Few books are as relevant to the current state of political discourse than Jonathan Rauch’s Kindly Inquisitors: New Attacks on Free Speech. When Rauch wrote this book, he worked as an economic journalist, and as early as 1993 he saw the origins of various attacks of freedom of expression which are now full blown. The philosophies opposing free speech are the following:
- Fundamentalism – one side has all authority behind it
- Egalitarianism – all ideas and opinions have equal merit
- Weighted Egalitarianism – certain groups have more privileges than others in expressing their ideas
- Humanitarianism – people have the right to not be offended by ideas and opinions
The above concepts differ from one or more of the principles of what Rauch calls liberal science:
- Ideas and opinions are fallible.
- No one has special authority.
- Everyone has the right to express their ideas–good or bad/innocent or offensive–publicly.
- People reach the truth through debate and forming a consensus.
In Kindly Inquisitors, the author delineates various schools of thought on free speech, starting with how fundamentalism was the chief mode of society until the Enlightenment. (In this, Rauch does not give enough credit to how dogmatic opinions were settled in the Roman Catholic Church, i.e. debate between theologians of various schools leading up to a Church council in which dogmatic opinion became settled doctrine.) He specifically emphasizes illiberal ideas found in Plato’s The Republic. In The Republic, philosopher kings are allowed to determine what the truth is, what the citizens ought to learn, and to eliminate dissenter. History provides many examples from the Roman Empire to the Medieval Inquisition to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to modern-day Iran of regimes repressive of unpopular ideas. I made sure to add the USSR, because Rauch felt that the modern Left has become as fundamentalist as various religious regimes. Indeed, noticing how fundamentalist the Left has become motivated him to write the book.
Liberal Science came out of the period of religious wars during the Renaissance. The violence over religious opinions led to many people taking a skeptical view of religion. Also, the Copernican revolution shook people’s beliefs of the material universe as well. Both of these things led to the widespread acceptance of the concept of public debate and people being able to speak their minds towards the middle of the 18th century in the West. Indeed, freedom of speech and liberal science held sway until different political ideologies emerged in the middle of the 20th century. Reasons why people moved away from freedom of speech are the following:
- Free speech prevents uniformity of opinion, hence the cohesion of society.
- It does not protect against odious and hurtful speech or opinions.
- People become seriously offended or hurt by opposing views.
- Minority viewpoints are not given enough prestige.
The philosophies opposed to Liberal Science appear to solve one or more of these problems. Fundamentalism prevents dissenters from voicing “false” opinions. Egalitarianism tries to reduce the harm of free speech by making every opinion deserving of equal merit. Weighted egalitarianism helps minorities get more attention than they might otherwise have. Lastly, humanitarianism prevents people from getting hurt by nasty or offensive opinions. But, egalitarianism makes the truth even more elusive through making all opinions equal. Weighted egalitarianism focuses too much on who’s opining than on the truth of their opinion. Both fundamentalism and humanitarianism lack the chief virtue of liberal science: preventing violence by allowing everyone a chance to express their opinions and try to convince people of the truth of them.
Political violence is the sure result of suppressing people’s opinions. You might remember the knifings which took place when the Traditional Workers Party, identified by the media as a Neo-Nazi group, attempted to speak in Sacramento. Various Leftists had gathered on the ground where the TWP had a permit to hold a rally, and attacked them in a violent assault once members of the TWP showed up. No doubt these Leftists found the platform of the Traditional Workers Party offensive and vile and thought that the TWP would lead the majority of whites astray if they argued for segregation and other outmoded ideas. Rather, repressing one group’s freedom of speech often results in them seeming to have moral high ground precisely because they are oppressed by powerful interests.
If you were more disturbed by Neo-Nazis speaking in public than Neo-Nazis being attacked for trying to give their opinion, you have your priorities wrong. Everyone deserves the right to voice their opinions, even if they are wrong and hateful. Do you think that the TWP has magical powers to turn white people into racist Jew-haters? My ancestry is mostly European, but reading through their website did not convince me that society needed to be racially segregated and that there exists an international Jewish conspiracy. If you think that the Peruvian and Cuban blood in my veins had more to do with me rejecting their flawed ideas than my educated opinion, then you are as racist as the TWP: you value genetics more than reason.
Rauch believes that people need to trust the pubic exchange of ideas and reasoned inquiry rather than the repression of unorthodox opinions. Because to repress unorthodox opinions means to repress those who hold those opinions. History and modern times witness many groups who suffered persecution for their unorthodoxy, and these can only resort to violence in return. The humanitarian option seems fair, but it leads to the same kind of fundamentalist society which our Founding Fathers wished to avoid. For, one needs authority to enforce rules of which opinions are forbidden; and oppressive governments have killed tens of millions of dissenters in the last century alone. No one has the right not to be hurt or offended by opinions–no matter how vile. Rauch declares that our response to people who claim to have been offended by speech and to need redress ought to be: “Grow up!” The alternate is a society of political prisons, revolution, exile, and execution.
I heartily encourage all our readers to refresh themselves with the arguments for free speech found in this book. The text is lucid, filled with cogent examples, and very readable.