The non-paradox of tolerance

People who advocate for tolerance on certain issues are often faced with the accusation that they themselves are intolerant towards those who oppose such tolerance. For instance, a group that’s fighting for their basic equal rights may be told that they’re failing to tolerate the people who are against their rights. In most cases, this is just an intentional misrepresentation. It’s a way of making someone appear to be hypocritical, by acting as though their endorsement of tolerance for one thing must entail supporting tolerance of all things.

This is, of course, not the case. Tolerance of one thing, and tolerance of another thing, can be completely unrelated. Asking people “If you want tolerance for this thing, then why don’t you tolerate that thing?” may simply be irrelevant. The specific kind of tolerance that people are advocating is typically clear from context, and when something is at odds with that tolerance, it’s entirely reasonable that they would not tolerate that particular intolerance. After all, if that kind of intolerance is what they’re fighting against, then why would they tolerate it? Indeed, why should they?

More broadly, this is just part of the larger question of whether intolerance in general should be tolerated, and if so, to what extent. If we consider it desirable to tolerate a wide variety of viewpoints, then how do we address those whose own views are not so tolerant? Do we tolerate this as well, and thus allow intolerance to proliferate unchecked? Or do we choose not to tolerate intolerance, and thus disavow our commitment to tolerance? This has often been considered a paradox of tolerance, in that no matter what we choose to do, some intolerance will still persist. But the apparent conflict here is really only because of two different conceptions of what tolerance should be. Is it a principle to be followed in all circumstances, regardless of the results? Or is it a goal to work towards by any means necessary?

If tolerance is a virtue to adhere to because we consider it good in and of itself, an unlimited tolerance of intolerance could lead to intolerance becoming predominant, and a severe reduction in tolerance overall. Even if this is nominally tolerant, it’s not likely to be the outcome desired by those who support tolerance. On the other hand, we could choose not to tolerate intolerance, and instead do our best to minimize it. It is possible that intolerance toward even the slightest dissent could become the norm, and thus result in more intolerance than there would be had we simply allowed this lesser degree of intolerance to persist. But perpetrating such a vast campaign of intolerance probably isn’t something that those who endorse tolerance would want.

Is it possible to strike a reasonable balance here? How do we determine when intolerance should be tolerated, and when it should not be? If tolerance is what we aim to promote, and the overwhelming spread of intolerance is what we seek to avoid, then it makes sense that we should work to maximize tolerance overall. This would require working to reduce intolerant attitudes, but also minimizing our own intolerance. Strictly speaking, the only intolerance that it should be necessary to be intolerant towards is the kind of intolerance that would pose a serious threat to tolerance in general. But as long as that’s not the case, there is no cause for us to be intolerant of it.

In this way, we limit not only the intolerance of others, but also our own, and we choose the degree of tolerance to practice which leads to the maximum amount of tolerance in practice. When intolerance is narrowly applied for the justified purpose of ensuring greater tolerance overall, it can hardly be called “intolerance” as it’s traditionally understood. And those who call for tolerance, no matter what their particular views, should welcome an ethic where intolerance is kept to a minimum.