Speaking of suppression, a few words about unorthodox thought

January 02, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Staff Writer

Immeasurable amounts of human energy, intellectual and otherwise, have been spent on one of history's most persistent yet least successful endeavors: the creation of orthodoxy, of "right thinking" and its coerced enforcement.

There may be no other idea over 33 centuries as hardy as the notion that one system of acceptable belief could be defined, that one permitted way of looking at things could be maintained.

From Moses' revelation that God must not be "reviled," to today's demands for the suppression of words that do injury (the unfortunately misnamed movement for "political correctness"), the yearning for orthodoxy has continued.

That yearning, usually and predictably, translates into a call for the government to enforce the beliefs or views that are officially preferred, and to do so primarily by active eradication of deviant expression. This has not been simply censorship; it has been officially mandated thought.

Ultimately, however, there always has emerged a stronger yearning: the unquenchable thirst for freedom of thought and freedom of expression, and thus state-enforced orthodoxy always has been doomed, however often it has been tried. Orthodoxy may prevail for a time, even for a long time, but it cannot be permanent, no matter how inventive its apologists and enforcers may be.

Three new books, very different in important ways, tell the same story. They are about the centuries-old struggle to promote orthodox thinking in order to overcome blasphemy, or heresy, or bigotry, or "assaultive speech," or "pornography" -- any form of expression that is treated as unorthodox, beyond the pale.

Together, these three books demonstrate anew that the differences in this struggle, over time, are ones only of degree, not kind.

Leonard Levy's book tells the whole story with the grand sweep and the agonizing detail of many centuries of suppression of religious deviants. Everything seems to be

there, from the Book of Exodus to the last criminal conviction in America for blasphemy -- the case in Carroll County in 1968 against truck driver Irving K. West for telling a police officer: "Get your goddamn hands off me."

It is a repetitious story of the identification of one True Faith (true for its own time only, of course) and its forceful imposition on those who doubt or deny it.

Typically for Dr. Levy, a prodigious researcher, his work is exhaustive without being exhausting. Its seemingly endless chronicles of famous and obscure assaults on blasphemy and heresy are frequently relieved by his delectable, often understated sense of humor and his gift for especially colorful tale-telling.

The two other books are "post-modern" polemical studies, executed with angry, at times ferocious, theorizing coupled with emotionally recounted victim stories. The MacKinnon book is a tract by the country's leading exponent of feminist jurisprudence, a tract against explicit sexual expression in all its forms; the work was offered originally in a lecture series.

"Words That Wound" is a useful compilation mainly of previously published articles of law professors who are pioneers and exceptionally clear exponents of the new "critical race theory" legal school.

It is fair to say that one cannot understand the current debate in America over hurtful expression ("hate speech" is one form of this) without having at least some acquaintance with the work of professors Catharine MacKinnon, of the University of Michigan, and Mari Matsuda and Charles Lawrence, both of Georgetown.

It is not fair to them, and it is quite disrespectful of their scholarship (and their personal sincerity), to treat their work as simply a part of a petty campaign by social liberals to enforce "political correctness."

These are deeply serious students of expression as a human activity. They are spectacularly creative theoreticians who are working toward no less than a new legal order, one that questions all conventions and assumptions about the supposed neutrality of existing law, one that idealistically expects a total triumph over racism and sexism in the American legal culture -- if remade rightly.

In one sense, then, they must be understood in their severely contemporary milieu, their part in the present national conversation over "words that wound." Theirs is an agenda for now. It contains no intentional linkage to any orthodoxies of the past; indeed, its entire premise is a rejection of the past.

Why, then, read it along with a book about religious orthodoxy and its enforcement down through the centuries: the Levy book that looks, almost entirely, to the past?

The reason is simple: The historic parallels are unmistakable, demonstrating that the cycle of the past is simply taking another turn today. Words, some words at least, always have wounded, and that is why their elimination has been pursued aggressively -- now as always.

Consider the major lessons that one can glean from Dr. Levy's history of blasphemy:

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