That’s What Happens in a Tolerant Society


The only people who should be surprised by the chaos kicking off the 21st century — the surge in religious fanaticism, right-wing nationalism, and populism — are those who mistakenly conflated relative peace with an emerging unity. But the root causes of intolerance were never addressed, so why are we surprised?

Let’s not be naive. What’s happening right now is not something that started because of some president. Racism and bigotry didn’t start with a person: not Columbus, not Hitler, not Donald Trump. One dude did not start “hate.”

Those people in Charlottesville? They didn’t just appear. They didn’t become white-supremacists overnight. Those kids joining ISIS? Same story. It didn’t just happen.

You see, I’m not a historian and I’ll gladly defer to the experts on this, but I’m willing to bet a pretty penny that after the American Civil War, the two World Wars and the fall of Nazi Germany, and after all those great historical achievements of civil society (e.g., the Treaty of Versailles, the Civil Rights Movement, the establishment of the United Nations) that inspired us to believe that the Good will win the day – after all that, we somehow got comfortable with the idea that hatred simply faded away. We thought that generations of racism, intolerance, suspicion, and bigotry woke up the next morning to break bread with “strangers.”

I’m sorry, but I don’t think that’s what happened.

Hate didn’t go away. It simply took a break, regrouped, and waited until the right opportunity to resurface. It played along with those silly modern conceptions of tolerance where everyone plays in the same playground…just don’t touch my kid.

Oh Tolernation: where I can love a taco, but my daughter better not marry a Mexican; where Black people can come and go as they wish, just don’t walk towards me on the sidewalk; where Arabs have the right, but they better have their paperwork; where this is Native land, but I don’t understand why they can’t just forgive and forget.

See, I think that’s what happens in a tolerant society: we tolerate intolerance, then intolerance is enabled, then intolerance gets in a car and drives through a crowd of people who can’t figure out how things got so bad because…this is a tolerant society?

What was it that Karl Popper said?

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.

Face it, we’re still just a planet full of suspicious tribes. Tribalism is adaptive, and we’ve relied on its adaptive benefits to survive the fierce realities of our evolutionary past. Our tribe provides us with a source of identity, a sense of belonging, and a raison d’être. In the absence of knowledge and purpose, our tribe rallies to our aide and shows us the way.

But when you add tolerance to tribalism all you get are tribes tolerating other tribes.

No, what you’re seeing is not something new. It’s simply what happens in a tolerant society. Now let’s go back to the drawing board and rethink tolerance.


  1. Solid observation. It seems contradictory, however I agree. We should not tolerate intolerance. The two are incompatible when suddenly combined. Perhaps there are ways through education that we can slowly mix these two opposites to create a healthy stability?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Dean. Yes, education does seem to be the likely approach to address this issue, doesn’t it? But then we have to figure out “what kind of education?” What sort of education addresses intolerance? Is it the sort of education that we can receive through a formal pedagogy, or something less structured? The research on racism and ingroup/outgroup behaviours seems to suggest that “familiarity” leads to preference. That is, the more you get to know someone, the more you prefer them. So how do we encourage intolerant groups of people to get to know the people they hate?

      I suggest you give this article a read:

      I think there are some real gems of learning in there.

      1. Thank-you for the link. I agree that tolerance is best taught by sharing our lives. Living in “gated” and or separate communities will not build tolerance. Likely the opposite. We must learn to structure our lives so we are regularly meeting “others”. Sports, Recreation, Music, Food, all of these can lead to sharing and emotional connections. Listening to others is most important. If we do not understand what others feel and think, then how can we know them?

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