One of the cornerstones of American democracy is the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, the principle that any individual can voice their ideas and opinions without the threat of censorship or other legal repercussions. But what if those personal philosophies harbor hatred toward others or aim to suppress their freedoms? To restrict the First Amendment rights of individuals who use that very right to limit it in others would seemingly contradict the principle of freedom of speech altogether.
This issue is a primary point of contention in a political philosophy puzzle known as the paradox of tolerance. The First Amendment entitles everyone to their own opinions, but there will inevitably be ideas that do not align with socially accepted norms. Extreme ideologies can present a real danger to society and, more often, certain minority populations. For example, hate speech directed at ethnic and religious minorities stresses disapproval of their differences and often threatens violence. While people hold the right to think and speak intolerant ideas, others are free to disagree. The paradox of tolerance questions at what point intolerant ideas can no longer be tolerated and whether infringing on individual rights in the name of tolerance is acceptable.
Paradox of Tolerance
Philosopher Karl Popper described the paradox of tolerance as the seemingly counterintuitive idea that “in order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance.” Essentially, if a so-called tolerant society permits the existence of intolerant philosophies, it is no longer tolerant.
Popper first conceptualized the paradox of tolerance in his 1945 work The Open Society and Its Enemies. Popper contends that a society that tolerates intolerant ideas will succumb to the forces of the intolerant, which are inherently dangerous. Thus, the notion of a completely tolerant society is destroyed. Society should first combat intolerance with rational argument and civil public discourse, but if all else fails, Popper suggests that the tolerant reserve the right to suppress intolerant opinions.
Philosopher John Rawls expanded on this sentiment in A Theory of Justice, published in 1971. Rawls posits that the principle of complete tolerance is superseded by a society’s right to self-preservation. In other words, if a society believes that intolerance in its midst would infringe upon the liberties of its people, it can refuse to tolerate the intolerant. Society can only limit the freedoms of the intolerant when the intolerant’s ideologies and actions limit the freedoms of others.
The paradox of tolerance brings up several questions about individual liberties and the power of the government to control them. While freedom of speech is integral to democracy, extremist groups use it to spew hate speech and promote dangerous agendas. If the government restricts their freedom, it strays away from democracy to a more authoritarian style. Of course, the consequences of leaning too far to one end of the tolerance-intolerance spectrum are not as dire as they may seem, since instances of total extremism in one direction are highly unlikely. Nonetheless, it is important to consider the paradox of tolerance in a modern society where communication is so prevalent. When making assessments of whether or not to tolerate intolerance, we must identify where our values lie—in favor of complete freedom of speech, or in favor of restricting harmful dialogue.