Should we be intolerant of the intolerant?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a writer and thinker whom I greatly respect, wrote an interesting theoretical explanation of how it is that an intransigent minority can impose its will on an apathetic minority.

He argued that the only way for the majority to protect itself is to refuse to tolerate the intolerant.

I have thought about this issue most of my life.  I came of age in the 1950s, when liberals as well as conservatives said we should outlaw the American Communist Party inasmuch as the Communists themselves rejected freedom of speech and other democratic norms.

One problem with this is: Who decides what intolerant minority should not be tolerated?  Aren’t the deciders likely to be an equal and opposite intolerant minority.

How do you identify the intolerant?  Do you assume an individual is intolerant because of that person’s political affiliation or religious heritage?

If you outlaw the intolerant, they do not necessarily disappear.  How do you identify the hidden intolerant?  Doesn’t it then become necessary to become intolerant of those who are tolerant of the intolerant?

Then, too, effective intolerance of the intolerant is possible only when the allegedly intolerant are a powerless minority.   When the intolerant are powerful enough to actually threaten freedom, they cannot be suppressed.

But I don’t deny that it’s possible for an intolerant minority to impose its will on the majority.  It’s complicated.  I thank Peteybee of Spread an Idea for linking to Taleb’s articles.


cakvin&hobbesWhen I was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, there was great controversy over a rule that the Labor Youth League, a Communist-front organization (and, yes, it really was a Communist organization), should be given the same privileges as other student organizations so long as they observed university rules.

The main dissenter was a student organization called the For America Club, whose leaders argued that the LYL should be banned because it was on the Attorney-General’s list of subversive organizations.  The LYL leaders, in turn, argued that the For America Club should be banned because it refused to conform to university policy.

I thought then that we Americans, especially us liberals, ought to have more confidence in the freedom of speech, and in the power of truth to defeat falsehood in open debate.

The basic idea of classic liberals, such as John Milton, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., is a level playing field for the conflict of ideas.

Thomas Jefferson said he saw no problem with giving free rein to advocates of monarchy, provided advocates of democracy were free to refute them.

What the classic liberals insisted on is respect for procedures—such as the U.S. Constitution, which basically consists of rules of procedure, like Roberts Rules of Order.

Our theory is that everyone, regardless of their aims, who follows the procedural rules is entitled to their protection.

Ideally, we protect the right of free speech, public assembly and democratic voting while suppressing political violence and rejecting discriminatory laws.

We liberals have a problem in that some of us can’t tell the difference between the neutral defense of human rights and the advancement of our own personal agendas, but that’s a topic for another time.


There’s also such a thing as the tyranny of the majority.  On issues that don’t matter to the majority and are vital to a minority, it is not necessarily wrong to allow the minority to have their own way.


I admit I don’t do justice to the breadth and depth of Taleb’s allusions.   Click on the links and decide for yourself


The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Small Minority by Nassim Nicholas Taleb for Medium.   (Hat tip to Peteybee)

Where You Cannot Generalize from Knowledge of Parts by Nassim Nicholas Taleb for Medium.  (Hat tip to Peteybee)

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