The teachings of Karl Popper

Academics James Kierstead and Michael Johnston write:

In March 1938, a little-known Viennese philosopher called Karl Raimund Popper arrived in Christchurch to take up a position at what was then Canterbury University College of the University of New Zealand. By 1945, he had left for England and another appointment at the London School of Economics. In the meantime, he had written a book, The Open Society and its Enemies, which Michael King called “the most influential book ever to come out of New Zealand”.

Popper loved New Zealand (“the best-governed country in the world”) and New Zealanders (“decent, friendly, and well disposed”), even if students like philosopher and historian Peter Munz remembered him as an ornery presence. But despite the global impact his ideas have had (not least through the Open Society Foundation of another student, George Soros), Popper is not much of a presence in New Zealand intellectual life. We think this should change and that Popper’s political ideas still have a lot to say to us, particularly right now. 

I can only agree. Popper was a great thinker.

First, Popper’s political thought rejected authoritarianism of both the right and the left. A Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany, he was equally opposed to Soviet-style communism (which he foresaw would be increasingly influential even as he was writing The Open Society). For Popper, both styles of authoritarianism made a crucial mistake in seeing politics as a one-way street leading to a destination where discussion and compromise would no longer be needed. 

Communism and fascism are both authoritarian systems where dissent is now allowed as the ends are thought to always justify the means.

Sadly millions still worship communism despite having failed in every single state that has implemented it, and killed tens of millions along the way.

He called this “the paradox of democracy” and also warned of a “paradox of tolerance”. This second paradox has been widely misunderstood, and has even been used in attempts to stifle free speech. Popper’s point wasn’t that we shouldn’t tolerate ideas that some might consider intolerant; he thought we should be open to all sorts of ideas. What we shouldn’t tolerate are attempts to shut down debate “by the use of … fists or pistols”.

The modern day pistol is a Twitter lynch mob.

Democracy relies on a set of cultural values and customs; elections do not define democracy and neither are they enough to support it on their own. 

I regard free speech as far more important than democracy for a number of reasons. I get to vote only once every three years but get to speak up and advocate on a daily basis. Also you can’t have a true democracy without free speech.

An essential cultural value for the survival of democracy is reverence for free speech. If free expression is suppressed, public debate is deprived of potentially powerful ideas, especially if those ideas initially appear unappealing, threatening or offensive. Neither Darwin’s theory of natural selection nor the notion that women ought to be afforded the same political rights as men is controversial today, but when they were first proposed both were widely considered outrageous.

While today you get howled down for suggesting it may be unfair for athletes who are biologically female to compete against athletes who are biologically male.

Liberalism and democracy, as Karl Popper recognised, rest on substantive values, values that have to be defended if liberal democracy is to survive and flourish. And it’s up to all of us to do the work of defending these values. If we say nothing while governments, corporations and ideologues threaten and quash the free expression of ideas, we are, at least tacitly, voting democracy out of existence.

Great article.

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