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“Kindly Inquisitors” Offers Common Ground for Liberals and Conservatives, and a Lesson in Tolerance


I highly recommend the book Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Expanded Edition by Jonathan Rauch. It’s been rereleased in ebook form with a new forward by George Will and a new afterward by the author. It will be available in paperback in the Spring of 2014.

In the meantime, the reader might find this video of Rauch speaking at The Cato Institute, and follow-up comments by Greg Lukianoff of FIRE, entertaining and insightful.

There’s no such thing as the right to not be offended. If one person’s taking offense is allowed to shut down another person’s attempt to speak truth to power then truth and progress are both at risk.

The fact that two people believe equally strongly in opposing ideas does not confer equal validity on those ideas. The ideas must be tested in the crucible of public criticism. No single person or group, no matter how brilliant and no matter how expert in any topic, has the final say in deciding truth. We all decide it together via the testing process. This does not mean that the majority, or even scientific consensus, rules. It means the best ideas survive the process and become knowledge. It also means the process never ends and newer, better ideas are always possible.

The testing might take a long time, and it might be painful (i.e., “offensive”) to those whose ideas are found lacking, or to those whose sacred values are violated; and some ideas require a champion to keep them in the forefront of public thought and to marshal them through the testing process. Group selection, for example, was one such idea, as Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind. But in the end, if the process is allowed to work, knowledge is created, and progress is made.

Conservatives should embrace the progress which results. Contrary to conventional wisdom, conservatism is not resistance to change, it is respect for the collected wisdom of experience as expressed through a culture’s customs, traditions, and institutions. Edmund Burke, for example, endorsed change – provided it was done carefully and with respect for the lessons learned the hard way through the trial and error of a society’s collective experience, where that experience is represented by the accepted practices of that society at the time. It makes little sense to risk throwing the baby of wisdom out with the bathwater of change. Further, whereas liberalism tends to be outcome oriented, conservatism tends to be process oriented. This outcome/process dichotomy, I believe, explains in a nutshell the different connotations that liberalism and conservatism have of the notions of liberty, equality, and justice. The principles Rauch outlines offer precisely the type of respectful, process-based change that conservatives cherish, and they should accept the progress results.

Liberals should embrace the process, and the idea that process-based progress can be painfully slow. The fact than an idea seems to be intuitively self evident does not release it from the requirement of having to survive the possibly years-long process of validation through public criticism. If liberals would have the patience to allow the process to work, even as they prod it along by championing a particular cause, they’d find, I believe, wider acceptance, in the end, of their ideas, and more respect from their political opponents who, as a group, tend to cherish process over outcome.

And everyone should embrace the freedom to state one’s beliefs without restriction, even, and I’d argue as Rauch does, especially, if those beliefs seem offensive, or even, yes, “hateful”. Public criticism should be encouraged, relished, celebrated, with the realization that the absurd statements and hurt feelings which sometimes result are one of the costs of progress, and of being a grownup. In support of these ideas I’ll close with two separate quotes from “Kindly Inquisitors:”

“As I am hardly the first to point out, practically all knowledge of any importance began as a statement which offended someone. “All the durable truths that have come into the world within historic times,” said Mencken, “have been opposed as bitterly as if they were so many waves of smallpox.” Many people were appalled by the notion that the earth was not at the center of the universe (to say so was hate speech – hateful to God), many other people by the proposition that man was created last rather than first, and still others by the exploding of the common “knowledge” that white people were inherently more intelligent than people of all other races.” (page 124)

“In particular, the morality of liberal science charges two kinds of institutions with an especial obligation not to punish people for what they say or believe: governments, because their monopoly on force gives them enormous repressive powers, and universities, because their moral charter is first and foremost to advance human knowledge by practicing and teaching criticism. If governments stifle criticism, then they impoverish and oppress their citizenry; if universities do so, then they have no reason to exist.” (page 86)

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