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Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Expanded Edition

Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Expanded Edition

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by Jonathan Rauch, George F. Will (Foreword by)

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“A liberal society stands on the proposition that we should all take seriously the idea that we might be wrong. This means we must place no one, including ourselves, beyond the reach of criticism; it means that we must allow people to err, even where the error offends and upsets, as it often will.” So writes Jonathan Rauch in Kindly Inquisitors,


“A liberal society stands on the proposition that we should all take seriously the idea that we might be wrong. This means we must place no one, including ourselves, beyond the reach of criticism; it means that we must allow people to err, even where the error offends and upsets, as it often will.” So writes Jonathan Rauch in Kindly Inquisitors, which has challenged readers for more than twenty years with its bracing and provocative exploration of the issues surrounding attempts to limit free speech. In it, Rauch makes a persuasive argument for the value of “liberal science” and the idea that conflicting views produce knowledge within society.

In this expanded edition of Kindly Inquisitors, a new foreword by George F. Will strikingly shows the book’s continued relevance, while a substantial new afterword by Rauch elaborates upon his original argument and brings it fully up to date. Two decades after the book’s initial publication, while some progress has been made, the regulation of hate speech has grown domestically—especially in American universities—and has spread even more internationally, where there is no First Amendment to serve as a meaningful check. But the answer to bias and prejudice, Rauch argues, is pluralism—not purism. Rather than attempting to legislate bias and prejudice out of existence or to drive them underground, we must pit them against one another to foster a more vigorous and fruitful discussion. It is this process that has been responsible for the growing acceptance of the moral acceptability of homosexuality over the last twenty years. And it is this process, Rauch argues, that will enable us as a society to replace hate with knowledge, both ethical and empirical.

“It is a melancholy fact that this elegant book, which is slender and sharp as a stiletto, is needed, now even more than two decades ago. Armed with it, readers can slice through the pernicious ideas that are producing the still-thickening thicket of rules, codes, and regulations restricting freedom of thought and expression.”—George F. Will, from the foreword

Editorial Reviews

ID: International Dialogue

“It has been twenty years since the first edition of Kindly Inquisitors, yet conflicts persist. This book is worth a second look twenty years later. It will no doubt lead the reader to reflect upon the nature of social and political change within a technologically networked society.”

“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 Rauch wrote a book called Kindly Inquisitors. In retrospect, Rauch was extraordinarily prophetic in his assessment of the evolving state of free speech and thought. [This] 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.”
Huffington Post Greg Lukianoff

"A modern classic explaining the importance of free speech in society.”

“An eloquent attack on the advocates of political correctness.”

Chicago Tribune

“Like no other, this book restates the core of our freedom and demonstrates how great, and disregarded, the peril to that freedom has become.”
New York Times Michiko Kakutani

Praise for the previous edition

“Fiercely argued. . . . What sets his study apart is his attempt to situate recent developments in a long-range historical perspective and to defend the system of free intellectual inquiry as a socially productive method of channeling prejudice.”

former governor of Massachusetts William F. Weld

“Stands out as a thoughtful, provocative defense of civil liberties and liberal inquiry. Jonathan Rauch’s unique perspective, derived from personal experience, lends to the poignancy of his thesis.”

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Kindly Inquisitors

The New Attacks on Free Thought

By Jonathan Rauch

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Rauch
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-14593-8


New Threats to Free Thought

In 1990 the French national assembly passed new laws to toughen the existing measures against racism. At the time people were in an uproar over the desecration of Jewish graves in France, and the newspapers were full of concern about France's extremist right wing and the revival of anti-Semitism in Europe and the Soviet Union. So the new legislation surprised no one. But there was something disturbing in it, passed over incidentally, as though hardly worth mentioning, in newspaper accounts like this one: "The measures also outlaw 'revisionism'—a historical tendency rife among extreme right-wing activists which consists of questioning the truth of the Jewish Holocaust in World War II."

Some of those words stir memories: "measures" that "outlaw ... questioning." We have seen that before.

Taken by itself, the French action was a curious and vaguely troubling incident, but little more. The intentions were good, and it is a fact that many and probably most of the so-called Holocaust "revisionists" were Jew-haters and Jew-baiters who were acting in bad faith, and it is a fact also that the Holocaust did happen; so let the matter pass. Fair enough.

