Forbidden Knowledge: There's No Such Thing as Free Inquiry, and It's a Good Thing, too

3121 Talley Student Center 12:00PM April 24, 2003

noli altum sapere, sed time (be not highminded, but fear)

Paul, Rom. 11:20

[I deplore those who, bitten by curiosity, shamefully] use the senses of the body, not for self-indulgence of a physical kind, but for the satisfaction of [their] own inquisitiveness. This futile curiosity masquerades under the name of science and learning . . . for the same reason men are lead to investigate the secrets of nature, which are irrelevant to our lives, although such knowledge is of no value to them and they wish to gain it merely for the sake of knowing.

St. Augustine, Confessions (New York: Dorset, 1986), X. 35.

Solicit not thy thoughts with matters hid: Leave them to God above, him serve and fear.

Milton, Paradise Lost

All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses: for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer sight to almost everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.

Aristotle, Met. A 980a21-27 (trans. W. D. Ross)

On the issue of child-abuse, the climate in the press, the police, and in Government in the UK at the moment is one of a witch-hunt. This may well be the natural response triggered by cases like that of my [abused] friend who committed suicide. But I believe it is rather more a reaction to the 'freedoms' that are now available to us all to enter into the reality of a world that most of us would have to admit has hitherto been kept secret. The world of which I speak is that of the abusive paedophile.

Pete Townshend, “A Different Bomb,” January 2002

Free Speech and Free Inquiry: An Analogy

I’ve found that most Americans I’ve had contact with typically react quite positively to the phrase “free speech,” believing that it connotes something so good that it is worth considerable pain and suffering to endure or defend it. (There’s even some empirical research suggesting that those who believe that inquiry should be limited don’t reason as well as those who don’t.)

But it doesn’t take much effort to temper the positive reaction by reminding them that speech, in either a narrow or broad sense of that term, is not and should not be wholly free. In a narrow sense of the term, “speech” must consist in words, but in a broader sense, it covers any of a wide variety of expressive acts, including ones during which no words are uttered. In what follows, I’ll use “speech” in a broader sense to mean: expressive acts.

Most people will readily agree that defamatory speech is wrong, and that it’s a good thing that it’s legally actionable. Commercial speech is regulated by, for example, truth in advertising rules, and that’s usually taken to be a good thing. And speech can of course constitute intellectual property deserving of the protection of some sort of copyright law; we are not free to make any use we wish of someone else’s property. Speech can also inflict serious harm, as anti-harassment laws recognize, and if the harm is serious enough, the speaker has committed a crime.

In his well-known essay, “There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing, Too,” Stanley Fish reminds his readers of all these entirely appropriate constraints on speech. He observes that by taking as ideal the kind of “weightless” speech often found in academic seminars, where the speech may have nothing more than the expression of an opinion as its purpose, one begins with a badly distorted view of what speech is. This makes it too easy to forget that speech is always constrained in some way and that the debate ought to focus on how and why it ought to be constrained.

A controversial and dramatic example of how speech in the narrower sense may lead to murderous action is detailed in the case of a book, Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors published in 1983 by Paladin Press, which sold over 13,000 copies, one of them a reader who put the words into action and murdered three people.

Rice v Paladin Enterprises (11/10/1997)

Rodney A. Smolla, Deliberate Intent: A Lawyer Tells the True Story of Murder by the Book Crown Pub (July 1999)

“The Movie: The true story of a violent triple homicide that stunned a community in Maryland. After reading a book called HIT MAN, an amateur sets out to kill in ways described by the book's author. Family attorney Howard Siegel (Ron Rifkin) and law scholar Rod Smolla (Timothy Hutton) go about proving that the killings were incited by the book and try their best to bring its author, as well as the killer, to justice. An intriguing, complex courtroom drama about First Amendment rights that is certain to provoke discussion.”

One of the best reasons for thinking that free speech is a good thing is that it promotes free inquiry. In the broad sense of “speech” that I have been using, speech can even be inquiry. And it is just as clear that inquiry normally is and ought to be constrained as it is that speech is and ought to be constrained – for reasons that are often quite similar. In addition, since questions that define inquiry always have presuppositions, posing questions and seeking answers can imply an endorsement of those presuppositions.

In his book Forbidden Knowledge, Roger Shattuck devotes his longest chapter to arguing that the work of the Marquis de Sade qualifies as material that might reasonably be forbidden. In doing so, he is following a long tradition of writers who find sexual knowledge to be particularly dangerous.

Doubtless this is what underlies some of the reluctance to inquire into the nature of children’s sexuality and the harmfulness of children engaging in any sort of sexual activity.

[In 1886] Krafft-Ebbing (Psychopathia Sexualis) focused on what he understood to be ‘degenerate perversity’ and even offered a warning that his book ‘be read only by the sexually mature and psychologically balanced.’ … [In their book Forensic Management of Sexual Offenders] Prentky and Burgess wisely presume that we have made progress during the last 100 years. They avoid the use of euphemisms and are refreshingly unconcerned that their material might have any negative impact on readers. Rather, they take care to provide as much detail as possible. … The authors are willing to highlight that which is not yet knows, thus pointing the way to future research. Consequently, they identify the need of funding for an area that has historically been both obfuscated and ignored.

- Margaret Morrison, Archives of Sexual Behavior v31 n6 (December 2002) 550

[In Understanding Child Molesters the author] Leberg’s objective is to provide the reader with insight into the techniques that child molesters use in order to escape detection before, during, and after sexually assaulting a child. Leberg does this very well. At the outset, Leberg states that the book as being ‘primarily written for non professionals and as a primer for professionals who are new to the field.’ … Chapter 2 cuts directly to the heart of the issue, that is, the manner in which offenders initiate a systematic campaign of identification of a potential victim, isolating the victim from her social supports (parents and siblings), and preparing the victim to be sexually assaulted.

- Chirstopher Earls, Archives of Sexual Behavior v31 n6 (December 2002) 551-2

On analogy with Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors, imagine three books:

Chicken Hawk: A “How To” Manual for Predatory Pedophiles (NAMBLA Press, 2015)

Cognitive Neuroscience of The Predatory Pedophile (The MIT Press, 2015)

Secrets of Survivors: Protecting Your Child from the Predatory Pedophile (United Youth Security, LLC, 2015)

And suppose that each contains the same information about the practices of predatory pedophiles, albeit presented in different ways and with additional information suited to the intended audiences. Would any one of these be more of less objectionable than the others? If so, why? Is not the road to Hell also paved with good intentions?

Douglas W. Pryor, Unspeakable Acts: Why Men Sexually Abuse Children (NYU Press, 1996).

