The Truth Hurts
The humanitarian threat to free inquiry
In 1990 the French National Assembly passed new laws to toughen the existing measures against racism. At the time people were in an uproar over the desecration of Jewish graves and the newspapers were full of concern about France's extremist right wing and the revival of anti-Semitism in Europe and the Soviet Union. So the new legislation surprised no one. But there was something disturbing in it, passed over incidentally, as though hardly worth mentioning, in newspaper accounts like this one: "The measures also outlaw 'revisionism'—a historical tendency rife among extreme right-wing activists which consists of questioning the truth of the Jewish Holocaust in World War II."
Taken by itself, the French action was a curious and vaguely troubling incident, but little more. But the French action could not be taken by itself. It was part of a pattern.
In Australia the New South Wales parliament amended the Anti-Discrimination Act in 1989 to ban public racial vilification. Since most people are against racial vilification, most could sympathize with the legislature's intentions. But it was hard to be enthusiastic about the mechanism. Reports Tony Katsigiannis in the Australian magazine Policy: "The law invests in the Anti-Discrimination Board the power to determine whether a report is 'fair,' and whether a discussion is 'reasonable,' 'in good faith,' and 'in the public interest.' The Board will pronounce upon the acceptability of artistic expression, research papers, academic controversy, and scientific questions. An unfair (i.e., inaccurate) report of a public act may expose the reporter and the publisher to damages of up to $40,000."
In Denmark the national civil-rights law forbids "threatening, humiliating, or degrading" someone in public on the basis of race, religion, ethnic background, or sexual orientation. When a woman wrote letters to a newspaper calling the national domestic-partnership law "ungodly" and homosexuality "the ugliest kind of adultery," she and the editor who published her letters were targeted for prosecution.
In Canada a reputable research psychologist named Jean Philippe Rushton presented a paper in 1989 in which he looked at three very broad racial groups and hypothesized that, on average, blacks' reproductive strategy tends to emphasize high birth rates, Asians' tends toward intensive parental nurturing, and whites' tends to fall in between. The man was vilified in the press, he was denounced on national television (to his face) as a neo-Nazi, and his graduate students were advised to find a new mentor. That was not all. The Ontario provincial police promptly launched a six-month investigation of Rushton under Canada's hate-speech prohibition. They questioned his colleagues, demanded tapes of his debates and media appearances, and so on. "The provincial police officially assessed the question of whether Rushton might be subject to two years in prison for such actions as 'using questionable source data.'" In the end, the attorney general decided not to prosecute and settled for denouncing Rushton's ideas as "loony."
So it goes in France, Australia, Denmark, Canada—and the United States. The U.S. Constitution, however, makes government regulation of upsetting talk difficult, so in America the movement against hurtful speech has been primarily moral rather than legal, and nongovernmental institutions, especially colleges and universities, have taken the lead. All around the country, universities have set up anti-harassment rules prohibiting, and establishing punishments for, "speech or other expression" (this is from Stanford's policy, adopted in 1990 and more or less representative) that "is intended to insult or stigmatize an individual or a small number of individuals on the basis of their sex, race, color, handicap, religion, sexual orientation or national and ethnic origin." One case generated a lawsuit in the federal courts, which eventually struck down the rule in question. At the University of Michigan, a student said in a classroom discussion that he considered homosexuality a disease treatable with therapy. Now, as of this writing the evidence is abundant that the student's hypothesis is wrong, and any gay man or woman in America can attest to the harm that this particular hypothesis has inflicted over the years. But the people at Michigan went further than to refute the student or ignore him. They summoned him to a formal disciplinary hearing for violating the school's policy prohibiting speech that "victimizes" people on the basis of "sexual orientation."
Such cases have drawn their share of outrage from civil libertarians. To understand these incidents as raising only civil liberties issues, however, is to miss the bigger point. A very dangerous principle is now being established as a social right: Thou shalt not hurt others with words. This principle is a menace—and not just to civil liberties. At bottom it threatens liberal inquiry—that is, science itself.
