2012 Embassy Attacks and the Tolerance Paradox

US Embassy Cairo 2012
An Egyptian protester throws a tear-gas canister back at riot police outside the U.S. embassy in Cairo on Sept. 13, 2012. Photo from TIME.

Due to recent events in the world, I’d like to dedicate a post on the concept of tolerance and its paradoxical nature.

Russell’s Paradox

This paradox is usually explained as the Barber paradox. If there is a barber in town who cuts the hair of only those who do not cut their own hair, then does he cut his own hair? If he does, then he is the category of those who do cut their own hair, so he can’t cut his own hair. But if he doesn’t cut his own hair, then by definition he does cut his own hair. Either way is a contradiction.

More formally, this is given as Russell’s paradox: Imagine a set that contains all sets that do not contain themselves. Does such a set contain itself? If it does, then it is not a member of itself, which is a contradiction, and if it does not contain itself, then by definition it is a member of itself, which is another contradiction. So, such a set is an impossible construction.

The Tolerance Paradox

The notion of all-tolerance leads to a paradox as well. If there is a person who tolerates everything, then by definition he also tolerates intolerance. But if he tolerates intolerance, then he is then not all-tolerant. Thus it is logically impossible to tolerate everything, because intolerance is included in the set of everything.

Whenever there is a clash of tolerance versus intolerance, the more tolerant side cannot be fully tolerant. It would be naive to believe it would be possible. The best the tolerant side can do is to not tolerate the intolerance of the other side.

How Tolerant Can We Be?

Now, if we do not tolerate the intolerance of the other side, then aren’t we too becoming intolerant? Yes and no. Yes only in the technical sense. No, because the only thing we are being intolerant of is at a meta level, not a real level.

For example, if person A tolerates all forms of clothing and person B does not tolerate jeans, then person B has an intolerance at the real level. If person A were to not tolerate person B’s intolerance of jeans, he is only not tolerating at the meta level. His intolerance of B’s intolerance is really just a defense of the real-level tolerance. So, person A is more tolerant than person B.

The Statue of Liberty

In the United States, we have the freedom of speech and expression, which is a supreme tolerance. If some Congressman were to argue that free speech should be taken away, then when you protest that choice, you are not really being intolerant of the Congressman’s intolerance of free speech. You are defending tolerance in the form of freedom of speech.

In a way, the intolerance of intolerance can be considered a form of tolerance after all, which is one resolution of the paradox. But even so, at some point to defend tolerance, you must disagree with the Congressman who is intolerant. And their side, in a non-logical defense, will claim your side is being intolerant and that their side is the tolerant one.

Religion and Tolerance

Some religions work the same way, claiming they are the tolerant ones while the other side is being intolerant, when it is really the other way around. Islam and Christianity seem to be serial offenders, each claiming itself as tolerant but neither one of them really being that tolerant at all.

Not only have these religions used verbal mockery, but time and time again throughout history, they have used physical force and oppression to attack those who disagreed with them, under the guise of being tolerant. When Galileo made his astronomical observations supporting Copernicus’s heliocentrism (that Earth orbits the Sun, not the other way around), he was charged with heresy.

The whole idea of calling someone a heretic goes completely against the idea of tolerance. And then taking oppressive and violent actions on such a person goes even further.

In the 2012 embassy attacks so far, the condemnation should fall strictly on the attackers, not on any filmmakers. At this point, as defenders of tolerance, we should no longer stand still and watch the violent intolerance against free thought.

It used to be that individuals such as Galileo were hated for using reason. But now, nations of the West are hated and their embassies attacked because of the non-violent free-expression of a few.

Obviously, not every Muslim is of the mindset of the attackers, and in fact only a small minority was violent. However, that does not absolve the religion itself from guilt. The attacks should not be blamed on any group in the Muslim population, nor against even those who perpetrated such actions, as these people were no doubt just doing what they thought were right, what they thought God wanted them to do. The root problem is the worldview itself and how it facilitates and justifies such violence. That is where the real blame lies. Unfortunately, judicial systems around the world judge people or groups of people, not ideas and worldviews. So until the judicial system adapts (along with a whole bundle of other factors, primarily education), religious intolerance is not going to stop. And this is not just referring to Islam, but especially Christianity as well.

