How tolerant would Karl Popper be?

How tolerant should we be towards the intolerant? This question most famously tackled in Karl Popper’s 1945 “The Open Society and Its Enemies”, resurges regularly in the debate over free speech on campus. Crucially, both sides of the argument draw on perhaps LSE’s most influential thinker. One side calls out the alleged hypocrisy of the left for claiming to be tolerant and yet denying someone the right to speak. The other side cites that “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.”

Both sides could be heard at LSE last week, when Alice Weidel, co-leader of Germany’s rightwing populist “Alternative for Germany” party was invited to give a talk at the LSESU Ethical Finance Society. Shortly after, however, the Student Union cancelled the event arguing that the security of the event could not be guaranteed.

The event’s description failed to represent crucial aspects of Miss Weidel’s biography. She leads a party with a sizeable faction holding despicable views on race, immigration, homosexuality, feminism and Islam. She has failed to condemn nationalist and antisemitic speech alluding to Nazi rhetoric by members of her own party. She has personally described German national identity as under threat from European integration and the presence of immigrants and refugees. She recently met Steve Bannon, former advisor of Donald Trump, to partake in his trans-national right-wing movement. Instead of mentioning the above, it most prominently featured her sexual orientation giving the impression of her being a progressive politician and successful businesswoman.

The Ethical Finance Society certainly appears an improbable organiser to host the leader of a right-wing party. This impression may be lessened considering that Miss Weidel worked with Goldman Sachs and other financial institutions throughout her career. No matter how odd the context may seem, it would not have been  inappropriate to debate Miss Weidel. While the topic of her speech, “An Alternative View on Brexit”, was unlikely to touch upon her parties’ most contentious positions, there would most certainly have been enough room for members of the audience familiar with the German political context to challenge her on a wide range of issues.

One argument often put forward is that extremist views should not be given the platform to extend their political base or benefit from the credibility of respected institutions. Firstly, LSE is an unlikely breeding ground for right-wing populism. Miss Weidel would have had to confront opposition in a rational discourse. She would not have been able to rally her emotionally charged followers. As a German commentator recently quipped: “As long as Miss Weidel has her views challenged at LSE, she is kept from causing further mischief with her more susceptible political base in Germany”. Secondly, the very raison d’être of a university is to facilitate debate without endorsing particular views. The event was organised by a student body and the School’s political position remains entirely detached.

A populist’s most powerful strategy is to cause outrage, provoke sanctioning by the open society, and in turn evoke the impression that they are the victim. This perversely reverses the role of victim and agitator. One can only speculate that Miss Weidel comfortably accepted the invitation anticipating that LSE would intervene, revoke the invitation and cancel the event as so many “liberal” institutions have done before. This feeds the narrative of right-wing movements around Europe of being ostracised by the “liberal” establishment and its institutions.

Open society is not without defence. Its most effective response is unpredictable. It breaks the cycle of provocation, reaction and victimisation. It refrains from impulsively denouncing the opponent as “Nazis” – but demonstrates the inferiority of their arguments. This requires courage and emotional resilience in the face of disconcerting views.

Cancelling the event due to security concerns gives a weak testimony of an open society. Yes, there may be vocal protesters and perhaps unruly opposition attempting to disturb the event. But fear of the open society itself will most certainly not defend it against its enemies.

Quirin von Blomberg, Graduate Student in Economics


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