John Palfrey on The Paradox of Tolerance

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Photo by Dave White.

Co-Editor’s Note: Two weeks ago, I was lucky to be introduced to John Palfrey’s open note to his campus. It has stayed with me as the clearest piece of creative writing on the vital topic of inclusion. —JM

We teach more than just mathematics, science, writing and reading, languages, the arts, and other academic topics in our schools. We also teach character and moral development. Many schools do so explicitly, through the lessons that we choose; all schools do so implicitly, through the personal examples that teachers, coaches, and principals set for our students. Whether parents like it or not, there is no way for teachers to avoid teaching character to some extent; after all, our students are watching us as they learn.

At the core of this character development, we ought to teach tolerance. But tolerance can be an extremely tricky value to convey when it comes down to it. Never in recent memory has it been trickier than in the wake of the 2016 Presidential elections.

It is extremely easy to be a tolerant person when everyone around you is tolerant. It is easy to tolerate the tolerant. It is easy to teach the tolerant. If everyone in a learning community commits to this principle, things go well. Schools should aim for a community in which everyone commits to a deep, abiding sense of tolerance. That would make things straightforward – in this respect, anyway.

The problem with tolerance is when it comes to the intolerant. To the extent that some people in society are intolerant of other people – and we know that to be true – there becomes, all of a sudden, a problem with tolerance. The tolerant are called upon to tolerate the intolerant. Meanwhile, the intolerant, in turn, are not asked to tolerate anyone.

To some degree, in a democracy, we must tolerate intolerance – that is part of the deal. We do not just give votes to the tolerant. It is also true that we grow and learn when we tolerate the views of others with whom we disagree. As Lee Bollinger, First Amendment scholar and president of Columbia University, argued in The Tolerant Society, a community, and individuals, grow stronger through the extraordinary self-control of tolerating harmful speech.

But the idea of tolerance must also have its limits. The philosopher Karl Popper, writing in 1945, defined this “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.”

Even as we all must tolerate views that we hate up to a point in a democracy, there must also be a point at which the tolerant are allowed to be intolerant of those who are intolerant. Our study of history points to examples when it was a terrible mistake to tolerate intolerance for too long.  The context in which Popper wrote, at the close of the second World War, focused his mind on this paradox. This paradox of tolerance is much on our minds today, once again, as we seek a way forward after a wrenching election season. As schools and as a democracy at large, we need to determine this point.

Our recent election has given rise to hard conversations on this point. What made the 2016 election so painful for many people, including me, was that too much of the rhetoric has been about exclusion, not inclusion; it has been about hate and not about love; it has been about putting some people above others. The conversation has not been about an America that I recognize – a land in which literally every person, by definition, came from another place or from the Native American nations that were on this very land before the European settlers arrived.

There is no way to hide from some simple facts.  The winning presidential candidate espoused hatred during this campaign toward Mexicans and Muslims in particular. He failed to denounce hate groups that target underrepresented people of color. He mocked the disabled. He demonstrated a misogynist streak that made members of his own party denounce his candidacy in large numbers. The rhetoric during the campaign, from all sides, emphasized division and supremacy of some over others, not equity and inclusion. It is also a fact that this patently divisive approach to running for President resulted in his victory in the Electoral College, if not in the popular vote. We are a divided nation, separated from one another in some fundamental way. This election cycle was structured around this divide.

I raise these facts in a manner not meant to be partisan. The problem is not about Democrats and Republicans. It is about the values that we hold as educational institutions and how to honor them as we teach our young people. Many of the views expressed during the campaign are inconsistent with the kinds of values that many, if not virtually all, of our schools stand for—the kinds of values, including tolerance, that we seek to teach.

In our schools, we value and support all our students and their well-being equally. That must include those who are Muslim and Mexican, and those who come from all faiths and all racial and ethnic backgrounds. That must include conservatives as well as liberals. In our classrooms, those on the right must tolerate those on the left; those on the left must tolerate those on the right. No one should be bullied or mistreated because of who they are or who they or their parents voted for. Serious political discussion must have a place in our academic communities and in our societies at large. Students need to have equal support when it comes to their learning and growth, no matter their perspective or background. (The expectation of equality and inclusion is not limited to our school environments. Recall that we are expected to value and support all people equally in society at large, too, in the plain language of our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.)

Hateful speech, targeting people and groups on our campuses, is not serious political discussion; it should have no place in our schools. In this hyped up, post-election context, we must be vigilant for the way our students interpret this election and its lessons. We must focus our minds on where the line should fall between the political speech that we must tolerate and the hateful speech that we should not.

As an educator, I believe we must do everything we can to focus on building tolerance and love for one another so we do not find ourselves, as school communities, faced with this paradox repeatedly. As a citizen, I believe the same is true for the United States at large. We ought to give a very wide berth to make room for the conversations we need to have about politics and difference. But intolerance of one another on our campuses, and in our communities, is something that we ought to find ways to prevent and to resist.


❔ Whois

John Palfrey assumed the role of Phillips Academy’s 15th Head of School on July 1, 2012. Prior to joining the Andover community, he was the Henry N. Ess III Professor of Law and Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources at Harvard Law School. He was also co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, where he served as executive director from 2002 to 2008. Palfrey has published extensively on how young people are learning in a digital era, as well as the effect of new technologies on society at large. He is the author or co-author of several books, including Born Digital: How Children Grow Up in a Digital Age; BiblioTech: Why We Need Libraries More Than Ever in the Age of Google, Interop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems, Intellectual Property Strategy, and Access Denied: The Practice and Politics of Global Internet Filtering.

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