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Rauch: Various quotes from “Kindly Inquisitors”

Various quotes from Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Expanded Edition, by Jonathan Rauch. 

I hope to show that the humanitarians’ and egalitarians’ claim to the moral high ground is false and that intellectual liberalism, with its commitment to allow and even sometimes encourage offense, is the only genuinely humane system. I hope to show that people who are “hurt by words” are morally entitled to nothing whatsoever by way of compensation. What is the right answer to the person who demands something because he is offended? Just this: “Too bad, but you’ll live.” As for people who call for punishment of “racists,” “homophobes,” “sexists,” “blasphemers,” “Communists,” or whoever the bogeyman happens to be—those people are enemies of inquiry and their clamor deserves only to be ignored, never humored.

More specifically, this book will try to establish the following points. First, there are not two great liberal social and political systems but three. One is democracy—political liberalism—by which we decide who is entitled to use force; another is capitalism—economic liberalism—by which we decide how to allocate resources. The third is liberal science, by which we decide who is right.

Second, the third system has been astoundingly successful, not merely as a producer of technology but also, far more important, as a peacemaker and builder of social bridges. Its great advantages as a social system for raising and settling differences of opinion are inherent, not incidental. However, its disadvantages—it causes pain and suffering, it creates legions of losers and outsiders, it is disorienting and unsettling, it allows and even thrives on prejudice and bias—are also inherent. And today it is once again under attack.

Third, the attackers seek to undermine the two social rules which make liberal science possible. (I’ll outline them in the next chapter and elaborate them in the rest of the book.) For the system to function, people must try to follow those rules even if they would prefer not to. Unfortunately, many people are forgetting them, ignoring them, or carving out exemptions.

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What do you do about people who have silly or offensive opinions and who haven’t bothered to submit to the rigors of public checking? Ignore them. Silence is science’s most effective weapon. Any writer or scientist will tell you that he would rather be attacked than ignored. When someone says that the Holocaust didn’t happen, why flatter him with attention? The world is always full of people who hold silly or obnoxious opinions and who have the means to broadcast them. That will never change. One of liberal science’s great discoveries is that, provided such people are forbidden to use violence, the best strategy is to marginalize them unless and until they submit to proper checking. Ignored, they lose their megaphone.

And what should we require be done to assuage the feelings of people who have been offended, to recompense them for their hurt and punish their tormentors? This and only this: absolutely nothing. Nothing at all.

The standard answer to people who say they are offended should be: “Is there any casualty other than your feelings? Are you or others being threatened with violence or vandalism? No? Then it’s a shame your feelings are hurt, but that’s too bad. You’ll live.” If one is going to enjoy the benefits of living in a liberal society without being shamelessly hypocritical, one must try to be thick-skinned, since the way we make knowledge is by rubbing against one another. In a liberal culture, this is a matter of positive moral obligation. In practical terms, it means that people who get righteously offended twice every day before breakfast should learn to count to a hundred—granted, that takes discipline—and say to themselves, “Well, it’s just that fellow’s opinion,” before they charge out the door crying for justice. (A sense of humor would help.) And it means that people receiving the complaints of the offended should count to a thousand before rushing out to do something about them. The alternative is to reward people for being upset. And as soon as people learn they can get something if they raise Cain about being offended, they go into the business of professional offendedness

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Humane motives, however, could not save the Inquisition from the same problem that faces humanitarians today: although allowing mistakes is risky, suppressing them is much riskier, because then a “mistake” becomes whatever it is that the authorities don’t like to hear. Suppressing offensiveness, too, comes at a high cost, since offensiveness is not the same thing as wrongness—often just the contrary. Sometimes patently “offensive” verbiage turns out to be telling the unpopular truth. 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 of 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.

