Thank you very much, Chris, it really is a pleasure to be here, and I'm gratified that so many old friends, and, hopefully, new friends, have turned out to hear me on this subject.
I've written a long essay about the problem of self-censorship in public discourse. I won't endeavor to read it all, but I will occasionally refer to the text.
This paper is about political correctness. I come to write it out of an experience of participating in public discourse in American public life on very sensitive issues, especially issues around race. That's been my particular beat.
But I think that the themes and concerns that I analyze in the paper are of much broader relevance, and I'll try to demonstrate that this evening.
Political correctness is a "hot topic." A very fine book's been written on the subject by an AEI fellow, Dinesh D'Souza, documenting some of the excesses in our universities, and so on. I'm not going to cover that ground. I'm not here to tell you "war stories," what happened to me when I got up in a faculty meeting and said--I don't know, maybe affirmative action isn't such a good idea. Or when I gave a lecture on the structure of the black family since the end of the Second World War, or something like that. Those stories can be told, how I was instructed that manhours was an inappropriate label for the horizontal axis in a labor demand lecture that I was giving once, et cetera.
We can multiply those stories, ad nauseam. I want to do something a little bit different. I want, if I can, to try to get a little bit deeper. I think what we see under the rubric of political correctness and contemporary American public life is a manifestation of a more general phenomenon, more general problem in political deliberation, and I want to speculate, or theorize a bit about that.
Indeed, I could distinguish between two levels at which the argument about political correctness goes on. There's a substantive level in which people are having disputes about gay rights, about affirmative action, about the problem of sexual harassment, what the Sandinistas were doing a few years ago, or whatever.
That is, people are arguing about substantive points, and for many there's the sense that there's only one point of view that's regarded as admissible, or only one point of view that decent people can hold.
And so you hear complaints, often from conservatives, about the extent to which in some communities of discourse, particularly universities, not all points of view are heard, or people who hold unpopular points of view are treated uncivilly.
So there's discussion about the nature of primary deliberation on important public questions.
Now, of course people do disagree about these important questions. We disagree about race and gender, about how big the federal government should be, what should be the tax rates, and so on, and that disagreement reflects differences in our values and beliefs, as well as differences in the information that we bring to bear, perhaps also differences in our underlying interests that cause us to represent our positions in one way or another in order to try to manipulate public decisionmaking apparatus to our own personal gain.
By and large, it's my view that those differences in views are healthy. That it's out of the process of the exchange of ideas and argument based on such differences that the knowledge about society can grow.
But there's another level at which there's argument about political correctness, and that's the level of the--that's talk about the way in which the talking is going on. That's a sort of meta argument, an argument about what form argument can take.
I think there's some serious questions in that argument. Who really can get hurt? Who has the standing to raise a question? What about ad hominem inference, the extent to which certain kinds of public statements are precluded, or made nearly impossible for some speakers by virtue of the fact that conclusions about their character will be drawn from their very willingness to raise the question in the first place?
A leading example of that was given in a recent Bradley lecture, when Charles Murray gave you a prelude of what he and Richard Hernstein are going to say in their book that'll be published this fall on human differences in intelligence.
There is a subject that in the last thirty years is replete with examples of researchers, perfectly respectable people making objective arguments on the basis of evidence, arguments that be either refuted or verified on the basis of evidence.
Being treated quite shabbily, and in some cases really driven from the public square by virtue of the fact that the subject that they would undertake to investigate is regarded as illegitimate. And the question becomes who would ask the questions that these researchers ask. What kind of person would want to know the answer. All right.
So now I begin to talk not so much about the answer to the question, but about the form, or admissible structure in which asking and answering questions can take in the society. Well, that's what I'm after when I say, perhaps somewhat self-congratulatory fashion, that I want to put forward a deeper theory about political correctness. I'm after some insight or understanding of this structure, this meta structure of argument in public. What kind of things can and can't be said, and why, and by whom and under what circumstances, and with what consequence.
I was quite struck in a recent rereading of John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty" to find him saying something that's quite in line with my point of view, my point of departure here.
And let me just quote a bit from the early pages of "On Liberty." Mill writes this: "Society can and does execute its own mandates, and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all and things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression since though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself."
"Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough. There needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose by other means than civil penalties its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them."
And Mill is talking about the pressures of social conformity as an obstacle to free debate and discussion, and that's what I want to talk about as well.
In a nutshell, my theory of political correctness derives from an understanding about the consequences of the pressures for social conformity within particular communities of discourse, and what comes to be acceptable modes of expression. It is in the modern day parlance of economics a signaling theory.
It's a theory based on the fact that people, when they interact with each other in society, are very much interested in knowing the motives and the values of the agents with whom they interact.
