"Jonathan Rauch — remember the name; you will want to encounter it often — is rising to eminence in American social commentary. This slender but potent volume shows why he deserves to rise. The menace he here combats is nothing less than an attack — waged with the rhetoric of 'fairness' and 'compassion,' and conducted with a serene conscience — on free inquiry. Americans, Rauch rightly says, are dozing through an aggressive reassertion of the old principle of the Inquisition, the principle that people who hold wrong or hurtful opinions should be punished for the good of society. Rauch reasserts, against the growing forces of 'sensitivity' and other forms of intellectual authoritarianism, the principle on which intellectual freedom depends: there is nothing wrong with giving offence in pursuit of truth."|
— GEORGE F. WILL
"This important book provides a welcome encouragement for all who express or defend unpopular, controversial ideas of any sort, reminding us that this is our moral obligation if we are to maintain a regime of free intellectual inquiry."|
— NADINE STROSSEN
Professor of Law, New York Law School
President, American Civil Liberties Union
"A personal, passionate, and compelling defense of unfettered inquiry against both its new and its traditional enemies. Kindly Inquisitors fearlessly confronts the pieties now sweeping over elite academic institutions and shows how humanitarian intentions are inexorably transformed into repressive policies. Rauch's book will make many people angry, but it can't and won't be ignored. This brave contribution to the central cultural debate of our time deserves the widest possible audience."|
— WILLIAM A. GALSTON
University of Maryland
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No doubt equating criticism with violence is nothing new. Yet I cannot help thinking we have been seeing more of it recently. For instance, it has become routine to refer offhandedly to critics of Japan as Japan-bashers. People do it now without a second thought — on both sides of the Pacific. When I visited Japan, I would give speeches pleading that criticism is not violence, that dropping bombs is violence, that if we suppress the former we will wind up with more of the latter. Please, I said, let's stop talking about Japan-bashing and America-bashing. Few of the Japanese, I discovered, had ever stopped to consider that unpleasant criticism might be good rather than bad; and I daresay few Americans have, either. In all cases, whether the issue is race or Japan, the attempt to equate criticism with violence is nothing more than an attempt to delegitimize and muzzle people you disagree with. The result is predictable: the "Japan-bashers" strike back by denouncing their opponents as "Japan-handlers," "agents of influence" who work for Japan's interests rather than American's. So now the whole debate has been poisoned, and nothing whatever has been gained.
Stop; enough. The time has come for a reevaluation and a decision. The time has come to look about us, collect our wits, and stand firm on these principles:
No one is allowed the right to end any debate, or to claim special control over it or exemption from it. No one under any circumstances is exempt from criticism of any kind, however unpleasant.
No one will be punished for the beliefs he holds or the opinions he states, because to believe incorrectly is never a crime.
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Criticism, however unpleasant, is not violence. Except in cases where violence or vandalism is threatened or incited, the very notion of "words that wound" or "verbal harassment" is to be repudiated and junked.
Those who claim to be hurt by words must be led to expect nothing as compensation. Otherwise, once they learn they can get something by claiming to be hurt, they will go into the business of being offended.
We must all be sensitive not only to others' feelings but also to our obligations to liberal science: specifically, the obligation to put up with criticism — yes, offense — from any quarter at any time. We have a positive moral obligation to be thick-skinned. When we do become offended, as we all will, we must settle for responding with criticism or contempt, and stop short of demanding that the offender be punished or required to make restitution.
If you are unwilling to shoulder that obligation, if you insist on punishing people who say or believe "hurtful" things (as opposed to telling them why they are wrong, or just ignoring them), then you cannot fairly expect to share in the peace, freedom, and problem-solving success that liberal science is uniquely able to provide; indeed, you are putting those very benefits at risk.
Therefore, when offended people devote their energies to shutting someone up or turning him out or getting him fired, rather than trying to show that he is wrong or trying to be thicker skinned, we should be in the habit of telling them to grow up. That's all. No demands will be met, no punishments meted out.
Competitive and consensual public checking of each by each through criticism and questioning is the only legitimate way to decide who is right. Just as we need not apologize for the unique status of democracy and capitalism in our society, so we need not apologize for the hegemony of liberal science, even though many people will prefer other systems and demand at least equal standing for them.
No one who demands centrally enforced equal time or preferential treatment for his beliefs should be accommodated in the slightest, no matter how strong his political grievance. The fact that you're oppressed doesn't mean you know anything.
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We must not tell creationists, Christian Scientists, and others that they are "loony"; we must not call them names. We must say, rather, "Your way of deciding what is true is illiberal and, if accepted, will substitute political turmoil or authoritarian control for peaceful and productive science."
Though we should all strive to eliminate or diminish our prejudices, the one and only way to do so is by submitting our beliefs to the rigors of public checking. Attempts to "eliminate prejudice" through political action or regulation of debate merely instate the favorite prejudice of someone powerful; all such attempts should be renounced, especially by governments and universities.
If we do not do our best to live by these principles, we will suffocate liberal science and block the way of inquiry, and so we will become the slaves of our errors, like Plato's pathetic philosopher-king.
* * *
At the beginning of this essay I mentioned two striking cases, one in France and the other in Michigan. As a codicil, there is something else I want to say about them.
I mentioned that the French passed laws banning Holocaust "revisionism," which questions and often denies that Hitler's genocide ever happened.
It so happens that I am a Jew. The idea of erasing the memory of 6 million dead horrifies me. The memory is all that stands in the way of Hitler's attaining his dream, which was not only to kill the Jews but to kill the very idea of them, to extinguish all traces, so that history would close up seamlessly around the gouge left by their extraction. It would be as though they had never existed.
Nonetheless — how hard this is to say — if some people want to erase the memory, they should go ahead and try. Stopping them from trying won't make anything any better. The only way is to let them have at it — while insisting that the only way they can succeed is through an exhaustive public process of checking, a process which
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I believe will come as close as is humanly possible to sorting truth from falsehood.
How can a Jew say that? In the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv, written in large letters on the wall, I saw the answer: "A rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is not really a rabbi, and a rabbi who fears his community is not really a man." The quotation is from Rabbi Israel Salanter, who died six years before Hitler was born; he flourished in Lithuania and Russia, so almost certainly some of his descendants died in the Nazis' hell fires. I don't know what he would say about Holocaust "revisionism" if he were alive today, but I do know that those words of his are displayed in the Museum of the Diaspora because the critical spirit they embody is the only spirit that can save the Jews, and the rest of us, from political meddling with history.
At the beginning I also mentioned a case at the University of Michigan in which a student was disciplined for saying that he considered homosexualtiy a disease treatable with therapy.
Because of that wrongheaded idea, many gay people grow up hating themselves or living in fear. I know, because I am one of them. The no-offense humanitarians say of such opinions that they cause "real harm to real people." Yes. I have to agree.
Nonetheless, I am preaching that this student ought to be allowed to have his say, and that nothing at all should be done to stop him. If he wants to be rude about it, if he wants to post a sign on his door saying that "fags are sick," he should not be stopped. In fact, I am preaching that if he believes that gay people are curably ill, he should say so and try to prove his point.
How can I say that?
First, because punishing him won't work. No hypothesis has been laid to rest by suppressing it. The ony way to kill a bad idea is by exposing it and supplanting it with better ones.
Second, because homosexuals, like all minorities, stand to lose far more than they win from measures regulating knowledge or debate. Today, true, the regulators may take gay people's side. But the wheel will turn, and the majority will reassert itself, and, when the inquisito-
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rial machinery is turned against them, homosexuals will rue the day they helped set it up.
Jonathan Rauch, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1993, pp. 158-162.