On May 10, 1989, the Nashville Tennessean reported that George Darden, a city councilman, had filed a resolution asking the city to build a landing pad for unidentified flying objects. "What it was," he said, "people were reporting all these strange creatures coming to town, and they have nowhere to land." He said that he had never seen the creatures himself but that he was "very serious." He wanted to know, "When people see them, do you want to just cast them off as a lunatic?"
George Darden was no clown. He was raising nothing less than what philosophers refer to as the problem of knowledge: What is the right standard for distinguishing the few true beliefs from the many false ones? And who should set that standard? Everybody laughed at Darden—but he deserves an answer. To the central question of how to sort true beliefs from the "lunatic" ones, here are five answers, five decision-making principles—not the only ones by any means, but the most important contenders right now:
—The Fundamentalist Principle: Those who know the truth should decide who is right.
—The Simple Egalitarian Principle: All sincere persons' beliefs have equal claims to respect.
—The Radical Egalitarian Principle: Like the simple egalitarian principle, but the beliefs of persons in historically oppressed classes or groups get special consideration.
—The Humanitarian Principle: Any of the above, but with the condition that the first priority be to cause no hurt.
—The Liberal Principle: Checking of each by each through public criticism is the only legitimate way to decide who is right.
The last principle is the only one that is acceptable, but it is now losing ground to the others. Impelled by the notions that science is oppression and criticism is violence, the central regulation of debate and inquiry is returning to respectability—this time in a humanitarian disguise. The old principle of the Inquisition is being revived: People who hold wrong and hurtful opinions should be punished for the good of society. To see why, you have to look at fundamentals.
We have standard labels for the liberal political and economic systems—democracy and capitalism. Oddly, however, we have no name for the liberal intellectual system, whose activities range from physics to history to journalism. I use the term "liberal science." The very need to invent a label for our public idea-sorting system speaks volumes about the system's success. Establishing the two basic rules on which liberal science is based required a social revolution; yet so effective have those rules been, and so beneficent, that most of us take them for granted. Put them into effect, and you have laid the groundwork for a knowledge-producing and dispute-resolving system that beats all competitors hands down. They are the basis of liberal inquiry and of science.
First, the skeptical rule: No one gets the final say. No idea, however wise and insightful its proponent, can ever have any claim to be exempt from criticism by anyone, no matter how stupid and grubby-minded the critic. A statement is established as knowledge only if it can be debunked, in principle, and only insofar as it withstands attempts to debunk it.
This is, more or less, what the great 20th-century philosopher of science Karl R. Popper and his followers have called the principle of falsifiability. Science is distinctive not because it proves true statements but because it seeks systematically to disprove false ones. In practice, of course, it is sometimes hard, if not impossible, to say whether a given statement is falsifiable or not. But what counts is the way the rule directs us to try to act. If you do not try to check ideas by trying to debunk them, then you are not practicing science.
Second, the empirical rule: No one has personal authority. No one gets special say simply on the basis of who he happens to be. A statement is established as knowledge only if 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. Who you are doesn't count; the rules apply to everybody, regardless of identity.
"The liberation of the human mind," H. L. Mencken once wrote, "has been best furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe—that the god in the sanctuary was a fraud. One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms."
Mencken stood in a great American tradition: a tradition of doubt and inquiry and rowdy reformulation of truth. "All of my work hangs together, once the main ideas under it are discerned," he said. "These ideas are chiefly of a skeptical character. I believe that nothing is unconditionally true, and hence I am opposed to every statement of positive truth and every man who states it." No final say—that was Mencken, down to the soles of his feet.
Americans have enough Menckenian instinct in their guts to be frightened by overt intellectual authoritarianism, even if they don't always precisely understand the nature of the threat. The war whoops of Khomeini and his raging supporters have awakened many snoozing Westerners to the fact that tens or hundreds of millions of people really do detest liberalism. At home, religious fundamentalism is a minority interest, not very powerful—weak enough, in fact, to be treated with arrogance and contempt by the intellectual establishment when it is worthy instead of respectful enmity.