They don't want to just know their ideas. They want to know what their objectives are, what their agenda is. People's motives and values cannot be observed. They can only give you testimony about them. We don't know where a speaker is coming from, when we are being addressed, particularly when we are being addressed on a subject about which we care very deeply, about which our society is deeply conflicted, on which we have come to rest powerful moral judgments.
You disagreed with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, did you? Hmm. What kind of person would do that. Why did you come to that intellectual position?
If it turns out that we go back in your past writings--let's just say, hypothetically, you're a nominee for the Supreme Court, and we go back in your past writings, and we find out that indeed you made an argument against the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Well, we're prepared to draw some judgments, many of us would be, not just in the partisan heat of a confirmation battle, but even upon reflection we're prepared to reach some conclusions about what the values and beliefs, not directly observable but perhaps reflected in this particular piece of argument or expression, of such a person might be.
I think one reason why an issue like affirmative action is so freighted with all of these taboos has to do with precisely that kind of inferential process. That process in which observers, listeners to the speaker, people concerned as to where the speaker is ultimately coming from, what their deepest values and commitments are, find signals, find informative pieces of--informative clues in the argument that individuals are prepared to make about that sensitive question.
And again, the ad hominem inference is always there. What kind of person is it who would take this particular stance?
So in this environment in which we interact with each other strategically in our public expression, in which both speakers and listeners, writers and readers, are calculating as they put forward what they're about to say, the problem that's posed by having a strong interest in the deep values of a speaker, and yet not being able to know in any verifiable way what they are, is, in a sense, analogous to the kind of problem of statistical inference that we see so much in economics.
And that's the kind of perspective, the kind of outlook that I want to bring to this analysis. I want to think about this as a matter of calculation, as a matter of sort of equilibrium interaction between parties who are not symmetrically informed. That would be the sort of jargon. I want to think about this as a situation in which a listener really has to wonder what the deep meaning of a statement from a speaker is, not just what it apparently means, but what it can be understood to mean. What its meaning, in effect, might be.
So, for example, let's suppose we talk about discussion within the Cuban community in South Florida concerning Castro, American relations with Castro.
Let's suppose that a certain member of that community thinks it worth entertaining at least, the prospect that relaxing the trade embargo with Cuba would actually be a positive boon for the development of democratic institutions on the island.
I hope you understand, in my presenting this example, that I have no brief here about Cuba. That's the reason I'm talking about that question and not some other. All right. I mean, I hope you see that the problem that I'm discussing is with us all the time, even right here in this lecture room.
That is, even though I might presume at the American Enterprise Institute, that I have a relatively sympathetic audience, I can never entirely relinquish my own strategic calculations about what motives you might impute to me from my own choices, even the choices of the examples that I use to illustrate the ideas that I'm trying to convey to you.
And as I want to be effective, I want to be heard by you, I want to get past all of the possible barriers to effective communication, I'll select an example, to start out with, that's at some distance. I have no position on the Cuban question.
But within the Cuban community, immigrant community of South Florida, the act of opening the question of whether or not Mr. Castro's government should be permitted some more friendly economic relations with the United States is not just to make an argument. It's not just some exercise. It's an expression that raises profound questions of who is the person who's saying this, and how do they relate to us? Do they share our deep commitments?
Do they have any idea, this young twenty-nine-year-old whippersnapper down here from the Harvard Business School, now talking about opening up trade relations with some abstract foreign relations argument, some theory about the interaction between markets and democracy, do they know the price that was paid by those of us of the generation who were run off that island?
So the ability to carry on a discourse within that community about this particular question might well be understood to be imputed by the meanings with which any such argument will be freighted.
Don't get me wrong now. I'm not flirting with some kind of relativism in which I will be taking the view that nothing can be known, no truth can be communicated, we can never have any sentences exchanged with each other after which we'll be confident we know what each has said to the other. Nothing quite like that.
My skepticism about whether or not literal meanings can be communicated doesn't go all the way down. This is not, you know, a bedrock philosophic skepticism. This is more of a sociological observation I'm making. Really, you can find it quite a bit, this kind of thing, in the writings of Irving Goffman the late great observer of social interaction.
I'm simply noting that in the game of public discourse--it's the game, the interaction where some of the motives are hidden, where a player can lose if he's not careful--that in that game this kind of phenomenon, this kind of reading between the lines, and writing between the lines, in Strauss's memorable term--all right, this kind of calculated framing. How will I present the idea?
All right. Well, those people agree with me, but they're not helpful. All right. Because we know what their motives are, right? A certain woman comes forward and alleges that something bad happened to her, but if she alleges it within a certain frame, within a certain context, then we have license to doubt whether or not it's true. Why? Not because we know anything about the fact, but because we presumed something about her motive.