Marjorie Heins, Not In Front Of The Children: "Indecency," Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth (Hill and Wang 2001)

Judith Levine, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex (University of Minnesota Press, 2002)

Rind, B., Tromovitch, Ph. & Bauserman, R., “A Meta-Analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples,” Psychological Bulletin 1998, Vol 124, No 1, pp 22-53.

Science and Politics: Weathering the Storm Around Unpopular Results

Free Speech and Free Inquiry: A Disanalogy

It seems however that there is a significant disanalogy between free speech and free inquiry. While it may appear that speech could be forbidden only because of its consequences, many hold that some sorts of knowledge should be forbidden apart from the consequences of its possession.

The notion of speech forbidden apart from its consequences seems to many to reflect magical thinking and is historically most closely allied with religious proscriptions against, for example, uttering the name of a deity.

How can knowledge be dangerous?

So it seems that the examples of dangerous knowledge that come most readily to mind involve knowledge the possession of which is to varying degrees likely to have bad consequences. This includes knowledge of methods for obtaining information, where the methods themselves are morally objectionable.

In the best introduction to the general topic, Nicholas Rescher argues that

There are various things we simply ought not to know. If we did not have to live our lives amidst a fog of uncertainty about a whole range of matters that are actually of fundamental interest and importance to us, it would no longer be a human mode of existence that we would live. Instead, we would become a being of another sort, perhaps angelic, perhaps machine-like, but certainly not human.

But Rescher asks another philosophically interesting question:

Could there be knowledge the mere possession of which is in itself – that is, apart from any consequences - so dangerous as to be forbidden?

He answers in the negative:

… there seems to be no knowledge whose possession is morally inappropriate per se. Here inappropriateness lies only in the mode of acquisition or in the prospect of misuse. With information, possession in and of itself – independent of the matter of its acquisition and utilization – cannot involve moral impropriety.

[“Forbidden Knowledge: Moral Limits of Scientific Research,” Forbidden Knowledge and Other Essays on the Philosophy of Cognition, D. Reidel, 1987, 9]

Rescher’s view, though highly plausible, would not, it may seem, have been accepted by the great early 20th C philosopher G. E. Moore. I say “it seems” here not because I wish to appear appropriately humble while actually believing that anyone who dissents from my opinion ought to have his or her PhD revoked, but because Moore never addressed this issue directly and his consideration of related issues was both deep and somewhat obscure. Fortunately, he died in 1958, and he’s not here to defend himself, so I can say pretty much what I want.

In a now widely ignored chapter of his famous early work on ethics, Principia Ethica, - a chapter entitled “The Ideal” – Moore gives an account of beauty. His briefest statement of his account is this:

'It appears probable that the beautiful should be defined as that of which the admiring contemplation is good in itself.' ( Principia Ethica, 249)

There are many plausible interpretations of this remark, even given the surrounding text, but for present purposes, I interpret this as follows:

(B) X is beautiful =def. For any mind, M, which is (i) at least human and (ii) normal (and hence fallible) and which (iii) contemplated X admiringly, then the possible situation, M’s admiringly contemplating that X exists would be good in itself (or, intrinsically good, and hence in Moore’s terms good apart from its consequences)

The reason for stating this in the subjunctive is to allow for possible non-actual objects of contemplation – unrealized potentialities that, say, an artist might want to realize.

Moore does not wish to deny that the admiring contemplation of beautiful things lacks good consequences; on the contrary, he takes note of this. Rather he asserts that the good consequences of such admiration are not the defining reasons for the thing’s being beautiful: it is not beautiful because it’s admiring contemplation has these consequences.

It might be feasible to drop the qualifications, “at least human” and “normal” if we wanted a more restrictive notion of beauty, but the textual evidence suggests that Moore is not after this, and it does not seem more useful for present purposes to adopt a more restrictive definition.

Analogously, we may define

(U) X is ugly =def. For any mind, M, which is (i) at least human and (ii) normal and which (iii) contemplated X admiringly, then the possible situation, M’s admiringly contemplating that X exists would be bad in itself (or, intrinsically bad, and hence in Moore’s terms bad apart from its consequences)

Since knowledge entails belief (as well as truth), and belief entails contemplation, it then follows from these entailments and the latter definition that:

(UK) Necessarily, for any X, X is ugly, if and only if for any normal (fallible) and at least human mind, M, the situation, M knows that X exists and M admires X would be bad in itself (or, intrinsically bad, and hence in Moore’s terms bad apart from its consequences).

Principle (UK) yields a notion of ugly knowledge, knowledge that would be intrinsically bad, or bad in itself.

(Rescher and Moore may not after all disagree about knowledge, if Rescher’s use of “acquisition” and “utilization” include consequences internal to the mind of the knower. This doesn’t seem to be Rescher’s intent, but it’s hard to tell.)

Does the Moorean notion of ugliness have any real application? Assuming that a normal, human mind can have “ugly thoughts” – assuming, that is, that having such thoughts does not entail that the mind is not normal – then it appears that the notion does have real application in cases that we have already considered. For example, the admiring knowledge of a predatory pedophile about his own sexual torture of innocent infants just for fun seems to be ugly in the sense defined. Similarly, admiring knowledge of this pedophile’s acts by someone else – say a consumer of child pornography – would also seem to be ugly.

Of course, without the essential component of admiration, there’s no beauty or ugliness. And thinking ugly thoughts can have good consequences that are collectively good enough to override the intrinsic badness, so that the overall value of the situation, including the consequential or extrinsic value, is good. So why do so many people object to even the disapproving knowledge of pedophile’s acts?

Sometimes they are concerned mainly with the consequences of having such knowledge on vulnerable minds – usually, the very young and/or traumatized individual who would be harmed even by thinking about such situations. Or they may fear that such knowledge will render vulnerable the previously strong, as if repeated exposure could desensitize the mind by tempering the disgust felt initially at the implicated violation of norms. That sort of fear should be expected if the objector accepts some doctrine about the essential weakness of human nature – perhaps a doctrine of original sin. (Aside: In societies, such as Japan’s, where the doctrine of original sin is less influential than in the US, there is a difference in attitudes towards ugly thoughts and this is reflected in differences in the ways that obscenity laws function in the two societies.)

But this does not seem to explain all of the objections to having such knowledge. Some of the objectors speak instead as if even non-admiring knowledge entailed some sort of positive attitude towards what is known. Putting aside the consequentialist concerns about psychological harm already adumbrated, how could such objections be justified?