Where religious true believers are concerned, we are pretty vigilant. The greater threat is embracing authoritarianism in the name of fairness and compassion. Having been at last rousted out of politics and economics by the disaster of communism, the authoritarian Rasputin has now come calling on liberal science, and he already has his foot in the door.
To begin with, I should be clear about what I mean by intellectual egalitarianism. In one sense, liberal science is as egalitarian as any system could be. Where the game of science is properly played, no one is granted personal authority simply because of who he happens to be—period. The rules apply to everybody. It is quite true that for most of history (and not just in the West) women, blacks, and others were denied equal access to the intellectual and scientific establishment, as they were denied equal access to so much else. But that represents not the failure of liberalism but the failure to embrace it. To renounce liberal science because the society in which it was embedded tended to shut out women is as silly as it would have been to renounce democracy in 1910 because women were not allowed to vote.
Science, when it works the way it is supposed to, is an equal-opportunity knowledge maker. But that is very different—radically, fundamentally different—from being an equal-results knowledge maker. Some people who understand the difference clamor for equal results—for instance, people on the political left who demand an equal place in the canon of knowledge for minority groups' points of view. Many more people, however, simply misunderstand. They don't realize that there is a wide gulf between equal access to a knowledge-making system and equal results. Their misunderstanding has the potential for grave consequences.
One of the most troubling examples of such misunderstanding is Edwards v. Aguillard, whose attack on intellectual liberalism was subscribed to by two justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. The state of Louisiana had passed a statute (the Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science in Public School Instruction Act) requiring that wherever in public schools the theory of evolution was taught, "scientific creationism" was to be taught along with it. The act did not require that either one be taught; only that if one was, so must be the other. The bill's sponsors felt that students were being indoctrinated with one (disputed) view of how humanity came to be. They thus demanded that the evidence on both sides be presented if the subject were to be broached. One state senator stressed that to teach religion in disguise was not his intent: "My intent is to see to it that our textbooks are not censored."
In 1987 the Supreme Court struck down the law as unconstitutional. But Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the brightest judges on the American bench, strongly dissented; he was joined by the chief justice, William Rehnquist. Scalia's dissent aimed straight at what liberal intellectual standards are all about. And it is a mark of the egalitarian fallacy's seductiveness that the conservative Scalia and the still more conservative Rehnquist tumbled right into bed with the left-wing people who say that to insist on science is to oppress minority traditions. The question of constitutionality was central to the Court, but not to the egalitarian attack. What was central there was the background view of knowledge that informed Scalia's dissent: that the Louisiana legislature was seeking to ensure academic freedom, and that academic freedom could be advanced by requiring that evidence for all beliefs, or at least more than one, be presented. It is important to see that you could apply that argument to secular beliefs just as easily as to religious ones. If states began passing laws requiring equal time for astrology—and it's a wonder they haven't—Scalia's egalitarian view of knowledge would say they were doing the fair thing. Scalia said that the evidence for evolution was not conclusive, and that the law's supporters had presented testimony that creationism had scientific support. Therefore throwing out a state's attempt to give both sides a hearing, he said, was "illiberal." "In this case," he said, "it seems to me the Court's position is the repressive one."
That, of course, is just what the complaints from the left assert: The Western view of objective knowledge and the scientific order built upon it are both "repressive." The egalitarian line of thinking holds that since any standard for truth is biased and political, no one's standard should get special privileges, but rather all should be equal.
For instance, "The monocultural perspective of traditional American education restricts the scope of knowledge" (my italics). That is from the report by New York State's 1989 task force on minorities and education. The report continues, "It acts as a constraint on the critical thinking of African American, Asian American, Native American, and Puerto Rican/Latino youth because of its hidden assumptions of 'white supremacy' and 'white nationalism.'"