We don't know what's true and what's not, and we don't know the motive either. We're searching for evidence for all of these things. All right. Well, everyone has to take that kind of thing into account.
In the paper, I give the example from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," you know, the scene after Caesar's murder in Act 3. Marc Anthony makes the speech. Brutus makes the speech and then Anthony makes the speech. And the point I want to make with the example is that Brutus is naive and Marcus is calculating--Marc Antony is calculating.
Brutus says Caesar was ambitious. He says it's not that I loved Caesar less, but that I love Rome more. He's straightforward. He's a good man.
The man wanted to be king; we had to kill him for the republic. That's his argument. It has the virtue of being true. It has the disadvantage of being guileless.
All right. Antony comes along and he says, the first thing he says is a lie. "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him." That's not true. He's come with the intent of fomenting civil war, and in the naivete of Brutus, and the predictable naivete of the masses, allows him to succeed.
By the end he says, Brutus, Caesar was ambitious and Brutus is an honorable man, and the words mean exactly their opposite. He's manipulated. He's been calculating.
We don't want to be manipulated in the forum. There are profound negative consequences to being manipulated. We don't want to be outfoxed, and therefore, we're on the lookout. We're deciphering. We're reading between the lines.
So, it's in that context that this problem of self-censorship arises. It's in this context of strategic calculation in the public arena. What can be said; who's saying it. And I want to stress again, that ad hominem inference, inference about the man, about the character of the speaker, is fundamental in this.
The question is what kind of person would say this to us. Now I was brought up in the high-minded tradition that ad hominem inference had no place in legitimate public debate.
I believed that for many years until I started participating in public debate myself, and found that it seemed to matter a great deal, whether or not the article was in Commentary, or it was in some place else. I couldn't figure it out.
I mean, I really, naively, I confess, didn't understand why it seemed to matter. The article was the article. It was either right, or it was wrong. I mean, refute it if it's wrong; what difference does it make?
But why would you publish there? Don't you know what those people are about?
You know, until it seemed to matter in all sorts of ways, good and bad, that I am a black person, saying things that I would say. I would get the immediate attention of my colleagues at faculty meetings at Harvard when I would open my mouth to address any question.
Somehow there was something about the man that made the fact of the observation more salient, until of course those observations began to be critical observations about certain sacred presumptions of the institution. Until I became a defender of the honor of my people, insisting that a uniform standard be applied in making appointments or admissions decisions.
Then, again, the ad hominem inference came, but this time with a sting. What kind of black would say that? He's closing the door behind him. Right? He's benefited from it and now he wants to take it away. And when I would object: But the presumption that I've benefited from it, you're dishonoring me, treat me like a human being, like an equal. And I couldn't be heard.
So it matters who's saying things. We want to know what kind of person is speaking to us. I give some examples in this paper, far away from the conflicts of our day--I'm tempted to say the petty political conflicts, because I think in some of these examples the issues are of more import--of how this kind of process, when operating within a community, can end up having a profoundly debilitating effect on the capacity for political deliberation, on the quality of public decision, on the extent to which questions really get investigated fully, and important decisions are made in a manner that's totally informed by the available information.
What I have in mind here is the following kind of problem, the problem where a consensus comes about that certain kinds of expression have meanings above and beyond what might literally be attempting to be conveyed. They stand in for something. They're symbolic.
Then we draw the conclusion that a person who's unwilling to engage in the symbolism must not believe in some cherished value of the community, and as a consequence we're prepared to ostracize, or worse, those who don't go along with the expressive convention. Right? That's my model in a nutshell.
My model is that political correctness, the current term, social conformity in public discourse, is an equilibrium, a self-reinforcing convention. It works because we expect it to work. It's a convention about the fact that expressing one's self in a certain way conveys some larger meaning.
And when we find people who willfully choose not to follow the convention, we're prepared to draw a conclusion that in effect they don't share the value which is symbolically reflected in that particular conventional form of expression.
Now, the kicker here, the thing that makes this work, is that in many circumstances it is correct to presume that people who don't share the value would be more willing to run the risk of ostracism by breaking the convention and expressing themselves in a disapproved way.
It's the fact that it really is informative about the kind of person that I'm talking with, to see whether or not they're prepared to labor over the gender pronoun, the third person singular, he or she.
I write a paper here, I use he throughout, and of course I'm, you know, playing with my reader a bit when I do that. But it's to make my point.
Then in a footnote I say: Well, of course I could have said she. Let me just tell you, I flipped a coin at the beginning and it came up heads, so I'm saying he. But you don't believe that, do you?