Response to the Attacks

There is nothing wrong with condemning the attacks. By condemning the attacks, you are not being intolerant of Islam, but rather, tolerant of freedom of the press. Similarly, if you condemn the Salem witch trials, you are not being intolerant of Christianity, but rather, tolerant of the right to fair trial. It’s not that the “witches” were causing any threat to the religion, but rather, it was religion that was demonizing the victims. Similarly, the violent protesters make it seem as if their religion was strongly threatened, when in fact, it was them who were terrorizing others. So don’t be fooled when religions play the victim card. They claim to be the victim but act the bully. They claim to be tolerant, when they are highly the opposite.

Title page of Cases of Conscience (Boston, 1693 – Salem Witch Trials) by Increase Mather.

The legal systems of countries adapt all the time. Societies adapt, humans adapt, and all life adapts to new situations. Language adapts, technology adapts, and science adapts to new facts. But some religions absolutely refuse to adapt (though not all religions). Sometimes it might take a hundred years for a religion to accept something, such as the fact that Earth orbits the Sun and not the other way around. Or the fact that the Earth is round, not flat. Or the fact that biology is driven by evolution, not magic. As long as major religions stay in the same position and refuse to adapt, there will always be intolerance.

2 thoughts on “2012 Embassy Attacks and the Tolerance Paradox”

  1. I see, you have a flaw in your theory of tolerance. Tolerance is not a matter of true or false statements, therefore no transitions are allowed because you can’t imply mathematical theories on statements that are compromises by definition.
    For example: If I am all-tolerant, I would be also tolerant towards anyone who is about to kill me – which is not true for about 99% of all human beings. – Compromise stated. So, there can not be a paradox, where mathematical rules are invalid by definition of said compromises.
    You need an even more extreme attribute, which can be fullfilled to 100% or 0%. that leads to complete indifference or apathy, so that I wouldn’t care if I got killed…. or: misanthropy. That no matter what you do or who you are, I’d hate everyone. Well, since that would imply myself, that seems possible as well.
    I just wanted to say, that mathematical rules are nothing to use too easily.
    Just my 2 cents.


    1. Thanks for the critique. Though I still believe the laws of logic apply here.

      “For example: If I am all-tolerant, I would be also tolerant towards anyone who is about to kill me – which is not true for about 99% of all human beings. – Compromise stated.”

      Tolerance of uncommon views does not lead to a paradox, just as stating “All cows are green” is not paradoxical.

      In logic, paradoxes usually occur when meta-statements refer to each other, such as:
      1. The next sentence is false.
      2. The previous sentence is true.

      In your example, there are no meta-statements, so it is more analogous to:
      1. Killing is wrong.
      2. Killing is not wrong.

      There is no paradox here: One of the sentences must be true (or commonly accepted), while the other must be false (or less accepted). The next/previous sentence example, however, is paradoxical because both sentences can be neither true nor false.

      Going back to tolerance, there is no paradox in tolerating a generic uncommon view. However, there is a paradox for a hypothetical all-tolerant person to tolerate an intolerance of tolerance. E.g.:

      A is all-tolerant.
      Therefore, A tolerates free speech.
      B is intolerant of A’s tolerance free speech.

      Since A is all-tolerant, he must tolerate B’s intolerance of A’s tolerance of free speech. However, this is paradoxical because then he is no long tolerating of his own tolerance of free speech, which would make him not tolerant of free speech. This is a contradiction of the statement that A is all-tolerant. So, all-tolerance cannot exist.

      Since all-tolerance is impossible, at some point, we just have to draw the line and choose what to tolerate and what not to. I think that the recent attacks have crossed that line.


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