Will someone’s belief, if accepted, destroy society? Maybe. But more likely not. “Throughout history, scientists have been urged to suppress their views about nature for the sake of the public welfare,” wrote David Hull. That the solar system is heliocentric, that species evolve, that genes influence mental traits—at one time or another people feared that those ideas and many others would destroy society if they became widely accepted. “Thus far, however, those who have urged the suppression of new views for the ‘good of the people’ have underestimated the ability of both societies and individual people to survive successive challenges to their conceptions of the world and how it works.” 6 So often have those who warned us about “dangerous” ideas been wrong, and so often have they abused whatever restraining power they possessed, that I have no hesitation in saying: it is better in every case to let critical public inquiry run its course than to try to protect society from it. If we have anything to learn from the progress of knowledge in the last few centuries, it is that to Peirce’s injunction, “Do not block the way of inquiry,” must be added, “And by no means should inquiry be blocked to ‘save’ society.”

The other, and much newer, strand of intellectual humanitarianism is intuitively more appealing and emotionally harder to resist. It says that wrongheaded opinions and harsh words are hurtful, if not necessarily to society as a whole, then to individuals. And here liberal science has been put squarely on the defensive, for the first time in more than a hundred years; for here you have, not the cold-blooded public censor raising bureaucratic objections on behalf of “society,” but an identifiable person saying “I am hurt” and speaking for his own dignity. In today’s world the second kind of claim, like all human-rights claims, seems compelling. Facing it means owning up to the truth about knowledge and about the system which best produces it.

So let us be frank, once and for all: creating knowledge is painful, for the same reason that it can also be exhilarating. Knowledge does not come free to any of us; we have to suffer for it. We have to stand naked before the court of critical checkers and watch our most cherished beliefs come under fire. Sometimes we have to watch while our notion of evident truth gets tossed in the gutter. Sometimes we feel we are treated rudely, even viciously. As others prod and test and criticize our ideas, we feel angry, hurt, embarrassed.

We would all like to think that knowledge could be separated from hurt. We would all like to think that painful but useful and thus “legitimate” criticism is objectively distinguishable from criticism which is merely ugly and hurtful. Surely criticism is one thing, and “Hitler should have finished the job” is another. But what we would like to think is not so: the only such distinction is in the eye of the beholder. The fact is that even the most “scientific” criticism can be horribly hurtful, devastatingly so. The physicist Ludwig Boltzmann was so depressed by the harshness of F. W. Ostwald’s and Ernst Mach’s attacks on his ideas that he committed suicide. “And Georg Cantor, the originator of the modern theory of sets of points and of the orders of infinity, lost his mind because of the hatred and animosity against him and his ideas by his teacher Leopold Kronecker: he was confined to a mental hospital for many years at the end of his life.” 7 The medical researcher Robert Gallo wrote vividly about the pain and shock of what he believed to be viciously harsh criticism.

What surprised me were not the findings—as I say, I was already developing my own doubts—but the vehemence with which they were delivered. More than one speaker used our misfortune to ridicule the very idea of a human retrovirus. . . . Even now I have difficulty thinking back to that day. I would be subjected to far more extensive, personal, and even vicious attacks years later when I entered AIDS research. . . . But nothing compared with the feelings that passed over me as I sat that day in Hershey, Pennsylvania, hearing not just HL-23 but much of my life’s work—the search for tumor-causing RNA viruses in humans—systematically and disdainfully dismissed. . . . I was too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh. 8

I am certainly not saying that we should all go out and be offensive or inflammatory just for the sake of it. Please don’t paint swastikas on the synagogue and say I gave my blessing. I am against offending people for fun. But I am also only too well aware that in the pursuit of knowledge many people—probably most of us at one time or another—will be hurt, and that this is a reality which no amount of wishing or regulating can ever change. It is not good to offend people, but it is necessary. A no-offense society is a no-knowledge society.

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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

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One of liberal science’s great social advances was to reject the idea that races or tribes have perspectives. Within any racial or ethnic group that you care to define, perspectives are much more different than alike. Knowing a man’s color or descent tells you nothing whatever about his “perspective”; nor does it make him a bit more or less credible as a player in the game of science. No personal authority is allowed—nor any racial authority. To insist, then, on including people of various races as representatives of their “racial perspective” or “ethnic viewpoint” is to flirt with the irrationalism of Nazi science, and its distinctions between “Jewish” and “Aryan” science

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