See, what makes this work is that everybody says he or she, or something like that. Or they have some tortured paragraph in the forward about how they've, you know, dealt with the question.
And because they do that, my not doing it is informative about me. What does it cost me to go along with the convention? Certainly very little if I indeed embrace the value that the convention is reflective of. It costs me next to nothing to say African-American. It's just a couple more syllables.
It costs me next to nothing. What kind of person labors over African-American, labors over he or she? You know, defends at great length the abuse of the language which is now upon us because of all of this politically correct expression.
Well, the only kind of person who's prepared to do that is somebody who doesn't hold the value. I put that forward as an empirical statement.
Therefore, when I see a person laboring about he or she, or African-American, whatever it might be, I can confidentially learn something about where they stand on the deeper question of women's place in society, or equality for blacks, or sensitivity to blacks, whatever it might be.
It doesn't cost you anything to be sensitive, unless of course you don't give a damn. So it works, right? As someone once said to me when I was discussing this idea: It really is helpful that the good guys wear white hats and the bad guys wear black hats. That we can tell the racists from how they speak. We invent new tests all the time, new hoops for them to jump through, and we sit back with our arms folded across our chests, at least some of us do, waiting to see if they're prepared to jump, and then draw the line.
And those who don't jump, we know where they're coming from. Well, you know, it's African-American, if it's the third person pronoun--we're not talking about anything serious.
Suppose we talk about something serious, consider the case of Philip Yeniger, a former parliamentarian in the former West Germany. The president of the parliament gives a speech, November 1988, fiftieth anniversary of Kristalnacht. He wants to talk about the pogroms against the Jews that led to the Holocaust.
He says it didn't come from nowhere. I've got extensive quotes in the paper from the Frankfurt Algemeiner Zeitung, and so forth, but let's not bother with that now.
His basic point is it didn't come from nowhere. Pardon the double negative, but I think that gets the meaning across. Hitler did not drop down from the sky. He was popular in many circles. The rearmament and reassertion of Germany in the family of nations in Central Europe, the industrialization, the slacking off of the unemployment.
Germany was back and a lot of people felt good about it. And you know what? The Jews weren't all that popular either, he says. He goes on from there. He uses words like "fascinating," which in the German have a, in reference to Hitler, a particular taboo about them. Hitler's and Germany's resurgence were fascinating to many Germans.
He quotes from the diaries of SS men who sit with their feet dangling over the pits into which are being herded victims, even as this fellow is taking a cigarette at his break. And the SS captain, giving the speech to his underlings about how tough the job is they've got to do, but someone's got to do it, and so on.
He puts it right out there in their face by way of saying, of course, this must never happen again. And the way we ensure that it doesn't happen again, if not to the Jews, then the Turks or whatever, is to look right in the face, what our history was, and to come to terms with it. That's, as I understand it, as best I can, the argument that he makes.
Well, you know, before he could read the last word of his speech, the auditorium was half empty. People were streaming out. You see, Yeniger had violated a taboo. In a curious set of developments, then a leader of the remnant Jewish community in Germany says: Well, you know, the guy, what he said was right and needed saying. And a couple of days later he's gone, too; he's resigned his position, too.
One speculates--and I don't do this without having, you know, consulted with some people who would be more knowledgeable about the German political situation than I--that the taboo, the convention about how one talks about that history--of course it was a terrible thing, but also, of course, nobody had anything to do with it.
We've got all those guys in jail, or we're still hunting for them. Right? The convention about how to talk about it--one never says the crimes of Hitler and the crimes of Stalin in the same sentence, because that's as if the crimes of Hitler could be measured against anything. Right? As if they were real crimes that could be looked at for what they were.
The convention is a platitudinous kind of moralism. It's not real moral argument, it's not really grappling with a profound evil, and its roots in one's national personhood, national identity, national personality, and then turning it over and over again as to what that has to say about contemporary events. It's genuflecting at a certain altar. That's what he was supposed to say.
We know the speech that he should have read about his support of Israel, and about the horrible crimes, and so forth and so on. He should have stuck with the formula. He would have done okay.
He wouldn't have said anything, of course, that advanced any reflection, but he would have been okay. Now, you know, there's some historians who are going to argue with me about this, I suspect. I don't know, and I don't really have a large stake in the fine points of interpretation here. But I think the example warrants investigation, even if in the end one concludes that my story is too simplistic, or not all, or maybe even not the most part of what was going on. It warrants examination because here we have the question of public deliberation at a ceremonial event on the most important, profound aspect of national history in a century, and, you know, a leader tries to lead in a public reflection about it, and he ends up having his head handed to him for it.
