Teaching the Paradox of Tolerance

This collections of videos, slide decks, and activities explores the paradox of tolerance and asks students to challenge their thinking on topics like free speech and what makes a tolerant society.

Introduction

The Paradox of Tolerance is a seemingly counterintuitive idea, proposed by philosopher Karl Popper, that says “in order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance.” Being tolerant of different ideas and opinions is a cornerstone of democratic societies, but when those societies allow hateful ideas and opinions, that very democracy is undermined. When teaching students about freedom of speech and expression, talking about the paradox of tolerance provides important nuance to the discussion. It also asks students to think about their constitutional rights, in addition to their responsibility not to harm others or violate their rights. Below is a list of helpful ideas and resources. 

Resources: 

  1. If including this topic along with a discussion on Freedom of Speech, use this slide deck to introduce the topic and lead into debates around free speech, and particularly its limits in regards to hate speech.
  2. A short slide deck that asks students to reflect on a few different scenarios related to the Paradox of Tolerance. 
  3. An animated video that introduces the Paradox of Tolerance, its philosophical grounding, and its practical application to the conversation about hate speech. 
  4. Freedom of Speech Task Force: A simulation activity that asks students to decide on rules for regulating speech on college campuses. It asks students to consider whether certain speakers or topics should be allowed or banned, and how they would justify their decision to students.
  5. Take it a step further: Students can write op-eds either in favor or disagreement with social media companies banning users who spread hateful messages. They should conduct their own research, and can use the logic of the paradox of tolerance in their article. Op-ed lesson resources are available here, including sharable/printable assignments and worksheets. If you email student op-eds to [email protected] we will publish the articles on students4sc.org. Here’s an opinion piece that employs the Paradox of Tolerance in making its argument.
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