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University of Chicago Resumes Path of Inquiry

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By Leslee Kulba- The University of Chicago made news when Dean of Students Jay Ellison issued a letter to incoming classmen that read, in part, “Once here you will discover that one of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. . . . Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn, without fear of censorship. Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others. You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement.”

Ellison continued, “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” The letter was in response to three events during which students shouted down invited speakers; and it was met with criticism from a number of students who argued the college was condoning hate speech masquerading as discourse.

To this, Jonathan Rauch, author of Kindly Inquisitors, would say, “Too bad.” Rauch happens to be a gay Jew, and that matters only because he has had to bear more than the average person’s share of persecution. Having felt forced to live a lie much of his life, he says of gays, “We should be the last people on the planet to demand that anyone be silenced.”

Rauch told the story of Salman Rushdie, the controversial author of The Satanic Verses. The book was a magical fantasy based around the life of Muhammad, the title coming from somewhat apocryphal accounts that the Muslim prophet mistook suggestions from the adversary as divine revelation. After high acclaim, the award-winning novel caught the attention of Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who issued a fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie. Rushdie went into hiding and attempted to lift the fatwa by converting to Islam.

While hiding from assassins made Rushdie a prisoner, other Muslims said he had liberated them by giving voice to the opinions they had stuffed in fear of what authoritarian clerics might do. Not long after the Rushdie incident, the publications Jyllands-Posten and Charlie Hebdo followed up with cartoons offensive to Muslims, and the response was a mix of death threats, website hacks, stabbings, a fire bombing, and a massacre. Political leaders in Western countries may have egged rioters on when they responded with only the utmost in political correctness, reinforcing the notion that the pen was as hazardous as the sword. From his hiding place, though, Rushdie published an article that said, in effect, “without the freedom to offend, freedom of expression ceases to exist.” Rushdie, incidentally, is again walking about, having given a lecture at UNC Asheville earlier this year.

Rauch is a firm believer in letting it all hang out when it comes to expressing ideas. Being honest and open about one’s beliefs exposes them to criticism and challenges existing paradigms. It opens debates. Rauch is not one to admit alternative realities, but, like it or not, the ideas that get the most persuasion behind them establish what is going to go into textbooks and define what will be relegated to the fringe.

Rauch believes, despite popular rhetoric, that normal people are born with a hunger for truth. Protecting people from being offended, or humoring their pretenses of offense, fosters a breeding ground for stupidity. According to the evidence, so-called hate speech does not silence minorities. It incites them to action. Furthermore, authoritarian clamps on hate speech only add pressure to the infernos in hateful minds and give fifteen minutes of fame for hate in various incarnations. Advocating for laws against hate speech gives politicians a platform for more pontificating and authoritarians more elbow room. Collateral damages include the reinforcement of stereotypes of minorities as being vulnerable and defenseless, and “condescension toward people fighting for respect.”

Twenty years ago, when Rauch was writing, the First Amendment was still standing in the way of US legislators going as hog-wild for hate criminalization as other countries had. Instead, hate speech enthusiasts wormed their dirty deeds into effect through workplaces and universities. “Federal law holds employers civilly liable for permitting the workplace to become a ‘hostile environment’ – a fuzzy concept that has been stretched to include, for example, a Bible verse printed on a paycheck (could upset an atheist) or a Seventh-Day Adventist’s discussion of religion (‘religious harassment’ because it ‘depressed’ a plaintiff).”

While the bad actors are now claiming to be hip egalitarians and humanitarians instead of stodgy old authoritarians, Rauch says, “The old principle of the Inquisition is being revived: People who hold wrong and hurtful opinions should be punished for the good of society. If they cannot be put in jail, then they should lose their jobs, be subject to organized campaigns of vilification, be made to apologize, be pressed to recant. If government cannot do the punishing, then private institutions and pressure groups – thought vigilantes, in effect – should do it.”

Rauch watched the movement evolve. In the 1980s, “organized groups began patrolling the presses and airwaves for offensive statements and promptly demanding apologies and retractions.” Things got so bad Hollywood producers started vetting their films before interest groups to avoid screening offensive content. Places of higher learning, that were presumably in existence to sort hypotheses in the interest of advancing knowledge, clamped down on hate speech. The University of Missouri Journalism School, for example, published a Dictionary of Cautionary Words and Phrases.

“As more and more people realized they could win concessions and moral victories by being offended, more and more offended people became activists.” The absurdity mounted to the point George Will declared, “One of America’s growth industries is the manufacturing of synthetic indignation.”

Stepping back from the madness, Rauch suggested taking a classical liberal approach to weeding out ideas. He said the currency of classical liberal economics is money; that of democracy is votes; and that of “liberal science” is criticism. The vetting of ideas is easy in hard science, where that which cannot be connected line upon line to existing fact and logic is relegated to the realm of falsehood or speculation. But even scientific inquiry is subject to corruption. Not everybody wants to follow the rules. “Unfortunately, many people are forgetting them, ignoring them, or carving out exemptions.”

Things get even murkier when dealing with personal taste and emotion. Rauch takes many stances I find offensive and incorrect. I am sure he assesses my beliefs likewise. The important thing is that we allow criticism while not being coerced to believe what we don’t. Nobody in their mortal state will ever grasp the entirety of the cosmos, and so we all have a lot of room to grow. So we’d be well-advised to follow the immortal words of Charles Sanders Peirce: Do not block the way of inquiry.

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