I confess that I have not been able to think of a good argument that would justify such objections. Maybe that’s because my thinking isn’t so good, and I invite others to try. If however I’ve not found good arguments because there aren’t any, then we are reduced to canvassing bad arguments to explain what must be confused objections. Here’s one such conjecture among many possible explanations.

One way in which knowledge differs from belief is that knowledge entails truth. Suppose that X would be an enormously bad situation if it were to occur. If someone knows that X occurs, then the intrinsic value of knowledge, which we may assume to be greater than that of mere belief as well as positive, can be swamped by X’s disvalue, yielding a whole that is very bad overall. If the claim,

“knowing that X really did occur if it did is better than not knowing”

(sometimes colloquially shortened to, “it’s good to know that X really did occur”)

were confused with the claim that

“knowing that X really did occur” is (intrinsically or overall) good

then the objections could be explained, but not well-justified.

Notes from additional sources

Deborah Johnson offers a somewhat different perspective on forbidden knowledge. She considers “the idea that possession of certain types of knowledge would violate a transcendental principle--the essence of a human mode of existence. If we came to possess this knowledge, it is not just that this would have an effect on our lives; it would change the very nature of our being.”

… it is important to distinguish between two similar types of reasons often given for constraining science. The first type of reason claims that a line of inquiry in science will have what I will call a transformative effect on humanity. Such arguments parallel the biblical story insofar as they suggest that knowledge of a certain kind will fundamentally and irrevocably change humans or the world in which we live, by violating and/or changing a transcendental essence or purpose. Transformative reasons suggest foundational and all-encompassing change. On the other hand, some accounts argue against seeking a certain kind of knowledge on grounds simply that the knowledge will have an undesirable effect. I call these consequentialist reasons for forbidding knowledge. They point to knowledge being dangerous, but not dangerous to our transcendental essence, only dangerous to our situation or way of life.

If we are not certain about the essence of being human (or any other transcendental essence), how can we know whether a type of knowledge will be progressive or retrogressive? We can never be sure whether possession of a form of knowledge will be disastrous for humanity or the next step in human progress. … Predicting the effects of a certain type of knowledge is fraught with difficulty, especially when we don't yet have the knowledge; hence, while we may want to base our decisions on what knowledge to seek on something more than just unknown but possible consequences, the more that is needed--a transcendental purpose, essence, meaning--is not available, at least not with certainty and not with any consensus among humans.

In a consequentialist framework, the question of forbidden knowledge becomes this: are any of the possible effects of knowledge likely to be so dangerous as to justify forbidding the knowledge? And, do the possible positive effects of a certain kind of knowledge outweigh the possible negative effects?

Any type of scientific knowledge could be the subject of an account as long as the knowledge is forbidden to all humans. An account must have human beings as the forbidders, and must show why human beings should forbid knowledge to human beings. In this respect, the question of forbidden knowledge is a moral, social, and political issue. Finally, two types of reasons might be given for forbidding knowledge--transformative reasons and consequentialist, though these are not the only possible reasons that might be given. Indeed, the most crucial insight of the preceding analysis is that, without the authority of God (or some comparable transcendental Being), the forbidden knowledge question becomes a social, moral, and political issue, and this opens the door to many more possible accounts. While this insight may seem obvious to some, it is far from obvious to many scientists who do not believe that science is a social activity, let alone a political or moral activity.

Rehmann-Sutter, Christoph:

To be able to formulate a prohibition, someone has already to know what is to be forbidden, i.e., the knowledge has in some sense to be anticipated. We cannot forbid a type of knowledge without having a quite precise idea of what the contents of that knowledge would be. This would need to be at least precise enough to enable us to specify why that knowledge would have such and such undesirable effects. This is possible in some cases but not in all. The knowledge of how to animate recombined corpses can be described, but the theory of relativity and its consequences could not have been anticipated.


Rescher, Nicholas. “Forbidden Knowledge: Moral Limits of Scientific Research.” Forbidden Knowledge And Other Essays On The Philosophy Of Cognition. (Reidel, Dordrecht, 1987) 1-16.

Philip Kitcher, "An Argument about Free Inquiry", Noûs, 31, 1997, 279-306.

Philip Kitcher. Science, Truth, and Democracy. (Oxford University Press, 2001).

Goldim, Jose Roberto, Rompendo os limites entre ciencia e etica Episteme . 2000 January June; 10: 31 37

The possibility that the establishment of limits for science may be justified by ethics is a very current issue. Such a reflection leads to three different representations of scientific knowledge: forbidden knowledge, limitless knowledge, and dangerous knowledge. Research ethics committees may be an important forum for the discussion regarding the ethical and methodological adequacy of scientific projects.

Johnson, Deborah G Reframing the Question of Forbidden Knowledge for Modern Science Science and Engineering Ethics. 1999 October; 5(4): 445 461

In this paper I use the concept of forbidden knowledge to explore questions about putting limits on science. Science has generally been understood to seek and produce objective truth, and this understanding of science has grounded its claim to freedom of inquiry. What happens to decision making about science when this claim to objective, disinterested truth is rejected? There are two changes that must be made to update the idea of forbidden knowledge for modern science. The first is to shift from presuming that decisions to constrain or even forbid knowledge can be made from a position of omniscience (perfect knowledge) to recognizing that such decisions made by human beings are made from a position of limited or partial knowledge. The second is to reject the idea that knowledge is objective and disinterested and accept that knowledge (even scientific knowledge) is interested. (edited)

Allen, Barry, Forbidding Knowledge Monist . 1996; 79(2): 294 310

The ethics of knowledge are considered from an evolutionary and historical perspective. What makes knowledge good, what makes it desirable and worth cultivating, is its enhancement of the reliability with which we operate in an artificial environment. Modernization replaced the medieval economy of "forbidden knowledge" with demystification, rationalization, and enlightenment. It also destroyed an historical ethic of knowledge, replacing the authority of the individual with something more "rational." Responsibility for knowledge falls to institutions and bureaucracies. Ever since then we have had to live with the tension between disciplinary authority and the conditions under which the competence of knowledge flourishes.

Clune, Alan C, Biomedical Testing on Nonhuman Animals: An attempt at a "Rapprochement" between "Utilitarianism" and Theories of Inherent Value Monist . 1996; 79(2): 230 246

Almost all public policy proposals for pragmatic solution to the ethical issue over animal testing have been utilitarian. This is because the only alternative seems to be to adopt an inherent value framework along the lines of Tom Regan's view. But since Regan's view calls for complete elimination of animal based research, inherent value views are effectively ignored in pragmatic debates. The article maintains that there is no good reason for ignoring inherent value views; first, because inherent value views are prima facie plausible and recent developments in cognitive ethology render them more deeply plausible; and secondly, because inherent value views "are" compatible with fruitful biomedical animal testing. This article argues for a guideline, the "Autonomy Governed Utility Principle" or "AGUP," which would encourage fruitful biomedical testing on animals without violating inherent value. Under AGUP, some biomedical knowledge may be forbidden on ethical grounds.