And it's all very mysterious. Somehow what he says promotes, or could be seen to promote, or be sympathetic, or could be seen to be sympathetic with National Socialism. The man's a liberal; everybody knows he's a liberal. His whole career testifies to that. Still, he breaks the taboo. He speaks candidly. It's not okay.
I give the example of the debate about sanctions. Maybe it's inappropriate to raise that now, what with the euphoria about the events in South Africa. But I remember the debate about sanctions.
And let me just stipulate, for the sake of argument, that the pro sanctions people might have been right. I don't know that for a fact, but let me stipulate that because that's not what I want to talk about.
Right in the cause-effect argument. If we do this, then that will happen. People said if you do this, that will happen. This was done; that has happened.
And we can't know whether it caused it, or whether it was in spite of it. Let me stipulate that the causality works in the right direction.
My point is that there was very little debate about causality. There was very little evidence adduced about what the likely mechanism would be.
At least in my precincts, when I heard this debate, when the city sprung up on the campus green, and the classes were interrupted, and the overseers or trustee meetings were set upon, the argument was rather different.
It was: We must stand on the right side of history. A certain course of action has to be taken because it has become imbued with a significance. It is a way of stating where we stand. To oppose it cannot be understood in any other way, but to want to not say that we stand in this position.
Your paper then rationalizes about, you know, what's the best management policy for the university's portfolio--you know, don't fool us. We know that the only kind of college president who wouldn't sign off on this demand is the kind who doesn't stand on the right side of history, who doesn't share our values.
You can imagine the kind of unraveling, the kind of tipping phenomenon that would happen, as first one, and then another, and then another moderate or liberal college president who had doubts about the wisdom of divesting their portfolios of certain stock give way to the student demands, making it progressively harder for those who haven't given way yet, to defend their positions. Endogenously, within the system, this particular mode of acting comes to have a certain meaning and effect.
No single person controls it, and yet, in the end, no one who wants their reputation to remain intact can resist it. It's sort of the logic of this kind of equilibrium, this kind of adverse selection. Those who haven't yet tendered we must presume are hiding something, must be the kind of people who can't see what this means.
And so these debates about sanctions, and about policy in South Africa during the 1980s, I submit, when looked at retrospectively, have this quality, whether they were on college campuses or in legislatures, city councils, or whatever.
Can we afford to be seen as not supporting a certain policy? It hasn't got anything to do with whether we believe it will work. I remember Helen Suzman coming to speak in Boston. She was invited to Boston University, which was the only place she could get a forum at that time.
Giving her case about why she thought sanctions would do more harm than good. And I remember thinking at the time, you know, John Silber's the only person who would do this, because he hasn't got anything to lose.
But then it occurred to me--but that's exactly the point. Because it's only a John Silber who will do this, it makes it impossible for Derek Bok to do it.
The meaning of the act becomes established by the fact that only certain kinds of people would be prepared to deviate from the consensus. There's no maliciousness here. There's no conspiracy, I'm arguing. But that's the way it can work out.
But what happens, though, if the decision actually has a powerful consequence for the quality of life, for the group of people who are making it? With respect to sanctions of course it did not. It might have affected those in South Africa adversely, but it meant very little to those who were engaging in the advocacy in the United States. But I mean, the examples abound.
We're in the union hall, someone yells, "Strike, strike, the bosses are crooks." Somebody else says, "But we can't afford to strike; the offer's reasonable."
And what kind of person would say that? The solidarity, the act of lashing out, of striking, gets imbued with a meaning all of its own. It's a way in which we show that we hold a certain value.
Who's prepared to be clearly defined by taking the opposition position as someone who doesn't hold that value, who holds the value in so little esteem that he's prepared to be seen as an opportunist in this regard?
Or maybe the argument is let's go to war. Let's march off. And the decision is not a calculation about might and interest, and so on, but, rather, becomes imbued with this symbolic significance of what kind of people are we, what do we believe in. Now we're at war.
And again, the act of standing against it can define someone as outside the community. A third example that I explore at some length in the paper has to do with McCarthyism, which was also, can be understood as a period of political correctness.
Now of course there were communists, there were national security questions; that's obvious. But there was also something else. There was this process where, as progressively more anti-communist civil libertarians elected to be silent, it became ever-more accurately informative of the politics of a person, that they were prepared to get exercised about the methods of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.
What kind of people were we dealing with, these quibblers? All right. These people who were quibbling about some fine detail of civil liberties. Who are they, really? Let's look; let's take a good look. What did they write in 1935, or '47? Where do they stand, these State Department eggheads who are prepared to interpret the events in China in a certain way. World historic forces at play about which we could do very little, accommodate ourselves to, and so forth.
