Karl Popper, Free Speech and the Paradox of Tolerance

Karl Popper, Free Speech and the Paradox of Tolerance

There is a dark cloud that has formed over what used to be called the political left in this country, the U.S. It is something we really haven’t felt since the McCarthyism of the 1950s. Cancel culture is the horror movie that has people transfixed by their computer screens, lost in the make believe exchanges of social media when suddenly, all too real, a monster steps out of the screen and into the lives of actual people, seeking their destruction and reveling in their pain and loss.

Where did this dark cloud come from? To understand at least one little piece of this puzzle let’s roll back the clock to 1945. The smoke is still rising out of the ashes of European cities destroyed in the frenzy of war. Naziism and its murderous ideology are still all too real.

Enter Karl Popper. In that context of 1945 Europe Karl Popper wrote a book. Popper was an Austrian whose Jewish grandparents converted to Christianity, no doubt to escape the millenia long tradition of intolerance to which they would have been subject as Jews. His book was called The Open Society and Its Enemies and was to have an astounding influence some 80 years later but in a whole new context.

Popper’s book has been adopted by the woke culture of 2020 like Kurt Vonnegut by the boomers of the 60s.
Here is a graphic that is widely popular now on social media that pretends to explain Popper’s philosophy, and an idea, often cited by the modern woke, called ‘the paradox of tolerance’:

Popper social media cartoon version

What is the paradox of tolerance as Popper actually described it?

Let’s take a look at Popper’s book, The Open Society and Its Enemies and see what he says.
Here is my copy of Popper’s book.

Karl Popper - The Open Society and Its Enemies

It’s about 700 pages long. There is one single page in the book where Popper mentions the paradox of tolerance. It’s literally just a footnote on page 581:

Here is what it says in full [I have bolded some text]:

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. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance and persecution is criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the rervival of the slave trade as criminal.

Yes, Popper recognized limits to free speech, and he pointed to the danger of intolerance and the need to reject it. But he carefully defined what he meant by intolerance.

In the full quote Popper makes clear just what he considers unacceptable ‘intolerance’. He points to groups whose ideologies reject engaging in ‘rational argument’ and who ‘begin by denouncing all argument’ and who even ‘may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument’. Popper is urging intolerance for groups who refuse to engage in debate, who scorn free speech, and who are afraid to even allow their followers to listen to critical arguments.

Popper wrote this in 1945. He was an Austrian of Jewish descent and do you honestly believe he had anything other than actual, murderous Nazis in mind when he wrote those words?

When you read what he said rather than what people may imagine he said, it is clear that one modern day group which fits this description is the identity politics culture on the so-called left, the movement that no longer accepts debate and no longer values free speech. Popper is describing a culture that has adopted complete authoritarianism and intolerance of critical thinking as its core belief system and which organizes around crushing any individuals who speak words that it has deemed unacceptable. Popper refers to the intolerant resorting to ‘fists and pistols’, but the violence that the woke unleash against people with whom they disagree is very real.

For those who haven’t directly seen it or felt it, here is how it works. On social media, certain self-appointed ‘hall monitors’ scan for people using forbidden language or expressing undesirable opinions. Some of these stasi-style enforcers have tens of thousands of followers on their social media accounts. When some unfortunate person comes to their attention—-for having disagreed or having posed a question or criticism—they are labeled hateful or phobic or racist or whatever label will then trigger one or more of these anonymous accounts to name them, along with their place of work, home address, telephone number, children’s name(s), landlord’s name, etc. This process is called doxxing. Then thousands of anonymous people ‘of tolerance’ make phone calls, write letters and post to social media. The targeted individual and or their employer, school, or landlord receives hundreds, perhaps thousand of threats from this righteous and anonymous mob. These can include threats of murder, rape or mutilation. These flow in through the victim’s Twitter streams, over their telephones, or in the voicemail of their children’s phones. The anonymous mob sets out, virtuously, to crush someone’s life, to get them fired from their job, kicked out of their school, or evicted by their landlord. When they are deprived of their livelihood, this is not enough. They are likely to be blackballed from whatever industry they worked in, and the mob makes promises to ensure that they will never, ever be allowed to find other employment, anywhere. The mob will find them, pursue them and repeat the process.

