Tolerance Paradoxes Explained

Tolerance Paradoxes, Political Correctness, and Totalitarianism – Understanding The Paradox of Tolerance (And Other Paradoxes Related to PC and Tolerance)

We explain paradoxes related to tolerance and Politically Correctness (PC), including “the paradox of tolerance” and “tolerance as a form of intolerance.

Below we explore the validity of a few difficult to face paradoxes related to tolerance (the classical liberal virtue) and political correctness (in the social liberal, social conservative, classical conservative, and classical liberal form), including the recognized “tolerance as a form of intolerance” (an excess of PC; a “politically correct” criteria so stringent that everyone is constantly in violation of it, leading to a totalitarian form of dictatorship), “paradox of tolerance” (A deficiency of PC; when unlimited tolerance is shown to the intolerant), a paradox related to being anti-PC (we are so anti-PC it creates social injustice), and paradox of tradition (which resists social change and tolerance in favor of tradition and order).[1]

We can quickly define this as:

Politically correct is a concept which speaks to tolerance, sensitivity, and censorship, if it is in balance it is a virtue, and if it is in an excess or deficiency it is vice. (See Aristotle’s Vices’s and Virtues. It applies perfectly to this concept as a metaphor.)

Using the logic above, we can say there is four flavors of Political Incorrectness that each line up with classical and social liberalism and conservatism. They are not commonly recognized, and in fact this theory is unique (aside from the one paradox I borrowed from Karl Popper and another that has been described and not named). With that noted, these tolerance or PC paradoxes can be roughly defined as:

  1. Laissez-fair paradox (Karl Popper’s Tolerance Paradox): We are so laissez-fair we breed incorrectness. Ex. “Who cares who says or does what if it isn’t physically aggressive, total liberty is worth the consequences”. A staunch libertarian stance.
  2. PC Paradox (PC as a form of totalitarianism): We are so overly PC we breed incorrectness. Ex. “You can’t say that or we won’t accept you… and you’ll be lucky if we don’t punish you!”. Cultural fascism (right-wing patriotical/patriarchal correctness) and Cultural Marxism (left-wing political correctness).
  3. Social Conservative Paradox (Anti-political correct): We are so anti-PC we breed incorrectness. Ex. “I can’t stand your attempts at censorship, and I hate you and your kind for it”. Typically used by right against the “social justice warrior left”, but also used against the “alt-right” by the left.
  4. Paradox of Tradition (Classical Conservatism in terms of Tolerance): We resist change so steadfastly it becomes a form of intolerance. This form resists the liberal free expression of new ideas. It is a paradox because it isn’t as intolerant, it is just a resistance of a positive or negative deviation from the norm. Thus that which would require tolerance in the first place is “strangled in its cradle via cultural forces.” Ex. “This is a X nation, so we can’t have people believing or being Y in the first place.”

We will comment on each of these and look at their roots below.

TIP: Philosopher Karl Popper defined the tolerance paradox in 1945 in The Open Society and Its Enemies Vol. 1. 226 CHAPTER 7 /NOTES 5-6[2]

“Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. 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.”

TIP: See our “what is PC page?” for a clear definition of Political Correctness.

What Does it Mean That Tolerance Can be a Form of Intolerance?

Today, the most recognized of the above types is the one that was the center of the South Park season on PC and is the crux of a libertarian argument against PC called “Tolerance as a form of intolerance”.

“Tolerance as a form of intolerance” is the idea of an entity (typically the state) becoming so authoritarian in promoting a value set that it becomes fascist. (See forms of government for definitions of terms).

In other words, this is the odd thing that happens when progressive liberalism (well intentioned or not) becomes puritanical and tyrannical like it did during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution or during prohibition.

The other notable form is Karl Poppers, which speaks to being so tolerant of intolerance that one fails to protect classical liberal virtues like tolerance in the first place.

The other two types speak to reactions to this. One is the anti-PC flavor, the other is the classical conservative take which resists change (but probably wouldn’t consider itself intolerant).

Essentially, any position that can be taken on tolerance that has odd and unintended effects is a paradox, so there may be more sub-paradoxes and such I haven’t named. The point here is that the discussion of tolerance and censorship (or in modern terms PC) is more complicated than it seems… and in extremes can actually lead to tyranny in a few different forms.

