Activism, Identity, Top Stories

The Purity Paradox: How Tolerance and Intolerance Increase at the Same Time

How can intolerance be increasing when Western democracies are demonstrably more tolerant of historically marginalised identities than at any point in their history? It is, according to Douglas Murray, “a curiosity of the age” that as racial and sexual tolerance “at the very least appears to be better than it ever was, it is presented as though it has never been worse.” This paradox occurs because, as we address and overcome problems of intolerance and discrimination, we also expand the concept of intolerance to stigmatise new attitudes and behaviours. This makes it appear as if we are either making no progress at all or, worse, that we are becoming more intolerant. The upshot is that social problems appear increasingly irresolvable.

It is, of course, counter-intuitive to think of tolerance and intolerance increasing at the same time. Nevertheless, the idea is supported by a Harvard University study of human judgement, led by Professor Daniel Gilbert. In a series of experiments, Gilbert and his team of researchers showed that “people often respond to the decrease in the prevalence of a stimulus by increasing the concept of it.” He termed this phenomenon “prevalence-induced concept change.” In the first experiment, participants were shown 1,000 dots that varied on a continuum from very purple to very blue and then asked to identify the blue dots. After 200 trials, the number of blue dots was decreased for one group of participants but increased for another. In both cases, participants assessed the number of blue dots to be the same—the group with decreasing blue dots expanded their concept of blue to include dots they had previously excluded. This change was not altered by forewarning participants, by sudden decreases in prevalence, or by reversal in the direction of prevalence.

The same effect was noticed when participants were shown 800 human faces on a continuum of threatening to non-threatening—when the prevalence of threatening faces was reduced in one group, participants expanded their concept of threat to include faces which they had previously defined as non-threatening. In a third study, participants were shown 240 proposals for scientific research that were rated on a continuum from very ethical to very unethical. When the prevalence of proposals defined as unethical were decreased for one group, the group expanded their concept of unethical to include proposals they had previously defined as ethical.

The implications of this research should give us pause for thought across a wide range of social and cultural issues, especially when it comes to assessing the prevalence over time of bias against marginalised groups. There is no doubt that discrimination against people on the basis of race, gender, or sexuality continues, the view that it is increasing is likely to be an effect of prevalence-induced concept change. The concept of what constitutes discrimination has expanded, and as marginalised communities have splintered into mutually antagonistic groups, overall hostility and inter-community tension has been exacerbated.

Tests for the detection of “unconscious bias,” such as the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT), have played a significant role in the emergence of this paradox, and the IAT’s methods have been widely adopted. For example, the UK Government established a programme of diversity training to unearth unconscious biases in participants. So, even as people become more tolerant of racial and gender differences they find themselves condemned for intolerance so deeply buried they were not even aware of it themselves. The theory of intersectionality, meanwhile, now widely embraced in Western universities, has generated an ever-expanding “matrix of oppression.” In search of a solution to the resulting tsunami of newly discovered prejudice, the number of oppressors—from white cis-gendered men to “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists”—proliferates, resulting in a feedback loop of exclusion, distrust, and resentment.

As concepts of discrimination and bias expand, the aggressive policing of behaviours increases in an attempt to rid society of all remaining prejudice. At the University of Sheffield in England, students were paid by the university to monitor the language of their fellow students for evidence of “microaggressions” that may unintentionally cause offence to a racial group. This inevitably leads to the needless demonisation of tolerant, liberal students as intolerant unconscious racists. And as the concept of intolerance increases in this way, tolerant behaviours and attitudes struggle to keep up. Like the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, we have to run faster just to stand still.

The outcome of all this is rampant no-platforming in universities and colleges, necessitated by the assumption that if people can’t be reformed then they must be silenced instead. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead described the University of Chicago as “the one place I have been that is most like ancient Athens.” He would doubtless have been disappointed to learn that protests derailed plans to invite Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, to participate in a debate on campus. Although the event did not take place, the professor who invited him remarked, “whether you like his views or not, he seems to have understood something about America that I’m curious to learn more about.”

Similar culture wars are escalating around gender. British author J.K. Rowling was showered with spiteful invective simply for being “deeply concerned about the consequences of the current trans activism.” The Indian feminist Vaishnavi Sundar had the screening of her film pulled because she objected to pre-op transwomen sharing shelters and bathrooms with female survivors of sexual violence. Her sins were compounded by her belief that biological sex is not a social construct. Compare this kind of behaviour to the philosophy of Ira Glasser, a liberal Jew and former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Glasser recently described the banning of speakers with racist views as “the most politically stupid thing I had ever heard.” As head of the ACLU, he had defended the right of neo-Nazis to march through a largely Jewish neighbourhood of Chicago on the grounds that “what happened in Germany didn’t happen because there was a good First Amendment there. It happened because there wasn’t.”