No. The French action could not be taken by itself. It was part of a pattern.

In Australia the New South Wales parliament amended the Anti-Discrimination Act in 1989 to ban public racial vilification. Since most people are against racial vilification, most could sympathize with the legislature's intentions. But it was hard to be enthusiastic about the mechanism: "The law invests in the Anti-Discrimination Board the power to determine whether a report is 'fair,' and whether a discussion is 'reasonable,' 'in good faith,' and 'in the public interest.' The Board will pronounce upon the acceptability of artistic expression, research papers, academic controversy, and scientific questions. An unfair (i.e., inaccurate) report of a public act may expose the reporter and the publisher to damages of up to $40,000."

In Austria you can get a prison sentence for denying the existence of the Nazi gas chambers. In 1992 the government, seeking to make the offense clearer, proposed language which would make it a crime "to deny, grossly minimize, praise or justify through printed works, over the airwaves or in any other medium the National Socialist genocide or any other National Socialist crime." In Denmark the national civil-rights law forbids "threatening, humiliating, or degrading" someone in public on the basis of race, religion, ethnic background, or sexual orientation. When a woman wrote letters to a newspaper calling the national domestic-partnership law "ungodly" and homosexuality "the ugliest kind of adultery," she and the editor who published her letters were targeted for prosecution. In Great Britain the Race Relations Act forbids speech that expresses racial hatred, "not only when it is likely to lead to violence, but generally, on the grounds that members of minority races should be protected from racial insults."

In Canada a reputable research psychologist named Jean Philippe Rushton presented a paper in 1989 in which he looked at three very broad racial groups and hypothesized that, on average, blacks' reproductive strategy tends to emphasize high birthrates, Asians' tends toward intensive parental nurturing, and whites' tends to fall in between. The man was vilified in the press, he was denounced on national television (to his face) as a neo-Nazi, and his graduate students were advised to find a new mentor. That was not all. The Ontario provincial police promptly launched a six-month investigation of Rushton under Canada's hate-speech prohibition. They questioned his colleagues, demanded tapes of his debates and media appearances, and so on. "The provincial police officially assessed the question of whether Rushton might be subject to two years in prison for such actions as 'using questionable source data.'"

So it goes in France, Australia, Austria, Canada—and the United States. In the United States, however, there is an important difference. The U.S. Constitution makes government regulation of upsetting talk difficult. There is not much the government can do to silence offensive speech or obnoxious criticism. In America, therefore, the movement against hurtful speech has been primarily moral rather than legal, and nongovernmental institutions, especially colleges and universities, have taken the lead. All around the country, universities have set up anti-harassment rules prohibiting, and establishing punishments for, "speech or other expression" (this is from Stanford's policy, adopted in 1990 and more or less representative) which "is intended to insult or stigmatize an individual or a small number of individuals on the basis of their sex, race, color, handicap, religion, sexual orientation or national and ethnic origin."

Those rules are being enforced. One case became particularly well known, because it generated a lawsuit in the federal courts, which eventually struck down the rule in question. At the University of Michigan, a student said in a classroom discussion that he considered homosexuality a disease treatable with therapy. Now, as of this writing the evidence is abundant that the student's hypothesis is wrong, and any gay man or woman in America can attest to the harm that this particular hypothesis has inflicted over the years. But the people at Michigan went further than to refute the student or ignore him. They summoned him to a formal disciplinary hearing for violating the school's policy prohibiting speech that "victimizes" people on the basis of "sexual orientation."

What is disturbing is not just that this sort of thing happened, but that it happens all the time now and intellectual opinion often supports it. The Michigan incident was just one among many. In 1990 at Southern Methodist University, "five white students and one black student reported to university officials that a freshman had denounced Dr. [Martin Luther] King as a Communist and had sung 'We Shall Overcome' in a sarcastic manner during a late-night discussion in a residence hall." A university judicial board sentenced the offending freshman to thirty hours of community service at minority organizations.

Cases of that kind are controversial—off campus, at least—and are drawing their share of outrage from civil libertarians. However, to understand the French and Australian and Michigan incidents as raising only civil-liberties issues is to miss the bigger point. A very dangerous principle is now being established as a social right: Thou shalt not hurt others with words. This principle is a menace—and not just to civil liberties. At bottom it threatens liberal inquiry—that is, science itself.

