Rauch on Liberal Science and the UIUC Case

By on July 22, 2010

Jonathan Rauch is not your typical free speech junkie or your typical introvert. He expertly works a crowded room despite proclaiming shyness. 

An introvert is the type of person you might expect to be hostile to the concept of unfettered speech, as if any semi-offensive word could breach his artificial defenses and send him running back into the safety of solitude. But this past weekend, surrounded by occasionally loud, often outspoken free speech advocates, the Yale graduate and author of six books, including Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, proved more than ready to deliver the keynote address at the Campus Freedom Network’s annual conference.  

Speaking before roughly 75 of the nation’s premier First Amendment advocates on their college campuses, and flanked by FIRE and CFN banners, Rauch stood tall and proud as he delivered an eloquent disquisition on the necessity of unbridled speech in a free society.  

He began by discussing an ongoing case at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In that case a professor of Catholic thought, Kenneth Howell, lost his class after nine years following an e-mail he sent out, which contained in the subject line the words "Utilitarianism and Sexuality" and presented (among other things) his understanding of the Catholic argument against homosexual conduct.  

Outlining the university’s violations of freedom of speech and academic freedom, Rauch made a compelling case for not only the legal standard by which the professor was protected but also, more importantly, the moral or "liberal" standard.  

As Rauch rightly asserts, controversial and sometimes offensive speech, which many would consider the content of Howell’s e-mail to be, is not only protected by the Bill of Rights but is also essential to finding truth in a society driven by what he has defined as "liberal science" or, generally, the Western "liberal" system that drives knowledge forward. Rauch defines this system as a "checking of each by each through public criticism," resulting in the survival of the more defensible truths while the lesser theories fall by the wayside. (FIRE usually refers to this system by the more general term "the marketplace of ideas.")

This system of liberal science has undoubtedly worked. Since this system was effectively put in place in the last few centuriesin science today, nobody has the final say, and personal authority alone won’t doknowledge has advanced at a rate unmatched in human history. Similarly, in "liberal" society, individuals and minority groups have begun to acquire more equality under the law.  

The problem with this open system, however, is that with the criticism required to achieve "truth" also comes the possibility to offend. Howell’s e-mail, which stated his view of the Catholic position that "sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary," did offend some people, in particular the individual who wrote a widely publicized letter of complaint. In that letter, a friend of a student who took Howell’s Introduction to Catholicism class complained that he had heard that Howell "would say things that were inflammatory and downright insensitive to those who were not of the Catholic faith." 

This person’s assertion was not backed up with any evidence. But if Howell’s e-mail felt "insensitive" to some, it bears emphasis that what Howell was saying was in fact his sincere understanding of the actual beliefs and arguments of the Catholic Church. Howell has a First Amendment right to freely give his students his opinions on any subject matter germane to the course.

"Tolerance" and "Sensitivity": An Attack on Free Speech  

This case really gets to the crux of recent attacks on what Rauch calls liberal science. In the name of tolerance, diversity, and sensitivity, individuals are increasingly calling for censorship of speech that does not conform to their perception of those ideals. This type of censorship breaks both of the golden rules of liberal science by saying not only that there is an authority on what speech and beliefs are acceptable, but also that this authority has the final say about what ideas may be heard in the marketplace of ideas.  

Howell’s assertions about Catholic views against homosexual conduct did not conform to the thoughts held by many of his critics. Challenging his views is part of liberal science, but the critics who have called for censorship or punishment have stepped outside the bounds of liberal science.  

Rauch explains such phenomena in his book Kindly Inquisitors as he lays out the case for liberal science. His explanation notes the attractiveness of some of the censors’ goals, such as the avoidance of emotional pain, but he explains why the means to achieve those goals are often completely incompatible with the process of producing knowledge:  

Somehow the idea has grown up that "liberal" means "nice," that the liberal intellectual system fosters sensitivity, toleration, self-esteem, the rejection of prejudice and bias. That impression is misguided. The truth is that liberal science demands discipline as well as license, and to those who reject or flout its rules, it can be cruel. It excludes and restricts as well as tolerates. It thrives on prejudice no less than on cool detachment. It does not give a damn about your feelings and happily tramples them in the name of finding truth. It allows and-here we should be honest-sometimes encourages offense. Self-esteem, sensitivity, respect for others’ beliefs, renunciation of prejudice are all good as far as they go. But as primary social goals they are incompatible with the peaceful and productive advancement of human knowledge. To advance knowledge, we must all sometimes suffer. Worse than that, we must inflict suffering on others.  

The idea that we all must sometimes suffer to find truth is a harsh reality. It is a reality that the University of Illinois, according to Rauch, is going to have to accept if it wants to be a fruitful contributor to liberal science.  

Rauch explained at the CFN conference that he knows this reality all too well. As a gay man who recently married under the laws of the District of Columbia, he finds the position that Howell described in his e-mail particularly offensive. Rauch stated that he couldn’t think of an opinion more adverse and offensive to his own beliefs. Yet, despite the offensiveness to him of what Howell expressed, Rauch understands the importance of Howell’s right to say it. Rauch understands that in order to defend his position, which for years has been in defense of gay rights and gay marriage, he must be able to listen to what the other side has to say and must be able to respond to it in the arena of liberal science, where the weapons are facts and arguments, not guns or repression of ideas. Again, in the long run, Rauch believes, the better arguments will win. 

If Rauch were to join the censors in suppressing the speech of individuals like Howell, he would allow his position to weaken, for, according to J.S. Mill, "both teachers and learners go to sleep at their post, as soon as there is no enemy in the field." Furthermore, he would be undermining the very system that gives minorities such as himself a voice and arena to express their own opinions. Rauch reminds us that a tool used by minorities to censor a majority can be wielded with much more damage by the majority against minorities.  

It isn’t hard to recall instances from history when those in power interfered with the free flow of ideas, such as when the Catholic Church suppressed Galileo’s idea of a heliocentric universe and when the English government opposed John Locke’s political ideas (best known today, perhaps, in Two Treatises of Government, though it was published anonymously) and sent him into exile. 

Asserting his identity as (among other things) a member of many minority groups, Rauch knows that he needs to defend the system that has given his causes a voice. In Howell’s case, it may well be true that Howell’s views are shared with a majority off campus but are in the minority on campus. Rauch and Howell benefit equally from the system that lets both of them speak both on and off campus, regardless of whether their views are in the majority or in the minority. A liberal society promises no less.