Who are they? Well, my point is this. My point is that the capacity to have an effective discourse in which one discriminated effectively between criminal disloyalty on the one hand, and a point of view which, in retrospect, perhaps, has proven to be correct, about, let's say, the events in China, on the other, was undermined by this inferential process in which it was presumed that people prepared to speak in a certain way during those years must have some values.
We couldn't know what their values are, we don't know what they think about the purges most of the time. There's not a written record there. And even when there is, it's ambiguous.
We don't really know, but we're suspicious as hell. Why did they pick this case to fight? We get ourselves into a box. It becomes harder and harder for sensible things to be said. The methods that are being employed by the people in the march become progressively more outrageous. Nobody's saying anything.
Maybe we break out of it, but it can go on for a long time. It can go on for years and a lot of damage can be done. No, it's not all bad, but it's not all good either.
Smears. The smear. I have a technical definition for a smear in my paper. This is where there's a heightened public interest in some particular question of morality. It might be about communism, it might be about race, but we all want to know where each other stand on this question because it's palpable, it's very important, it's central to our public lives.
And therefore, figures are vulnerable if doubts can be raised about where they stand. In a certain climate, in which we're busy ferreting out the deviants, finding those who don't believe in the true belief, it becomes easy to take somebody who you disagree with because they were on the wrong side of the New Deal, and smear them.
Let's see if we can't effectively raise some doubts about where he stands on this important question. Isn't that what happened with Robert Bork? Now I'm not in the McCarthy period anymore; it's a little uncomfortable back there. Let me zip forward, talk about our own Robert Bork? But isn't that what happened?
I mean, let me, if I can find it quickly here, quote for you. I mean, you all know the thing that happened in 1987 with Bork. He was smeared, by which in the technical sense I mean, effectively in the public mind, the ad hominem question was raised about the man, doubts were established in a sufficient number of minds about where he stood on certain questions, never mind that it had nothing to do with the evidence.
Remember American Cyanamide, the case in which he sat on a three judge panel, and decided under the OSHA law that, something about women being pregnant and being exposed to certain chemicals and whatnot. That got turned into Bork warning women to be sterilized.
I've mentioned the race question and the position on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Look, there's a legitimate constitutional argument. I can afford to say that, and I'm a beneficiary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, along with affirmative action and everything else.
Nevertheless, anybody who reflects about it for a minute can see that there are questions--not that he's necessarily right, but there are questions. But the fact that he raised those questions allows you to smear him.
And so, in his memorable phraseology, Senator Kennedy says that Bork's America is a land--I quote--"in which women would be forced into back alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizen's doors in midnight raids."
These are gross distortions. But they were a part of the calculated strategy. The Advocacy Institute here in town, with which Mike Pertchuk was associated, brazenly wrote the strategy down on a piece of paper and mailed it around to people. And since I was at the Kennedy School I got to look at it.
What they said was this, and I quote from a 1987 memorandum from the Advocacy Institute. "To offset the White House's emphasis on Bork's intellectual qualifications, opponents need to imprint his nonjudicious turn of mind with such labels as close-minded, insensitive, prejudicial, injudicious, rigid, cold and indifferent, lacking empathy, flaming and inflexible, insensitive to justice, and so on.
It was a strategy. The man was smeared. A heightened environment of inquiry into the unobservable, and unverifiable beliefs of public figures makes this kind of smearing possible.
Then you layer on top of that the give and take, the to and fro of political advocacy--we want to win, we want them to lose--and the advocates can appropriate the public interest and the question of value in order to raise doubts about the validity, the virtue, the standing of the figure.
Well, okay, so I think that I may have given you at least some idea about what the sort of analytical thrust of this exercise is.
It's an effort to apply some rigorous social science to thinking about the structure, as I say, the kind of meta structure of public argument.
I mean, you know, one of the aspects of this situation is that once a climate of self-censorship has been established, a regime in which the consensus has been put forward and is commonly understood to be there, that only certain kinds of things are permissibly said.
Once that has occurred, it becomes very hard for people to break out of it through, you know, declarations of sincerity.
You know, I know it may sound offensive to you for me to say this, and you may think that by virtue of saying it I'm the kind of person who doesn't hold a certain value, but I really do hold that value and I nevertheless want to say it.
That kind of speech doesn't work. It has the person protest too much in a speech like that. We hear it all the time, the phrase: Some of my best friends are, which now is a way of saying a person of obvious insincerity is about--you know, it's used sarcastically.
You'll say, oh, yeah, like some of my best friends are. They don't really mean what they're saying. There was a time in our national life, not that long ago, I can remember when the phrase could be used straightforwardly.
One could simply say, you know, some of my best friends are Jews, but I really have doubts about this, or that. And at least have a chance of being accepted on face value. No one says it now.