Johnson, Deborah G, Forbidden Knowledge and Science as Professional Activity Monist . 1996; 79(2): 197 217

Reasons often given to justify forbidding knowledge are examined. Transformative reasons appeal to a metaphysical principle; consequentialist reasons appeal to effects on the integrity of the physical world or on ideas. Such reasons point to the "power" of knowledge; yet, those who defend freedom of inquiry often equate science with knowledge and think of it as passive. They conclude that uses of science may be constrained, but not science itself. Science is active, and, as such, in the domain of the social, moral, and political. Science is, then, examined "as a profession".

Tranoy, Knut Erik Ethical Problems of Scientific Research: An Action Theoretic Approach Monist . 1996; 79(2): 183 196

The aim is to show that scientific research is essentially three deliberate, systematic, and socially organized types of human action which must necessarily be regarded as morally responsible actions. The three types of action are: a) the search for knowledge; b) the acquisition of knowledge through the more specific acts of accepting, rejecting, and no less important withholding judgment about propositions found by a); and c) the use/application of knowledge resulting from a) and b). Traditional philosophy of science focuses on the product whereas the action theoretic approach analyses the process of research, thus preparing the ground for a detailed discussion of questions relating to types and cases of "forbidden knowledge" and the freedom of intellectual inquiry.

Veatch, Robert M; Spicer, Carol Mason, "Against Paternalism in the Patient Physician Relationship" in Principles of Health Care Ethics, Gillon, Raanan (ed) Wiley and Sons : New York, 1994

The origins of paternalism in the patient physician relation are traced to the Hippocratic Oath with its roots in a mystery cult that viewed knowledge as esoteric and dangerous for lay people. Only in the 1970s was physician paternalism challenged in a serious manner. These challenges are traced to social changes making paternalism more difficult and less appropriate and moral changes in ethical theory. Consequentialist reasoning has been more open to the harms of paternalism and nonconsequentialist theory has emphasized rights and duties that challenge paternalism. The article closes with an examination of possible cases of justifiable paternalism.

Gardenfors, Peter, Is There Anything We Should Not Want to Know? In Logic, Methodology and Philosophy of Science, VIII. Elsevier Science : New York, 1989

The question in focus is: Could there be scientific knowledge, the possession of which would be inimical to ourselves or our welfare? Knowledge can be dangerous because it leads to technology that can be misused or because it is counter ideological and threatens the established society. It is argued that for neither type there is no scientific knowledge that we should not have. As regards the first type it is not the scientific knowledge in itself that is dangerous, but the dangers depend on the knowledge being used for certain abominable applications. The conclusions are supported by an Aristotelian view on the goals of science.

Ball, Terence “Dangerous Knowledge?” Inquiry . 1980; 23: 377 395

Some sociological theories yield self subverting or 'dangerous' knowledge. The functionalist theory of social deviance provides a case in point. The theory, first formulated by durkheim, maintains that ostensibly anti social deviants perform a number of socially indispensable functions. But what would happen if everyone knew this? They would cease to regard deviants as malefactors and would indeed come to esteem them as public benefactors. In that case, however, deviants could no longer perform their proper function. If they are to play the part assigned to them by the theory, most people must remain unaware of the 'true' role in the drama of social life. This gives rise to the "paradox of dangerous knowledge": the theory can be true only if its truths are not widely known; widespread ignorance is the precondition of its truth. But then, if its truths "must not" be publicly known, the theory is a piece of esoterica, not of science. I conclude by considering, and rejecting, several possible solutions to the 'dangerous knowledge' paradox.

Smith, David H, Scientific knowledge and forbidden truths: are there things we should not know? Hastings Center Report. 1978; 8: 30 35

Knowledge may be immoral because of (1) the uses to which it is put, (2) the methods through which it is obtained, or (3) its impact on the minds and character of others. Knowledge, immoral because of its use, may be a problem, but it is a practically and theoretically uninteresting one. It is obvious that some methods of acquiring knowledge are immoral; the essay focuses on the consent requirement and privacy. If the way we know the world is constitutive of selfhood, the effect of knowledge on character may be of special importance. These concerns provide a justification for self regulation in the dissemination of knowledge, not for censorship.

Currie, H Macl Aeschylus, Prometheus And "Forbidden Knowledge": A Meditation. Apeiron . 1966; 1: 1 3

Delbanco, Andrew The risk of freedom. New York Review of Books, 09/25/97, Vol. 44 Issue 14, p4

Abstract: Reviews the book `Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus

to Pornography,' by Roger Shattuck.     

Kermode, Frank, “Prometheus Unzipped: Review of Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography by Roger Shattuck (St. Martin's Press, 369 pp., $26.95)” New Republic, 00286583, 11/04/96, Vol. 215, Issue 19

Lightman, Alan, “In God's Place.” New York Times Magazine, 09/19/99, Vol. 149 Issue 51650, p94,

Abstract: Discusses how scientific discoveries by Isaac Newton changed the way people thought about God. How Western culture had ingrained the idea that some areas of knowledge were inaccessible or forbidden to humans; New way of thinking which resulted in religious freedom; Science versus religion on the origin of mankind.  

Mounteney, J, “Dangerous Knowledge Drug Agency Dilemmas Around Clients Who Sell Sex” Drugs Education Prevention And Policy N7 V2 Issue 1 (1995) 41-50

Shapiro, T Rudnytsky,P, Spitz,EH “Freud and Forbidden Knowledge” International Journal of Psychoanalysis V75 N5-6 (December 1994) 1277-1278

Persinger, MA “Criterion Validity For Rotton Paralogic Test Beliefs Of Forbidden Knowledge May Negatively Affect Inferential Problem Solving” Perceptual And Motor Skills V74 Issue 1 (February 1992) 296-298.

Abstract: The hypothesis was tested that belief in restricted or exclusionary knowledge interferes with strong inferential processing. Scores on Rotton's Paralogic Test, multiple choice examinations (mutually interactive items), and the belief clusters from the Personal Philosophy Inventory were factor analyzed for 55 part time university men and women. Subjects who endorsed more items concerning forbidden knowledge (i.e., there are some things that Science should not investigate) displayed poorer logical and inferential performance (25% explained variance). These results suggest that such beliefs may limit cognitive exploration of certain conceptual domains.