Only the particulars are left-wing. The charge itself—that "the monocultural perspective of traditional American education restricts the scope of knowledge"—could just as easily have come from the creationist right. The bill of particulars might just as easily have read, "It acts as a constraint on the critical thinking of American youth because of its hidden assumptions of 'Darwinist supremacy' and 'secular humanism.'" Either way, the argument is the same: The establishment's view of what the "facts" are and how to find them has excluded someone, and the way to ensure intellectual freedom (broaden "the scope of knowledge") is to rewrite the texts so as to let that someone in. That the left-wing and right-wing intellectual egalitarians have so far failed to make common cause is a function merely of expediency, not principle.
On its face Scalia's argument is plausible, especially since it appeals to one of Americans' most laudable principles, namely the principle of political equality. There is no doubt that the argument is impelled by decency. But in fact it is very dangerous. It cuts out, with a surgeon's precision, the heart of a peculiar and subtle distinction on which all of Western intellectual life—I do not exaggerate—depends. That distinction is as follows: To believe incorrectly is never a crime, but simply to believe is never to have knowledge.
In liberal science, there is positively no right to have one's opinions, however heartfelt, taken seriously as knowledge. Just the contrary: Liberal science is nothing other than a selection process whose mission is to test beliefs and reject the ones that fail. A liberal intellectual regime says that if you want to believe the moon is made of green cheese, fine. But if you want your belief recognized as knowledge, there are things you must do. You must run your belief through the science game for checking. And if your belief is a loser, it will not be included in the science texts. It probably won't even be taken seriously by most respectable intellectuals. In a liberal society, knowledge is the rolling critical consensus of a decentralized community of checkers. That is so not by the power of law but by the deeper power of a common liberal morality.
And who decides what the critical consensus actually is? The critical society does, arguing about itself. That is why scholars spend so much time and energy "surveying the literature" (i.e., assessing the consensus so far). Then they argue about their assessments. The process is long and arduous, but there you are. Academic freedom would be trampled instead of advanced by, say, requiring that state-financed universities put creationists on their biology faculties or give Afrocentrists rebuttal space in their journals. When a state legislature or a curriculum committee or any other political body decrees that anything in particular is, or has equal claim to be, our knowledge, it wrests control over truth from the liberal community of checkers and places it in the hands of central political authorities. And that is illiberal.
Intellectual liberalism is not intellectual majoritarianism or egalitarianism. You do not have a claim to knowledge either because 51 percent of the public agrees with you or because your "group" was historically left out; you have a claim to knowledge only to the extent that your opinion still stands up after prolonged exposure to withering public testing. Now, it is true that when we talk about knowledge being a scientific consensus we are talking about a majority of scientists. But we are not talking about a mere majority. For a theory to go into a textbook as knowledge, it does not need the unanimity of checkers' assent, but it does need far more than a bare majority's. It should be generally recognized as having stood up better than any competitor to most of the tests that various critical debunkers have tried.
Today it is possible that a majority of climatologists believe that global warming is a fact (one can't say for sure, since scientists don't vote on these things), but global warming is far from well enough established to be presented as fact in textbooks. The point extends beyond natural science. The critical consensus of historians is that many minority groups did not make much of a contribution to the writing of the Constitution. Attempts to find a role for them and install them in the textbooks may make some people feel better. But it would betray the community of critical checkers. It would also lead to factional warfare as other political groups took up the cry and demanded their share.
For various minorities, the answer is to do just what many black and feminist historians are doing, namely to propose new hypotheses about the role of, say, blacks and women in American history. But only after those hypotheses have stood up to extensive checking, only after each has convinced each, is it time to rewrite the texts.
Further, only after an idea has survived checking is it deserving of respect. Not long ago, I heard an activist say at a public meeting that her opinion deserved at least respect. The audience gave her a big round of applause. But she and they had it backwards. Respect was the most, not the least, that she could have demanded for her opinion. Except insofar as an opinion earns its stripes in the science game, it is entitled to no respect whatever. This point matters, because respectability is the coin in which liberal science rewards ideas that are duly put up for checking and pass the test. That is why it is so important that creationists and alien-watchers and radical Afrocentrists and white supremacists be granted every entitlement to speak but no entitlement to have their opinions respected.