To recap what is stated above in more detail before moving on, we can categorize paradoxes related to PC and tolerance as:

  1. Being overly tolerant of intolerance can be described as “the paradox of tolerance“, or in my words, “cultural laissez faire-ism” (a tolerance of intolerance). It is regulation so laissez faire that it breeds intolerance, and becomes tyrannical! If we put no limits on the lynch mob, there free expression quickly becomes unbearable.
  2. Being overly PC is a type of “cultural Marxism” or “cultural Fascism” depending on if the message is inclusively Marxist or exclusively fascist (an intolerance of intolerance, or “tolerance as a form of intolerance”, a PC paradox). If a state or culture punishes intolerance too harshly, it itself can become intolerable. For example in America the left may want a Christian caterer to cater gay weddings, or the right may want anyone who would burn a flag exiled or imprisoned.
  3. Being anti-PC can be a type of “cultural Fascism” so to speak but doesn’t have to be (an intolerance of tolerance, a social conservative paradox). This speaks to the state or culture becoming so anti-politically incorrect it is aggressive. For example this is the style of NAZI Germany where it was in vogue to discriminate and be intolerant.
  4. Being traditional can be a type of tyranny in and of itself. It is from one frame being intolerant, but unlike being anti-PC its goal isn’t to do away with PC, it goal is simply to maintain tradition. It stops deviations from the norm as they arise, in the name of tradition.

Or at least, that is my running theory on the matter; i.e. it’s a theory (not gospel truth)… and the list may not be exhaustive (feel free to comment below).

TIP: What is the difference between wanting to punish someone for not baking a cake or punish someone for burning a flag? Not much, right? Both right-wing PC and left-wing PC are both problematic for the same reasons… yet, a complete ambivalence to these things, or an overly laissez faire attitude so-to-speak, can provide the breeding ground in which both the left and right get out of control. Thus, what we have here, is a very complex age-old problem.

Nazi and Communist posters: a comparison. Both Fascists and Communists have very similar ideologies, but both had unique takes on what was politically correct and how tolerance should be extended to groups. For Hitler it was an exclusive type of PC where only blue-eyed nationals got socialism, for Stalin everyone was getting socialism whether they liked it or not. How can two entities with so much in common have so little in common? Indeed. We could ask also, “how can PC as a vice look so different in its different forms?” In all cases, the conversation is complex.

Details on the Above Theory

The above theory is derived from the meaning of Communism, Fascism, Conservatism, Liberalism, and Laissez Faire, combined with Aristotle’s theory of means and deficiencies related to vices and virtues, combined with other concepts regarding the modern debate surrounding PC and tolerance (from Popper’s theory to the debate as it appears in popular culture today).

Think of it this way (in terms of Aristotle’s theory), Politically Correct is a concept, if it is balanced it is a virtue, and in an excess or a deficiency it is vice. Thus all three forms mentioned above are types of vices, yet PC and tolerance in a perfect balance are virtues.

On a politically correct virtue chart it looks like this:

Sensitivity Insensitive Sensitive Overly sensitive
Tolerance Intolerant Tolerant Overly tolerant
Liberty Overly authoritative Liberal Overly liberal
Equality Unequal Equal Overly equal

The chart above can be used to see how the different types of political correctness and incorrectness arise. When we stop a force from arising or going to far toward an extreme, we are practicing “censorship” (PC is a type of censorship, intolerance speaks to the sentiment behind censorship, and tolerance is a type of anti-censorship).

When PC is a virtue it is simply “the politics of how to treat a group or individual correctly,” when tolerance is a virtue it is simply “the correct amount of tolerance to show towards individuals and groups,” when intolerance is a virtue it is resisting that which is incorrect.

Thus, correcting behavior is good, but when we over-correct or under-correct our behavior, we risk becoming unbalanced in our application of PC or tolerance. When the virtues are in their fall, they can quickly becomes vices.