[The following authored by, Sat, 11 Jul 98 18:40:43 PDT, originally sent to the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom List <>,with a few edits from the author]

"Grim Peril For Minors"

Let me describe a few stories arguably as bad or worse (and without question more accessible) than the one Michelle Yezerski [of the Citizens for the Protection of Children <>] referred to in an earlier post [to the American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom listserve on 26 June 1998; this story was also referred to by Chris Williams in his letter to Brock Meeks <>. I dare not elaborate too much lest I overly shock your sensibilities or encourage the irresponsible misuse of this information.

            One of the worst stories involves cannibalism. As if it's not bad enough that a child molester wearing an odd outfit lures a young boy and girl with candy and cookies (a virtual training manual for pedophiles) and then threatens to cook and eat them, this story also gives explicit instructions to children on how to murder someone using an oven. Young impressionable children who read this material may be inspired to kill their parents this way the next time they're angry with them. Only someone with an extremely twisted mind would deliberately expose children to this kind of child torture filth.

            Another story involves bestiality between a young girl and a small hairless animal. It is well known that dangerous Salmonella bacteria can easily be spread by this kind of oral sex act, and there is also some suspicion that viral warts can be also be caught this way as well. It has recently been discovered that these animals harbor a deadly chytrid fungus (Science 281[5373]:23, 3 July 1998). If minors start imitating this sexual behavior in large numbers, we could have a major public health problem on our hands.

            Yet another story involves a predator who drugs a beautiful young girl into an unconscious state for a long period of time, while seven short misshapen men gather around her defenseless young body and have the opportunity to do who knows what to her day and night. Those of us with the time to worry about this sort of thing can just imagine what evil lustful thoughts must be running through their perverted little minds. (I may be conflating two different stories here a lot of this filth contains similar elements so forgive me if my memories of this horror are a bit confused.) The story continues in the familiar pornographic rape myth plot line, with a handsome stud, who comes along later, taking advantage of the girl's helplessness, whereupon the victim wakes up and falls in love with her abuser. She feels compelled to marry him, ostensibly for the most superficial of reasons. It's difficult to believe the final statement in the story that the marriage survived "happily ever after".

            Unlike most pornography to be found on the internet, which is in either image or text format but rarely both, these stories are in the form of illustrated text, giving the synergistic impact of a multimedia presentation. With their limited critical thinking skills, children have difficulty separating fantasy from reality, and are especially vulnerable to persuasion from more than one sensory channel at once. (italics added)

            The shocking truth is that these stories can be accessed all over the country, even in the children's section of public libraries and in elementary school libraries. Not on internet terminals but right there on the lower bookshelves where young hands can reach! Most amazing of all is that these tales of horror fantasy were written over a hundred years ago. Righteous crusaders for moral standards from Anthony Comstock to Donna Rice Hughes have somehow been unsuccessful in shielding minors from their evil influence all this time. I read them when I was a child and you can see how demented I turned out. Look at the steep rise in the percentage of the population in psychotherapy since these stories were written!

            That addiction to this kind of horror follows the well know pattern of escalation is proven by the fact that the only films in history to have double digit sequels are horror films. Reading fairy tales is without doubt the gateway that gets minors started along this dreadful path.

            No wonder the world has been descending steadily to hell in a handbasket ever since the Victorian era. peril for minors

Steven Cannon

“I am a Ph.D. candidate in plant biology and bioinformatics at the University of Minnesota. I study patterns of plant genome and gene family evolution …”

So, addressing my own concern that I seem to be suggesting that I found the highest shock quotient among students from the local culture, consider this exchange between me and my former student, Prashant Bhat, who has returned to his home in Bangalore, India. Prashant writes to me still and fondly, and he also continues to subscribe to The New Yorker at costly overseas rates. Prashant’s and my corresponúdence over several years has been so close and caring that he now addresses me as “Moth,” paying homage to the willing role of surrogate mother I play in his life. Prashant comes from a devout and intelligent high Brahmin Hindu family. He has strong roots in India, and he has been around as well, having completed his bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture at Utah State University, and his master’s degree in the same discipline from the University of Pennsylvania. He then spent time in France as an intern in landscape design in Paris. Prashant has traveled more in his young life than I ever will, and has seen extremes of wealth and poverty that I only read of; as a reader in contemporary literature, though, he is a beginner. He is, then, at once cosmopolitan and provincial, and so am I.

            Recently Prashant wrote to me by e mail regarding Akhil Sharma’s story “Prosperity,” as it appeared in the June 2000 Fiction issue. “I read Akhil Sharma’s story in awe and shock,” he informed me, “and so in reading the story I have learned how these awful thingshappen—but to what good end? It’s a fine line, I say, that distinguishes art from degradation. My vision has to blur at these extremes.”

            The story in question was, indeed, shocking, as Sharma skillfully chronicles the central character’s descent into incest. “I am wondering,” Prashant continues,

            what ails Akhil Sharma [to cause him to] write such a story? Has he been exposed to such cruelties in life? If so, is it really a story that could be called creative or a work of art? Is Sharma, no matter how skilled his writing, making a manual for future pedophiles?

            I hope my questioning doesn’t rub you the wrong way, Moth. My inquiry is in serious pursuit of knowing the difference between art and smut. I’m not challenging you—how could I?—or even challenging The New Yorker’s taste. I’m just trying to learn, and I don’t want to hurt or offend you in the process. So if my words are strong and my views strike you as narrow, excuse me, dilute me, and educate me.”

            This earnest and honest inquiry I took as a solemn responsibility. My considered reply I knew would not be entirely convincing, but I hoped I could write something that would at least send him back to the story with a little different perspective. “Dearest Prashant,” I wrote,

            You ask questions that require considerable thought and self probing, so if I’ve seemed slow to answer them, it is because I regard them as questions that I cannot answer lightly or glibly. I’m just now working my way toward a response to your questions about the Akhil Sharma story, and, by extension, consideration of what liberty literature should allow. I would vigorously argue against classing this story as pornographic. Pornography has no goal but to titillate—the means are of little concern when it’s the end (sexual stimulation) that is patently the only goal. So the pornographer doesn’t mind buying into the formulaic—lewd scenes by the number—graceless; a tedium of sex, patently concocted. Characters’ motives matter little and are examined scarcely at all. Nuance, style, and structure do not well serve vulgarity. Originality will advance neither lewdness nor lust. A pornographer writes to the most philistine of expectations. Readers seeking only sexual arousal look for and receive nothing more than crass succession of erotic scenes.

