What arguments speak for/against tolerance towards intolerance?

Can someone be called fully tolerant, if they don't tolerate intolerance? Hence, does tolerance exist in a pure form?

On the other hand, doesn't tolerating intolerance kill tolerance?

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    What do you mean by tolerance/intolerance? Historically, people used to get rid of non-tolerated individuals, not the same as having a mere disagreement.
    – Trinidad
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 0:11
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    This question is extremely broad: there are lots of arguments for and against tolerance. This seems like a generic guideline that you might use in approaching research, rather than something you'd ask on a Q&A site. If you can edit the question to make it more focused, you'll get a +1 from me. But for now, voting to close. Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 6:36
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    I think that you should first define what you are being tolerant/intolerant of. Are you talking about ideas, actions, or states? Arguments about what is ethical vary widely depending on what specifically is being addressed. Secondly, what does being tolerant or intolerant of something mean for an individual? Commented Jan 7, 2012 at 23:17
  • Someone can be lactose intolerant, but tolerate milk proteins just fine.
    – user18800
    Commented Mar 27, 2017 at 21:58

7 Answers 7


Slavoj Zizek makes a number of compelling arguments against the various paradoxes involved with neo-liberal 'tolerance'.

But after all, there's a fundamental ambiguity in the term itself, right? It's not "celebrate," it's "tolerate." On the surface it expresses a cosmopolitan openness ("come on in,") but underneath it conceals social injustice, bigotry, repression (in other words, it also means "not so close.")

It's the basic hypocrisy of the West in a nutshell.

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    If you're interested in this sort of thing, I can't recommend Violence (one of Žižek's latest books) highly enough. And nice to see someone else familiar with Slavoj's writings! Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 6:33

This is a lovely paradox. If one is truly tolerant, then one must by definition be tolerant towards the intolerant, and therefore to promote a society of tolerance one must allow the intolerant to behave as their nature dictates. That would mean then that issues of intolerance based on race/colour, breeding, education, height, weight, money, etc., must be tolerated by society as a whole. Further, that those who might suffer harm as a result of intolerance would themselves need to be accepting of such intolerance in order to be tolerant themselves.

Can tolerance exist in its purest form as I have just described. Yes it can individually, yet in reality such a purity of tolerance can only fail in society as its laws are in effect intolerant of intolerance, and therefore society itself can only be intolerant regardless of the degrees of tolerance of the individuals that may exist within a society. Thus to a part of your question, it isn't tolerance of intolerance that kills tolerance, but intolerance itself that cannot allow tolerance to exist in it's purest form within a society.

As to arguments for and against intolerance, such would be made based on a society's moral frame of reference. If a society tolerates slavery, it might be able to argue that such slavery is for the greater good of the society in question. Those opposed within such a society might not be able to justify their own individual intolerance towards slavery if they cannot make a compelling argument that fits within the society's moral point of reference in order to show the society itself that intolerance of the tolerable may be necessary.

Personally, I am glad we have an intolerant society, in that it allows those of us who feel more tolerant towards others to have the freedom to do so, knowing that someone else's intolerance has protected my own right to be tolerant! ;-)


The "tolerance of intolerance paradox" is a highly misleading logical fallacy that conflates an attitude of acceptance of intolerant ideas with acceptance of harmful actions. It's basically used as an excuse and justification to rationalize being intolerant based on entirely subjective notions of "offense" and "words are violence."

I tolerate Nazis and Communists living around me, that doesn't mean I will roll over if they start oppressing people with real actions. Tolerating their bigotry and hate doesn't mean I tolerant actions that violate the human rights of others.

The problem with this idea is that conflates words with actions. "Punch a Nazi" is rationalized violence towards someone based on a difference of political opinion, that's generally called terrorism. If you can morally and logically justify "punch a Nazi" because Nazis are intolerant bigots then you can use the exact same logic against feminists, social justice activists, or just about any other ideological group.

The enlightenment humanist liberal ideal is to tolerate hate speech of the worst kind and challenge it with better ideas in the open marketplace of ideas. If you stoop to oppressing people because you find them intolerant then you have just become the monster you pretend you are hunting, as Nietzsche famously put it.

Fighting against ideas you don't like thru censorship and de-platforming, only emboldens your opposition and adds to the allure of their rhetoric.

  • If you have any references of others who take similar views this would support your answer and give readers a place to go for more information. Welcome! Commented May 12, 2019 at 23:36

You're asking about absolute tolerance, which is indeed possible, but only, if you're observer.

You can find absolute tolerance in wildlife films. The narrator doesn't form any ethical statements for the behaviour of the animals, because he/she is external to the events presented there.

In political sphere you're not an observer by definition. You're involved in the process, being observer would require from you to be fully indifferent to your own life, which is practically impossible (every living being has the mechanism of self-preservation.

So, wherever the tolerance is mentioned in the political sphere, is is, with exception of purely theoretic speculations, the limited tolerance, the tolerance towards.

From practical point of view, you can't be tolerant towards someone who attempts to kill you and have the possibility to achieve this. Either you'll be forced to prevent this actions, changing your tolerance policy, or don't prevent this, and your tolerance will stop existing with you.


The "paradox of tolerance" vanishes if one treats tolerance as a peace treaty instead of a moral absolute.

The goal of such a treaty is to ensure the parties can live in peace. Under this model, if a person is intolerant, that person is not entitled to the protections of the treaty. Therefore, "Being intolerant of the intolerant" is not hypocrisy, it's simply taking action to restore the peace.

Without this justified "intolerance", the treaty collapses and so does the peace that comes with it.


I think tolerance is mostly a neutral thing. It can be used in good ways and it can be used in bad ways. Writer Iain McGilchrist alludes to the idea of a necessary distance in order for bonds to form. He compares it to reading. Too close, and you can't see anything. Too far, and you can't read it.

I agree with Joseph here that in Western cultures the umbrella of tolerance is often used as an excuse to continue a sort of hypocritical, simultaneous, drawing near to and examining less of. We have let people into our necessary distance in order for bonds to form, but we have looked the other way. A shortcut has been taken. That is, if we had continued to examine the beliefs of others and drew them near at the same time, I believe, we could achieve a kind of love that we have for our family members who although we disagree with we still stick to.

But because we are initially repulsed by the beliefs of others, things we do not know or understand, in the West we have drawn people near by looking away—and this intimate ignorance has brought on grave consequences because we cannot look away forever. Near things collide. Almost always. The longer two things are together, the higher chance there is that they will collide.

I think what people desire when they cling onto ideals and slogans of tolerance and oneness are these bonds that form with necessary distance. They just got the order wrong. They did not want to take the step of self- and other-examination—because it's difficult and costly. What people say they want when they talk of tolerance, what I think they usually mean but are too afraid to ask for, is love.


I find the question interesting but also slightly misleading. Tolerance is, by definition, something that reflects a willingness to accept behaviors or opinions one dislikes. I wouldn’t call it hypocrisy even though it might point into that direction. Saul Bellow once said that “if the Zulu will produce a Dostoevsky, we’ll read him.” An affirmation which, unfortunately, does not need much explanation. This is, then, how tolerance really looks like: expecting the other’s behavior or opinions to change in order to match my own.

Kwame A. Appiah suggested we should agree on a set of basic human rights on which we should make no compromises. Beyond that, “there’s a wide range of things where it’s up to each human being and each community of human beings to make up their own minds about how they are going to do it.”

Ideally, we should thus be tolerant of difference and not of dislike and, since intolerance should not be part of the basic human rights we shouldn’t worry too much about not being tolerant of intolerance.

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