We’ve seen firsthand the social media accounts that boast of doing exactly what I describe, at least one with over 45,000 followers. They claim to righteously pursue ‘fascists’. But in the world of identity politics who gets labelled a fascist or a Nazi? Well, anybody and everybody. The words are deployed indiscriminately—devoid of any meaning except as bait for the woke. They can point the finger at anyone: at your neighbor, a family member… and here is that exact mode of attack in a comment aimed at Plebity, the Lesbian Gay Alliance of Australia and a fifteen year old Australian girl whose interview we recently posted:

Accused of being Nazis

Accusing people of thought crime is an equal opportunity sport as long as you stay anonymous. Accusations of guilt by association are also effective, just like the old fashioned McCarthyism. If you aren’t the perpetrator, it is enough that you knew and maybe associated with them – you can be called to account as well, and forced to apologize for your errors and to disavow the perpetrator completely.

If you’re an author or publisher, they advocate burning your books and doing everything possible to ensure your dangerous words never find an audience.

Here is a well known ACLU lawyer calling for the banning of a recent book (Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier) about children receiving medical treatment for their gender dysphoria:


Is he really a prominent voice within the ACLU—an organization that used to stand firmly behind the principal of free speech? You can read about the book and Shrier’s account of the efforts to suppress it here.

Be sure that if you are cancelled, they will scour all your past words looking for evidence of thought crime that can be brandished as proof and justification for their witch-hunt. In other areas of society we have learned to identify and call that what it is—victim blaming. But for the woke, it’s all good.

This process of slander and attack has become the established MO for the mob. And each time they successfully pull it off, they gloat over their victory with mutual congratulations and affirmations of virtue. And they become drunk with their power and thirstier for the blood of the next victim.

The particular dogma of current identity politics argues that uncensored language poses a special danger in that it creates its own reality of racism, misogyny or bigotry. This is ironic as woke, cancel culture models those very traits.

So now let’s look back to Popper and the idea of the paradox of tolerance, which provides the mob’s justification of their hateful acts. No matter which way you turn the page, there is no reading of Popper’s actual words that suggests he is talking about repressing the speech of people who simply disagree or question a particular dogma.

The woke culture likes to claim that cancel culture, if it even exists, only aims at the powerful and is an opportunity for the voiceless to finally push back against their oppressors. This is a shameless lie. Time and time again the woke mob has targeted regular people and sought to destroy their livelihoods. And it is regular people who are vulnerable to the mob, not the powerful. It is regular people who are afraid to speak their minds because they know the mob may come for them. The woke warriors can dismissively put the phrase “cancel culture” in quotes all they want, but sadly that doesn’t make it any less real.

We have begun to catalog some of these incidents here on Plebity on our Crossroads channel. We intend to continue to collect and document stories of similar cases where regular people have attracted the attention of the woke and found themselves being fed into the woodchipper.

Conservatives have been aware of these horror stories for years. Yes, this mob that calls itself ‘leftist’ has succeeded in making people afraid of them. They’ve driven people to hate them. That doesn’t mean they’ve won… anything. In fact quite the opposite. They’ve validated every detail of the conservative world view and brought discredit to any genuine leftist ideology of change and equality.

How does the woke mob’s intolerant and authoritarian mindset have anything to do with a leftist vision that at its best is about forming a world that will be better and more just for everyone? Identity politics of the woke does not challenge the real injustices of global capitalism and a corporate system dominated by Silicon Valley and the plutocrat elites. On the contrary it serves their interest.

Notice how the corporate world has completely adopted the ideas and language of woke culture. And why should we be surprised that they have found it very useful to co-opt a toothless left that is intent on cannibalizing itself in a fratricidal war rather than questioning its corporate masters? In 2008, people across the political spectrum began to unite around the useful slogan of the 99% and the idea of real opposition to the banksters and the oligarchy. Uniting over issues that join us together is genuinely dangerous to the dominant elites. Not surprisingly, the banksters and the oligarchy are perfectly fine with diverting real challenges to their dominance into endless virtue signalling around issues of identity.

There has to be a time when people of genuine good will, who value critical thinking and fundamental ideals of social justice for everyone, are ready to stand up and say enough is enough. Anyone who can find the strength to stand and raise their voice against the mob makes it just that much easier for the next person to find the courage to join this rising chorus.

For those who are afraid of, or have even learned to hate the word ‘left’–let’s agree that as different as we may see the world, most people really do want things to be better for everyone. To the extent that labels get in the way of progress we should all learn to shed the labels. We’re all labelists, and working on that is a job for everyone.

For the faceless Twitter warriors of the woke mob, if you are reading these words and feeling offended, then do this: step away from the mob. Come out from behind your anonymity. Engage with the issues, write your arguments, and send them to us. We’ll post what you say right here.

-Mark White

[At Plebity we express ourselves as individuals. Plebity has no party line, except for a fundamental belief in the principles of free speech and thoughtful discourse.]

“Leaving free speech to the right is destructive and it’s counter to all our aims” -Ayishat Akanbi on Double Down News