Derechos Humanos
The limits of tolerance: Popper's paradox

"To be a liberal is (...) first of all, to be willing to understand those who think differently". Gregorio Marañón
Tolerance dictionary
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Freedom and tolerance go hand in hand; to be a liberal is to be tolerant. Recognizing the value of each individual allows us to develop our individuality and accepting differences in ideas, beliefs and values is the first step in building open and democratic societies. 

However, is everything acceptable? Does tolerance come before any value or principle, even our own? If being liberalism means acknowledging the value in difference and diversity, does that mean accepting absolutely everything, including hate speech and intolerance? On the International Day of Tolerance, we believe that we should not forget the important lesson that Karl Popper left us: "if we want a tolerant society, we must be intolerant of intolerance".

The difficult paradox of tolerance

In The Open Society and its Enemies, a must-read for every liberal, Popper states that "unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance... We must therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate intolerance".  

In practical terms, Popper tells us that tolerating absolutely everything would also mean tolerating those who limit the freedoms of others: homophobic, xenophobic or racist speeches should be admitted without limits. We would all agree that this would indeed be inadmissible. 

However, this paradox implies setting limits on freedom of expression, an apparently illiberal proposal. Who decides the limit of such tolerance of intolerance? Should all "intolerant" ideas be censored? 

For Popper, the limit lies in violence; as long as any intolerant ideas or opinions could be countered through discursive or educational tools - what he called rational arguments - they should not be censored. Coercion and violence are then the limit, since in freedom, dialogue, debate and respect are always in the foreground. Karl Popper summed up his theory in a single sentence: "We must therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate intolerance".

Liberal tolerance

Hate speech is a threat to democratic values, social stability and peace. A misunderstanding of tolerance has the capacity to promote illiberal dynamics and potentially conflictive or authoritarian forms of diversity. 

In addition, modernity and social media pose new challenges: the fight against misinformation, polarization and "cancel culture" on digital platforms are behaviors that not only limit pluralism, dialogue and reflection, but also incite reactivity and fanaticism. 

As liberals, it is our responsibility to be critical of the discourses we hear and reproduce. It is part of our task as citizens, regardless of our political beliefs, to be critical of what we hear and reproduce. An essential exercise before sharing a piece of information is to question whether there is any intention to trigger emotions or manipulate through fallacies or cognitive biases that lead us to hate speech. 

While liberalism understands that difference and diversity of opinions are the foundations of any open society, promoting freedom also means agreeing on certain core values, unacceptable narratives and promoting dialogue and debate as the best tool to not tolerate intolerance, because that is where the end of open, inclusive and democratic societies begins.

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