Misconceptions of the Open Society
Is it necessary to be intolerant of the intolerant? Perhaps so; if we wish to preserve our liberal-democratic way of life, it makes sense to ensure those who would establish tyranny never achieve power. This is the theory put forward by philosopher Karl Popper in his ‘Paradox of Tolerance’ model. He argued that:
“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.”
Popper was correct in his argument; we should be intolerant of the hateful and the violent, and I would argue many of us already are. But what does it actually mean to be ‘correctly’ intolerant in this sense? How do we limit our intolerance to those who truly deserve it, without restricting the freedom of the individual to choose?
This is a common issue with the application of the paradox of tolerance argument, and it stems from a misunderstanding of the broader concept of the open society. Popper’s suggestion to be intolerant of the intolerant may be misinterpreted as a justification to simply silence opposition through censorship.
However, ignoring or silencing those we find too intolerant for liberal society are not effective ways of protecting the open society, nor are they justified by the paradox of tolerance. Popper himself, in the tenth chapter of The Open Society and its Enemies, differentiated the ‘closed’ society from the ‘open’ as the “magical or tribal or collectivist” versus the “society in which individuals are confronted with personal decisions.”
Censorship of intolerant beliefs, in depriving individuals the opportunity to hear them, also strips away the ability to decide for oneself whether to challenge, question, or tolerate the belief. Moreover, the censorship or silencing of certain ideas implicitly shapes a socially-approved model of morality, from which non-conforming beliefs are ousted. Both of these conclusions are inherently against the ideals of the open society.
Individuals must be allowed to decide for themselves which ideologies are undeserving of tolerance, and to call the validity of these beliefs into question. Rather than silencing the controversial, an open society must allow individuals to draw their own moral conclusions.
Moreover, establishing boundaries around an accepted, societal morality leads one step closer to Popper’s idea of a close, tribal society, as any ‘legitimate’ ideas must conform to the collective set of ethics. The freedom of the individual to decide, in this way, is restricted by the lines in the sand drawn between one morality and another.
This all boils down to the aforementioned and titular misconception of the open society we are trying to protect. The paradox of tolerance does not suggest that we should be censoring and silencing our opponents, nor can an open society coexist with an arbitrary list of approved morals.
The open society requires the freedom of the individual to make their own moral decisions, and to be intolerant of whichever beliefs or ideas they find abhorrent. Without the universal freedom to speak, to be heard and to be disagreed with, society can only move closer towards collectivism and tribalism. As Popper said: “What we need and what we want is to moralize politics, not to politicize morals.”
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