Liberal science cannot exert discipline if it cannot drive unsupported or bogus beliefs from the agenda by marginalizing them. When you pass laws requiring equal time for somebody's excluded belief, you effectively make marginalization illegal. You say, "In our society, a belief is respectable—and will be taught and treated respectfully—if the politically powerful say it is."
Once you have said that, you face a very stark choice. You can open the textbooks only to those "oppressed" beliefs whose proponents have political pull. Or you can take the principled egalitarian position, and open the books and the schools to all sincere beliefs. If you do the former, then you have replaced science with power politics. If you do the latter, then you have no principled choice but to teach, for example, "Holocaust revisionism" as an "alternative theory" held by an "excluded minority"—which means, in practice, not teaching 20th-century history at all. Either way, you have taken in hand silly and even execrable opinions and ushered them from the fringes of debate to the very center. At a single stroke, you have disabled liberal society's mechanism for marginalizing foolish ideas, and you have sent those ideas straight to the top of the social agenda with a safe-conduct pass.
As knowledge-making regimes go, nothing is as successful or as respectful of diversity or as humane as liberal science. The trouble is that liberal science often does not look very humane. It uses sticks as well as carrots. The carrots are the respectability, frequent use, and public credit that it bestows on the opinions that it validates; the sticks are the disrespect and the silent treatment that it inflicts on the opinions that fail. Those sticks are nonviolent, true. But it is unconscionable not to acknowledge that denying respectability is a very serious matter indeed. It causes pain and outrage—outrage to which Scalia's humane impulses reached out in Edwards v. Aguillard. Here is where the door opens to the most formidable attack on liberal science—the humanitarian attack.
"Well," goes the argument, "we must, it appears, have intellectual standards. But what should our standards be? Obviously it is desirable to have standards that minimize pain. And a lot of beliefs cause pain. Racist beliefs cause pain. Anti-Semitic and sexist and homophobic beliefs cause pain. So do anti-American and anti-religious beliefs. If we're going to have a social system for weeding out beliefs, it should start by weeding out beliefs that cause pain. Intellectuals should be like doctors. They should first do no harm."
The empathetic spirit from which that line of thinking springs is admirable. But the principle to which it leads is nothing but dreadful. The right principle, and the only one consonant with liberal science, is: Cause no pain solely in order to hurt. The wrong principle, but the one that has increasingly taken the place of the right one, is: Allow no pain to be caused.
The social system does not and never can exist that allows no harm to come to anybody. Conflict of impulse and desire is an inescapable fact of human existence, and where there is conflict there will always be losers and wounds. Utopian systems premised on a world of loving harmony—communism, for instance—fail because in the attempt to obliterate conflict they obliterate freedom. The chore of a social regime is not to obliterate conflict but to manage it, so as to put it to good use while causing a minimum of hurt and abuse.
Liberal systems, although far from perfect, have at least two great advantages: They can channel conflict rather than obliterate it, and they give a certain degree of protection from centrally administered abuse. The liberal intellectual system is no exception. It causes pain to people whose views are criticized, still more to those whose views fail to check out and so are rejected. But there are two important consolations. First, no one gets to run the system to his own advantage or stay in charge for long. Whatever you can do to me, I can do to you. Those who are criticized may give as good as they get. Second, the books are never closed, and the game is never over. Sometimes rejected ideas (continental drift, for one) make sensational comebacks.
Humanitarians, though, remain unsatisfied. Their hope, which is no less appealing for being futile, is that somehow the harm can be prevented in the first place. Their worry is that the harm may emanate in two directions, one social and the other individual.
Social harm accrues to society as a whole from the spread of bad ideas; held to be especially vulnerable are minorities or groups seen as lacking power. "AIDS comes from homosexuals," "Jews fabricated the Holocaust," "blacks are less intelligent than whites"—those ideas and others like them can do real mischief.
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.