If that statement sounds too alarmist, I won't contest the point here but will ask you to read on. I will ask you, also, to remember this: In English we have a word for the empanelment of tribunals—public or private, but in any case prestigious and powerful—to identify and penalize false and socially dangerous opinions. The word applies reasonably well to a system in which a university student is informed against, and then summoned to a hearing and punished, for making incorrect and hurtful remarks during a conversation late at night. The word has been out of general circulation for many years. It is "inquisition."

* * *

This book is about the liberal social system for sorting truth from falsehood: arguably our greatest and most successful political system. It is also about that system's political enemies: not only the ancient enemies, the old-fashioned authoritarians, but also the newer ones, the egalitarians and humanitarians. It is partly a book about free speech, to the extent that the principles it discusses affect laws and governments' policies. But enough has been written elsewhere in defense of the First Amendment. This book tries to defend the morality, rather than the legality, of a knowledge-producing social system which often causes real suffering to real people. It tries to defend the liberal intellectual system against a rising anti-critical ideology.

We have standard labels for the liberal political and economic systems—democracy and capitalism. Oddly, however, we have no name for the liberal intellectual system, whose activities range from physics to history to journalism. So in this book I use the term "liberal science," for reasons to be explained later. The very need to invent a label for our public idea—sorting system speaks volumes about the system's success. Establishing the principles on which liberal science is based required a social revolution; yet so effective have those principles been, and so beneficent, that most of us take them for granted. We rarely take the time to stop and cherish them, any more than we stop to cherish the right to own property or to vote—less so, indeed. The liberal regime for making knowledge is not something most of us have ever even thought about. That fact is a tribute to its success. Sadly, it is also a reason so many Americans are dozing through the current attack.

And just what kind of "attack" is going on? Let me try to make it clearer in the following way.

The question which forms the central issue of this book is, What should be society's principle for raising and settling differences of opinion? In other words, what is the right way, or at least the best way, to make decisions as to who is right (thus having knowledge) and who is wrong (thus having mere opinion)?

There are a million ways to ask that question, and they come up every day. On May 10, 1989, the Nashville Tennessean reported that George Darden, a city councilman, had filed a resolution asking the city to build a landing pad for unidentified flying objects. "What it was," he said, "people were reporting all these strange creatures coming to town, and they have nowhere to land." He said that he had never seen the creatures himself but that he was "very serious." He wanted to know, "When people see them, do you want to just cast them off as a lunatic?"

George Darden was no clown. He was raising nothing less than what philosophers refer to as the problem of knowledge: What is the right standard for distinguishing the few true beliefs from the many false ones? And who should set that standard? Everybody laughed at George Darden—but he deserves an answer. After all, what is a politician supposed to do when his constituents start reporting UFOs?

To the central question of how to sort true beliefs from the "lunatic" ones, here are five answers, five decision-making principles—not the only principles by any means, but the most important contenders right now:

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 argument of this book is that the last principle is the only one which is acceptable, but that it is now losing ground to the others, and that this development is extremely dangerous. Impelled by the notions that science is oppression and criticism is violence, the central regulation of debate and inquiry is returning to respectability—this time in a humanitarian disguise. In America, in France, in Austria and Australia and elsewhere, the old principle of the Inquisition is being revived: people who hold wrong and hurtful opinions should be punished for the good of society. If they cannot be put in jail, then they should lose their jobs, be subjected to organized campaigns of vilification, be made to apologize, be pressed to recant. If government cannot do the punishing, then private institutions and pressure groups—thought vigilantes, in effect—should do it.

Strange, fully three and a half centuries after the Roman Catholic Inquisition arrested and tried Galileo, to be writing about a new anti-critical ideology, and about public and private movements to enforce it. Strange to use words like "Inquisition" and "thought vigilantes." What has happened? And why now?

Consider, then, the stories of two new challenges to liberal science. One story is about fairness, the other about compassion.

* * *

The story about fairness begins in the nineteenth century, when the strong claims of conservative religious forces finally collapsed under the onslaught of Lyell and Darwin and T. H. Huxley and the whole implacable advance of establishment science. God and the Bible had long since been mostly banished from physics and astronomy. The last redoubts were geology and biology, the histories of the earth and of life; the Bible, after all, said little about the laws of motion but a great deal about the creation of the world and its occupants. Yet even in the life sciences and earth sciences, time was running out for those who believed in religious authority. By the 1830s even pious geologists like the Reverend Adam Sedgwick were declaring that there was no evidence of a worldwide Noachian flood. The Bible, he and others said, simply could not be taken literally. If one read between the lines, they were saying that the Bible was only for moral guidance, not for knowledge of the world around us.

