It’s now been more than a week since violence erupted at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, involving members of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups. Yet, unlike many controversies that seem to come and go almost literally in the span of 15 minutes since January, this one isn’t going away.
And rightfully so.
President Trump, in a series of inconsistent statements, finally settled on the position that counter-protesters to these extremist groups were somehow equivalent to the very hate groups they were challenging.
The violence has re-ignited a debate that should’ve been resolved long ago — Are you truly tolerant if you fail to tolerate the intolerant?
While it is a rarity to find a valid point of view from a social media meme, there is one circulating over the last several days that actually fits perfectly into the debate.
It’s known as the “paradox of tolerance,” an idea first pushed by philosopher Karl Popper in his 1945 book “The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol. 1.” While we could explain “paradox of tolerance,” we’ll instead let the late Popper himself do it:
“Less well-known 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.”
What Popper is saying is that there’s no such thing as being tolerant to those who are intolerant, because the two ideas are such polar opposites, they simply cannot exist together. One would have to dominate the other, and for those on the side of tolerance, it’s a losing battle.
There’s a huge difference between tolerating someone’s beliefs that are different than ours and actually tolerating someone who is not extending the same courtesy.
It’s like this idea that white men are somehow the victims of discrimination because of the understanding they are somehow a minority, when — even if that were true — they have an extraordinary advantage over any other group.
Think about the “warriors” behind the so-called “War on Christmas.” Because various retailers and such recognize not everyone celebrates Christmas (and is trying to simply be inclusive of all beliefs, or lack thereof), it’s somehow an affront to Christian values to not say “Merry Christmas.”
As if Christianity — practiced by 3 out of every 4 Americans, according to Pew Research Center — was somehow a minority religion.
The reason why the American form of government has been successful for 241 years isn’t because of how our laws protect the majority. It’s actually because of how they protect the minority.
It takes little effort for majorities to take control, since democracy is a numbers game. Supporting the majority, then, is easy. What’s hard is making sure minority groups have a voice, that their rights aren’t diminished in the shadow of the majority.
That’s why when someone describes laws protecting minorities as “special rights,” they are simply wrong. By giving someone who isn’t part of the white male majority the same opportunity at a job as someone in the white male majority, for example, there’s no cost to the majority, because the playing field is, in theory, open and even.
Or if it’s OK for a man and a woman to get married, then why not a man and a man? Or a woman and a woman? If marriage is about love between consenting adults, why can’t that love be shared by partners of their own choosing?
Those aren’t special rights — those are equal rights. It’s not giving these groups more than everyone else, it’s giving them as much as everyone else.
When that’s forgotten, even by well-meaning people who likely don’t have an intolerant bone in their body otherwise, it unwittingly fuels these very extremist groups like those who descended upon Charlottesville earlier this month — armed with Tiki torches, mace, weapons and a vocabulary of hate.
If nothing else, never be guilted into believing white supremacists and their ilk have a right to their views. Because as Popper warned, tolerating intolerance will destroy tolerance.