The paradoxes of tolerance

What are you going to do, now that roughly 13% of the 75% in Germany who voted, did vote for a party that behaves openly racist, sexist, discriminates against minorities, uses violence to silence dissenting voices and in general tries to push the limits of what is acceptable in a public discourse? I try to make sure that I don’t fall into the trap of normalizing their behaviour and stand firm on the values ingrained in our constitution. Understanding that it is in some cases necessary not to tolerate intolerant behaviour can help if you find that you need to defend your values. As this is a minefield though, I’ll briefly revisit the topic of toleration and sum up its paradoxes in the order they are mentioned in the article linked above in my own words.

  1. People suppressing their desire to discriminate against minorities for strategic reasons – like racists do to appeal to a larger audience – are not tolerant. They do this to gain followers because a less extremist behaviour is not that hard to swallow for right leaning centrists. It then gets easier to push the limits of unacceptable behaviour the larger your group is. Once you’re inside it’s hard to distance yourself again as you would have to accept that you have been deceived and have made an embarrassing mistake. Tolerance is not able to fix this; the root causes are discriminatory beliefs which the person needs to overcome.
  2. Moral tolerance is tricky as reasons for rejecting something and accepting the same thing can both be “moral”. The discussion which moral reasons weigh heavier can be difficult. Is torture tolerable to save other people’s lives? Is it tolerable to punch a nazi? The value system needs to be sound and give guidance to which reasons are morally higher and which are lower.
  3. Not tolerating the intolerant is not as simple as it sounds. “Intolerant” always needs to be put into context.  If i do not tolerate the intolerant, than I am intolerant and therefore not to be tolerated. Boom. Only if we can draw the limits between those who reject the concept of toleration in itself and those who do not tolerate those who deny the norm of tolerance are we able to have tolerance. Where are we drawing the line? The limits are defined through our constitution and augmented by our social norms and ethic codes of the groups we belong to. This can be the workplace, your family, a sports club or any social community you feel you belong to.