The Concise Case for Free Speech Against Its Enemies

A liberal society stands on the proposition that we should all take seriously the idea that we might be wrong. This means we must place no one, including ourselves, beyond the reach of criticism; it means that we must allow people to err, even where the error offends and upsets, as it often will.” —Jonathan Rauch

I’ve recently had the pleasure of reading the updated and expanded edition of Jonathan Rauch’s Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought. As a firm supporter of free speech, free inquiry, and freedom of conscience, I believe the legal arguments for the First Amendment are important, but the broad moral and philosophical justifications are equally crucial if not more vital. That being said, Rauch’s book makes a powerful case within those themes under 200 pages.

Although representative government and a free market economy are rightly recognized as pillars of liberalism, its intellectual system for producing and spreading knowledge, “liberal science,” has not received its full due. Drawing upon the work of thinkers including David Hume, John Locke, Charles Sanders Peirce, and Karl Popper, Rauch highlights and elaborates upon the concept of “liberal science.” In the system of liberal science, beliefs and observations are transformed into public knowledge through the robust exchange of ideas and conflict between clashing viewpoints. This process where ideas compete is dynamic and never-ending. A liberal, knowledge-seeking society will always encourage inquiry and even welcome criticism and controversy towards long-settled thoughts and beliefs. According to Rauch, liberal science embodies the principle that the “checking of each by each through public criticism is the only legitimate way to decide who is right.” With these simple but effective rules, liberal science became an unprecedented knowledge-generating political system that encouraged peace by allowing for greater toleration of dissent than any other in history. Under the system of liberal science, no one gets the final say and no one has personal authority. By its very nature, liberal science is the very antithesis of fundamentalism and authoritarianism.

In 1993, British author Salman Rushdie became a hunted man after the Ayatollah Khomeini placed a fatwā on his head. His book The Satanic Verses caused an international uproar when fundamentalist Muslims alleged it contained blasphemy. Yet, it was the incoherent and muted responses by Western political leaders and intellectuals that disturbed Rauch the most. Most of the responses went by the lines of “Yes, we believe in and support free speech but he shouldn’t have written something so offensive.” In Rauch’s view, “the Rushdie affair was a defining moment. It showed how readily Westerners could be backed away from a fundamental principle of intellectual liberalism, namely that there is nothing whatever wrong with offending—hurting people’s feelings—in pursuit of truth. That principle seemed to have been displaced by a belief in the right not to be offended, which was gaining currency in America.” While it came as no surprise that a religious zealot such as Khomeini would be staunchly opposed to free speech and other liberal values, the sympathetic voices of those who saw themselves as “liberal” also jumped aboard the censorship bandwagon. In the name of fighting “hate” and “insensitive” speech, ideologically driven social crusades to suppress “offensive'” language towards historically disadvantaged groups made inroads into American universities. Campus speech codes spread and political correctness became further entrenched in society at large. In his book, Rauch identifies how each one of these different camps poses a threat to free speech and inquiry.

Adherents of fundamentalism are absolutely certain that they know the truth and do not need to hear any criticisms. Knowledge and truth belong in the hands of a select few who rely on the supremacy of authority to decide what is “right.” Rauch takes pains to point out that fundamentalism does not necessarily  mean religious orthodoxy, but a mindset with “the strong disinclination to take seriously the notion that you might be wrong.” Under a fundamentalist system, dissenting views will be outright suppressed and heretics will be killed, jailed, or exiled. Bloody conflict is inevitable under fundamentalism since there is no possible way to mediate a disagreement between clashing individuals or groups that claim to “know” the truth. The fundamentalist system dominated most regimes throughout history, and its threat to free speech and inquiry is well documented. In contrast, the challenges to liberal science from “egalitarianism” and “humanitarianism” are not as well recognized yet they may be even graver threats to free speech, at least in the West. This camp of censors is “kindly” in the sense that they are full of good intentions (or at least, pretend to be so), but are driven with the same level of zeal that animated Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition.

