Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Subjectivity of Intolerance

In his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies, philosopher Karl Popper wrote about the Paradox of Tolerance. Here is a quick summation of that concept:

I can see where Popper is coming from, and to a certain extent I agree with him. However, the problem with his position that we must be intolerant of intolerance is that there is no scientific test to determine what is or isn't intolerance. While it is easy to say that someone caught in the act of setting a synagogue on fire while wearing a swastika is committing a hate crime, things get a bit muddy if this person is just a regular, non-swastika-wearing person who maybe just likes setting fires, and things become downright troublesome if the arsonist is himself a Jew. The same applies to jokes, books, clothing, and other forms of expression.

In other words, nearly all “intolerance” is subjective and based upon opinion rather than an objective quality which can be detected through impartial, repeatable tests.

So while the concept of “not tolerating intolerance” is noble, in practice it ends up with whomever is the loudest being able to silence and ostracize those with whom they disagree. This results in mob rule where the strong bully and silence the weak, rather than a republic where individual rights are protected against the tyranny of the majority.

In short, intolerance of intolerance is un-American.

... as much as I'd love to leave it there on that mic-drop moment, it would be intellectually dishonest of me to do so. There is a difference between intolerance of ideas and intolerance of violence, and this is where things get uncomfortably muddy even for me. As a friend of mine pointed out, "An idiot spouting Nazi ideology is just an idiot spouting Nazi ideology, and societies tolerate madmen. An influential person who gains a following that uses violence to advance their political power must be countered before they seize power." I can honestly tell you that I would feel threatened and vulnerable if someone held a rally in front of my home while shouting "Death to Erin!", and the moment the leaders started saying things like "Burn the Queer!" I would be ready to start shooting in self-defense.

This admission makes me intensely uncomfortable, because I can't seem to delineate a point where speech ceases to be speech and becomes incitement. Even our legal system lacks an objective and repeatable system for what is and is not allowed, instead using a form of "I'll know it when I see it" called the Brandenburg Test.

As that same friend of mine said, "We tolerate things until they become intolerable." I can't help but agree that yes, that's the way it is, but the very subjectivity of the whole thing bothers me because I like being able to justify my actions (to myself, if nothing else) in clearer terms than "Because I felt like it."

I don't have a solution here. I wish that I did. I'm just pointing out that everything about this is highly subjective, and maybe it would do us all some good if we acknowledged for a moment that maybe what we "know" is actually just our opinion, formed by our objective mind and shaped by our biases.

As Walt Kelly might have had Pogo say, "Ain't none of us objective here nohow."

No comments:

Post a Comment

The Fine Print

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial- No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

Creative Commons License

Erin Palette is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to