            Presumably readers of The New Yorker are not in quest of that crass erotic succession; presumably the readership is not unfamiliar with some of the literary controversies over sexuality as it appears in print. Many great works of literature have been accused, by inexperienced readers and even non readers, of being obscene—James Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, or closer to home for you, Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which many out for blood, willing fatwa agents had actually never read, or if they had, read with no sense of irony, nuance, and humor. After all—think of how that book begins, cast in fantasy and parable from the first:

            Just before dawn one winter’s morning, New Year’s Day or thereabouts, two real, full grown, living men fell from a great height, twenty nine thousand and two feet, towards the English Channel, without benefit of parachutes or wings, out of a clear sky. …‘I tell you, you must die, I tell you, I tell you,’ and thusly and so beneath a moon of alabaster until a loud cry crossed the night, and so the two, Gibreel and Saladin, fall, one, betimes, tipping his bowler hat in a courtly fashion, or “swimming in air” or “spread eagling himself against …the almost dawn…in a grey suit with all the jacket buttons done up,” holding forth, pontificating, until both fall, unharmed, “splat,” into the English Channel.

            Here is the impossible, fantastic setting for reputed sex and sacrilege, and Rushdie, for his satire will live forever more with a price on his head, even though the fatwa has been officially withdrawn. Censors care not one whit about “redeeming” quality; they, instead, confuse the sensual with the pornographic, and irony with sacrilege. Fanatics have no sense of humor, and they honor no “truth” but their own.

             Back to Sharma, I observe how he works with skill to develop, slowly and patiently, a character and his fall from grace. A prominent American poet, Robert Dana, once told me that in every work of literary worth, something has to happen. Well, consider how Sharma charts the course of evil. Larry [my husband], as he read the story to me, early on interrupted his reading to say, “I don’t like this guy.” Larry was alert to the narrator’s self justifying qualities long before I was. Patiently Sharma chronicles the endless rationalization that justifies, in an abuser’s mind, the terrible acts. In his story something (awful) does happen in horrible progression. Characters change. We see, step by pernicious step, how self justification and self absorption builds; I can imagine no reader, who reads with even a modicum of sensitivity, could find this despicable self justification something to emulate, or would identify sympathetically with this vile abuser, and not with the violated child. And yet, there’s no accounting for taste, as they say. Three letters of response, selected, I suppose, as representative by The New Yorker, made it into The Mail section in issues of weeks subsequent to the summer fiction issue, and each one of the letters has a different take. Add your response and then mine, and we have a fraction of the mixes of responses that must exist among readers.

            You cite the letter that suggests that the story provides “a manual for future pedophiles,” while I turn to a subsequent letter from a woman who had been sexually abused as a child, speaking against the letter with which you side: “…I applaud Sharma’s ability to convey, to those who cannot understand how these things happen, exactly how they do happen. His work is not ‘a how to manual for pedophiles’; it is a gift of literature, a confirmation that the victim is not to blame.” This letter brings to mind an essay I once read by William Kennedy, author of a book called “Ironweed” that is about a once successful man who ends up utterly down and out—a homeless street person, in fact. In his essay Kennedy remembers reading and rereading the dark works of William Faulkner—“The Sound and the Fury,” “Sanctuary,” “Light in August,” “Wild Palms,” “Absalom, Absalom!”—tales of incest and whoring and rape and madness and murder; of racial strife and idiocy. Then Kennedy recalls a line from Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech in which the famous author talked of the writer’s “privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart,” and Kennedy wonders to himself after all that steeping in Faulkner’s books, “This is uplift?” But Kennedy remained drawn to Faulkner’s characters, captivated by the course of their lives. He began, he said, to understand the process by which writers reach into another person’s heart.

            Then Kennedy tells of two letters he received from one of the readers of “Ironweed.” The man had hinted, in one of his two letters of appreciation to Kennedy, that he himself had been reduced to living on the street. He was, though, at the time of his writing, living with his sister, doing odd jobs for her and trying to stay out of trouble. He told of how his sister had detested drunks—to the extent that when she saw a panhandler on the street, she would pass over to the other side. Then her brother had urged her to read “Ironweed,” and she had been deeply moved by the story of the downward slide of the main character, Francis Phelan—from baseball hero to street bum. At the end of the book (one of the saddest endings in all of literature, I think) the sister found herself crying and saying to her brother of Phelan, “He wasn’t such a bad guy.”

            And the coda to that story is that the sister now no longer crosses the street to avoid winos, but rather tries to help them. And at Christmas, the man writes, she passes out to them, one and all, half pints of muscatel.

            You know something of my experience with my own sister, Prashant. But do you know the English expression, “There, but for the grace of God, go I”? Though you may not have heard that particular placement of words expressing a humble life stance, I know enough about Hindu philosophy to realize that the quotation is in deep accord with what you are taught to believe.

            Am I suggesting, you must be wondering, that we come to sympathize and identify with the narrator, child abuser in Sharma’s story? No—but we may come to see how self-deceit and rationalization and gradualism allow a person to move from civility into wickedness. What was impossible to believe, we now find credible—we begin to see how these things happen. Uplift!—not exactly, but inherently and tacitly moral—a cautionary tale.

            I’m ashamed to admit that my letter to Prashant went on, beyond all of this didacticism and holding forth, persuading him of nothing, perhaps, except that I care deeply about him and about the issue—enough to spend a good deal of time, energy, and thought in my reply—even while I believed and tried to teach what Yeats warned: “Only that which does not teach, which does not cry out, which does not persuade, which does not condescend, which does not explain, is irresistible.” In all of this holding forth, I am the one to find clarification. Prashant and other students have pushed me to understand issues more deeply—not just matters of sex and censorship, but myriad issues that challenge us all if we are inclined toward thought.

"There is no such thing as free speech": an interview with Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish discusses his book

There's no such thing as free speech ... and it's a good thing, too (OUP, 1994)

with Peter Lowe & Annemarie Jonson

© all rights reserved

Q :       Professor Fish, what do you mean when you say that there is no such thing as free speech?

A :        Many discussions of free speech, especially by those whom I would call free speech ideologues, begin by assuming as normative the situation in which speech is offered for its own sake, just for the sake of expression. The idea is that free expression, the ability to open up your mouth and deliver an opinion in a seminar like atmosphere, is the typical situation and any constraint on free expression is therefore a deviation from that typical or normative situation. I begin by saying that this is empirically false, that the prototypical academic situation in which you utter sentences only to solicit sentences in return with no thought of actions being taken, is in fact anomalous. It is something that occurs only in the academy and for a very small number of people.

