewhere in the same work Popper argued that all forms of sovereignty entail inconsistency, and liberal sovereignty no less than any other. He held this to be the result of a deep confusion in the history of political thought, one that wrongly made the state the ordering principle of our social life. His paradox of tolerance aimed to support this claim.
My anarchist friends may find themselves nodding in agreement here. I don’t think that they would be wrong, even while Popper was no anarchist: He hoped, rather, for a liberal society in which the state had a limited and auxiliary role, not a directing one. Understood correctly, Popper is an ally neither of the far right nor of the far left, but of classical liberals like F. A. Hayek. To make him a friend of hate speech laws, or worse, of persecution, is to distort his thought beyond recognition.
How useful is the paradox of tolerance? In practice, an effective defense of a tolerant society is almost always straighforwardly compatible with the practice tolerance itself. The paradox only rarely arises. Still, in a few extreme cases, and if we use a tendentious definition of the word “intolerance” – one that defines self‐defense as intolerance – then yes, tolerance and intolerance may have a superficial resemblance. But it’s possible to make too much of that, and many people certainly have.