Using that chart we can then denote some archetypes related to PC:

  • The Social Justice Warrior: Overly sensitive and overly tolerant of “others” (out-groups), but intolerant of intolerant views. A position of authority in which inequality is not accepted.
  • The Patriotically Correct: Insensitive and intolerant of others, but overly tolerant of those who share their views. A position of authority in which inequality is accepted.
  • The Laissez-faire Libertarian: Insensitive and overly tolerant. A position of total liberty where inequality is accepted.
  • The Traditionalist: Resits change in the first place. Stopping deviation from the norm and thus stopping there from being anything to be tolerant of.

It is easy to mock the concepts above when we are discussing Hitler’s brand of Fascist National Socialism or Stalin’s brand of Communism (“it could never happen here” they say), or when discussing limiting the hate speech of the KKK in the early 1900’s (“that was different” they say, “don’t be such an uptight nanny-state liberal” they say), but it is a little more complex when the debate arises over more mundane issues in modern moderately social liberal western societies (around issues like cake baking, hijabs, and bathrooms)…. and sometimes its Ronald Reagan calling for “law and order” or Tipper Gore slapping a warning labor on a metal or hiphop album. The concept applies to the left and right, to the mundane and important.

When the subject comes up in popular culture in America, like it did in a 2015 season of South Park, it is easy to dismiss, but perhaps it is best seen as a way to lightly talk about a concept that is so tricky, dark, and counterintuitive that we often pass it over for simpler issues.[3]

See the videos below for different takes on this concept throughout history.

Communists, Nationalists, and China’s Revolutions: Crash Course World History #37. Let’s start with an educational video from PBS that focuses on this theme in China, and then we will ourselves look at PC in the World Wars and in the hippy revolution.

Summary: PC can be used to push a Communist style ideology i.e. “cultural Marxism”, but more often it is just a punching bag for far-right nationalists, or even used by the right-wing themselves. In simple terms, there are at least two different types of state pushed “conformity” that can lead to authoritarianism. One is left, the other is right. Likewise, PC can become a vice via a left-wing or right-wing ideology. See our breakdown of left-right ideology (or see our overview chart below). Note the top-left and top-right of the chart. This is where the extreme authoritarians of the left and right live respectively.

TIP: See our discussion on Communism vs. Fascism for how these similar philosophies are different.

A left-right paradigm using a four point graph to show how common government types relate to left and right in terms of who has authority and who says so.

A left-right paradigm using a four point graph to show how common government types relate to left and right in terms of who has authority and who says so.

Fascist PC V. Marxist PC – The Dangers of Extremes

Where change and tolerance for deviation (that is tolerance and intolerance) are well explained by the liberal revolutions and the age of reason (where say protestants wanted their liberty, bankers their’s, liberals their’s, etc), the other forms are more closely related with the rise of progressivism and anti-progressivism in the mid 1800s to the modern day.

Oddly, in this respect, an underlying theme of the events leading up to the World Wars was political correctness. Economics aside, these were largely wars over values and ideologies. We can see these extremes in Lenin’s and Stalin’s Communism, the National Fascism of the NAZIs (or Italians of this era), or the WWII race-based detainment camps. However, we can also see this underlying theme in the more positive (but equally divisive) hippy revolution, Civil War, Civil Rights movements, New Deal, and even feminists movements.

To understand what the Slavoj Žižeks of the world are trying to say when they say, “PC can be dangerous,” we have to take a look at the darker side of politically correct. We need to look at reactions to counterculture movements, and the use of “cultural Marxism” (or fascism or laissez faire) to create a totalitarian state, and not at the validity of civil rights, free love, and the equality of the sexes (as our love of these classically liberal values will surely blind us from the overarching point).

The videos below shows left-leaning Slavoj Žižek’s take on political correctness being used against the left, by those claiming to be left. He sees the left as those who want progressive and inclusive policies that are pro-disenfranchised groups and pro-political correctness, sometimes to a fault.

Slavoj Žižek: Political Correctness is a More Dangerous Form of Totalitarianism. In this video Žižek tries to make the point that PC can be used as a form of oppression.

Slavoj Zizek: Political correctness solidifies hatred, it doesn’t work. Revolutions are often initiated by idealists, carried out by fanatics and hijacked by scoundrels. These observations by philosopher Thomas Carlyle still ring true about many of the revolutions we’ve seen in recent years.