According to Rauch, “egalitarianism” makes an appeal to the ideal of fairness and rests upon two versions, simple and radical. Simple egalitarianism maintains that “all sincere persons’ beliefs have equal claims to respect,” while the radical version insists that “the beliefs of persons in historically oppressed classes or groups get special consideration.” The essence of egalitarianism denies the validity of the scientific method for improving our understanding of the natural world. The radical version goes further to advocate that oppressed groups should have their “perspectives” be given preferential treatment because their views have been historically excluded from academia and society at large. The “humanitarian” impulse is closely associated with the claims of the egalitarians. It represents a “challenge from compassion.” Advocates of this view believe that words can be a “form of oppression” and be just as “violent” as physical harm. Therefore, no one should cause offense.  They also argue one should not criticize the claims of historically oppressed minorities because this would damage their self-esteem, resulting in further marginalization and oppression. These beliefs have unfortunately seeped into American academia and many parts of Europe that have adopted “hate speech” laws. Rauch devotes a whole chapter to refute the challenge to liberal science posed by the egalitarians and humanitarians. One passage is worth quoting in full:

If you are inclined to equate verbal offense with physical violence, think again about the logic of your position. If hurtful opinions are violence, then painful criticism is violence. In other words, on the humanitarian premise, science itself is a form of violence. What do you do about violence? You establish policing authorities—public or private—to stop it and punish the perpetrators. You set up authorities to weed out hurtful ideas and speech. In other words: an inquisition.

Liberal science has been more successful than any of these alternative systems because it “substitutes an open-ended, rule-based, social process in which everybody throws out ideas all the time and we subject them to criticism. We kill our hypotheses rather than each other. This turns out both to be spectacularly good at mobilizing intellectual talent to find and promote good ideas and spectacularly good at defusing what otherwise would be political, often violent, conflicts.” Under liberal science, people can believe whatever they want, and even hold backwards and repugnant views such as Creationism or Holocaust denial without fear of punishment.  However, in order for those beliefs to become public knowledge and have society operate if they were true, they must survive the crucible of open debate and criticism. Luckily, the system works very well in checking all ideas and keeps the most extreme views on the fringe where they rightly belong. Rauch encourages people to stand firm on the following 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.

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 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.

Although Rauch’s book was published in 1993, its arguments remain highly relevant today. The timeliness of Rauch’s arguments in Kindly Inquisitors is a testament to the fact on how far Americans have to go to rediscover and fully embrace the values of living in a pluralistic, liberal society. The recent ideological browbeating and resignation of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich is a disheartening reminder. As noted in a recent public statement by a coalition of thinkers, commentators, and activists spanning the entire political spectrum: “Any attempt impose conformity, through government or any other means, by punishing the misguided for believing incorrectly will impoverish society intellectually and oppress it politically.” In a liberal society, unpopular and controversial views should be criticized or refuted, not suppressed or punished. Reflecting upon his own personal experience both as a Jew and homosexual in the book’s afterword, Rauch reminds us it was the system of liberal science that advanced the cause of minorities more than anything else and why we should uphold its core principles:

… I feel more confident than ever that the answer to bias and prejudice is pluralism, not purism. The answer, that is, is not to try to legislate bias and prejudice out of existence or to drive them underground, but to pit biases and prejudices against each other and make them fight in the open. That is how, in the crucible of rational criticism, superstition and moral error are burned away….

History shows that, over time and probably today more than ever, the more open the intellectual environment, the better minorities will do….

For politically weak minorities, the best and often only way to effect wholesale change in the world of politics is by effecting change in the world of ideas. Our position as beneficiaries of the open society requires us to serve as guardians of it. Playing that role, not seeking government protections or hauling our adversaries before star chambers, is the greater source of our dignity.

The successes of liberal science can be seen all around us. It formed the backbone of the Enlightenment and advanced Western civilization both technologically and socially. We should treasure and preserve this intellectual framework and let the dialogue continue.

Aaron Tao is the former Assistant Editor of the Independent Institute's blog, The Beacon.
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