I saw a graphic in the days following the tragic act of terrorism in Charlottesville, and Donald Trump’s subsequent comments on the incident. The graphic introduced the Paradox of Tolerance by the philosopher Karl Popper:
“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to these that 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, 581).
Popper’s message is a warning that if we, as a society, keep tolerating the intolerant, eventually the intolerant will gain control, society will fray at the edges, and the fabric of our tolerant society will tear apart, sending us into a black hole of intolerance which we cannot return. But, have we already begun this spiral into the paradox?
Over the last year we have watched a growing intolerant society of racism and nativism spark the Brexit movement, and elect Donald Trump President of the United States -- whose policies are exclusive, and his rhetoric littered with racism, sexism, fearmongering, and bigotry. Trump condoned the actions of Nazi and white supremacists in Charlottesville, following a terrorist attack that killed one and injured many, by not condemning it. Rather saying, “I think there is blame on both sides”.
Living in a country led by Donald Trump has blurred the lines as to what is right or wrong. Spending a considerable amount of time working with refugees and the U.S. school system the intolerance of Trump’s policies could be seen in the youth of America. Trump’s discriminative policy affecting American youth. “You’re not welcome here”, “go home terrorist”, were comments directed at refugee and immigrant students. What once was a hate crime in a school is now just parroting the voice of the leader of the free world. Schools actually had to formally assess if these comments were right or wrong!
How did this become our reality? How could a man so full of fear and hate become our president? Why were so many people tolerant of a man who epitomizes intolerance? Hoping to understand, I asked a colleague who voted for Donald Trump; someone who identifies as being a “Reagan Republican.”
He described a difficult decision, based not on what he liked about Trump, but more so on what he identified as a dislike for his opponent. Although he is a proponent of Trump’s policies to bring back manufacturing jobs to the United States, ending Obama-era policy on coal regulations, and the end of the affordable care act (ACA), he does not agree with Trump’s position of denying climate change, and his attempts to dismantle the ACA without a reasonable replacement. He also tolerates the “circus” which is Donald Trump on social issues.
When asked in-depth about tolerance, my colleague defined tolerance as, “being tolerant, to me, means understanding that not everyone believes the same way I do and I need to give them the same right to exist as I expect to receive from them. Being tolerant of something does not mean I must respect it or agree with it” (Miller).
So why has intolerance taken such a firm grip today in the U.S.? Is this intolerance a product of Donald Trump, or is Trump the product of an intolerant society? I see the next three years as a crucial point in defining our interconnectedness with tolerance. Do we rise-up, and persecute intolerance, as Karl Popper proposes:
“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 as criminal” (Popper, 581).Or, do we stand idly by, and let the paradox of tolerance and, intolerance take hold? Or, should we as humanity do what’s morally right, follow Popper’s charge, and stand-up and defend the right to defend ourselves?