by Daniel Shuchman
To observe that American political and intellectual discourse has become polarized, intolerant of all but the most predictable ideological nostrums, censorial of anything deemed to be remotely “politically incorrect,” and generally lacking in subtlety, a free spirit of inquiry, or honest quest for truth, has perhaps become trite. Twenty years ago it was less so, and it was then that journalist and Brookings Institution fellow Jonathan Rauch wrote a book called Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought. In retrospect, Mr. Rauch was extraordinarily prophetic in his assessment of the evolving state of free speech and thought. The recent issuance of a newly updated version of Kindly Inquisitors provides an opportune moment to reflect on this extraordinarily deep and provocative essay, a true tour de force of logic, integrity and moral passion.
Mr. Rauch makes a compelling case for the indispensable role that free expression plays in allowing society to sort truth from falsehood. Free speech is rooted in enlightenment principles which help society establish a “prevailing standard for distinguishing between reality and illusion, between objective knowledge and personal belief.” This process of sorting competing ideas is dynamic and never ending, and a skeptical knowledge-seeking society will always welcome controversy, criticism and inquiry even about ostensibly long-settled ideas. The rules underlying liberal scientific and intellectual inquiry, are among “the most successful social conventions which the human species has ever evolved,” Mr. Rauch argues, and provide the foundation for an unprecedented knowledge-producing, peaceful political system that was more tolerant of dissent than any in previous history.
But, Mr. Rauch readily acknowledges, such enlightenment ideals can lead to a culture that can be messy and unpredictable, resulting in hurt feelings and discord. Certain worldviews are marginalized or rejected in such a system, while anti-social and prejudiced ideas may get airtime and cause emotional pain in others. And here is one of the great strengths of this book and a great testament to its author’s fair-mindedness and adherence to principle. He takes such concerns very seriously, and accepts their intuitive appeal:
“Today a new ethical concept has been established, one with extraordinary implications. It is the notion of ‘verbal harassment,’ ‘words that wound,’ ‘assaultive speech.’ [This notion holds that] hurtful words are a kind of violence….Its strong moral traction tugs at anyone who cares about others, and it has a wonderful moral clarity: Thou shalt not hurt others with words.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Rauch proceeds methodically and devastatingly, but always seriously and respectfully, to explain why such “humanitarian” inclinations are, ironically, antithetical to a society that values freedom and scientific and social progress. Indeed, he writes early on that such principles are “inherently deadly, not incidentally so – to intellectual freedom and to the productive and peaceful pursuit of knowledge.” Those whose humanitarian instincts lead them to promote kindness over blunt truth are dangerously misguided. Instead, according to Mr. Rauch, a social system that commits “to allow and even sometimes encourage offense, is the only genuinely humane system.”
A peaceful and progressing society will consist of individuals who recognize their own fallibility, who will seek the truth and do not find shame in being proven wrong: “a critical society – a community of error seekers – stimulates curiosity by rewarding people, rather than punishing them, for finding mistakes.” A thriving liberal society harnesses the conflict of opinions to enhance progress. What is to be said to a person who demands recognition or compensation because he is offended or hurt by the words or opinions of others? “Too bad, but you’ll live,” is Mr. Rauch’s answer.
While that may sound dismissive, Mr. Rauch’s argument is elegant and its vision is based on a fundamental humility, that at any time we might be wrong, even in our long-held assumptions. To be unwilling to always question oneself, risks veering into “fundamentalism,” an unquestioning blind faith that one’s views are THE TRUTH and not subject to doubt or question. Such a mindset may be most evident among certain religious fundamentalists, and thus might be easily dismissed. But Mr. Rauch goes much deeper to establish one of the core subtleties of his argument. It may be easy to understand the differences in perspective of, say, a secularist and one whose guiding light is religious faith. But,
“It is quite another thing to meet someone whose beliefs are similar to yours but are held differently.”
How rare it is today to find a concern for the process and rationale underlying one’s views, rather than simply a demand to know where you stand. One imagines that there are precious few people today who find themselves in agreement with the economic conclusions of a Paul Krugman, for example, and yet at the same time find his messianic certitude, intolerance, lack of accountability, viciousness and inconsistency to be incompatible with reasoned discourse. The same might be said of various personalities on the right, and Mr. Rauch recounts his frustrations with certain “free market fundamentalists” with whom he used to work and shared some philosophical affinity, and yet could never understand “the gulf between their attitude toward truth and mine.”
Throughout Kindly Inquisitors, Mr. Rauch touches on some of the most challenging conflicts in society. How to balance the seemingly irreconcilable views of pro-choice and pro-life people? How should it be determined what subjects are taught in schools? Should creationism get equal time? What standards of truth should be applied, and by whom? Do the opinions of once-oppressed minorities deserve special deference and treatment just because of who expresses them? Some may initially be troubled by Mr. Rauch’s imperative that society must tolerate hate-mongers, racists and Holocaust-deniers, among other vile personalities. But he is highly convincing that in the long run it is only through exposure, analysis, and marginalization that such people and their ideas can be relegated to the fringes of society where they belong. Such people, he says, “must be granted every entitlement to speak but no entitlement to have their opinions respected” and in fact they should be ridiculed instead. And here Rauch challenges head on one of the key relativistic credos of our day: “respect is no opinion’s birthright. People, yes, are entitled to a certain degree of respect by dint of being human. But to grant any such claim to ideas is to raid the treasury of science and throw its capital to the winds.”
Rauch writes movingly of his own odyssey as a homosexual who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, who faced harassment, discrimination and ostracism. This gives him the particular credibility to argue against hate speech laws and similar well intentioned efforts to control thought and expression. We cannot “legislate bias and prejudice out of existence” or effectively drive them underground. Rather, we must expose them and pit them against each other: “that is how, in my lifetime, moral error wasburned away.”
Much of Mr. Rauch’s mission is animated by his belief that all these questions are entwined in the nature of knowledge itself and in how to think about rules of evidence and scientific inquiry. Mr. Rauch is the first to admit that “if you want to clear the room at a cocktail party, say ‘epistemology.’” But he believes that the theory of knowledge is not some arcane field to be relegated only to esoteric philosophers. Rather, embedded in it are some of the most basic issues that any society must cope with, such as determining when it is “legitimate for me to say ‘I’m right and you’re wrong!’ and to act accordingly.” In so doing, he touches on the thought of Descartes, Plato, Mill and many other thinkers, but always in an accessible, relevant and never highfalutin way. Rauch cites Orwell in passing on only one or two occasions, yet their styles bear more than a little resemblance. One of the less noted aspects of 1984 is the interconnection between its political themes and the abstract nature of knowledge. Indeed, it is this realization as much as anything that awakens Orwell’s hero Winston Smith to his potential power to question the authority of the state. “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final most essential command.” Eventually, though, Smith came to the realization that he had identified an important axiom and wrote it down:
“Freedom is the freedom to say two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”
A great deal follows from Mr. Rauch’s powerful book, and it is as important now as ever.