Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought by Jonathan Rauch (review)

Many years ago, I was at a public library in Viborg (my home town, ish), and I was telling a friend that I had never stumbled upon a proper defense of liberal democracy, in the sense of arguing against Plato and other people who attack this model. The best I had seen was just people repeating Churchill when I asked (“democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” but it did not originate with him). It just so happened that some guy walking past us overheard the conversation and told me that Popper had written such a book (well two): The Open Society and Its Enemies. I then tried reading this, but found it to be overly dry for my tastes at the time (I was about 20-22). So I never read Popper’s book, and never found another such book until I read Jonathan Rauch’s. It is quite a nice read, and I highlighted extensive passages I will quote here. It’s a polemic-philosophical book, not a scientific one, so whatever science one can use to support the open society, and I think one can find such science probably, it is not covered in this book. The goal of the book is to codify the implicit rules that an ideal open society can be said to follow, and defend these against the most common attacks, mainly from anti-democracy origins (Plato, and modern neo-reactionaries, though the latter are not covered), and to defend free speech against attacks from various sides.

Talking about the system that a society uses to settle questions of fact:

Those two rules define a decision-making system which people can agree to use to figure out whose opinions are worth believing. Under this system, you can do anything you wish to test a statement, as long as you follow the rules, which effectively say:

• The system may not fix the outcome in advance or for good (no final say).
• The system may not distinguish between participants (no personal authority).

The rules establish, if you will, a game—like chess or baseball. And this particular game has the two distinctive characteristics that define a liberal game: if you play it, you can’t set the outcome in advance, and you can’t exempt any player from the rules, no matter who he happens to be.

In other words, one cannot have certain presumed truths that cannot be questioned (anything goes), and one cannot use genetic fallacies.

Elaborating on the above:

The empirical rule says, “You may claim that a statement has been established as knowledge only insofar as the method used to check it gives the same result regardless of the identity of the checker, and regardless of the source of the statement.” In other words, in checking—deciding what is worth believing—particular persons are interchangeable.

Which is to say that the truth is in principle open to all to see, if they are willing to look.

On the role of personal biases in science:

The genius of liberal science lies not in doing away with dogma and prejudice; it lies in channeling dogma and prejudice—making them socially productive by pitting dogma against dogma and prejudice against prejudice. Science remains unbiased even though scientists are not. “One of the strengths of science,” the philosopher and historian of science David L. Hull has written, “is that it does not require that scientists be unbiased, only that different scientists have different biases.”13

That is a crucial point. One of the creationists’ and minority activists’ most seductive arguments is that they should get equal time in textbooks because, after all, Darwinians and Eurocentrists are no more immune from bias than creationists and Afrocentrists. The answer is, of course evolutionists and Eurocentrists are biased. Biases and prejudices make us human and give sparkle to our minds. What is to be condemned is not bias but unchecked bias. The point of liberal science is not to be unprejudiced (which is impossible); the point is to recognize that your own bias might be wrong and to submit it to public checking by people who believe differently.

Exactly my opinion. But this system does not work when the biases are starkly unbalanced. Hence the massive problems in social science with left-wing bias (see also previous post on Myrdal’s book).

I have always found this sort of behavior fascinating as well as repugnant. At the time of the protests against The Last Temptation, it occurred to me that no case has yet reached my attention of crowds of enraged astronomers demanding the suppression of unorthodox astronomical theories. Nor has much blood been shed by rival tribes of economists torturing and killing each other in disputes over markets’ efficiency. And I have not yet heard of any efforts on the part of scientists in particular or liberals in general to purge libraries and history books of unusual or discredited theories, or to lead inquisitions of dissenters.
We take the absence of purges and inquisitions among those who play the science game so much for granted that we forget how extraordinary the absence really is. “Until the end of the eighteenth century,” the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., notes, “torture was normal investigative procedure in the Catholic church as well as in most European states.”26 You could map a lot of human history simply by tracing the long line of creed wars within and between cultures. Creed wars are still going on today within and between orthodox groups of all kinds. But such wars have almost disappeared from critical society. Liberal science has brought peace.

Well, there are definitely science purges now a days. Purging libraries is perhaps too far (give it a year or two), but we have been renaming departments, journals, chairs (professor positions), and so on for a long time. And indeed, some people have removed books from libraries in the past, and probably the present (though it is not so useful now because of the internet). Jensen mentions this in a rare interview (cited only 1 time!):

  • Jensen, Arthur; Robinson, Daniel H. and Wainer, Howard. Profiles in Research: Arthur Jensen. (2006). Journal of Educational and Behavioral Statistics, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Autumn, 2006), pp.

Robinson/Wainer : As I was preparing for this interview, I wanted to do a bit of background homework and read several of your articles. I began to get the feeling that something strange was going on when I would visit the University of Texas library and search for the articles. It seemed as though someone had beat me to them and several had been removed from the bound volumes. I imagine this has also happened at other institutions by people who did not want your articles to be available.