How can we encourage kind and decent people to become ever-more tolerant when they are vilified no matter what they say or do because the concept of intolerance keeps expanding to swallow their good intentions? Our desire for greater equality and inability to acknowledge progress are spinning us into a purity spiral—as new layers of intolerance are uncovered, coercive corrective measures increase in ferocity. Left unchallenged, this takes us to ever-more dangerous places. As Simon Schama explains in his magnificent study of the French Revolution, “the violence that made the Revolution possible in the first place created the brutal distinctions between Patriots and Enemies, Citizens and Aristocrats, within which there could be no human shades of grey.”

Allergy to ambiguity and nuance and to the complexity of human experience makes impossible demands of the individual. This in turn results in rising levels of frustration and recrimination because somebody has to pay the price for failure. “Il faut du sang pour cimenter la révolution” (“There must be blood to cement the revolution”) cried Mme Roland at the height of the French Revolution only to find herself arrested and guillotined a short time later. When justified campaigns for racial justice and gender rights adopt this same approach, they are fuelling the very forces they claim to oppose.

“My ultimate objection to political correctness,” English writer, actor, and comic Stephen Fry has observed, “is not that it combines so much of what I have spent a lifetime loathing and opposing: preachiness (with great respect), piety, self-righteousness, heresy-hunting, denunciation, shaming, assertion without evidence, accusation, inquisition, censoring… My real objection is that I don’t think political correctness works… (It) is always obsessed with how right it is, without thinking of how effective it might be.”

By relentlessly expanding the concept of intolerance, prevalence-induced concept change ensures none of us can ever be good enough—if we pass one test of tolerance, we are sure to fail the next. Meanwhile those who believe they do not have to change, wait—endlessly and in vain—for the world to change around them. The Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, understood clearly where this cycle takes us. Benjamin, who committed suicide as he fled Nazi persecution, wrote about the Angel of History whose “face is turned toward the past”:

Where we perceive a chain of events, [the angel] sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Benjamin’s logic is poetic and flawless in its illustration of a history of accumulated horror. As we disappear down the rabbit hole of identitarianism, hostile groups magnify existing divisions and manufacture new ones. But as we bask in the warm feeling of being good and right (and every identity group is always good and right), we should be wary of making ever-more exacting demands for tolerance which, by their very nature, can never be satisfied. The only way to “make whole what has been smashed” is to identify a common humanity that can obviate these divisions.

Prevalence-induced concept change seems to be a hardwired human trait, common to us all. Left unchecked, it will sow irresolvable division. If we are to attain a greater measure of social justice, we would do well to look at ourselves first and rescue our shared humanity from whatever sex, race, or culture we believe we belong to. Seeing the “Other” in myself, seeing in ourselves the things we dislike most in others, is a prerequisite to freeing the individual from the prison of the group. It means sacrificing moral purity in order to be effective in tackling intolerance.


Peter Hughes is a psychologist, writer, and entrepreneur based in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter at @DrPeter_H.

Photo by Dyana Wing So on Unsplash.


  1. There is no doubt that discrimination against people on the basis of race, gender, or sexuality continues…

    Indeed. It will continue.

    How can we encourage kind and decent people to become ever-more tolerant when they are vilified no matter what they say or do because the concept of intolerance keeps expanding to swallow their good intentions?

    Tolerance is a by product of compassion. Compassion is a by product of wisdom and understanding. Tolerance cannot fill the metaphysical vacuum, when wisdom, understanding and compassion have evacuated.

    The crusade against discrimination appears benign, by its face value. It is not. The “purity paradox” indicates inadequate theory. The egalitarian revolt against nature is a quest for power, notwithstanding the benign intentions of kindly people, and all their exertions of tolerance. When tolerance is the only thread holding a society together, yet discrimination has not been erased, tolerance of tyranny will be demanded.

    The metaphysical exhaustion of Christianity should be expected to decompose the social fabric, in such contortions and agonies. I suspect, this is not the last paradox we’ll talk about.

