'Kindly Inquisitors' and How We All Lose the 'Offendedness Sweepstakes'

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This year marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of a modern classic explaining the importance of free speech in society.

In Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attack on Free Thought, Brookings Institution scholar and journalist Jonathan Rauch provides a spirited and elegant defense of the special role free speech and free inquiry play as part of the most successful intellectual system in human history. I cannot do justice to the fullness and persuasiveness of Rauch's argument in a summary, but my friend Daniel Shuchman does an impressive job in this recent article about Rauch's book for Forbes. I urge you to buy the 20th anniversary edition of Kindly Inquisitors, which was released earlier this month.

Rauch is a pretty amazing individual, and I have written about him several times over the years. His causes and interests are tremendously broad. He was an early and passionate advocate for marriage equality and for gay rights in general and has written extensively on topics as varied as reform of democratic institutions and how to respect and care for introverts.

Rauch was inspired to write a philosophical, rather than legalistic, defense of freedom of speech after what he saw as the West's lackluster defense of freedom of speech in the face of the 1989 fatwa against author Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses. He worried that the half-hearted defense was part of an overall trend among Western nations, and particularly among academics, to undermine, underestimate and, frankly, misrepresent the essentiality of freedom of speech to the discovery of truth. He illustrated how even well-meaning restrictions on what people should or should not be allowed to say fundamentally short-circuit our truth-seeking process, resulting in thinner ideas and unwarranted certainty on unexplored topics.

Of the many side effects of this retreat from free speech that Rauch predicted 20 years ago, one was that if we privilege feelings over free speech and allow claims of offense to slow or stop meaningful discussion, people will naturally abuse this ultimate trump card. In the end, the societal bar for what is "offensive" will simply get lower and lower. This "offendedness sweepstakes," as Rauch has called it, does not take long to produce terrible or, often, absurd results.

I relied heavily on Kindly Inquisitors for my own book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. Unlearning Liberty is about my work defending free speech on college campuses, where the forces of common sense have been losing the offendedness sweepstakes for a long time. For some surprising examples of what can get you in trouble on the modern college campus, check out this post I cheekily named "Censored: Top Ten Pics Too Hot for Campus." (Prepare not to be titillated.)

The "right not to be offended" culture is not just causing problems in America, either. Take for example the recent decision by six student unions in the United Kingdom to ban the Robin Thicke song "Blurred Lines" on the basis that the pop song of the summer is sexist and promotes "rape culture." I spoke to a reporter at length about how the rationale for, and the targets of, this censorship eerily resemble those found on both sides of the Atlantic during the Victorian era. I must note that I did not draw this comparison lightly. If you study censorship during the Victorian era, the idea that sexually suggestive lyrics and music should be banned because they might lead the savage masses towards violence, and specifically violence towards women, was extremely common, and, frankly, often used against foreigners and minorities.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Rauch at the Museum of Sex in New York City to talk about his book. He asked me if I thought things were getting worse. He pointed out that in the '80s and early '90s numerous academics and intellectuals were making broad, sweeping claims about the need to punish wide swaths of hateful or hurtful speech. But recently, he argued, arguments for censorship seem to be relying on narrower, more limited rationales, like those put forth by New York University law professor Jeremy Waldron.

While I don't necessarily believe Rauch is wrong, I am less sanguine about this trend, if it exists. If the arguments for censorship are getting narrower, I suspect two of the reasons are that A) broader rationales for censorship rarely win in court because of the powerful protections of the First Amendment and B) the unrelenting crusade to limit "offensive" speech has actually been quite effective, especially on campus.

Whether it is academics rushing to dismiss America's reverence for free speech in the face of the Benghazi attacks, or National Public Radio's firing of Juan Williams (which is discussed at length in this new video), offending people can be a fatal sin in America today, and our skin seems substantially thinner than it was a generation ago.

The greatest impact of the pro-censorship wave of the '80s and '90s is that, to a degree, it undermined the moral force and mass appeal that free speech enjoyed in the '60s and '70s.
Once you focus people on the one instance in which free speech rights produce results they dislike, and draw attention away from the almost endless ways that they benefit from free inquiry, it is easy for people to start taking their rights for granted. This concern is more than just conjectural, too: The latest survey (PDF) from the First Amendment Center found that 47 percent of 18-30 year olds believe the First Amendment goes too far, one of the worst results in the history of the survey.

I have seen this effect throughout the course of my career. When I started defending student speech at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education back in 2001, defenders of campus censorship often cited high-minded and enlightened-sounding justifications related to tolerance or diversity in order to do battle with decades of high-minded and philosophical campus rhetoric that defended free speech. But over time, it seems as though some of the habits of the censor have simply slipped into the bloodstream and claims of "free speech" by themselves have lost some persuasive power. In academia, even comparatively trivial concerns sometimes supercede the fundamental human right of freedom of speech.

As a result of these pro-censorship arguments being repeated over time, a culture of self-sustaining but mindless bureaucratic censorship has taken root and is producing sometimes shocking results. Take, for example, the student last fall who was severely punished for mildly suggesting it might be possible to say something less than flattering about his college's hockey coach. Or the more recent absurdity in which a student was ordered to stop handing out Constitutions on Constitution Day and was told that he needed to get advance state permission in order to use a tiny concrete "free speech zone."

It's all very predictable to those of us who study the history of free speech: A censorship movement starts with the lofty promise to rid the world of some social evil but then degenerates into an excuse to simply silence critics (or pop songs you dislike). Or, as it went in the context of higher education, what was once "We want to make campuses as comfortable as possible for vulnerable populations so we're going to censor hurtful words" has devolved into "Okay, I don't know, just don't make fun of my parking garage project."

The good news is that this is one serious societal problem that does in fact have a solution. That solution is to teach students that freedom of speech is not only a philosophically beautiful and compelling idea but, as Rauch argues, also one that is uniquely effective at discarding bad ideas, getting us to better ones, and promoting science, art, innovation, and creativity.

People should learn from our history that censorship is the ally of power. That free speech is the friend of the marginalized, dismissed and disempowered. And that, perhaps, free speech's greatest gift is its power to simply let us know the truth about the world we live in, rather than the world that those in charge wish it to be.

For all these reasons, and so many more, Kindly Inquisitors may be more important than ever.