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Against the Paradox of Tolerance

Updated: Jan 11

[The ideas here followed from some great discussion with Jerome Warren in Brussels 2022]

Karl Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance argues that an absolutely tolerant society is impossible, since it would be vulnerable to intolerant people coming in and breaking it (or just killing everyone). To me this sounds a bit like an unstable equilibrium from dynamical systems theory – trying to balance a pencil on its tip. The paradox is thus that to have a stable tolerant society, it must be intolerant of intolerance – and that immediately creates the gray-zone of what exactly we should be intolerant of and how violent we should be about it.

I’ve been annoyed with this argument ever since I learned about it. My idealist self really wants an absolutely tolerant utopia to be possible, at least in principle, without compromises. As such, I’ve been trying to get a deeper understanding of the argument and its assumptions so as to find some way to dislodge it. Part of my discomfort with it comes from thinking of the stories of non-violent protests, such as exemplified by Jesus, Gandhi, MLK, and others. Now before you point out all the ways in which those people were actually quite intolerant of intolerance, I just want to suspend disbelief and entertain the possibility that the dominant force in their reformations was actually the tolerance itself. To balance a pencil on its tip, we need some forces to hold it up – and very small forces may actually be enough (in fact, we have found many fun ways to balance pencils on their tips - like by using oscillating drives or active control) So if we can understand a way in which tolerance itself can be a force for change – an active influence, rather than just passive tranquility - then we may have our solution.

One implicit assumption that the Paradox of Tolerance seems to rest on is that to turn an intolerant person, we must actively and intentionally do something to them. This may involve using force and violence, propaganda, manipulation, seduction, or incentives – but one way or another, we would try to change them, and thus be intolerant towards them.

But let’s now for a second suppose that tolerance is contagious, even just a little bit. By contagious here I mean that merely being tolerant would have some tendency to make others more tolerant – with no effort or even intention to the matter. We could think of this in the context of memetics – where not people, but ideas ("memes") are seen as the individual beings that spread and multiply using the medium of our brains. Like in epidemiology, the most contagious and resilient ideas will then dominate the society in the long-run. Note that this view is in sharp contrast to one that sees society as a collection of individual humans with fixed beliefs. This latter view, which is often implicitly assumed in much of western thinking, would indeed lead to the Paradox of Tolerance – where the only way to get rid of a particular belief or behavior (such as intolerance) is to kill or coerce the people carrying it.

On the other hand, from the memetic perspective, the possibility of an absolutely tolerant society is just a matter of how contagious tolerant behavior is. One curious thing that seems to be true historically is that martyrdom makes it more contagious! If so, then killing tolerant non-resisting people actually fuels the “tolerance epidemic” – thus increasing the push towards tolerance. This could explain how non-violent protests were able to become such strong social forces. It also seems to lead to a conclusion that is just the reverse of the Paradox of Tolerance: that in an absolutely tolerant society, rise of intolerance would create martyrs, making tolerant behavior more contagious, and thus more resilient.

What makes this perspective non-obvious is that the effect of such “contagion” will only be prevalent at scale, and may not be obvious in the immediate local and short-term consequences. A psychopath (i.e., one “immune to the tolerance virus”) with a machine gun in an absolutely tolerant society can certainly do much damage. Similarly, millions of martyred Jews in WW2 did not seem to stop the intolerance towards them – only force did. Nonetheless, now, nearly a century later, the lesson from those WW2 martyrs still impacts legislation and decisions of governments around the globe in very concrete tangible ways (e.g., link).

This brings us to another interesting point: epidemics require not only a high contagion rate, but also tight social networks to spread over. This way, Gandhi’s non-violent protests may never have succeeded if it weren’t for the rising globalization, and namely the global media reporting on India’s protests back in England. If so, then for an absolutely tolerant society to be stable, it may require a certain minimal degree of interconnectivity of social bonds (and especially empathic ones). I.e., a loosely connected social network, such as sparse early-human tribes, may indeed be incapable of total tolerance – unlike a globalized economy and culture. This line of reasoning further makes me think that there may be other subtle pre-requisites for absolute tolerance that we are currently ignoring, and that will only become clear with deeper research and modeling of sociology. Perhaps it is just such missing requirements that make an absolutely tolerant society seem far-fetched to our intuition now.

To me, while these ideas certainly do not prove the stability or possibility of an absolutely tolerant society in practice, they do open up a slight gap in Popper’s impossibility proof, making it less water-tight. From this point on, I think there is a wide research opportunity to study the stability of absolute tolerance in the context of various social network connectivities, including external threats, neurodivergences that could give an “immunity to tolerance,” temporal dynamics, including phase transitions from intolerance to tolerance and vice versa, etc. And of course, all of this is hard because we don’t quite know how to do quantitative sociology yet – but fun to think about!

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