That person who's saying that some of my best friends are is trying to purchase for himself some ground of exemption from the judgment about their character as they violate the taboo.
And yet, the very fact that they need to invoke the qualification shows that they know the taboo exists, and so the relentless logic that, therefore, they must be the kind who are prepared to endure the cost of violating it, which tells me that at least statistically it's more likely that they don't share the value, which if they did share, they certainly wouldn't violate the taboo.
That very logic comes back to work. So you can't, you know, this kind of naive qualification doesn't get us anywhere.
We also see the practice of the thing that Orwell was so concerned about. I quote Orwell's 1946 lecture, "Politics and the English Language" in my talk, in my paper.
This use of euphemism. This twisting of the language. This vagueness, calculated ambiguity in public speech.
One of my favorite examples is the use of the term minority in American public life, which very often means black. The speaker really means black, but the speaker's talking about something that is negative. Talking about pathology. So the speaker doesn't say black, even though he's talking about Baltimore. He says the minority community of Baltimore. What does that mean? The speaker means people who don't score well on standardized tests; people who belong to groups that don't score well on standardized tests. That's what the speaker means. See, there are plenty of disadvantaged Asians. You know? Plenty of them. And they're doing quite well in the engineering schools, in the medical schools of this country. And therefore, if we have a minority scholarship, we don't want to designate them as potential beneficiaries.
So we don't. We call it disadvantaged minority. It's not what we mean. Now, this can be benign, or it can be intended to confuse. It can be intended to forestall debate.
Who wants to tell the impoverished Vietnamese student, Sorry, this scholarship is not for you; your group does too well on the criteria by which we judge people on the merits.
Nobody wants to make that argument, and so they avoid it.
There's a lot else here, but I can see that I'm probably running a little short on time, so why don't I--is that appropriate, draw this to a close, and open this up for some questions?
Let me just talk about one other class of cases. I tried to go through, and say, What are the consequences of this kind of phenomenon that I've identified for the quality of public deliberation in a range of areas in American public life?
Clearly, on the race question we have, notwithstanding the fact that the environment has changed greatly in the last ten years, I think, some of the problems that are of the same kind, not of course of the same degree, is what I was getting at with the Yeniger example.
Namely, that there are formulaic moralisms that people invoke as a way of dealing with a question, and as a way of avoiding the hard edge and painful genuine moral reflection that would be required in order to make progress on analyzing the problem.
A classic example on the page of The Wall Street Journal op-ed page, recently, my friend Randall Kennedy's essay about blacks and crime, where he starts out making the point that you have a different penalty for the trading of crack cocaine than you do for powdered cocaine.
There are some people who want to say that that is discriminatory because blacks are more likely to trade crack cocaine, he observes; but you know, the problem is that blacks are catching hell because of the traffic in crack cocaine.
So the person who says it's a discriminatory burden on the black community has allowed a few criminals to define the interests of the black community. Darn right, it's a discriminatory burden on them; but it's also, in a discriminatory fashion, disproportionately beneficial to blacks whose lives are improved by getting the traffic in crack cocaine down when one has this differential penalty.
How did it come to be, that we defined discriminatory incidents purely in terms of the interests of the people who were engaging in the criminal activity, he asks.
That's a good question. When Shelby Steele was here a few weeks ago, he asked another good question. Why is it that after the riot, when the, I think it was Dan Rather, "smouldering with compassion" was his phrase--
It's worth repeating; it's his phrase, but it's worth repeating. When all of the guys were out there with microphones talking to these guys, did nobody say, Oh, so you're a member of a gang, are you? What's the initiation practice of your gang? Is it true that you actually have to shoot somebody in order to be a member in good standing in this gang, and if that's so--let me see--I count 5,000 members. That's quite a few people shot, quite a few more than I gather have been shot by the LAPD recently. How do you account for that?
Gang members got on Ted Koppel and nobody asked them that question. This is the same press corps that President Clinton berates for being so vicious. Can't make any sense of it.
Well, an effective moral analysis of our race problem would deal with that, and many other such questions, and would deal with it forthrightly. But of course what kind of person would make that kind of argument? What kind of person would be prepared to say that kind of thing?
The multiple audience problem I describe in the essay here. The fact that in an environment where there are many different communities that are overlapping and are participating in the discourse, the same statement can have multiple meanings, and a person has got to hedge and worry.
I might want to say something and not be understood as a black saying it, but find that to be difficult. Men have their rules about what can decently be said about women. We do. Women may doubt that, but it's true. Those rules are different than the rules that apply in mixed company.
And mind you, it's men as much as women who'd be prepared to enforce the rules, the stricter rules about what can rightly be said in mixed company. The same statement has a different meaning in mixed company than it does in a gender homogeneous audience.