  2. As Tom Lehrer said, they know that some people do not love their fellow human beings, and they HATE people like that.

  3. With these people (intersectionalist, woke, blah, whatever, blah), the moment you show any degree of understanding or acceptance of their position, the lever is pulled, and the floor disappears beneath your feet. You then fall until they allow you to land with a splat. They don’t want understanding, and they certainly don’t want tolerance, which to them is the ultimate condescension requiring a particularly bloody and bone shattering splat. No, what they want is total, lifelong dedication to their POV. They want you to abide by it, proselytize it, salute it, march to it, fight for it, and ultimately die for it. If you think you can live with these people, you are in for another good, long think.

  4. Great article, thanks.

    It seems that movements like the current one are like cyclical fevers, outbreaks of a disease that lurks in every society, awaiting the opportune moment to unleash its mad destruction. The disease has no cure. We can only await remission, and do our best to survive, compromising as little as possible.

  5. This is a fine discussion of how shifting notions of hetrodoxy help fuel the psychological slide towards virtue signaling. The outrage machine needs the fuel of allegations of racism, sexism, homophobia etc., otherwise the movement towards purity would stall.

    This is the other component of the problem with political correctness that this discussion misses. It’s not just that we have a tendency to see heresy in smaller and smaller deviations from righteousness; it’s also that some true believers need to stoke their anger to feel truly pure - superior, in fact, to the heretics.

    Virtue signalers feed on their own politically correct performances, public displays of their self righteousness, just as penitants who whipped themselves in bloody frenzies of guilt expiated their sins through flagellation. Just as so many Republicans and Christian ministers who inveigh against homosexuality are caught in gay trists, so too many virtue-signalers turn out to be deviants from politically correct orthodoxy. Consider Asia Argento, one of the founders of Metoo, who was caught having sex with an underage boy, getting Anthony Bourdain to pay him off, while simultaneously accusing Weinstein of doing the same to her.

    This is why self-contradiction and hypocrisy run so deep in movements like feminism: consider the response of TERFS to trans men, for example. Gender is fluid until it means men might show up in women’s washrooms. Suddenly gender is essential, a core part of identity. Freedom of speech is a tool of patriarchal oppression- until it is feminists being silenced. Suddenly free speech is a basic human right.

    Combine these two tendencies of re-defining racism, sexism etc. until even minor infractions become major thoughtcrimes, with the need to stoke the indignation of the righteous as a means of expiating their own guilt, and we have the perfect storm of vindictiveness and irrationality that now characterizes the ideology of wokeness.

  6. “This paradox occurs because, as we address and overcome problems of intolerance and discrimination, we also expand the concept of intolerance to stigmatise new attitudes and behaviours. This makes it appear as if we are either making no progress at all or, worse, that we are becoming more intolerant.”

    The concept of “microaggressions” provides a perfect example of this dynamic. In order to maintain the fiction that we live in a white supremacist society despite the fact that we’ve made tremendous progress on racial issues, anti-racists teach people to become hypersensitive to supposed slights. I don’t doubt that it can be wearying for an Asian-American to be asked where they’re from on a regular basis, but it’s absurd to equate that with the Chinese Exclusion Act, as some extreme activists do. When I attended an anti-racist workshop I was actually told that racism is no less virulent in the U.S. than it was fifty or a hundred years ago: it’s just metamorphosed into less direct and more insidious forms.

    As usual, Stephen Fry is exactly right: "My real objection is that I don’t think political correctness works… (It) is always obsessed with how right it is, without thinking of how effective it might be.” Radical identity politics fails for three reasons. It (1) badly distorts reality, and therefore loses all credibility with anyone who’s not been indoctrinated with its precepts; (2) demands absolute agreement, so it condemns and alienates potential allies who aren’t ideologically pure; and (3) denies the possibility of progress, which contributes to a deep and debilitating sense of pessimism. Instead of celebrating the fact that Western societies have become far more tolerant and constructing coalitions to build upon that foundation, radical activists now exhibit the worst kind of intolerance themselves. Fry describes them perfectly: they’re guilty of “preachiness (with great respect), piety, self-righteousness, heresy-hunting, denunciation, shaming, assertion without evidence, accusation, inquisition, censoring.”

    Pragmatists seek to make incremental progress toward a more just and happy society. Radicals dismiss this approach as being part of the problem, because “it means sacrificing moral purity in order to be effective in tackling intolerance.” This absolutist approach results in increasing polarization and an intensification of the very intolerance that activists claim to oppose.