Jensen: Yes, the surreptitious removal of my publications from the Education– Psychology Library at UC, Berkeley also occurred. Usually the articles were cut out of the bound volumes of journals. What were my most recent publications at that time (1969–70, etc.) were put on the reserve bookshelves for their protection. The campus police even discovered a plot by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) to completely rid the Berkeley libraries of all of my publications. To make their job easier, one of the SDS members (later identified to me by the campus police) came to my office to request a complete list of all my publications, which at that time numbered over 100 items.

Perhaps one can compile data about “missing works” in university libraries, since they must eventually notice they went missing, and thus register this somewhere in their systems. Of course, students and others might lose/steal copies of other stuff at some rate relative to the rate they take them out, but one can just calculate the rates of going missing relative to rate of use. I predict this value will be higher for works by people who are disliked by ideological and religious groups.

On the importance of free speech and thought in universities especially:

And yet, and yet. There is something in the communitarian argument which continues to nag. What? I think a professor I know put his finger on it when he told me in a letter:

In my debates with the fundamentalist left, the main driving force seems to be a sense of impotence. So much that is so bad is going on, and they can do nothing. At least professors have some power in their universities. As futile as such gestures may be, we can pass rules trying to force students and our fellow professors to be nice. However, I did not sense closed minds, especially among my students. They are aware of how problematic their position is. “But if we can’t do this, what can we do?” A good question.

Yes. If a society renounces the option of exiling or jailing or otherwise punishing people who say foolish or mean or irresponsible things, then it gives up its strongest social tool for showing disapproval. Yet the rules of the science game ask it to do just that. 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.

Suppression of criticism:

I find the suppression of criticism repugnant, even within voluntary associations (churches, for instance) whose legal right to engage in it I will ardently defend. If you do not happen to share my revulsion, I draw your attention to the practical shortcomings of orthodox societies. Letting colonels or commissars or cardinals decide which ideas are worthy is a bad way to stay in touch with reality. According to Maltsev, the Soviets had no usable statistics on their service economy, and thus no reliable measure of their gross national product, because their dogma defined as nonproductive all labor that performs services instead of making goods. Moreover, regimes that fear criticism find that people trained to think scientifically—people like Fang Lizhi in China and Andrei Sakharov in the old Soviet Union—are likely to become dangerous dissidents, because science teaches us to doubt and criticize. As everyone knows by now, anti-critical societies tend to be narrow, rigid, and backward. They cannot easily get rid of old ideas, they cannot readily produce new ideas, and when they do produce new ideas they cannot efficiently check them. They use their intellectual resources counterproductively or clumsily or not at all. Worse yet, they wind up settling differences of opinion by punishing weak people rather than weak ideas. Plato believed that empowering a wise central authority was the surest way to make certain that truth prevailed over nonsense. What he failed to realize—or maybe did realize but did not say—was that in an authoritarian intellectual regime the advantage goes to the people with the most troops, not the people with the keenest critical eyes. “Truth” is built on the ruined careers and broken bodies and enforced silence of the unorthodox.

I don’t know of these Soviet data, but perhaps José Luis Ricón does. Perhaps one can quantify society’s openness to criticism by bibliographic/word embedding analysis of written content, assuming one had such databases available for each country (one can hope), and this could be used in a regression model of sorts to predict future country well-being. It sounds doable in principle to do a such study, but probably not in practice for the foreseeable future.

On protected groups:

Though the special concern for minorities as groups is a new twist, this argument is an old and highly principled one. It was used, in all good conscience, by the Inquisition. The heretic, in those days, endangered the peace and stability of the whole society by challenging the rightful authority of the Church. The Inquisition was a policing action. But by its own lights it was a humanitarian action, too. The heretic endangered the faith of believers, and so threatened to drag others with him to an eternity of suffering in perdition; not least of all, he threw away his own soul. To allow such a person to destroy souls seemed at least as indecent as allowing racist hate speech seems today. “It is an error to think of the persecution of heretics as being forced by the Church upon unwilling or indifferent laity. The heretic was an unpopular person in the Middle Ages. There are, in fact, instances in the late eleventh century and early twelfth century of heretics being lynched by an infuriated mob, who regarded the clergy as too lenient.”5 If you cared about the good of society and about the souls of your neighbors and friends, then you believed that the Inquisition’s mission was at bottom humane, even if the inquisitorial methods sometimes were not.

