Thoughts on the Paradox of Tolerance

The Paradox of Tolerance

This comic has been making the rounds on the internet, mostly by people justifying the legitimacy of punching Nazis. The response has been an interesting battle between the immune responses against Nazis and the immune response against attacks on free speech. There’s a slippery slope on both sides. But taking the comic at face value, it’s actually very similar to what I argued in The Meta Level Doesn’t Justify Itself.

Someone who doesn’t accept the norms of good-faith rational discourse can’t be persuaded rationally to do so. A liberal order can’t engender coexistence if one culture is implacably dedicated to object-level advancement. . . .

Against certain assaults – specifically from those who don’t accept the validity of meta-level dispute resolution – [liberalism] can only be defended on the object level – that is, on the basis of liberal interests. . . . At some point you have to plant a flag and say: these interests are defensible because they’re ours, and these are not.

I take this to mean basically the same thing as the last panel of the comic. So I’m going to provisionally agree with the comic’s message, and then ask: how does it generalize? Or, alternatively, if liberalism itself must be intolerant on certain margins, what sort of intolerance must liberalism not allow? When must an exception be made to liberal tolerance?

When Must Liberalism Be Intolerant?

I take it to be self-evident that the general rule at the most abstract level will be that liberalism must be intolerant of ideologies which are an existential threat to it. There are maximalists on liberal freedoms such as free speech, free assembly, and free immigration who deny that there are any such threats, or who hold a “cooperate though the heavens fall” ethos. In light of the pandora’s box of rent-seeking and special pleading that these immune responses keep closed, I regard these as mostly useful sacred values in ordinary times. Even so, the very same consistency and rigidity which makes them so useful can under certain circumstances – namely, those at issue in the comic – render them self-destructive when faced with external threats.

“Existential threat” is not really an operational decision rule, however. It’s very easy in politics to pry open the pandora’s box of exceptions under the pretense of existential threats. “We have always been at war with Eastasia” indicates a permanent state of exception. In order not to corrupt liberalism in the process of saving it – in order to avoid sabotaging its freedoms in the process of defending them – we will need a more or less clear decision rule on what kind of ideology poses an existential threat to a liberal order.

I will suggest that the answer involves what I will call taqiyya. Specifically, the sorts of ideologies that pose an existential threat to liberalism will be universalistic taqiyya (UT) ideologies.

Dissimulation and Scale

The Arabic word Taqiyya translates as “dissimulation”. In Shi’ism, the idea is that one is permitted to hide one’s beliefs and even to engage in haram activities under duress. “We smile in the face of some people [i.e. outsiders] although our hearts curse them,” says Abu Ad-Darda.

I will not be focusing on the term’s historical origin or current use, however. Rather, for lack of a better term, I will use taqiyya to refer to the quality of any ideology that explicitly legitimates “the ends justify the means”-type logic in service of group advancement. A principled rejection of principles, in other words.

What unites ideologies of this sort is the sense that playing by the rules is not legitimate if it results in momentary disadvantage; a refusal to be bound by inconvenient rules. A party which takes to the streets rather than accepting electoral defeat, for example, or – more generally – one which pursues its own advantage rather than peaceful coexistence when negotiating the rules governing inter-group interactions.1

Calvin and Rosalyn

The effect of taqiyya is to destroy all possibility of inter-group trust. Even apparent cooperation must be regarded as provisional and suspicious. If it is the case that commitments can never be totally credible – that social organization always requires some amount of unverifiable trust – then a principled commitment to pursue one’s own group interests at any expense to outsiders makes it impossible to sustain cooperation across group boundaries. Stable coexistence will be impossible under any ruleset, including liberalism, that places bounds on groups’ pursuit of their own interests in order to maintain peace.

Taqiyya by itself, however, is not usually sufficient to constitute an existential threat to liberalism, for the simple reason that it does not scale well beyond an extended family under ordinary circumstances. A family under so-called “jungle law” – I against my brothers; I and my brothers against my cousins; I and my brothers and my cousins against the world – poses rather little threat to a liberal order. Strong states can reliably prevail against kin-based taqiyya with normal legal tools – even large and well-established families – as the United States did in the 1970s and 1980s against a number of Sicilian crime families.

To continue with the example, The Mafia is inherently limited in scale, and could never have become a mass movement, except perhaps in Sicily. An Anglo cannot join a Sicilian crime family, no matter how dedicated to the cause he may be. There isn’t much point, therefore, to curtailing the speech rights of mafiosi: indeed, there’s not really any “cause” to speak of at all besides family loyalty, which doesn’t do much to unite unrelated people. Preaching the gospel of family loyalty is unlikely to convert anyone who is not already part of the network. A liberal polity can therefore safely allow the usual liberal freedoms even to particularistic kin networks, contenting itself to fight them with ordinary criminal law when necessary. If mafiosi fail to integrate into the broader liberal order, this is at worst a local problem that poses no broader threat.