Therefore, a theory of free speech which takes such weightless situations as being the centre of the subject seems to me to go wrong from the first. I begin from the opposite direction. I believe the situation of constraint is the normative one and that the distinctions which are to be made are between differing situations of constraint; rather than a distinction between constraint on the one hand and a condition of no constraint on the other. Another way to put this is to say that, except in a seminar like situation, when one speaks to another person, it is usually for an instrumental purpose: you are trying to get someone to do something, you are trying to urge an idea and, down the road, a course of action. These are the reasons for which speech exists and it is in that sense that I say that there is no such thing as "free speech", that is, speech that has as its rationale nothing more than its own production.

Q :       In your work you have stated that free speech must be understood against a background of the originary exclusion which gives it meaning. What are the conditions giving rise to this originary exclusion?

A :        Before I got into the First Amendment or free speech business I was for many years and still am a teacher of English Renaissance poetry and prose, especially that of John Milton. Milton's contribution to the history of the discussion of free speech and censorship is of course the Areopagitica, published in 1643, a vigorous and eloquent protest against a licencing law passed by the parliament.

Much of the Areopagitica is a celebration of toleration in matters of expression, for reasons that have now become more familiar to us: the more information the better able are we to choose wisely; the more information the better are we able to exercise our intellects so that they become more refined and perceptive. Another part of Milton's argument is that when something is suppressed it does not go away. It just takes on a romantic underground life and flourishes rather than being brought to the light of day where it might be refuted. All of these are today familiar arguments and components of free speech rhetoric.

There is one part, however, of Milton's Areopagitica that is rarely noticed in such discussions and when noticed is noticed with some embarrassment. About three quarters of the way through the tract Milton says, "Now you understand of course", and the tone in his prose suggests that he assumes that most of his readers have always understood this, "that when I speak of toleration and free expression I don't mean Catholics. Them we extirpate".1 Milton's admirers, especially those who have linked him to John Stuart Mill as one of the cornerstones of the free speech tradition, have difficulty with this passage and attempt to explain it away by saying that Milton, because of the limitation of his own historical period, was not able to see what we are able to see. The idea is that our conception of free speech is more capacious, more truly free, than this because we do not have an exclusion up our sleeves, ready to be sprung.

But the difference between Milton and us is a difference in what we would exclude from the zone of "free speech", not a difference between exclusion and inclusion. When Milton names Catholic discourse as the exception to his toleration he does so because in his view Catholic speech is subversive of everything speech, in general, is supposed to do keep the conversation going, continue the search for Truth. In short, if speech is really to be free in the sense that he desires, Catholics cannot be allowed freely to produce it. This might seem paradoxical, but in fact it is Milton's recognition of a general condition: free speech is what's left over when you have determined which forms of speech cannot be permitted to flourish. The "free speech zone" emerges against the background of what has been excluded. Everyone begins by assuming what shouldn't be said; otherwise there would be no point to saying anything.

Another example: one of the foremost proponents of free speech in this country is Nat Hentoff, a journalist well known for his jazz criticism and who has also taken up the cause of free speech no matter how disreputable or offensive the speech in question. But about two years ago he recanted, when he drew the line at campuses allowing certain forms of anti-Semitic speech to flourish. Disciples of a certain Muslim group came to campuses and began to talk about "bagel eating vermin who had escaped from caves in the middle ages and were now, as then, infecting the world". Hentoff said this has gone too far. My point is that everyone has such a trigger point, which is either acknowledged at the beginning or emerges in a moment of crisis.

There is no one who believes that everything should be said. Most of us today would not say, "Well, of course, you understand I don't mean toleration of Catholics". But we would say things like, "I don't mean toleration of neo nazis" or "I don't mean toleration of discourses advocating child molestation". There is no one in the history of the world who has ever been in favour of free speech.

Q :       You have also referred to speech being only intelligible against a background of what isn't being said, the background of what already has been silenced. What is the silence you're talking about?

A :        The silence has to do with the shape of any discourse. As Hobbes brilliantly points out again and again in his Leviathan, thought of a sequential and rational kind can only proceed when some set of stipulated definitions has been put at the beginning and established. Unless you have definitions of your topic, of your subject, demarcations of the field that you are about to explore, you cannot proceed because you have no direction. Hobbes also points out that such stipulative definitions are necessarily exclusionary. They exclude other possibilities, other possible ways of defining the field from which you might then have proceeded; since speech and reasoning can only occur when something is already in place and since the something that is already in place will be in place of something else that could have been in place, that something else which isn't there is the silent background against which the discourse resounds.

Q :       You have written that speech is never a value in and of itself but is always produced within the precincts of some assumed conception of the good to which it must yield in the event of conflict. Could you elaborate on this notion?

A :        That's a wordy way of simply saying that when you talk you're talking in the service of something. In any normal situation you speak for a reason: to inform, to command, to acquiesce, to ask a question, to further an agenda, to close an agenda down. Another way to put this is to say that speech and communication are the signs of our distance from the condition we would most like to inhabit.

In paradise or in heaven (I speak here only through report and not direct experience), discursive speech is unnecessary because everyone is already in the place he or she would desire to be, allied in a perfect and an indistinguishable way with the good. Therefore there is no reason to say anything to anyone; because again the only reason to say something to someone else is to advance both of you in the direction you desire. But in heaven, everyone is at the place of optimal desire so it is imagined in great literature like Milton's Paradise Lost not as a scene of communication, but as a scene of celebration. Heaven's inhabitants express themselves as a chorus all of whose members sing the same song, and sound a note that is repetitive, ritual and ceremonial in short a long endless amen or hallelujah. It is only in Heaven that speech is free and spontaneous, because it doesn't mean anything; it doesn't have to mean anything. In this vale of tears, speech means, has a purpose and when we feel this purpose threatened by some of speech's forms, we will always curtail it.

Q:        Australia does not have such a principle of free expression such as the First Amendment enshrined in its Constitution. In what sense is it necessary or desirable for speech to be protected under a Constitution?

A :        There is an important sense in which speech requires constitutional protection. Discussions of the First Amendment are often discussions about the history of the First Amendment: the reasons for which it was first instituted. One position, championed in the last thirty years by Judge Robert Bork who was famously denied a position on the Supreme Court, is that the original intention of the framers of the First Amendment was to protect political speech and therefore to prevent the government from silencing its own critics. It is Bork's view that the protection of political speech should mark the limits of First Amendment protection and therefore First Amendment protection should not be extended to slander, pornography, vituperation, and other socially undesirable forms of expression. I agree with Judge Bork. It seems to me that the First Amendment's protection of political speech is critical in a society which does not want its government to perpetuate by a number of illegitimate means the silencing of its critics.