It’s directly a utilitarian argument for suppression, namely, that it will lead to bad outcomes (damnation, in this case). Such arguments of course depend on whether the state can be sure about this utility calculation, which of course, it cannot, since such calculations are themselves upon to debate (no final say, rule 1). This is fundamentally the same situation as people arguing that allowing stereotypes to be mentioned causes some groups to perform poorly. Thus, one can see that from a certain perspective, the research aims of the stereotype threat is suppression of free speech by trying to prove that this is harmful. Naturally, it does not mean specifically that the each and every scientist doing this research had this political goal when doing it, but it seems eerily well-fitting for that political purpose.

On Japanese (Asian generally) distaste for public criticism:

If you want an example from life, take the case of Japan.9 The Japanese have no tradition of open public criticism. In the traditional Japanese way of thinking, criticism was a mark of enmity; in fact, according to the intellectual historian Masao Maruyama, there was no word in Japanese for “opposition,” as distinct from “enmity” or “antagonism,” until one was imported from the West in the nineteenth century. That fact plus the society’s emphasis on consensus and unanimity produced a climate in which people avoided criticizing each other. Pointing out someone’s mistakes was considered rude, or worse. Change has been slow in coming. “An open debate is nearly impossible in this country,” one Japanese economist told me when I visited Japan in 1990. A renowned political scientist said ruefully that the best policy toward ideas that you disagree with is one of benign neglect—to be mute. Criticism would be seen as an attack. Book reviewers typically don’t review books they don’t like. The result is that in Japan ideas tend to be traded on a kind of gray market. People criticize privately, exchanging gossip and asking each other “What did you think of so-and-so’s new book on this or that?” Producing new ideas is hard, and testing ideas, sorting the useful from the empty, is harder. And so intellectual resources lie fallow.

I don’t know how well this checks out, but I have some Japanese friends and will ask. Japan will definitely have a big textual database one can analyze to check the idea.

On the impossibility of establishing some kind of working hate speech regulation:

Already—right from the start, in fact—humanitarians have tried to regulate theories and hypotheses as well as jeers and shouted epithets. After all, a theory can be just as hurtful as a jeer. At the University of Michigan, one administrator called for prohibitions on professors as well as students, saying, “Harassment in classrooms is based on theories held by teachers, and that environment has prevented minorities from having the same advantages afforded others.”28 In other words, hurtful theories should be suppressed.
The unhappy reality is that some people are always going to say gross and vicious things to hurt other people. If they don’t destroy property or do violence, ignore them or criticize them. But do not set up an authority to punish them. Any guidelines elaborate enough to distinguish vicious opinions from unpopular ones will be too elaborate to work. In practice, the distinction will be between the opinions which the political authorities find congenial and those which they find inconvenient.

To give an example. We have such a body in Denmark, of sorts. The prosecutor decides who to press charges against for violation of our hate speech law (§266b, called “racismeparagraffen” though it is actually much wider in scope). Helpfully, the prosecutor also publishes a summary of cases (archived here) they have brought to trial from 2000 to 2016. And if one checks these, then one can see the obvious imbalance. I did a quick count of the cases, and it produces the table below. There were about 89 cases with a guilty verdict. 100% of these were protecting some non-Danish group. Mostly the targets are Muslims, or race/ethnic groups that are Muslim (Africans, Middle Easterners) or specific national groups (Iraqis, Turks). There’s a few cases of libertarians pointing out this hypocrisy and trying out some other groups, that’s why the Catholics are mentioned. They took the same paragraph and changed the names to Muslims, Danes, etc., and they only got fined for the Muslim and Catholic ones, no protection for Danes. There’s quite a few cases about Jews, and these might be Muslims attacking Jews in some cases. The names of persons aren’t mentioned, so one cannot see entirely. Some of them are clearly Neo-Nazis (one guy wrote it on a website called Aryan Future, or something like that). Then there’s two odd cases of Gays (might be a Muslim attacking a Dane, but reading the text suggests it’s a Danish guy), Chinese and Indians. A few of the cases are duplicated in the sense that it is the same case at the lower court and middle courts (byretten and landsretten).

Targets Count Percent
Immigrants 2 2.25%
Africans 15 16.85%
Iraqis 1 1.12%
Muslims 39 43.82%
Middle Easterners 14 15.73%
Turks 2 2.25%
Jews 12 13.48%
Gays 1 1.12%
Catholics 1 1.12%
Chinese 1 1.12%
Indians 1 1.12%
Sum 89 100.00%

Spreadsheet here.

On humanitarians and being offended:

By and large, the humanitarians never even reach those questions, much less answer them. Beyond the rhetoric, all they are saying is this: “These ideas or words are very upsetting to me and to some others.” Yes, they are upsetting. But if everyone has a right not to be upset, then all criticism, and therefore all scientific inquiry, is at best morally hazardous and at worst impossible. Even joking becomes impossible.
Faced with this problem, very often the humanitarians retreat to the position that some people—historically oppressed groups—have a special right not to be upset. That answer is no better. In the first place, it throws liberal science out the window, because it junks the empirical rule that anyone is allowed to criticize anyone, regardless of race or ethnic history or whatever. The fact that you’re oppressed doesn’t make you right. In the second place, who is going to decide who is allowed to upset whom? The only possible answer: a centralized political authority.