What allows taqiyya to scale up enough to threaten a liberal order is universalism – a proper ideology or cause that can unite unrelated people and, with enough memetic punch, turn into a mass movement.  It is openness to conversion, therefore, that distinguishes kin-taqiyya (KT) from universalistic-taqiyya (UT), and it is to these latter ideologies that a liberalism interested in its own survival must countenance denying the basic freedoms of speech, association, and migration.

What Ideologies are UT?

Note, this is not to say that every believer in these ideologies is untrustworthy, or that there are not benign variants; only that something like UT is condoned by the main academic and popular proponents.

Communism and Revolutionary Socialism

In light of the whitewashing of the ‘red scare’ there is now little sense of what an imminent threat Communist violence, subterfuge, and espionage posed prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, both during the Cold War on the international stage, and across Europe prior to World War II. Revolutionary socialists inflicted intermittent terror across the world, and continuous terror in some places, for nearly a century. While democratic socialists maintained some procedural scruples, revolutionary socialism was an explicit endorsement of “the ends justify the means”.  Parliamentary rules are a roadblock on the way to revolution; therefore, parliaments are illegitimate. Such was the climate of opinion at the beginning of the 20th century in radical circles across much of Europe. Even today, many self-styled communists declare political procedure illegitimate and castigate those concerned with it.


The example in the comic at the beginning of this post is apt. Fascism’s exaltation of the will unites it with revolutionary socialism in a refusal to regard procedural rules (which are, after all, constraints on the will) as legitimate. Fascism might be called quasi-universalistic: it is nationalistic, and speaks of the nation as a mafioso might speak of the family. This gives it greater capacity to scale than a Sicilian crime family, though less than a global proletarian vanguard. Even so, some fascists have acknowledged the right (and even the duty) of other nations to struggle in their own interests against the speaker’s. Especially in this latter form, fascism is an explicit legitimation of permanent total war among groups, under which circumstance there can be no coexistence or procedural rules.

Social Justice Leftism

The recent row over “civility” earns the social justice movement a place on this list. Civility is a crucial collection of procedural rules without which there would be no possibility of liberal tolerance at all.

Well – one might ask – fascism is on this list too. What’s the problem? If one shouldn’t extend liberal freedoms to fascists, what’s wrong with not extending civility to fascists?

Note the care we have taken in the previous section to find a bright-line rule on what constitutes an existential threat. To repeat, we do this to avoid “the pandora’s box of rent-seeking and special pleading” that comes with the possibility of violating one’s own rules; that we may not “sabotage liberalism’s freedoms in the process of defending them”. Granting that doing so is sometimes necessary against existential threats, it must be done with fear and trembling, and in circumstances as narrow as possible.

Now that we have gazed long upon the Scylla of existential threats, peer over on the other side to the Charybdis of liberalism’s corruption. For if we had left the decision rule at “existential threats justify exceptions”, the motivation to declare everything an existential threat would inevitably erode the restrictive force of the rule until liberalism itself was a UT ideology!

This is exactly the situation of social justice leftism in the Current Year. We may grant that civility may be jettisoned against a well-defined fascist threat. Such a threat does not now exist, at least in the U.S. So civility must be jettisoned as well in the struggle against the Republican party; in the struggle against white men; in the permanent struggle for some amorphous “justice” which amounts at the present moment to little more than identity-based rent-seeking. Especially in conjunction with critical theory, which reduces all social relations to power struggles, it is not a principled defense of civility to which we must sometimes make unfortunate exceptions; it is a principled rejection of civility wherever it stands in the way of object-level goals.

For sure, the situation is not yet so dire here as it was in the middle of the 20th century with communism and fascism. Nevertheless, the rot runs deep in intellectual circles, so some object-level action seems appropriate at this point in time.


I pray that the West navigates carefully between the Scylla and the Charybdis ahead of it. However, I cannot say that the Strait of Messina is currently wide enough to possibly do so. It is not impossible that the rule I propose may be at the same time too narrow to prevent liberalism’s infiltration, and too broad to prevent its corruption and self-destruction.

If this is indeed the case, may another civilization rise from its ashes in due time, blessed with more courage and more fortuitous circumstances.


  1. In this sense, such ideologies repudiate Rawls and assert that it is irrational to commit to a “veil of ignorance” if they can do better by peering behind it.


Political EconomyKarl Popper


Facebook Twitter Reddit Threads

Leave a Reply

More Content