Should Intolerance Be Tolerated?

Ana I. López Ortega

5 mins - 17 de Enero de 2024, 07:00

Tolerance is so essential to the functioning of liberal democracies that it could be considered one of their defining elements: a liberal democracy is a democracy to the extent that it respects and preserves the plurality of political options and models of the good life. If this is not the case, for instance, when one option or model is imposed on the rest, we speak of dictatorship. That is why in societies where individual rights and freedoms are recognised and protected, a certain degree of tolerance is required towards difference, which comes in many forms: from physical appearance to language or religion, as well as moral values.

But should the intolerant be tolerated? Deeply concerned by the Nazi and Fascist movements of the inter-war period, the philosopher Karl Popper warned against unlimited tolerance because, paradoxically, it could lead to the disappearance of tolerance itself. He therefore called for “the right not to tolerate the intolerant”.

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For decades, the idea that protecting liberal democracy meant not tolerating speech that infringed civil liberties was an axial principle for those fighting for the social and political inclusion of minority groups. However, this same “paradox of tolerance” argument has also been used since the end of the last century by most European far-right parties and now by their Spanish variant, Vox. An idea that the Partido Popular of Alberto Núñez Feijoó has apparently joined with its proposal to outlaw political parties for “constitutional disloyalty”. 

But, unlike in Europe, the exclusion proposed by Vox and PP is limited to the “enemy within” or, to put it bluntly, to pro-independence parties. For Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, on the other hand, the enemy is always external, which is why he uses the same argument to argue that Muslims should not be allowed to immigrate to the Netherlands: because Islam is supposed to be intolerant.

The arguments of Santiago Abascal, Feijoó, and Wilders on the limits of tolerance only apparently echo those of Popper. For their proposal on where to draw the line of what is tolerable differs in essence: Popper argued that most forms of political, social, or religious diversity should be tolerated. He never drew the line at ideological diversity, but rather at the incitement, by some political options, to persecute individuals and groups on the basis of some idiosyncratic feature of their diversity. This is what Nazism did, taking it to its most atrocious expression: the physical elimination of the different, the Jew. The Spanish extreme right, and now also the more liberal right, advocates the exclusion of part of the citizenry on ideological grounds, while the Dutch extreme right advocates exclusion on religious grounds. Popper, the advocate of democratic “open societies”, would undoubtedly oppose both if he were still alive.

Hence, proposals that question religious, political, or ideological tolerance challenge the core of democracy. In our case, the idea of excluding those who think differently stems, in essence, from an exclusionary Spanish nationalism that has never renounced being the only acceptable nationalism, as Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca defended several days ago in El País. But this crime of “constitutional disloyalty” that the PP now wants to include in the Penal Code, instead of sedition, would not only make ours a militant democracy, but would turn national unity into a pre-democratic axiom, mutilating public conversation and political debate, in which everything could be discussed except the unity of a nation elevated to the category of Union Sacrée. With the important caveat that sacred union established a temporary truce between the various French political factions by virtue of a greater imperative, German aggression in the First World War, in our case that “sacramentation” would be perpetual, not temporary. If in the Spanish constitutional history of the 19th century and a good part of the 20th century God and the Catholic religion were transcendental, pre-constitutional principles on which our legal system was built, now the right wing intends to do the same with the idea of nation.

“In the coming war, France [...] will be heroically defended by all her sons, whose sacred union will not be broken in the face of the enemy, and who today are fraternally united in the same indignation against the aggressor and in the same patriotic faith”. Those were the words of Raymond Poincaré, President of the Republic, when the German Reich declared war on France in 1914. And part of his spirit resonates now in the proposals of the PP and Vox. Because, at the end of the day, what they are essentially about is imposing that all Spaniards share the “same patriotic faith”, thus putting an end to the polyphony of identity, which they consider an unbearable cacophony. Nothing new under the sun, however, the Basque and Catalan “separatists” have been, since the second half of the 19th century, Spain’s internal enemy by antonomasia. The distrust goes back a long way, however. In the 17th century, Francisco de Quevedo already expressed it graphically: “the Catalans are a monstrous abortion of politics”, he said. And it seems that the opinion of our right-wingers has not changed much since then.
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