To Tolerate or Not… To Tolerate


It is often said that we should tolerate other people’s opinions and I agree that should be so; however, I question whether that tolerance can be extended to open and public expressions of hate and intolerance. I guess what I am asking here is

“Is tolerant to tolerate the intolerant?”

Allow me to quote Karl Popper:

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.**

In an effort to illustrate let me use what I hope is a wildly insane scenario:

Would it be acceptable to stand idly by and watch a large strong man dominate and intimidate a weak person? Perhaps, a woman? a child? or, a disabled person? And if we do stand idly by watching this are we simply being tolerant? And if that is tolerance then where will the abuse of the vulnerable by intolerant persons end?

More specifically, should we as a society tolerate the public display, even on private property but still a public display for all to see of symbols of absolute hate: say the NAZI Swastika♠︎. That is, should displays that are clearly intended to intimidate others and promote the emboldening of those who would like to become openly intolerant of their neighbors… should this be passively tolerated because “We are a tolerant people,” or because “We have to allow others to have the same rights as we do.”

While I agree that we should respect the rights of others that should not be extended to granting them rights to intimidate others because such intimidation is prima facie-on he face of it-an outright attempt to take away the rights from others through fear and intimidation: rights that they demand for themselves at the expense of others. I decidedly do not believe that tolerating the intolerant is tolerant. I believe it is a form of complicity with their intolerance.

Is there a danger of becoming that which we fight if we resist intolerance? Sure, of course there is always dangers in any action of conscience. We must always act out of love and concern for the vulnerable for they cannot act for themselves. This resisting without becoming that which we resist is always a struggle we must ever fight. But in cases of tolerating the open display of pure symbols of hate and intolerance such as the NAZI Swastika displayed in a fully public forum (whether that forum is one’s own front yard) I contend that not to openly struggle to counter this open display of hate and intimidation is to become complicit with it. 

Martin Niemöller is famous for having said: 

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

It is my contention that to tolerate such symbols of hate as the NAZI flag is to assist in laying the ground for “Their coming for…” whomever. Today in America it is the “Mexicans” and the “Muslims” who will it be next? You? or maybe even me? And where will we be if we tolerate their open displays of intolerance? Could that end up being an American Auschwitz or a Treblinka perhaps? Yes, I do believe these are real, very real threats to what has become the “ideal” of America.

In the 1987 (some 30 years ago) the Fairness Doctrine (which guaranteed that if a broadcast medium presented a controversial opinion then they would have to provide, cost-free, time to an opponent of that controversial opinion.) An entire generation has now been birthed and matured into the fullness of adulthood (many who now have teenagers of their own) who were not even alive when hate speech, á la Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Andrew Breitbart/Steve Bannon, The Drudge Report and many others, became tacitly legalized in this “land of the free and home of the brave.” This type of speech, that those of this ilk, could never have become the rule instead of the exception except for the doctrine that “we must tolerate the opinions of others” except for the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine which had served this nation well for some 50+ years prior to that repeal by inhibiting open displays of hate and intolerance. Now within 30 years after removing the constraints on such hate speech and displays of intolerance we have an administration that is clearly molesting large segments of our society with impunity.

This level of tolerance has gotten us the Donald J. Trump presidency and people openly displaying NAZI hate symbols in the full view of all to see.

When, I ask, does tolerance of the intolerant become intolerant itself? I submit that it is as soon as we begin to tolerate the open displays of intolerance.

Or as appropriated from a friend:

The only thing tolerance cannot tolerate is intolerance. If intolerance is allowed, it destroys any tolerance that may exist.

♠︎      If you are not sure of what this symbol represents check out such
works as:

      Hannah Arendt’s
               The Origins of Totalitarianism
      available online at:
      George L. Mosse’s
               The Nationalization of the Masses
               Nazism: A History and Comparative of National Socialism
** Philosopher Karl Popper defined the paradox in 1945 in The Open Society and Its Enemies Vol. 1 (in note 4 to Chapter 7).

Roger Willis Mills II

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