Transcript: Jonathan Rauch
My conversation with the Washington journalist and author of The Constitution of Knowledge
How do we arrive at truth? My guest on the latest podcast argues that it is through reality-based communities — in government, media, the law, and science and academia — which collectively determine truth through trial and error, rules and norms, and discussion and debate. All together, he calls this system “the constitution of knowledge.”
But this system is under threat, he says, from both the right and the left. On the right, through the flooding of the public sphere with what’s called “a firehose of falsehoods.” And on the left, through cancel culture. (You can find his useful cancel culture checklist here.)
Jonathan Rauch is a journalist and author in Washington, D.C. He’s a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing writer at The Atlantic. His latest book is The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.
This is a wide-ranging conversation, covering a lot of ground. To keep email length down, I’ve included an edited and condensed transcript below. You can listen to the full interview here.
On the constitution of knowledge:
TH: Your book offers this brilliant diagnosis of the moment that we find ourselves in, and contextualizes it within history — and looks at where we go from here, how we defend truth. You define the constitution of knowledge as “liberalism’s epistemic operating system,” or “social rules, returning disagreement into knowledge.” Let’s set the stage here. How have we established truth throughout history? And how has the constitution of knowledge revolutionized that process?
JR: The constitution of knowledge is probably the single greatest social technology humanity has ever invented. So, any society, whether a small tribe or a large nation, has to come to some kind of common understanding about reality, at least for public purposes. And it turns out that’s really hard to do. People deeply disagree, and they often go to war and fight over those disagreements. We’re pretty good, as hominids, at figuring out stuff that immediately impacts our life and is quite checkable. Like, where do we find water? Where is the next tribe camped? Are they friendly? We are not as good at abstract questions. Like, what is causing the disease that is injuring or killing our children? I’m likely to come up and say, “It’s witchcraft. It’s that witch Tara Henley, burn her!” And Tara is likely to come up and say, “No, it’s that Jew Jonathan Rauch, bringing down the wrath of God. Kill him!”
Over history, we have tended to settle these disputes either through authoritarianism, which is someone is in charge and forces everyone else to come into line, or be ostracized, imprisoned or often just burned. Or, the other way to do it was civil war. Frequently you would have tribal nations break up and go to war over questions about truth. That’s how we did things for most of civilization — until about 300 years ago. A bit more than that. The same general group of people who invented modern liberal capitalism and modern liberal democracy invented the constitution of knowledge. And said, “There’s got to be a better way to do this.” And came up with one …
The idea here is that, with the constitution of knowledge, these are the rules that we use in science and journalism and law and government that determine what’s true and what’s false. And they require us to choose methods that are impersonal, that anyone can check. If I make an argument in a legal brief, it has to be something that holds up when people who disagree with me check it. Experiments have to be replicated. News articles have to be confirmed by other people. And that’s the only way you make truth. That forces us to check each other’s biases.
It’s a lot like the U.S. Constitution. And the claim of the book is that we don’t have to do this at the dinner table at Thanksgiving, God forbid. But we do have to do it in four major spheres, or essentially liberal societies cease to function.
And those are academia and science research, number one. Number two is journalism. Number three is law — where you can’t just make up facts, ask Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell. And number four is government. If government can create its own independent reality, that’s totalitarianism. Orwell taught us about that.
On the rise of emotional safetyism:
TH: In the book, you talk about the doctrine of emotional safetyism that’s driving a lot of the public discourse right now. How do you define safetyism, and why, as you write, is it inherently incompatible with free speech, intellectual diversity, and the pursuit of knowledge and social peace?
JR: Emotional safetyism is the latest incarnation of a phenomenon I’ve been writing about for 30 years, since my earlier book — brief advertisement — Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, published in 1993. There, I wrote about what I called the humanitarian threat to free inquiry. This is the notion that words can wound, that ideas can be violent. And just allowing those ideas to be expressed is a form of oppression and violence, for example, against marginalized people. Which means that free speech itself and free inquiry — and for that matter, science itself, which is about criticism, which is often hurtful — that all of these things are human rights violations. So what you have here is a deep incompatibility with the whole premise of the constitution of knowledge. Which is that that offensive, obnoxious, heretical, blasphemous, seditious view that’s out there might be right. Might be partly right. Or, might at least serve the purpose of helping the rest of us understand why we’re right. And that ideas, even wrong ideas, are never the same as violence.
And that someone like me — you know, a homosexual American, born in 1960 — really needs to understand that, and for the most part, do understand, that if someone calls me a fucking faggot, or says, you know, usually it’s going to be something more like saying homosexuality is a treatable disease, or is a disgrace in the eyes of God. That this is very, very different from being hit over the head with a two-by-four. Because I have agency in how I can interpret statements that I disagree with. I can interpret them as, “This is violence against me.” But I can also interpret them as, “This person is saying something wrong, and may have a psychiatric issue.” As [in]: Not a reflection on me. If someone hits me over the head with a two-by-four, I don’t get a lot of choice about whether my skull splits. And a lot of people have been gay-bashed.