Humane motives, however, could not save the Inquisition from the same problem that faces humanitarians today: Although allowing mistakes is risky, suppressing them is much riskier, because then a "mistake" becomes whatever it is that the authorities don't like to hear. Suppressing offensiveness, too, comes at a high cost, since offensiveness is not the same thing as wrongness—often just the contrary. Sometimes patently "offensive" verbiage turns out to be telling the unpopular truth. " All the durable truths that have come into the world within historic times," said Mencken, "have been opposed as bitterly as if they were so many waves of smallpox."
The other, and much newer, strand of intellectual humanitarianism is intuitively more appealing and emotionally harder to resist. It says that wrongheaded opinions and harsh words are hurtful to individuals. And here liberal science has been put squarely on the defensive, for the first time in more than 100 years; for here you have, not the cold-blooded public censor raising bureaucratic objections on behalf of "society," but an identifiable person saying "I am hurt" and speaking for his own dignity. In today's world the second kind of claim, like all human-rights claims, seems compelling. Facing it means owning up to the truth about knowledge and about the system that best produces it.
So let us be frank, once and for all: Creating knowledge is painful, for the same reason that it can also be exhilarating. Knowledge does not come free to any of us; we have to suffer for it. We have to stand naked before the court of critical checkers and watch our most cherished beliefs come under fire. Sometimes we have to watch while our notion of evident truth gets tossed in the gutter. Sometimes we feel we are treated rudely, even viciously. As others prod and test and criticize our ideas, we feel angry, hurt, embarrassed.
We would all like to think that knowledge could be separated from hurt. We would all like to think that painful but useful and thus "legitimate" criticism is objectively distinguishable from criticism that is merely ugly and hurtful. But the fact is that even the most "scientific" criticism can be horribly hurtful, devastatingly so. The physicist Ludwig Boltzmann was so depressed by the harshness of F. W. Ostwald's and Ernst Mach's attacks on his ideas that he committed suicide.
In the pursuit of knowledge many people—probably most of us at one time or another—will be hurt, and this is a reality that no amount of wishing or regulating can ever change. It is not good to offend people, but it is necessary. A no-offense society is a no-knowledge society.
And what should we require be done to assuage the feelings of people who have been offended, to recompense them for their hurt and punish their tormentors? This and only this: absolutely nothing. Nothing at all.
The standard answer to people who say they are offended should be: "Is there any casualty other than your feelings? Are you or others being threatened with violence or vandalism? No? Then it's a shame your feelings are hurt, but that's too bad. You'll live." If one is going to enjoy the benefits of living in a liberal society without being shamelessly hypocritical, one must try to be thick-skinned.
The alternative is to reward people for being upset. And as soon as people learn they can get something if they raise Cain about being offended, they go into the business of professional offendedness. If that sounds callous, remember that the establishment of a right not to be offended would lead not to a more civil culture but to a lot of shouting matches over who was being offensive to whom, and who could claim to be more offended. All we will do that way is to shut ourselves up.
In one sense the rise of intellectual humanitarianism represents an advance of honesty: It drops the pretense that liberal science is a painless and purely mechanistic process, like doing crossword puzzles. But the conclusion that the humanitarians draw—that the hurting must be stopped—is all wrong. Impelling them toward their wrong conclusion is a dreadful error: the notion that hurtful words are a form of violence.
Offensive speech hurts, say the humanitarians. It constitutes "words that wound" (writes one law professor); it does "real harm to real people" who deserve protection and redress (writes another law professor). When a law student at Georgetown University published an article charging that the academic credentials of white and black students accepted at Georgetown were "dramatically unequal," a number of students demanded that the writer be punished. And note carefully the terms of the condemnation: "I think the article is assaultive. People were injured. I think that kind of speech is outrageous." The notion of "assaultive speech" is no rarity today. A University of Michigan law professor said: "To me, racial epithets are not speech. They are bullets."
This, finally, is where the humanitarian line leads: to the erasure of the distinction, in principle and ultimately also in practice, between discussion and bloodshed. You do not have to be a genius to see what comes after "offensive words are bullets": If you hurt me with words, I reply with bullets, and the exchange is even. Words are bullets; fair is fair.
