Offended by Offence

The kindly inquisitors

I have just had the pleasure of reading Jonathan Rauch’s Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (  Although the book was published in 1993, all of its arguments continue to have relevance today. 

In the book, Rauch outlines three threats to free thought – what he calls “fundamentalism”, “egalitarianism” and “humanitarianism”.  While the threat of fundamentalism – those who are convinced that they know the truth, and therefore do not need to listen to criticisms and opposing points of view – has been extensively documented, the impact of what he calls “egalitarianism” and “humanitarianism” is not well understood. 

According to Rauch, “egalitarianism” appeals to the ideal of fairness and has two principles – one simple and the other radical.  In the case of the former, it is maintained that “all sincere persons’ beliefs have equal claims to respect”, while the latter is modified so that it is “the beliefs of persons in historically oppressed classes or groups [that should] get special consideration” (p. 6).  Egalitarianism essentially denies the validity of the scientific method for improving our understanding of the natural world, and it maintains that oppressed groups, because their views have been historically excluded from the academy, should have their “perspectives” incorporated into the educational system.

Humanitarianism, on the other hand, is a “challenge from compassion”.  It argues that words, as well as physical harm, can be “violent”, and therefore no one should cause offence.  Humanitarianism is the driving force behind the howls of outrage that greet any person who dares to question the assumptions informing gender feminism, multiculturalism and “queer theory”.  One should not criticize the claims of historically oppressed minorities, it is argued, because this would lower their self-esteem, resulting in further marginalization and oppression.

Egalitarianism and humanitarianism are related, in that the eqalitarian idea that all beliefs deserve equal respect cuts the legs out from under the argument that sometimes it is necessary to offend to be able to pursue the truth.  The egalitarian assumption that there is no truth, only “equally valid” truths, justifies the assertion that it must be hatred of “the Other” that drives criticisms of cultural relativism.

It is these two ideas – egalitarianism and humanitarianism – that shape a great deal of public discourse today, including many university courses.  Particularly informative is Rauch’s discussion of the argument, common in various “advocacy studies” programs, that “only-minorities-can-understand” their circumstances.  As Rauch points out, this argument is “denying the very possibility of …science, whose premise is that knowledge is available to everyone and comes through public inquiry and criticism, not from the color of your skin or your ethnic heritage or your social class” (p. 146).  He goes on to point out that it does not make sense to claim that there are racially-based perspectives since “within any racial or ethnic group that you care to define, perspectives are much more different than alike.  Knowing a man’s color or descent tells you nothing whatever about his ‘perspective’; nor does it make him a bit more or less credible as a player in the game of science.  No personal authority is allowed – nor any racial authority”.

With this statement, Rauch is able to clarify how egalitarianism and humanitarianism are undermining science, and to encourage 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 excempt 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” (pp. 158-9).

One thought on “The kindly inquisitors

  1. Thanks for the Rauch text. Will use it, and your blog, with James Rachels'”The Challenge of Cultural Relativism” in philosophy course I teach.

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