One of the great moral paradoxes of 20th-century philosophy was the problem of “tolerance,” which was most famously articulated by Karl Popper:
Less well known (of Plato’s paradoxes) 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.The Open Society and its Enemies
If one values tolerance, then how do you preserve tolerance in your society if tolerance requires you to tolerate the intolerant? Does the tolerant society tolerate Nazis? If no, then is it truly tolerant? If yes, then what is the real value of this “tolerance” for the supposed beneficiaries of “tolerance?”
The usual conclusion to this is that we must remain tolerant, but now have the right — perhaps even the duty — to be intolerant of the intolerant… whoever that might be.
But intolerant of what?
We can easily imagine two competing worldviews — perhaps religious, perhaps political, perhaps sexual, perhaps even aesthetic; it doesn’t really matter. Two competing groups with mutually exclusive preferences live in a single state. Tolerance declares that we should tolerate others, but suppose each of these groups aims at the elimination of the other. This could be genocidal in the conventional sense, but it could also be cultural; perhaps all classical music fans aim to convert rap-fans to their own side and vice-versa. This aesthetic imperialism — when evangelized in this fashion, and towards this aim — is intolerant with the aim of monopolizing the market and destroying its competitors. They think they’re better!
The problem here is that if we imagine the two sides to be equal in number and status, then the tolerant citizen, who is today used to simply choosing the underdog, has no basis for declaring which side is the “intolerant” one which itself must not be tolerated. How does he choose?
Rather than dive into the predictable evasion (“both should be rejected!” — this thereby doubles the intolerance), I want to focus on the nature of “tolerance” as a word.
The entire premise of the paradox, and the ideal from which it arises, treats “tolerance” as an independent quality or a virtue. One might, for instance, imagine a strongly believing Christian who is tolerant, or a strongly believing Christian who is intolerant; conversely, we could imagine a cultural Christian who is tolerant or a cultural Christian who is intolerant. (I use Christianity because it is an easy and well-known example; the principle applies to all ideologies)//
Now, if you are like me, that last character — the intolerant cultural Christian — is actually very difficult to imagine. Without a strong belief in the matter, it is hard to imagine him having a strong opinion about gay marriage or abortion. He might have an opinion on the matter, but it is unlikely that his conviction is strong enough that he would fight or die over the issue. He would more than likely politely state his own position, and politely tolerate those who do not agree. If he did take a strong stance, then it would not be over his mild Christianity, but from some other moral base apart from his cultural religious affiliation.
And what of the strongly-believing Christian who is tolerant? If you ask him his opinions about other faiths and unbelief, his stated position is likely to sound highly intolerant. His outward tolerance (aside from being a spiritual exercise in forgiveness) is not an expression of acceptance, but of patience overcoming an extreme intolerance for sin, or as a tactical tool for achieving his own culturally imperial ends through more publically-acceptable means. So far as tolerance as such is concerned, he is really no better than the Nazi who is simply waiting for the right moment to exterminate the Jews, or for strategic reasons pursues the same intrinsically intolerant ends (the purging of Jews from his society) through more socially acceptable means.
The point here is that to describe “tolerance” as an independent attribute is a category-error, and the paradox of tolerance is the evidence of this error.
We do not possess “tolerance” as a virtue or “intolerance” as a vice. Rather, we are tolerant or intolerant contingent upon our degree of conviction and loyalty.
The desire for a tolerant society is either the desire for a society of weak conviction and loyalty, or a desire for the impossible. The paradox of intolerance is really better stated as the paradox of wanting a pluralistic society, but one in which nobody believes anything strongly enough to protect or impose its own vision therein. And in such a society, the differences between these “plural” groups fade away and the desired “pluralism” itself is lost to the more general intolerance of conviction.