In 1916, legendary silent film director D.W. Griffith produced Intolerance. The epic movie focused on four stories of persecution, from the crucifixion of Christ to the fall of ancient Babylon. The subject matter sounds noble—and the film has moments of great sensitivity, such as the portrayal of persecuted French Huguenots on the eve of the St. Bartholomew’s day massacre—but Intolerance was in part a response to critics of Griffith’s racist 1915 movie, Birth of a Nation, which glorified the Ku Klux Klan.
Griffith’s Jekyll-and-Hyde films reflect America’s continuing contradictory attitudes towards intolerance. As a country, we’ve always been somewhat confused about what tolerance means and who or what should be tolerated (Thomas Jefferson vowed in 1803 that he would never “bow to the shrine of intolerance or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others,” though he was notably more tolerant of slavery). But as Griffith’s Intolerance showed, humans have always struggled to live peacefully. Our long embrace of violence and intolerance is present not only in our earliest stories and recent history—from Cain and Abel to the Holocaust—but even, perhaps, in our prehistoric past.
“Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark,” writes author and historian Yuval Noah Harari in his bestselling book Sapiens. “In modern times, a small difference in skin color, dialect or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group. Would ancient Sapiens have been more tolerant towards an entirely different human species?”
The word “tolerance” has its own ancient roots, stemming from the Latin tolerantia: To endure. Tolerance, then, means that you endure something that you don’t like or find unpleasant. From a social standpoint, it means not interfering with your neighbor’s choices, whether it’s their religious beliefs or their fondness for pineapple on pizza.
Intolerance means not enduring what you dislike, and seeking to harm it, whether you’re persecuting someone, prohibiting a practice, or punishing a set of beliefs.
Tolerance involves respect for individual autonomy—the idea that people’s minds and lives can be different from our own. We may disagree with their practices and beliefs, but we tolerate them, just as we want others to tolerate our own beliefs. It seems simple, yet tolerance is hard, both intellectually and emotionally. Because of that, humans frequently fail the tolerance test, whether it’s racial, religious, ethnic, or political tolerance, resulting in mayhem, and massacres.
Drawing the boundary of what should be tolerated is not always easy. One question that immediately arises is whether ideas that are intolerant should themselves be tolerated. This challenge was given the name “The Paradox of Tolerance” by Karl Popper, an influential Austrian philosopher of natural and social science, during the rise of authoritarianism in the 1930s and 1940s.
“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance,” he wrote in his 1945 book, The Open Society and Its Enemies. “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.”
But how do we determine the limits of what can be done, said, or believed? Should the expression of abhorrent views be legally protected speech? A madman arguing to kill all members of an ethnic group may be considered a repulsive extremist, but he or she could also become a political leader or even a head of state, even a democracy, with the power to enforce those ideas by convincing others, through their speech, to agree with them. How do we respond to this philosophical challenge?
There are three reasons to think prohibiting speech is not a good response to this challenge. To start, a principled distinction must be made between speech and action. There is a world of difference between holding terrible views and acting upon them. Secondly, prohibiting speech, even when it’s repulsive, can backfire by giving it attention and an undeserved allure in certain communities. Lastly, were it truly the case that the majority of members of society were primed to act intolerantly and with violence against others, a prohibition against speech is an insufficient remedy against this evil.
A better approach is to stigmatize intolerant speech, not to ban it. Toleration may seem like a cold and impassionate response to hatred, but tolerance requires endurance, not warmth. In a free society, we can’t imprison white supremacists or Nazis for merely articulating their beliefs. Treating such views with cold revulsion, however, is a strong strategy. Social shaming is a powerful tool, but we should be thoughtful in how we use it. We need to avoid the common Internet trap discussed by author and attorney Mike Godwin: That everyone online who disagrees with you is Hitler. When we apply labels too easily, it’s hard to distinguish truly repugnant views.
Intolerance has been with us for centuries. The causes are complex. But the way to solve it, or at least minimize it, is to better understand individuals and other societies. Only then can we create a peaceful, tolerant, and more collaborative future.