  7. As a Christian, it is obvious to me that there is no way out of the purity maze without an underpinning of a basic Judeo-Christian precept; namely that EVERY person is created in the Image of God, meaning has inherent value. This levels the playing field, as there are no ‘good people’ per se, just flawed ones, and some understand they are loved in spite of their imperfections, and some continue to unearth more and more transgressions to be fixed. In others primarily.

    What that allows for is relationship w all (actually love of all) but doesn’t require the bended knee of submission to all dogmatic items. I don’t think a fix exists without some kind of forced turnaround on values, which means authoritarian violence or some spiritual awakening unless common humanity discovery becomes a conversation goal. The problem is that the micro-aggression crowd insatiably eats more and more culture (statues and Aunt Jemimah most recently), and suffers the secular delusion that ‘it will FINALLY be good IF/When.’… Remember the original creation of the word Utopia was ‘no place’… And the list of unacceptable behaviors or cultural items (including language) is endless until all of culture is neutered and white washed (im sure that term would offend some).

    Pray that hearts change for the intolerant, and that common humanity begin to overtake common enemy.

  8. Crucial to understanding the situation is that there are people who benefit from all these social divisions. After all, these problems do not arise by themselves. Unfortunately, there seems to be a certain type of personality that lives and thrives on all the discord and hatred.

    As history teaches us, such movements arise time and again. They separate peaceful people into groups, divide them into superior and inferior ones, and finally incite them against each other.

    Their most successful method has always been to portray one group as undeservedly privileged, as morally inferior, as deeply evil. With the Communists the enemy was the Kulaks, with the Nazis the Jews, in the Chinese Cultural Revolution the educated, with the Khmer Rouge everyone who could read and write.

    One should not be deceived by the fact that these movements change names from time to time. Sometimes they are communists. Sometimes fascists. Sometimes they are antifascists. Sometimes, fanatical anti-racists. All these names are just different wrappings for the same ingredients.

    These movements always need enemies they can demonize. They take any small existing injustices and inflate them beyond all measure. And if they don’t find any, they invent some from thin air. These people require holy wars in which they can be the leaders. Their whole claim to power is based on this.

    And this does not even mean that the participants in these movements are evil themselves - on the contrary. They are deeply convinced to fight on the side of the absolute good against the armies of darkness. And surely there can be no restraint, no compromise and no half measures in the fight against evil?

    Our bad luck is that we live in a time when such movements have an unmistakable opportunity to reach for power again. In the past, such times were often marked by great destructiveness. Looks like we’ll be living in interesting times…

  9. Perhaps in a general sense.
    But today, in this particular country, at this particular time, it’s all a reaction to Trump’s election - he wasn’t supposed to win - and the revenge for it. He couldn’t be impeached peacefully, and now they’re trying to provoke him into a bloody conflict. His calm response is exactly what he should be doing. Let the animals burn the Democratic cities - it’ll all be accounted for in November. Or so he hopes.

  10. Blockquote My real objection is that I don’t think political correctness works… (It) is always obsessed with how right it is, without thinking of how effective it might be.

    That’s only half the story. Political correctness is obsessed with how right it is and how wrong everyone else is. Furthermore PC no longer just demonizes people that commit wrongs but even people who don’t express an opinion at all. It’s the classic case of “You are either with Us or you are against Us.” Which in general is a horrible concept.

  11. Oh, I know it very well, from personal experience. Compulsory “voluntary” unpaid Saturdays, cleaning up a construction site, or collecting scrap metal, or paper to recycle. Having to write an explanation where you got money to buy an automobile, if you were one of the lucky few to actually have money for a Soviet version of a FIAT subcompact. Thousands of stories like that. What’s happening in America right now has a very eerie kind of homecoming effect on me although it’s been well over four decades. Brrrr…

  12. This is a typical defense of feminism: blame self contradiction and misandry on the extremists.

    Sorry, but unless the mainstream of feminism comes out and publicly denounces these extreme positions, made in feminism’s name, then your silence is rightfully inferred as acceptance.

    When has that ever happened? The Guardian newspaper, supposedly a bastion of feminist philosophy, printed a column by Suzzanne Moore asking why she can’t hate all men. Where was the blowback from feminists? Nowhere to be seen.

