Magazine article Insight on the News

Culture Reformers Must Either Put Up or Shut Up

Magazine article Insight on the News

Culture Reformers Must Either Put Up or Shut Up

Article excerpt

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from a speech given by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on Feb. 13 at the American Enterprise Institute's annual dinner.

When I first arrived [in Washington] in 1979, I thought that there would be great debates about principles and policies in this city. For some reason that now eludes me, I expected citizens to feel passionately about what was happening in our country, to candidly and passionately debate the policies that had been implemented and suggest new ones. I was disabused of this heretical notion in December 1980, when I was unwittingly candid with a young Washington Post reporter. He fairly and thoroughly displayed my naive openness in his op-ed about our discussion, in which I had raised what I thought were legitimate objections to a number of sacred policies -- such as affirmative action, welfare and school busing -- that I felt were not well-serving their intended beneficiaries. In my innocence, I was shocked at the public reaction. I had never been called such names in my entire life.

Why were these policies beyond question? What or who placed them off-limits? Would it not be useful for those who felt strongly about these matters, and who wanted to solve the same problems, to have a point of view and to be heard? Sadly, in most forums of public dialogue in this country, the answer is no.

It became clear in rather short order that on very difficult issues, such as race, there was no real debate or honest discussion. Those who raised questions that suggested doubt about popular policies were subjected to intimidation. Debate was not permitted. Orthodoxy was enforced. When whites questioned the conventional wisdom on these issues, it was considered bad form; when blacks did so, it was treason.

These "rules of orthodoxy" still apply. You had better not engage in serious debate or discussion unless you are willing to endure attacks that range from mere hostile bluster to libel. Often the temptation is to retreat to complaining about the unfairness of it all. But this is a plaintive admission of defeat. It is a unilateral withdrawal from the field of combat.

Today, no one can honestly claim surprise at the venomous attacks against those who take positions that are contrary to the canon laid down by those who claim to shape opinions. Such attacks have been standard fare for some time. Complaining about this obvious state of affairs does not elevate one's moral standing. And it is hardly a substitute for the courage that we badly need.

If you trim your sails, you appease those who lack the honesty and decency to disagree on the merits but prefer to engage in personal attacks. A good argument diluted to avoid criticism is not nearly as good as the undiluted argument, because we best arrive at truth through a process of honest and vigorous debate. Arguments should not sneak around in disguise, as if dissent were somehow sinister. One should not be cowed by criticism.

It is sometimes thought that we must all have some great insight into life and the intellect of the great philosophers. Obviously, it is quite important that we have people of ideas and intellect.

But as much as great works of genius are necessary, they are insufficient. This is particularly so when the responses are not of the intellect. It does no good to argue ideas with those who will respond as brutes. Works of genius have often been smashed and burned, and geniuses have sometimes been treated no better.

But there is much wisdom that requires no genius. It takes no education and no great intellect to know that it is best for children to be raised in two-parent families. Yet those who dare say this are often accused of trying to impose their values on others. This condemnation does not rest on some great body of counterevidence; it is purely and simply an in-your-face response. It is, in short, intimidation. For brutes, the most effective tactic is to intimidate an opponent into the silence of self-censorship. …

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