So, it is always incorrect to equate ideas with violence. It’s really just a way of trying to control the public discourse. Emotional safetyism is the latest form of that. It basically says that if something is upsetting, I have a right not to hear it. I should be kept safe from it.
On cancel culture:
TH: Let’s talk now about cancel culture. You write about that extensively. You have this great cancel culture checklist. You’ve said that part of the point of cancel culture is to keep people guessing. I certainly saw that in the newsroom. My experience was that nobody knew exactly where the line was, so everybody steered well clear of it. This generates what you’ve called a “spiral of silence.” What is the difference between cancel culture and criticism — and why is cancel culture so much more destructive?
JR: In the constitution of knowledge, we assume everyone makes errors. That’s completely allowed. We want people to come back and try again if they make an error. Well, that hypothesis was wrong but the next one will be better. That’s how we learn.
Cancel culture does the opposite. It says, “We’re going to punish the person, not the idea.” One error, one tweet, one lame joke. In fact, you never know what it could be, because they want to keep you guessing. They want to make you neurotic, so you’re always over-policing yourself. One incident and you’re out for good. You’re fired, your career is over. You’re radioactive. You’re unforgivable.
This is about dominating the debate. This is not about criticizing the idea.
In the book, I have a cancel culture checklist. It’s seven items … Basically, the more of these seven things are going on, the more certain you can be that you’re being cancelled. One is, for example: Are they lying about what you said — or didn’t even bother to read what you said? Another is: Is it an organized campaign, that is, a mob attack, rather than just an individual? A sure sign you’re being canceled. Are they going after your friends who defend you? Secondary boycotts — that’s pure intimidation. That’s never allowable in, say, good science or journalism. So, in practice, it’s usually pretty easy to tell [the difference between criticism and cancellation].
On why free speech was integral to winning gay marriage:
TH: Nadine Strossen was on the podcast last week, as you know, and we were talking about the importance of free speech to minority rights. I want to talk now about the battle for gay marriage, which you were a pioneering activist in. What role did the constitution of knowledge play in that movement’s success?
JR: Everything! Everything … Okay, so, background: I’m a homosexual American. I was born in 1960. The world I was born into was one where you couldn’t turn on the radio on a Sunday without hearing a preacher curse homosexuals, damn us to hell, blame us for all the ills of the country. We were considered subversive. We could not work for the government, could not work for government contractors, or get security clearances. We could not serve in the military, could not get married. Could — and were — arrested, for intimate sexual relations. Could not, in many cases, even gather in gay bars; bars would lose their licenses and be raided by the police. We were considered insane. We were considered mentally ill. Gay people were given so-called treatments like shock therapy, and occasionally even lobotomies. I could go on, but you get the idea.
How do we change all that — and get to a world where I’m married to a man now for 12 years? Seven at the national level. And it’s barely even controversial.
Well, it’s not because we had a lot of money, or a lot of votes, or a lot of anything. We were a pariah class. We were deep in the closet, and underground.
It’s because in 1958, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision that no one’s ever heard of — because it was a one-sentence decision, literally; it just said, “the judgment of the lower courts is overturned” — the Supreme Court gave us our voice. It stopped the government from doing what it had been doing, which was censoring gay commentary, including a magazine that advocated same-sex marriage in the 50s. And once the government did that, it became possible for the early pioneers, people like Frank Kameny, to step forward and say, “What’s being done to us is immoral. It is unscientific. It is evil. It is wrong. It is a violation of our constitutional civil rights and the promise of America.”
I’m leaving out a lot of history, and a lot of things that happened in between. But the basic story is that the gay rights revolution was all about free speech and free thought. And it was about the constitution of knowledge.
Normal people don’t get up every morning deciding who to hate on, and focusing on, I don’t know, Jews, Blacks, or homosexuals. Some people do, but most people don’t. The reason gay people were hated is because the public believed false things about us. They thought that we were seducing children, that we were spying for foreign powers and were being blackmailed into betraying our country. They thought that we were bringing God’s judgment down on America, and spreading all kinds of diseases. On and on and on.
Well, if people believe that you’re seducing their children, bringing God’s judgment down on the country, and undermining the government, they will hate you. So we had to show them that those things were wrong. It took a while, but it wasn’t difficult because the facts were on our side …
So ignorance is the problem behind hate. And the answer to ignorance is knowledge. And the way we get knowledge is the constitution of knowledge — and never suppressing ideas just because you think they might be wrong.
On the transgender movement and gender ideology:
TH: You wrote a piece for American Purpose back in April on trans activism, arguing that the radical gender ideologues are harming the trans cause. You have this incredible paragraph, where you go through the arguments deployed against trans people and note how similar they are to ones previously deployed against gay people. Which, you note, makes you humble about getting this issue wrong. I also feel humble about getting this issue wrong. But you write that you also see a different and more disturbing historical parallel. Walk us through what that is.
