This was originally published on Incite Politics.
Incite is a subscriber blog, so I re-post original articles after a couple of weeks.
Karl Popper was one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century. He almost single-handedly established many of the ground rules of modern science, especially what demarcates science from non-science. His magnum opus, The Open Society and its enemies, is one of the great books of the Western canon.
However, some of the people who claim to follow him leave a lot to be desired. His best-known disciple is George Soros, who studied under Popper at the London School of Economics. “Terrible are the faithful disciples of great men,” H. G. Wells once wrote, and Soros does much to bear this out. Although his reputation as a global Machiavelli is mostly conspiracy theory stuff, the fact remains that Soros finances many causes which sit uneasily with his former mentor’s aversion to totalitarianism and tribalism.
But possibly the most egregious abuse of Popper’s work is the recent propagation of memes supposedly touting his “Paradox of Tolerance” argument, especially after the Charlottesville riots. Antifa types love to spout it, because they think it justifies their self-proclaimed mission to “punch Nazis”.
The simple fact, though, is that Popper never said anything like that, and would have been aghast at the contemporary left’s mania for violently stamping out free expression. The left’s bastardised version of Popper is contrary to the entire theme of his Open Society. Popper argued for a society that is based on individual liberty and freedom of thought, as opposed to collectivist, authoritarian “closed societies”.
So why have the authoritarian left taken to quoting Popper to try and justify their violent intolerance? Like Otto West, the moronic hit-man in A Fish Called Wanda, Antifa cretins read Popper’s philosophy, but just cannot understand it.
Popper’s basic argument is that If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant…then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. This is straightforward and clear enough, but then Popper runs into problems. The extended argument is contradictory and unclear. Nor is it that important to Popper’s thesis: it is literally a footnote (note 4, chapter 7, in my edition).
The main problem Popper has is defining exactly what is “intolerance”. The answer might seem plain enough, but philosophers must define their terms precisely. In the “Paradox of tolerance”, Popper never does.
The second problem is that Popper seems to contradict himself. Having flatly stated that I do not imply…that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies, he then says that We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law.
The answer to this contradiction is Popper’s later use of incitement. “Incitement” is a word with specific meaning: the encouragement of another person to commit a crime. Popper has already stated that he doesn’t consider “the utterance of intolerant philosophies” beyond the pale, so what does he mean? Popper is never clear in Open Society, but throughout he apparently regards “intolerance” as the use of coercion to impose ideas on others, and as violence and intimidation instead of rational arguments.
In other words, “intolerance” is using force instead of words.
Popper draws the line for a tolerant society at the point where people use violence instead of words to force their view on others. Where does this leave the left, especially their Antifa foot-soldiers? It should be pretty obvious by now that Popper is no friend of the modern left.
Even a group as intolerant as the alt-right aren’t generally inciting violence. The left, however, are widely advocating violence as a first resort. “Punch Nazis” and “Bash the Fash”, the explicit mission statement of Antifa, are incitements to violence in lieu of rational argument. When Popper condemned as “outside the law” those who “answer arguments by the use of their fists”, he meant violent street thugs like Antifa, not racist polemicists like Richard Spencer.
Popper wouldn’t have liked the alt-right, but he would have tolerated them. On the other hand, he would have condemned Antifa and their open incitement to violence, “as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal”.