Jonathan Rauch’s Kindly Inquisitors

Kindly InquisitorsI came across Jonathan Rauch by accident when I stumbled upon a video of him defending free speech on behalf of F.I.R.E., the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a non-profit group established to defend civil liberties, particularly the freedom of expression, on college campuses. Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks On Free Thought is not merely the most cogent and well-reasoned contemporary defense of free speech; it is also an examination of how, after surviving fascism and Stalinism and Joe McCarthy, we once again find ourselves eager to criminalize thoughts and words. Historically, the rationale for limiting freedom of expression was authoritarian, and nakedly so. Today’s censors, however, operate with unparalleled self-righteousness, convinced of the sanctity of their mission and their moral rectitude. They are “kindly” in that they are well-intentioned, or at the very least pretend to be so, but they prosecute their cause with the same holy zeal that marked the Spanish Inquisition.

Does this seem like alarmism to you? Are you unconvinced that things could be so bad? Kindly Inquisitors abounds with frightening examples to make its case, but the book was published in 1993, in the wake of the Salman Rushdie affair – perhaps things have changed? As Rauch makes clear in his updated Afterword, the answer is resoundingly negative. As I write this, more than 20 UK universities have banned Robin Thicke’s pop song “Blurred Lines,” claiming it promotes rape. Universities all across the Western world have codified restrictions on free speech, giving birth to “free speech zones” – areas where free speech is deemed permissible. On the University of California, Santa Barbara campus, a teenage sign-wielding pro-life activist in such a “zone” was recently accosted by a feminist professor, who stole the woman’s sign and, together with a group of her students, destroyed it. Facing assault charges for her behavior, she has retreated into a defense well-known to Rauch: she was “triggered” by the emotional material of the young activist’s anti-abortion sign, which constituted assaultive speech. Or you can watch F.I.R.E.’s “greatest hits,” a compilation of some of the most shameful attempts by universities to censor or indoctrinate. Or consider this opinion piece written by a Harvard senior, calling for “academic justice” rather than academic freedom. What does academic justice entail? The right of an unidentified body of people (presumably including the author of the op-ed) to dictate what can and cannot be studied or researched. And it was Harvard that kowtowed to political correctness when it pilloried its own president, Lawrence Summers, for daring to suggest (suggest!) that one possible reason for the disparity between men and women in advanced mathematics and engineering courses might be biological.

What is the appeal, Rauch asks, of these new attacks on free expression? At bottom, they are humanitarian, or at least present themselves as such. “Words hurt,” the argument goes, and there are groups (women, minorities, the physically disabled, to name but a few) who are particularly vulnerable, for “historical reasons.” Why should we tolerate racial slurs, Holocaust denial, naked sexism? I’d like to believe, in my high-mindedness, that my arguments in defense of hate speech could be as effective as those of Rauch, a Jewish gay rights activist, but I’m too practical not to concede that the message is far stronger coming from him. Rauch’s first avenue of attack is practical: banning hurtful ideas, words or thoughts does not actually eliminate them and, very often, it has the opposite effect, driving them underground where they can fester and foment and one day resurface. The proper response to ignorance is not censorship or shame but debate, refutation and ridicule. I am reminded of that wonderful anecdote about Samuel Johnson, who, upon completion of his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, was approached by a group of well-to-do society women, who congratulated him on not including any indecent words in his work. “And, ladies, may I congratulate you on being able to look them up!” came his reply. If you can appreciate the humor in that, you’re able to see the hypocrisy of the censor’s mindset.

The second prong of Rauch’s attack is epistemological, and it’s upon the strength of this section alone that I would classify Rauch’s work as timelessly important. How does a society mediate between competing claims for knowledge? It’s an important question, for a failure here threatens the very fabric of society. Rauch identifies five principles commonly adopted as solutions:

The Fundamentalist Principle: Those who know the truth should decide who is right.
The Simple Egalitarian Principle: All sincere persons’ beliefs have equal claims to respect.
The Radical Egalitarian Principle: Like the simple egalitarian principle, but the beliefs of persons in historically oppressed classes or groups get special consideration.
The Humanitarian Principle: Any of the above, but with the condition that the first priority be to cause no hurt.
The Liberal Principle: Checking of each by each through public criticism is the only legitimate way to decide who is right.

The Fundamentalist Principle leads inevitably to bloody conflict, because how do you mediate a disagreement between two people who claim to “know” the truth? If anyone dissents, as surely some will in a pluralistic society, there is no potential for conflict resolution. Here, in miniature, is encapsulated the history of religious debate and the reason for the multiplicity of religious denominations. Both Egalitarian Principles have a kind of emotional appeal, but how well do they serve the function of determining what is true? History is filled with examples of the minority opinion, often the opinion of a single person, triumphing over established orthodoxy, both in science and in society. The Humanitarian Principle, the one favored by so many of my peers, is appealing for obvious reasons. We do not wish to see people hurt, defamed or made to feel excluded – why not forbid “words that wound” and censor arguments that offend? The problem with this principle is impotence and hypocrisy. How do you mediate a conflict between the average liberal Westerner and a Muslim or Christian fundamentalist who believes homosexuality is a sin? How do you avoid causing pain in such a dispute?

Or, when a citizen of a Western country writes a book that offends an entire religion (or at the very least a large subset of a religion), and their religious leaders calls for the author’s death… how, then, do you proceed? The author caused real pain to real people, offending them in their most cherished beliefs, and if you subscribe to the Humanist Principle, this is unacceptable. But, then again, so is calling for someone’s death. It was to this hypocritical desire to cause no harm that the world chose to adhere when Salman Rushdie was marked for death.

What remains is the Liberal Principle, or what Rauch calls “liberal science.” Under such a principle, you are entitled to believe whatever you want about the world without threat of violence or punishment. You are free to think that the Holocaust is a Jewish fabrication, or that homosexuality is immoral, or that human beings were created in god’s image rather than evolved. But if you want your beliefs accepted as knowledge, which is to say, if you want society to operate as if your beliefs were true, then you must subject them to the crucible of open debate. And the trouble with today’s “kindly inquisitors” is that they have discovered a shortcut: it is far easier to enforce your beliefs through shame and condescension (political correctness) than to defend their intellectual merit. In his excellent coinage, they are “epistemological pacifists, enjoying the products of critical inquiry while righteously condemning any unpleasantness which they see in the products’ manufacture.”

The great irony is that it is the Liberal Principle that has been the greatest ally to minorities (of skin color and sexual orientation no less than of opinion). It works slowly, this is true, and it cannot avoid causing immense pain, but it mediates conflict like no other, all without sacrificing the quest for truth on a pyre of political correctness and cowardly handwringing.

Kindly Inquisitors is insightful and provocative, a necessary rejoinder to the sanctimonies of the modern culture.