Twenty years after the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859, there was hardly a naturalist in the world who did not support some version of evolutionary theory. Yet the public was much slower to come around to evolution than the scholars. The new scientific consensus left millions of ordinary people behind. To fundamentalist Christians in particular, the issue was a moral one. In the 1920s they led a crusade to evict ungodly evolutionism from the public schools, and by the end of the decade four states had banned the teaching of Darwinism and more than twenty had considered doing so. Among the states that had adopted the ban was Tennessee, where the law was challenged in the famous Scopes trial of 1925. The ban was upheld, but the fundamentalists' leader, William Jennings Bryan, was humiliated on the witness stand, the press mocked the antievolutionists, and by the end of the decade anti-evolutionism had run out of steam. The movement turned inward and sank almost—though not quite—into oblivion.

When liberal Americans like me and, probably, you look at the creationists of that day, we see a gang of ignorant troglodytes out to abolish progress. But surely we commit an injustice if we fail to think how terrible it must be to see one's holy book dragged through the mud and an ungodly secular idol erected in its place. The creationists were trying to defend their world, their decency.

They failed, utterly. But their complaint did not go away; it gnawed like a stomachache. The creationists, indeed, began to see that they had done worse than to lose the battle for supremacy; they had lost even the battle to have their beliefs considered an equally legitimate alternative. In the 1960s came a revival of creationism, but this time with a twist. It was "creation science" now, they said: an alternative theory. As had been the case in the decades before, scientists and liberal intellectuals dismissed creation science with a laugh; hardly any reputable scholars would go anywhere near it. It was the old biblical story purged of all references to God or the Bible and dressed up with such scraps of evidence, real or imagined, as could be gathered. But the public was more receptive than the professionals. And in the 1970s the creationists discovered an appealing new cause: Equal time for creationism!

They argued that evolution was religion just as much as creation, and they argued that "creation science" was just as scientific as "evolution science." They even argued that creationism was more scientific than evolution. They argued every which way, but the point was always the same: there is more than one way to view the world, and all we want (they said) is a little fairness, a chance to make our case.

Although it was often dismissed casually, their position in fact had deep philosophical strength. Science and skeptical inquiry are one path to belief about the world; looking in the Bible or consulting your guru is another. If both paths are subject to uncertainty—as skeptical science must admit!—then why not present them both in the classroom, as alternatives? Why grant privileges? "Your belief in, say, Darwin's theory rests, finally, no less on faith—faith in science—than does my belief in special creation; and so on what grounds can you claim a monopoly on truth, since my beliefs are held just as strongly and as sincerely as yours?"


Excerpted from Kindly Inquisitors by Jonathan Rauch. Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Rauch. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a contributing editor to the Atlantic and National Journal, and the author of six books, including Government’s End and Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America.

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Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Expanded Edition 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I recommend Jonathan Rauch's revised book "Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought". While a 'popular work about political correctness', Rauch bases his arguments on Plato, Popper and Peirce, going to the underlying epistemological rationale, not just the sociopolitical expedient. An outstanding and very readable thesis on just how we, as individuals and as a society, can know what truth is, and how we can best assure truth wins out in the end.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Want to learn why hate speech is your best friend? Why anti-hate speech laws do a disservice to the marketplace of ideas? Why that cocky Plato has been on top for so long and it's high time someone took him down? Then split open this fire-cracker barrel of wisdom and let it balloon your brain full of sweet, sweet knowledge. Jibbing between practical applications of safety and progress to direct concerns regarding the increasing power of his own party, Rauch expresses for us clear definitions of the freedoms of the First Amendment, when it is misinterpreted and when it fails. Essential for even the casually political, The Kindly Inquisitors is well-researched, strongly argued and so oddly exciting that you'll be able to burn through this thing in two days. Seriously, some chapters are so good you'll want to stand up and cheer. No, YOU'RE being hyperbolic.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is the classic treatment regarding the value of public discourse and the traps associated with the modern movements to suppress, punish, and criminalize speech. This book will never be old.