The same person can say the same thing, and be understood to have, in fact, conveyed quite different meanings if the audiences are distinct.
The use of code words. Again, calculated ambiguity. I want to talk out of both sides of my mouth at the same time. I want to talk to the domestic polity and to the international community when I make this utterance.
I want to talk to my hard-core supporters, and to those who I might recruit on the margin. Of course I'm not precise in my statements. It would be lunacy for me to be precise.
That's fine when we're talking about political discourse. When we're talking about a campaign, we don't expect a campaign speech to read like a lecture. But when that kind of phenomenon begins to infect the institutions of higher education in a society, when professors' lectures start being interpreted by harassment sewers--see today's Wall Street Journal for the latest of many examples--then we're losing something.
I'm interested, finally, in closing this thing, in thinking about the different venues for deliberation, and the appropriate rules for structuring effective public discourse in these different venues.
As I've said, political campaigns are one kind of venue and university lectures are another, and presumably they form rough brackets on the extent to which, on the one hand, we would be prepared to accept, of necessity, in a kind of realistic fashion, a certain degradation of the quality of discourse because of the strategic problem, the calculating problem that I've posed.
Whereas, on the other hand, we expect the raison d'etre of the whole thing is that people are supposed to be insulated from that kind of political calculation so we can get down to the real deal.
So maybe Bill Clinton or Bill Bradley, in their speeches on race, wouldn't be expected, necessarily, to engage in no-holds barred analysis. But I'm perplexed at why it's the discussion and academic discourse is so tepid around this issue, is so vacuous, is so much of a formulaic kind of moralistic incantation, has so little real bite.
That's the tragedy. The tragedy is not, in my judgment, that there are a few crazy feminists teaching some stupid stuff in women's studies courses.
There are, but most sensible students stay away from the courses. The tragedy is that at its core our universities are progressively retreating from the responsibility and the pantheon of arenas of public discourse which only they can meet.
Which is going after the hard and difficult, and uncomfortable, insulated by tenure and all the rest--and uncomfortable questions of social and moral, and ethical analysis and reflection, that the political exigencies prevent from being explored more fully in other venues.
Now, in closing I'm tempted to--well, I will, actually, remind you of a very fine statement on these kind of questions.
Because I think these are matters of great seriousness. You know, this is not just, as I say, the Left and the Right, we've displaced the Cold War now with the culture wars, and we're going to continue to have our turf battles, or whatever.
There's something profound here. It has to do with truth, and I mean veritas. It has to do with integrity, with humaneness. We're supposed to be giving people a humane education in these institutions, and so on.
And I looked to Vaclav Havel for advice, his essay, "The Power of the Powerless," a very powerful statement, because here's a man who stood for truth, along with is compatriots throughout Central Europe, when it was unpopular, indeed, and when no rational calculation could have suggested that it was going to pay fruit.
It seemed quixotic, insane. And in "The Power of the Powerless," written a good ten years before 1989, he tries to give an account, and his argument echoed in that wonderful speech that he gave to the joint session of Congress when he was here a couple of years ago, basically is this. I won't quote at length.
There's something in the human spirit that cries out for truth. And I'll just quote a little bit here. He says: "The essential aims of life--living within the truth in his phrase--the essential aims of life are present naturally in every person. This is a spiritual argument. In everyone there is some longing for humanity's rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression of being, and a sense of transcendence over the world of existences. Yet at the same time each person is capable, to a greater or lesser degree, of coming to terms with living within the lie. Each person somehow succumbs to a profane trivialization of his, or her, inherent humanity, and to utilitarianism."
"In everyone there is some willingness to merge with the anonymous crowd and to flow comfortably along with it down the river of pseudo life. This is much more than a simple conflict between two identities. It is something far worse. It is a challenge to the very notion of identity itself."
Okay, this is Havel. Grant you now, his circumstances are quite extreme. And nevertheless, this beautiful, poetic account--I mean, listen to these words. Transcendence over the world of existences. Flow along the river of pseudo life. We don't have to succumb to utilitarianism. Economists, go home. Right? The model of conformity is rooted in utilitarianism. I make a calculation. I mustn't stand against the witch hunt because people will take me not to affirm the value, my life will be made squalid and mean; better to go along down the river of pseudo life.
I mustn't defend the honor of my people against the putatively well-intended assault of the institutions, the elite institutions of this country, who refuse to hold them up to the same standards of judgment, to dare to impute to them the same capacity of performance as they do to the meanest immigrant off a boat from some place that's not Africa. Let's live within the truth. Thank you.
Glenn Loury is a professor of economics at Boston University.