Sunday, February 21, 2010

living with offence

Kindly Inquisitors: The new attacks on free thought (1993) by Jonathan Rauch

Frances Widdowson (Offended by Offence) has recently reviewed this book on her blog. I liked her review and also the Kirkus review at amazon books. I haven't read the book. These brief notes are based on the reviews.

In our civilised democratic society (not Iran, China, etc.), the modern day equivalent of the Inquisition are the philosophies of egalitarianism and humanitarianism

ie. the principle of the Inquisition was that people with wrong or hurtful opinions ought to be punished for the good of society

egalitarianism - the beliefs of all sincere people deserve equal respect
humanitarianism - one must never offend

Taken separately and in particular when combined these outlooks undermine the pursuit of scientific truth by introducing a variety of mental and ideological barriers to free and open discussion. This is explained more in the reviews.

It is essential to learn the hard discipline of living with offence that will inevitably follow from this approach rather than fudging the quest for truth out of fear of offending others or being offended ourselves. Words might offend but as long it remains just words then we need to accept it and either argue back or move on, not try to censor it and to reject philosophies which attempt to censure open, vigorous discussion

Previous: This book reminds me of Frank Furedi's book, "Where have all the intellectuals gone?" which I did read and review
truth slips from view in the sea of post modern knowledge
how the left became conservative

1 comment:

Mark Miller said...

Yep. There's more to this inquisition dynamic than you mention. I've seen the egalitarian dynamic in action, though not in a mode of inquisition, and it's depressing. No really good ideas get disseminated. Instead, easy-to-digest, "cool" ideas get more of a reception.

However, what I see more often than not is an inquisition that's more like what the Spanish did. In some quarters there's no pretense of egalitarianism. If you express "the wrong idea", or even ask a question that suggests you're thinking "the wrong thoughts" you get extra scrutiny. And what's worse this environment exists on many university campuses.

I remember Alan Kay expressing a concern 13 years ago about a trend he was seeing, where people were unable to argue objectively (criticizing arguments as if they were outside ourselves) rather than taking them personally. This goes beyond that, in my view. It's to the point now that if you express or ponder certain ideas you're seen as a threat. This isn't universal. It varies from venue to venue. It's just sad to see, because it kills intellectual discourse and freedom.

I've not had success in inviting otherwise close-minded people to open critical discourse. I haven't "cracked that nut" yet, but I'm trying to open my mind to other ways of approaching it.