Paradox of Tolerance & Civility

Cathy Lee
3 min readJun 25, 2018


“This is Cathy — she put a cigarette out on a bitch.”

As far as introductions go, personally that one’s not my favorite. Most of my friends get a good laugh out of it. And I really can’t complain because…that’s not NOT true.

Over 10 years ago, a drunk girl started slapping my face over and over again. She thought I’d cut her in line to the bathroom or something. I’d never been hit before and I was also about a foot smaller than her so I just…froze. Thankfully, my friend noticed and immediately stepped in. We couldn’t have predicted what would happen next.

She heard him speak and immediately refocused her energy. She began calling him f***got, mimicking the way he speaks and gestures. Her disgusting homophobia was palpable. The verbal abuse she spat had been practiced and perfected. We were all in shock. She was relentless despite the fact that her friends were already apologizing to us on her behalf. The slurs kept coming and…something in me snapped. I took one last pull and well….I put a cigarette out on a bitch.

Up to just a few weeks ago, I was incredibly embarrassed and apologetic of that incident. I’m not really the violent type. You don’t get that way at my size. I thought we should’ve walked away and/or let her keep at it until she tired out. I thought we should be more polite. Maintain civility. Be more tolerant. LITERALLY turn the other cheek. But today…I mean I wish I hadn’t scarred her but…🤷🏻‍she’ll remember.

There’s just no more room left for that kind of hate in this world. Not today. Civility and ‘following the rules’ have given some of history’s cruelest and darkest moments life. Complacent tolerance allows hate to breed and nothing is scarier than unchecked bigotry.

Karl Popper’s theory — the Paradox of Tolerance — states that for a society to truly maintain a tolerant society, it must be intolerant of intolerance. In other words, unlimited tolerance can destroy tolerance.

While I don’t recommend putting cigarettes out on people…like ever (that’s just crazy), I do encourage each of us to react. To care. To be sensitive. To get angry. To refuse to tolerate the intolerant. To stand up in service of others.

If we don’t speak out and speak up for others, who are we? We’ve begun to regress in America as more and more of us are disconnected, complacent and choose to ignore anything irrelevant to our personal lives. We don’t want to inconvenience ourselves. We don’t want to be seen as “too” anything. And so people suffer. People die. We’ve begun to tolerate the dehumanization of people again. Police shootings. Refusal to serve gay couples. Ignored killings of transgender people. Separation of families. We manage to ignore it all. It’s inconvenient for us. Or too much to bear. So our privilege lets us tolerate up until the point our image as civil people becomes threatened.

Maybe this is the Jesuit education in me talking. My alma mater’s website says the following: “We believe that students have to be invited to wrestle with the great ethical issues of their time. We want them to be bothered by the realization that they don’t know everything and bothered by injustice.” The world, as history shows, can be unforgiving, but what makes it so breathtaking is our capacity to fight for a better tomorrow. Maybe I’m naive, but I can’t not hang onto that hope. We should be bothered. And we should no longer tolerate intolerance. There’s nothing civil about that.



Cathy Lee

thoughts that are more or less informing my journey…hoping you find it helpful too