Summary of "In Defense of Prejudice."
In his article "In Defense of Prejudice" Jonathan Rauch claims that in it's attempt to protect minorities from "hate speech" society is restricting intellectual liberty and suggests that an approach allowing freedom of expression and debate of hateful notions will ultimately lead to a more acceptant society.
To foster respect for his suggestion rather than dismissing it as the rubbish of an ivory tower idealist it is important to understand the authors background. Jonathan Rauch is a gay, Jewish author, journalist and activist, born 1960 in Phoenix, Arizona. After graduating from Yale University, Rauch worked at the Winston-Salem Journal in North Carolina, for the National Journal magazine, and finally as a freelance writer.
A critic of U.S. government public policy in general, and specifically in its relation to homosexuals, Rauch has pursued gay-related topics as an openly gay author since 1991, and is an avid proponent of same-sex marriage. 1
The author, being Jewish and gay has obviously been subject to prejudice in the past, which makes his article all the more powerful. It is not coming from the lips of a disaffected person on the top of the social hierarchy, it is written by the very type of person that hate crime laws are meant to protect.
Rauch begins by claiming that prejudice is an unavoidable facet of humanity, that "Homo sapiens is a tribal species for whom "us versus them" comes naturally and must be continually pushed back." This xenophobic nature he claims is responsible for minorities being targeted, as what is incomprehensible is naturally feared, he feels that this nature is an intrinsic element of humanity, "for as thickheaded and wayward an animal as us, the realistic question is how to make the best of prejudice, not how to eradicate it."
So how to make the best of prejudice? Rauch suggests that to censure prejudice only strengthens it, and speaks out against those "crusaders for sweetness and light" whom he labels as "purists." He claims that in the purists attempt to eradicate hurtful words from common use they have lent a kind of "shamanistic" power to them, as though the words them selves could now cause physical damage, in her speech accepting the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature the author Toni Morrison said "Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence." He cites an example of the use of the word "nigger" in Mark Twain's Novel Huckleberry Finn, in the past the mere use of the word would never have made the book into a "hate novel" but now the boundaries are less clear.
In their good-willed attempt to protect the purists have become totalitarian in nature, like the Catholic church in its attempt to destroy heretics and the McCarthyites trying to destroy communism the purists have gone too far says Rauch. The language used by the purists takes on a frighteningly familiar tone, "We are not safe when these violent words are among us," writes Mari Matsuda, a former UCLA law professor. In this view it is not only for comfort and equality that prejudice must be destroyed, it is for the very safety of the people. It lends a whole new sense of urgency to the purists cause. If one in the public eye allows an offensive blurb to slip then they must be instantly silenced, Rauch cites multiple examples of university professors losing their jobs or being coerced into taking counseling for statements ranging from unintentional to mildly offensive.
The attempt to eradicate prejudice is impossible claims Rauch. He quotes Charles Lawrence saying: "Racism is ubiquitous. We are all racists." Which he extrapolates to mean that at some point in our lives we all experience prejudice or racist thoughts. Prejudice is not a "mental disease" claims Rauch, he considers it entirely natural, it is the violent or aggressive action based upon prejudice that is wrong. Furthermore how does one eliminate prejudice? Is it by outlawing all language that can be conceived as hateful? The vocabulary of the racist is unending says Rauch, if they aren't allowed to say "kike" then they will say "Hebe", "Jew-boy", and if those are outlawed then eventually words as harmless as oven and lampshade will be used.
But if there is not attempt to censure "hate speech" then won't racism run rampant? Wont minorities be badgered and abused? Rauch doesn't think so, he upholds "intellectual pluralism" with which we "kill our mistakes, rather then each other." Rauch believes that if racists are allowed to publicly express their beliefs rather than stew over them in private they will be subject to public scrutiny and will be forced to defend their beliefs intellectually. He claims that only in intellectual pluralism is dissension allowed, and though the dissident may be wrong, at least they are freely allowed to express their ideas. In his words "bigotry and brilliance are empowered in the same stroke." He equates this ideal to the scientific method where all theories are tested, scrutinized, and ultimately proven or disproven. Though the system it self is as unbiased as anything, the scientists them selves that use the system are just as biased as everyone else in society.
In the scientific method, good ideas are sifted out and bad ones disappear. Just as in society, Rauch claims, if racism is allowed freedom of expression, then the racists become the social dissidents of their own accord, rather than being forced into silence by the purists, his hope is that such a system will ultimately lead to equality and tolerance, without the need for intellectual totalitarianism.
1 Biography obtained from Wikipedia entry Jonathan_Rauch on 09/02/2007.