Tolerance Leads to Tyranny

The ancient dilemma of democracy roosts in the Public Library

Tolerance Leads to Tyranny
By Carol M. Highsmith — Library of CongressCatalog: download: url:, Public Domain,

All across America, a plague is ravaging our citizens. This is not a plague of the body (though that one is far from over, either), but a plague of the spirit, a plague of the mind.

This is a paradox that Plato himself laid out over two thousand years ago. Plato realized that a society practicing true tolerance would eventually succumb to forces of intolerance.

Plato used this as an argument for “benevolent despotism” as a preferable form of government to Democracies. After all, if your tolerant democracy is bound to become an intolerant hellscape due to its own contradictions, why not just establish an autocracy and at least settle for stability?

But the 20th century philosopher Karl Popper wasn’t so sure. He believed that a tolerant society merely needed to set out guidelines for what constitutes tolerance. In his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies, he stated his solution to Plato’s paradox.

For a democracy to function, it must allow intolerant speech, Popper believed. But it must also reserve the right, even by force, to put a stop to intolerant speech that acts in certain ways. Namely, if the intolerant are unwilling to engage in rational debate, if they try to force laws that service their own dogma, they must be met with all due force and quelled.

Libraries are one of the last truly functional socialized systems in the United States, and they are under dire threat from the intolerant forces subverting our Democracy.

A hallmark of library service is that information belongs to everyone, and that everyone must be free to seek information equally.

But there are groups throughout the country, many backed by the dark money of powerful special interests, that despise this notion.

These groups are targeting disenfranchised people, especially kids, and using the pretence of reasonable language to undermine support systems and destroy lives. These groups have learned to fight back against Popperian attempts to quell them, by offering the pretense of rational debate.

Right now, these forces are trying to pass bills (actual laws) in numerous States that would see school librarians arrested for presenting information to their patrons. Not even information on how to build bombs, mind. This is information about how it feels to be isolated, or how it can be confusing to fall in love. Some of this information is about anger and fear at long-standing injustices.

Obviously, those being attacked in this way frequently fall into racial and cultural groups, as well as those who find identification somewhere along the LGBTQ+ spectrum.

Libraries are losing their funding over this, even in supposedly progressive States like California. And, in less progressive States, the fight is growing worse at an alarming rate. Librarians could be jailed, information freedoms curtailed, and the power of tyranny ushered in on the back of sophomoric rhetorical arguments.

Unless something is done. Unless the fight to stop intolerance can be reignited and redefined in a more concrete way.

All democracies are inherently imperfect, but we must hope that they can maintain enough self-reflection, and enough capacity for evolution, to alter their course before the intolerant forces within them overcome their better natures. As Thomas Jefferson said in his first inaugural address: “Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”

But, when reason is no longer enough, something more substantial will have to do.

Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, an independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider subscribing to a paid tier for as little as $2.50 per month!

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