This view of the First Amendment, a view that thought of the scope of its protection rather narrowly, was pretty much the standard view until the 1950s and 1960s. It is only since that time that a view of free speech protection which I would call libertarian has arisen and more or less won the field. By libertarian I mean a view of the First Amendment which privileges and values expression in and of itself independently of any real world consequence the speech might have.

Before the '50s and '60s there were a number of balancing tests that were at the heart of First Amendment jurisprudence; the rights of individuals to free expression were recognized but they were balanced against other rights and values. And so you had a series of formulae put forward by the courts designed to instruct you in how to balance various interests. One famous formula, put forward by Oliver Wendell Holmes in a series of cases in the beginning of the twentieth century, was the test of 'clear and present danger', which meant that expression was to be allowed in the service of robust and wide open debate in a democratic society up to the point where it seemed that the effect of that expression might constitute a danger to the very democratic process that was allowing it. Not surprisingly, both sides were dissatisfied with this formula. One side feared that with a 'clear and present danger test' in force some might be tempted to see the clear and present danger so early on that it amounted to censorship, others feared that a clear and present danger test if adhered to might lead to recognizing the danger only when it had materialized and it was too late to do anything about it.

Whichever side of this particular debate you might be on I think my point holds there was a sense of balancing the rights of individuals to freely deliver their opinions against the desires and needs of the society and the community. Since the '50s and '60s that second pole has dropped out and more and more you get a First Amendment rhetoric of individual liberty which has the effect of producing a roster of First Amendment heroes, who gain that status by uttering the vilest statements that can be imagined in situations designed to cause harm, embarrassment, and psychological damage to others. These persons are then put forward as representing the best instincts of the American experiment.

In this particular version of the First Amendment you get points (a) for being as vile as possible, and (b) for championing the rights of those you consider vile. This is a view associated in this country with the American Civil Liberties Union, an organisation whose project is to go out and find things it hates and then grow them.

Q :       But isn't it the case that, sometimes, the best principles which underpin many social justice and equity issues are raised for consideration and debate only when the worst cases are involved?

A :        I don't believe in such things as principles, if by that word you mean abstract rules which will apply to any number of fact situations while not being attached to any of them. Whenever such a "principle" is formulated it seems to me to have only two possible shapes: either it's perfectly empty because it is formulated at so high a level of generality "be ye perfect" that nothing or everything follows from it; or it is full of an agenda that has not yet announced itself and so is not a principle in the claimed sense at all. Nevertheless, the rhetorical weight of so called principles is considerable. If you can get the right "principles" on your side, if you can announce your own program and wrap it literally in the flag of the right high sounding phrases, you can have a great advantage over your opponents. That is why, even though I am always arguing against the coherence of most First Amendment arguments and doctrines, I never urge people to stop using First Amendment formulas because they have so much resonance. Freedom of speech, individual rights, the establishment of autonomy, the freedom from governmental restraint these are magic phrases. The trick is to take those magic phrases and fill them in with the content that will then generate the outcome that you desire.

Q :       You have written that free speech is a conceptual impossibility as the condition of speech being free in the first place is unrealizable. Why is this so?

A :        The condition of speech being free is not only unrealizable, it is also undesirable. It would be a condition in which speech was offered for no reason whatsoever. Once speech is offered for a reason it is necessarily, if only silently, negating all of the other reasons for which one might have spoken. Therefore the only condition in which free speech would be realizable is if the speech didn't mean anything. Free speech is speech that doesn't mean anything.

Once meaning, assertion, predication get into the act the condition of freedom has already been lost and, as I would say, well lost because you want speech to mean something; you don't want to live in a world where people's utterances are weightless neither commit to anything, nor illuminate or challenge you in any way. The impossibility of free speech is one of the happy facts of our condition and not a fact to be lamented. There's no such thing as free speech and it's a good thing too.

Q :       How do you assess the contribution of Critical Race Theory2 to the discourse grounding First Amendment rhetoric?

A :        I think Critical Race Theorists are in a difficult position once they accept First Amendment rhetoric and look for a moral high ground from the vantage point of which racist speakers will either be shown the error of their ways or universally condemned. Insofar as critical race theorists buy into liberalism's valorization of rational discourse, they will think that their job is to show that racist speech is irrational and therefore is in some sense not speech at all. But this is to mistake both the nature of the enemy and the strategy for defeating him.

Those who utter racist speech (as we call it) would not accept that designation. The people that we think of as racist do not wake up in the morning and say to themselves "Today I'm going to go out and spew racist speech". What they say (and it's exactly what we say) is, "Today I am going to go out and tell the truth." Once you realise that racists don't think of themselves as racists but as tellers of the truth, then you realise that hate speech or racist speech as we designate it is not an anomaly, is not a cognitive mistake, is not a correctable error, is not something that can be diagnosed and therefore cured, but is in fact the rationality and truth telling of a vision we happen to despise.

The correct response to a vision or a morality that you despise is not to try and cure it or to make its adherents sit down and read John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, that's not going to do the job. The only way to fight hate speech or racist speech is to recognize it as the speech of your enemy and what you do in response to the speech of your enemy is not prescribe a medication for it but attempt to stamp it out. So long as Critical Race Theory and others fall into the liberal universalist assumption of regarding hate speech as some kind of anomaly which could be recognized as such by everyone, they're going to lose the game. They will win the game only if they really try to win it, rather than falling in with Justice Brandeis' pronouncement that "Sunshine is the best disinfectant".

This bromide flies in the face of all recorded history which tells us that forms of speech, once they get into circulation, do not wither away in the light of day; rather they attract the attention of some hearers, and begin to circulate in a more effective way. I know that this is heresy in the liberal discourse to which we all are, in some sense, committed. But it seems to me that I must agree with the American politician and journalist, Pat Buchanan, who once said, "If you can pollute the physical environment, you can pollute the cultural and mental environment".

This is an abridged version of an interview with Stanley Fish by Peter Lowe & Annemarie Jonson originally published in UTS Review.

Thanks to Stephen Muecke and Peter Lowe for their help and co operation.

Stanley Fish is Professor of English in Arts and Science and Professor of Law at Duke University, North Carolina. He is a leading cultural and literary theorist, and his books include Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies (Duke UP, 1990) and Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change (Clarendon Press, 1996).


1. John Milton, Prose Writings (London: Dent Dutton, 1974), 182.

2. For an examination of the relationship of Critical Race Theory to the First Amendment see Mari J Matsuda, Charles R Lawrence III, Richard Delgado and Kimberlè Williams Crenshaw (eds), Words that Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultative Speech, and the First Amendment (Boulder: Westview, 1993).

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