Special viewpoints:

Surely one of the nastiest little anti-intellectual tricks of our day is the use of the “thinking with one’s skin” argument to justify affirmative-action policies. Now, affirmative action is something which reasonable people can well differ about, and in any case it is outside the compass of this book. However, proper justifications for affirmative action do not include the often-cited notion that affirmative-action policies will “include minority perspectives.” 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.

It is also to give power to ambitious and often dangerously illiberal people. Gays or blacks or women or whoever are no more in universal agreement than anyone else. When activists insist on introducing the “gay perspective” or the “black perspective” or the “women’s perspective” into a curriculum or a discussion, they really mean introducing the activists’ own particular opinions. Those minority activists want power and seek it by claiming to speak for a race or a gender or an ethnicity. Accept their premises, and knowledge comes in colors. Public criticism across lines of race or blood becomes difficult or impossible. Dinesh D’Souza records this amazing conversation—a snapshot of a possible future:

I asked Erdman Palmore, [a sociologist] who teaches a course on race relations at Duke, what constitutes a black perspective. Palmore shook his head. “I have no idea,” he said. “I am white. If I knew what a black perspective was, we wouldn’t need blacks to provide it.” Why then was he, a white man, teaching a course that engaged issues of black history and black consciousness? “It would be better to have a black teach my course,” Palmore agreed. Did he think it was possible for a woman to teach Shakespeare? Palmore looked puzzled. “Oh, I see what you’re getting at. He was a man. Yes, that is a problem. I don’t know the answer, I must confess.”35

It’s just wildly inaccurate that race etc. does not predict viewpoints. For the 2016 presidential election in USA, About 90% of blacks who voted, voted Democrat. It’s been this way for decades. So just using the simple rule of always guessing Democrats means you can guess right 90% of the time.

Role of professors:

If anything, professors have better cause to fear their students than the other way around. At the University of Michigan, a respected demographer teaching his undergraduate course in “race and cultural contact” was accused of racial insensitivity. He chose to discontinue the course rather than stand in the line of fire.37 Also at the University of Michigan, a student who read a limerick and made a joke about a famous athlete’s being homosexual was required to attend gay-sensitivity sessions and publish a piece of self-criticism (“Learned My Lesson”) in the student newspaper.38 In 1989, at the University of Virginia Law School, one professor said to a black student in class, “Can you dig it, man?” The next day, visibly shaken, he read to the class from an anonymous note calling him a “racist” and a “white supremacist.” He defended himself, but “eventually [his] eyes filled with tears. ‘I can’t go on,’ he said,” and rushed out of the classroom.39 At the University of California at Berkeley, after a professor wrote in the alumni magazine that the affirmative-action program discriminated against white and Asian applicants, seventy-five students marched into his anthropology class and drowned out his lecture with chants of “bullshit”; one protester said that students “will not allow this kind of discourse.”40 At Harvard, a professor teaching a course on the history of race relations was accused of racism on such grounds as his use of a southern planter’s diary and of the word “Indians”; rather than weather the attack, he stopped teaching the course.41 At the University of Wisconsin, professors who issued a statement against what they called minority-hiring quotas were so frightened that only one of sixty-one would sign his name.42 At the University of California at Santa Barbara, after filing a sexual-harassment complaint against a professor who referred in class to Penthouse “pets,” a student said, “Maybe this will make more people aware in other classes and make other faculty watch what they say.”43 At Loyola University in Chicago, students demanded the dismissal of Professor Al Gini after he used the word “nigger” demonstratively in class. Several investigations ensued, in which Gini was questioned by four university offices and the U.S. Department of Education’s civil-rights office. Though he was exonerated, he was quoted as saying, “I am deeply hurt, and if it were possible I think I would quit teaching.” He no longer teaches affirmative action to undergraduates, and he says that “a lot of professors are taping their classes” in case they, too, are accused.44

On the Salman Rushdie death sentence by Iranian Muslim leaders:

The other course is to repudiate the sentence as barbaric and excessive, but not to repudiate the crime. People who offend should perhaps be turned out or publicly shamed or fired from their jobs or forcibly shut up. But death—death is too much, like chopping off people’s thumbs for shoplifting. This, I believe, is the path which a great many Western intellectuals have chosen or are now tempted to choose. If we follow this path, then we accept Khomeini’s verdict, and we are merely haggling with him over the sentence. If we follow it, then we accept that in principle what is offensive should be suppressed, and we are fighting over what it is (pornography? homoerotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe? disparagement of blacks? Darwinism? communism?) that is offensive.

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