Why PC Can Be Dangerous

The fear of groups we aren’t a part of (see Fascism) and the “over-equalizing” of society (see Communism) are both dangerous to a free capitalist progressive western democracy (despite any merits they might have as philosophies on paper). This isn’t true because “some American said so”, its true because those types of tyranny squash the individual liberty needed to maintain a free society. Once the state starts to limit natural rights, we start down a slippery slope toward a one-party totalitarian state.

Even the great liberator who paved the way for Athenian Democracy, Solon, believed in free trade and markets (as they empower individuals).

Simply put, despite their attempts to appeal to the average Joesph, both Fascism and Communism have been historically used to establish an oligarchical rule that circumvents democracy and individual liberty.

A favorite technology of both has been about using a need to be politically correct to apply peer pressure to individuals. This doesn’t make socialism or nationalism wrong, nor does it make PC or tolerance wrong, it just adds dark complexity to the already complex world of politics. Still, if WWII taught us anything, it is that ignoring life’s un-pretty side is not on the table.

Communism and Fascism. This video provides information about Communism and Fascism, two political ideologies that gained popularity after World War I.

The Dangers of Bias, Political Correctness, and the Wisdom of American Democracy

Given all the above, we can say, misunderstanding the term “politically correct” puts you in danger of being indoctrinated by far-right and far-left extremists. Extremists don’t always have bad intentions, and while intentions matter, this is one case where outcomes matter more.

Taking the debate on PC to mean that you should not have progressive policies toward out-groups (groups you aren’t a part of), or should feel like you can’t speak up against PC, are equally dangerous responses to the situation.

Your best defense is to check your own beliefs, reaffirm your faith in centered policies, and to check your own bias. (I.E. see the dangers of bias, this should not be taken as a call to “over-correct” bias on a state level, which is a tactic of authoritarians, but simply to to check your bias against your own moral center).

You have freedom of speech and press (in America and the west), but also have some inherent morality that needs to be employed to taste. Change isn’t made through demands or extremes; it is made through compromise.

One reason why America is so successful is that we have a quasi-capitalist democracy that is flexible, ruled by law (ideally), with officials elected by the people (a republic), and is thus regulated in the interest of the people (ideally the will of the citizen is reflected by the republic).

We use a two party system in practice, but its not written in the Constitution. Rather it is a manifestation of the human condition arising as parties due to our freedom of expression and association (see my theory, and Thomas Jefferson’s theory, of the basic political parties).

We do not have a six party system that splits the vote between the “lefts” and “rights” in a way that a outlying candidate like Hitler can come to power over time (see Hitler’s rise to power, this is an oversimplification and Germany has a parliamentary system). In America, we sit in a big tent with people we don’t like, and then we try everything we can to sway them toward our side (so a bit like a parliamentary system). We purposefully utilize a system of checks and balances, and many levels of individual, state, and federal power (#ThanksMadison).

In America, as rebels from a monarchy and oligarchy, our forefathers knew the danger of governments, rhetoric, and people; that is why we chose our Constitution-based Federal Republic with freedom of religion, freedom of press, and freedom of speech (AKA the first Amendment).

Our forefathers wanted to continue the European enlightenment and promote liberty and justice for all while avoiding the dangers of extreme factions. With that said, let’s end with one more person’s take on the Dark Side of Politically Correct, it helps to remember to do a double take when getting behind a cause that seems good. It also helps to remember we are still just discussing that age-old concept of tolerance. It was tricky back in Martin Luther’s day, no reason to think it would suddenly become simple (especially with the whole 80’s revival of PC as a ideological club to beat liberals over the head with). TIP: Learn more about the origin of the term politically correct.

The Dark Side Of Political Correctness.

Article Citations
  1. Paradox of tolerance
  2. Full text of “The Open Society And Its Enemies Vol I”
  3. How ‘South Park’ Perfectly Captures Our Era of Outrage

Author: Thomas DeMichele

Thomas DeMichele is the content creator behind,,, and other and Massive Dog properties. He also contributes to MakerDAO and other cryptocurrency-based projects. Tom's focus in all...

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