Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought


Kindly Inquisitors

The New Attacks on Free Thought

by Jonathan Rauch (review by William B. Lindley)

Free inquiry is in danger in America today, partly because too many of us have given too little thought to the collateral damage of no-holds-barred critical thinking or to how important to our well-being it is and why. Jonathan Rauch provides clear and original thinking to this issue. His book is dedicated to Salman Rushdie, and he carefully explains why.

Rauch starts with Plato. He reminds us that Plato's ideal Republic is a beautiful-sounding but ghastly concept. It is totalitarian to the core. No families; no private property; total control of writing and music; the people are to be told lies to keep them in line. The key to Plato's absolute state is the monopoly on knowledge.

People usually think of a free society as having two elements: the economic, a free-enterprise system; and the political, a democratic system. There is a third: the system by which knowledge is acquired and validated. Plato would have the elect few decide all questions of fact. Starting in the 17th century, people developed a new and revolutionary system: nobody has a monopoly on knowledge. People are free to make claims of fact, and others are free to criticize them. No opinion or claim of fact has even a right to be respected. Another key point: a justification based on a secret is no justification at all: the truth business is a public activity. Rauch calls this process "liberal science," the third and perhaps most important pillar of a free society. He also points out that this "give-and-take" turns out not to be Hobbes' "war of all against all" but a peaceful (in the main), self- regulating process.

Rauch identifies two kinds of threat to this free inquiry; the fundamentalist and the humanitarian. Fundamentalism here is not just religious orthodoxy, but "the strong disinclination to take seriously the notion that you might be wrong." (Rauch supplies several examples of "free-market" fundamentalism.) With such an attitude, the free play and conflict of ideas is guaranteed to hurt, to damage, the fundamentalist mindset. Freethinkers have overlooked or belittled this real harm, and have thereby strengthened the fundamentalist attitude in the populace. The second threat, the humanitarian, uses this hurt to claim that ideas and opinions have a right to be respected and not marginalized, and that this right must be enforced. This point of view has made headway in our universities, the very institutions of the search for truth, of free, critical inquiry. It is also responsible for the appalling wishy-washiness of the response of our political and religious leaders to the Islamic death sentence on Salman Rushdie. That is why this book is dedicated to him. The Rushdie case shows that we cannot take it for granted that free inquiry will continue to be a pillar of Western civilization. The Inquisition may indeed return and, here and there, it has.

This book is so good that it has even exposed errors in my own thinking. A key point it makes is that criticism is not violence, but that people provide ammunition for the "humanitarians" when they use metaphors of violence for criticism (as this sentence does!). (One of my "sins" is to use the term "Bible-bashing.") This is an important book. Buy it. Read it. Lend it. When it doesn't come back, buy another.

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL 60637, ©1993, hardback, 179 pages, $17.95.

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