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Tolerating the intolerant represents a connundrum

March 31, 2019

We need to tolerate one another. And as a general rule society agrees.

But many in San Antonio are faced with the conundrum, how do I tolerate the intolerant?

The question has surprisingly robust philosophical underpinnings. Karl Popper, a political philosopher during World War II first popularized the question.

For him, Nazism embodied intolerance. But he noticed a “paradox of tolerance.” If he was tolerant as a counteragent to Nazism, he would need to tolerate Nazism, which would ultimately lead to the defeat of tolerance.

He wrote, “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant … then the tolerant will be destroyed.”

To Popper, intolerance looked like concentration camps and genocide. And in response to this level of violence, the paradox of tolerance makes sense. If you tolerate people killing those they disagree with, they will eventually kill you, too.

Today, most people of good faith have extended the idea of tolerance beyond genocide to all violence, silencings or doxings, defamation, or losing jobs or housing.

But others extend the paradox of tolerance so far that it breaks. That’s what happened recently in San Antonio.

The San Antonio City Council recently relied on the tolerance paradox in a vote that has gotten national attention.

Council members objected to Chick-fil-A as an airport vendor because of a recent report that it donated to groups with anti-LGBT+ policies.

Roberto Treviño, District 1 councilman, explained, “We do not have room in our public facilities for a business with a legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior. Everyone has a place here, and everyone should feel welcome when they walk through our airport.”

This is a pretty simple example of the tolerance paradox. San Antonio won’t tolerate Chick-fil-A, because Chick-fil-A is intolerant.

But what did Chick-fil-A do that was intolerant? Did it go after LGBT+ rights activists and threaten to end their careers? Did it promote violence? No. According to Treviño, what it did was make people feel unwelcome. How? By donating to the Salvation Army.

In essence, San Antonio told the world, “Everyone has a place here,” except Chick-fil-A, evangelical Christians and those who have donated to the Salvation Army.

That likely sounds as far away from “tolerance” as can be. But that’s because the council misapplied the tolerance paradox to a situation wildly outside the genocidal violence under which it was originally imagined.

Treviño imagines that tolerance means that everyone always feels welcome. In fact, tolerance requires the opposite. We are too diverse of a city. Our values, lifestyles, worldviews and philosophies will and should rub each other the wrong way.

And a fundamental part of that tolerance is allowing people to start organizations that support those worldviews, like the Salvation Army.

If San Antonio insists that it does not tolerate groups that make people feel unwelcome, we are saying that we refuse to tolerate anyone who has any strong beliefs.

We should expect that the Vegan Society will make people who eat meat uncomfortable. We should expect them to only hire vegans, or lobby their lawmakers for anti-meat-eating laws.

Steamrolling our diversity so that everyone always feels comfortable would require not tolerating anything but anodyne speech or behavior.

And if your idea of tolerance is so shallow that you can’t tolerate people advocating for ideas that don’t make you comfortable, then your idea of tolerance is pretty worthless

The Southern Poverty Law Center found itself in this exact same conundrum. While creating its anti-Muslim extremists list, it added Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz, who advocated for Muslims to be more tolerant, because that made some Muslims uncomfortable. They took the list down.

As Popper noticed, if you extend tolerance too far, it can end up defeating itself. But as the San Antonio City Council proved, you can also extend tolerance so far it ends up becoming the very threat it tried to stop.

Christopher Cunningham is a senior religion writer at Patheos.com. He lives in San Antonio.