In February 1989 fundamentalist Moslems rose up against the British writer Salman Rushdie, who had written a novel they regarded as deeply, shockingly offensive to Islam's holy truth, and to the Moslem community. As they understood it, the novel implied that Mohammed had made up the Koran, an outrageous (to them) slander against their holy book's divine origin. The novel fantasized about a whorehouse where each whore takes on the name, even the personality, of one of Mohammed's wives. It suggested that Mohammed might have bent his divine inspirations to suit his political needs or even his convenience It referred to him as "Mahound." This is what they saw.
The Ayatollah Rubollah Khomeini proclaimed it the duty of all good Moslems to kill Salman Rushdie: "It is incumbent on every Moslem to employ everything he has got, his life and his wealth, to send him to hell." Rushdie went underground. "I feel as if I have been plunged, like Alice, into the world beyond the looking glass," he wrote a year later, "where nonsense is the only available sense. And I wonder if I'll ever be able to climb back through."
The attack itself was not so very singular; fundamentalists have made a hobby of harassing the unorthodox for centuries. The surprise was that the reply from the liberal democracies was muttered and utterly incoherent. A long week of silence passed before President George Bush got around to saying, unimpressively, that the death threat was "deeply offensive."
In the end the Rushdie affair showed us graphically two things, one that we already knew and one that we did not know at all. What we already knew was that fundamentalism—and not just religious fundamentalism but any fundamentalist system for settling differences of opinion—is the enemy of free thought. More frightening was what we had not known: Western intellectuals did not have a clear answer to the challenge that Khomeini set before them.
This challenge was twofold (at least). First, it was a restatement of the creationists' challenge, the angry outsiders' cry from the heart: "Who gave you, the arrogant West, the right to make the rules? You are imperialists with your view of truth, with your insistence on the intellectual ways of secularism and of science. How dare you flout and mock our view of truth?"
The point was noted at the time. What was not so widely noted was the second dimension of Khomeini's challenge: the humanitarian dimension. This is not to say that Khomeini was a humanitarian, only that the argument that his supporters commonly made was humanitarian in principle: "You have hurt us with these evil words, these impious words, disrespectfully and needlessly written in utter disregard of Moslem sensibilities. You have caused pain and offense to many people. And this you have no right to do."
Liberals will never be able to answer these complaints honestly or consistently until we grit our teeth and admit the truth. Yes, Rushdie's words caused many people anger and pain. And that is all right. But no such honest admission was forthcoming. People often did not seem even to know what it was—free speech? science? religious liberty? nonviolence? respect for other cultures?—that they were defending. A lot of people seemed to have the impression that the Western intellectual system is a kind of anything-goes pluralism in which all ways of believing are created equal and the only rule is: "Be nice."
"Well," quite a few people said apologetically at the time of the Rushdie incident, "for Khomeini to have ordered Rushdie's death was of course bad, and he shouldn't have done that, but Rushdie certainly did write a book that was offensive to Islamic truths, and he shouldn't have done that, either." The chief rabbi of Great Britain said that the book should not have been published: "Both Mr. Rushdie and the Ayatollah have abused freedom of speech."
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.
The credo of liberal science imposes upon each of us two moral obligations: to allow everybody to err and criticize, even obnoxiously, and to submit everybody's beliefs—including our own—to public checking before claiming that they deserve to be accepted as knowledge. Today, activists and moralists are assailing both halves of the creed. They are assailing the right to err and criticize, when the error seems outrageous or the criticism seems hurtful; they are assailing the requirement for public checking, when the result is to reject someone's belief. They have a right to pursue their attack (nonviolently), but they, and we, should understand that they are enemies of science itself, and even, ultimately, of freedom of thought. And those of us who hold sacred the right to err and the duty to check need to understand that our defense of liberal science must preach not only toleration but discipline: the hard self-discipline that requires us to live with offense.
Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of National Journal. This article is excerpted from Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, a Cato Institute book to be published this month by the University of Chicago Press. By arrangement with the University of Chicago Press. Copyright © 1993 by the Cato Institute.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Truth Hurts".