  13. Interesting analysis. The science that is reported seems to suggest that human beings have an instinct for eradication once something has been planted in their minds. It would be interesting to find out what threshold reduction is required before the brain reaches the conclusion that the highlighted variable has decreased in frequency or probability. The science mentioned in this article appears to validate what might have been one of Steven Pinker’s motivations behind Enlightenment Now:

    Pinker writes: Enlightenment humanism, then, is far from being a crowd-pleaser. The idea that the ultimate good is to use knowledge to enhance human welfare leaves people cold

    People seem incapable of acknowledging that by committing to the values of the Enlightenment, and indeed in the short span of 2.5 centuries (but in particular over the last 75 years) that things might have actually gotten better across a variety of metrics (including racism, or at the very least overt racism).

    A historian might add that people just do not realise how good things are now compared to what they were on a variety of metrics. What percentage of people (or any creed) would truly say that they would have preferred to live in 1900 compared to 2020? Or what percentage of people claim they are truly worse off then their own grandparents? I suspect the numbers are small.

    Although we have witnessed radical improvement since the Industrial Revolution, and certainly since the end of WW2 or more dramatic still since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, there continues to be one constant: that of fundamental human nature.

    People have a preference for their in-group or their own kin. I remember feeling surprised for a half second when a Sikh friend admitted to me: “of course most Sikh families would prefer to see their kids come back home with another Sikh boyfriend or girlfriend rather than a white kid”. So much for white supremacy.

    So the thought that HR departments are going to eradicate racism (or at the very least in-group preference) across the population, as if racism is akin to small pox (an analogy which has been repeated by Coleman Hughes), is naive beyond belief. In-group preference, which is most likely what is being picked up by the IAT, is part of fundamental human nature - which incidentally has remained constant from an evolutionary standpoint for at least 10,000-15,000 years. (And for some reason, this fact seems to only be discovered, generation after generation, when people hit the age of 40).

    And as an economist, I can tell you about trade-offs and the law of unintended consequences. You mess with a delicate system, entropy is waiting in the wings to pounce on you and to bring you back to square one. The law of unintended consequences is real and omnipresent. Even Martin Luther King warned of the risk of backlash, resentment and the rise of fascism when you are too forceful in your methods.

    Too bad so few people seem to have the maturity to hold a reasonable and nuanced discussion about the risk of backlash, and the inevitability of a baseline level of bias in society - as opposed to pretending that bigotry can be eradicated. This is not to say that we can’t all do better (and certainly eliminate any remnants of institution racism, to the extent that this can be found), but once you start down the path of thought control (particularly when you end up bumping up against areas of thought that are largely ineradicable), resentment will start to build and you risk ceding back any the hard fought gains that Enlightened thinkers celebrate and enjoy the fruits of today.

  14. If terrorists kill people in the name of Islam, then yes, the average Muslim absolutely needs to denounce terror in their name. Otherwise, it is entirely justified to lump them with the ones committing the killings.

    Sorry Ella, but this just won’t do. Your defense of feminism is really just a form of blameshifting. There doesn’t need to be a feminist HQ to issue denials- individual feminists are morally responsible for standing up and saying very clearly “not in my name”; otherwise, silence is implicit consent. It is your job to police your own movement, not to defend extremists and their arguments by declaring them to be simply outliers, especially when no one from the so-called mainstream has actually denounced those ideas.

    As for capitalism, there is plenty to critique there as well. If two capitalist defenders made contradictory claims about this “ideology”, it would be completely appropriate to point that contradiction out, and require that the contradiction be sorted out by the adherents. Not to do so opens the ideology to the claim that it is logically incoherent- just like feminism.

    As for Asia Argento not being involved in Metoo, just Google her name and Metoo. She was one of the original founders, along with Rose McGown, when they denounced Weinstein together.

  15. Welcome CPD.

    I don’t wish to be harsh, but I think there is a definite problem with your definition of “racism” which I think is at the heart of the problem.

    So many people seem to assume that if there is any interaction between black and white people and the black people come off second best, then that’s racism. What rubbish. In fact such a definition of racism is evil and should be denounced in the strongest terms. It is a play for power by bastards and rogues who would reduce civil society to some kind of balkanised hell hole.

    It seems sure that to so many activists and lefty dipshits would not say an attack was racist if a black person assaulted a white person, even if the black person avowedly yelled his hatred for white people whilst committing the crime. But if a white person so much as changed expression near a black person the activists and the white oikophobe twats would cry “racism” from the rooftops.

    That is why we have to heap as much foul scorn on the race baiters and oikophobes. They are lying to you and poisoning the world for their own kicks. Don’t repeat their propaganda

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