JR: In the 1980s and early 90s, it started becoming clear to my generation — or at least some members of my generation — of gay and lesbian civil rights advocates that the movement had been taken over by radical leftists. Who were importing a lot of assumptions into the civil rights movement that we thought didn’t belong there. They wanted to overturn bourgeois norms and society. Stuff like religion, which they were very hostile to, and capitalism, they were hostile to. Marriage, military service. They thought both of those things were part of the problem. And starting in the early and mid 80s, as we were getting started on marriage and military service becoming our big causes, a bunch of us started pushing back. And saying, “Just because you’re gay doesn’t mean that you’re pro-choice” — just to pick an example. “We have all the same diversity of viewpoint as anywhere else in the population. And there’s nothing about equality for gay people before the law that implies that you have to overturn the norms and values of bourgeois society. In fact, we buy into those. We want to get married. We want to serve our country in the military. We want to raise kids. We want to be part of the American dream.” …
I don’t want to overstate, but doing that — raising gay voices against extremists who are operating in the name of gay rights — was very important in rescuing the movement from extremists who had captured it. And making the public understand that what we were asking for was no more and no less than America delivering on the promissory note of the Declaration of Independence.
That’s ultimately why we won marriage. People became convinced, over time, that we were not out to destroy marriage by turning it into some kind of perpetual orgy, or whatever they had in the back of their minds. That we just wanted to join the same American institutions as everyone else.
Well, we now have what looks like a similar situation in the world of trans civil rights and related issues. Now, I don’t claim to be an expert on this. But my friends in the trans community include people who are deeply alienated and disturbed by what they see as a takeover of the movement by radical gender ideologies, also called gender queer, which are importing a whole bunch of assumptions that really have very little to do with making life livable, in a good and decent and equal way, for trans people. You know, things like: You are whatever sex you say you are, regardless of biology. And no one has a right to question that, and questioning that is a form of violence. Well, that’s radical stuff. It’s, I think, empirically unsupportable. It seems quite clear that biological sex is a real thing and is independent of what people say their gender is. And though I’m not a trans person or a trans leader, I’ve come to feel that it’s important that the trans mainstream — and they’re out there, I know some of them — begin speaking up and taking back their movement.
On Trump and the “firehose of falsehoods”:
TH: Let’s talk about the right … Let’s talk about the “firehose of falsehoods” and the role that’s playing.
JR: The tactics that have come into common use, in at least United States politics, have probably never been seen before in the way that we’re seeing them. The last example that you can even think of would be the pre-Civil War period, when Southern secessionists ran a mass propaganda campaign to convince the South that they should secede because otherwise the Northerners were going to sweep down, invade their country, and force the white women to have sex with Black men. That, as you recall, did not end well.
What’s happened more recently is the adoption — by Donald Trump and his MAGA movement, and Steve Bannon, who famously said that the tactic would be to flood the zone with shit — of a Russian tactic, perfected by Russians. It’s very old. It’s called the firehose of falsehood. And that is that you spread so many lies, half-truths, exaggerations, and conspiracy theories — so fast, in such large numbers, through so many channels, that you’re not necessarily trying to persuade people of any particular falsehood. You’re just trying to persuade them that there’s no truth out there to be had. You get them so confused about what might be true, what might not be true, that they become cynical about even the possibility of truth …
This tactic is very sophisticated. It’s very powerful. It is completely antithetical to a modern, liberal democracy that’s fact-based. And now that it’s been weaponized — now that it’s out among us in politics — we have not seen the last of it.
On the defence of the constitution of knowledge:
TH: Your last chapter addresses the pushback that’s now needed, urgently, to defend the constitution of knowledge. I found that last chapter very inspiring; it shaped my thinking a lot. Where do we go from here? What needs to happen for us to get back on track?
JR: Well, here’s a suggestion. Someone who works at a mainstream news organization and begins finding that that organization is becoming intellectually monotonal — where pretty much only left-wing views are prevailing, and it’s getting harder and harder to shake that, and to get other kinds of views published and broadcast. Someone like that should make diligent efforts to stand up for viewpoint diversity, within that organization, and try to make it see that it’s going on the wrong road. That’s very important, to try to change our own institutional environments to match the constitution of knowledge, free speech, discipline and facts, diversity of viewpoint.
And then if — you see where I’m going with this — if that person, after two or more years of really trying to turn things around, determines that she can’t, then it would be great if that person has the courage to go out on her own and become a voice. She might take a financial hit for doing that, especially initially. Or, her enterprise might fail altogether.
But the beginning of pushback is, for those of us who are dissidents, who believe in the constitution of knowledge, even if we don’t necessarily always agree with the outcome. Who believe in diversity of viewpoint, even if it means hearing views we deeply object to it. It matters that we not let ourselves be demoralized and silenced, because that’s the goal of the other side ...
So when someone goes out on Subsstack and says, “You know what? I’m going to launch a tell-it-like-it-is Substack, with provocative guests, and I’m going to find an audience for that, and I won’t be silenced” — when someone like that invites me on her show, I say, “Hell yeah.” Because it’s also my job to help support that person. And that’s how we do this. It’s not just one person at a time. We need institutional changes as well; there’s a lot of things that need to happen to change universities and newsrooms and media and so on. But some of it is what you’re doing right now, and that’s why I’m here — to support you.
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