Do Ideas Matter?

By Mike Dorf

Some years ago, Ronald Dworkin reported in the New York Review of Books that he was surprised when he was permitted, on a trip to China, to speak freely about such matters as human rights.  He was gently told by one of the students in attendance that the CCP did not expend resources controlling the speech of intellectuals, because the Party regarded it as essentially harmless.  Intellectuals do not foment mass movements that threaten the stability of the regime.  So long as Dworkin was speaking in a university lecture hall, he could speak freely.

A similar sentiment was expressed on behalf of the censors of the old South African apartheid regime, as reported in Sunday's New York Times.  According to a story on files kept on the writer J.M. Coetzee, a censor noted “although sex across the color line is described,” Coetzee’s 1977 In the Heart of the Country “will be read and enjoyed only by intellectuals.”  Thus, publication was permitted.

Were the authorities in these cases right?  Are intellectuals really harmless?  A version of that view has been espoused by no less an intellectual--indeed, a public intellectual--than Judge Richard Posner.  Posner does not think that all intellectual activity is pointless.  But in his 1999 book The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory, Posner took particular aim at what he called "academic moralists"--moral philosophers who attempt to change behavior simply by making arguments that one course of action is morally superior to another.  It is clear that Posner would thus regard Dworkin as harmless.  Indeed, Problematics was based on Posner's Holmes Lecture, itself part of an extended colloquy with Dworkin, and Posner says in the book version (at page 118) that Dworkin's theory of legal interpretation is the application of academic moralism to law, thus sharing the former's flaws.

It is less clear to me that Posner, had he been an apartheid-era censor, would have regarded Coetzee as harmless.  Posner distinguishes academic moralists from "moral entrepeneurs," a category into which Coetzee arguably would have fit.  Although moral entrepeneurs often include arguments in their appeals, they succeed (when they do) principally through other means.  Here is what Posner says (at page 43) about Catherine MacKinnon, whom he regards as a successful moral entrepeneur:
Her influential version of radical feminism is not offered without supporting arguments.  But her influence is not due to the quality of those arguments.  It is due to her polemical skills, her singlemindedness, her passion, and what passes for martyrdom in the academy today: her inability, until well into her career, indeed until long after she had become one of the most influential legal thinkers in the nation, to obtain tenure . . . .
Posner's attitude towards MacKinnon here is mixed.  On one hand, as a pragmatist, Posner can't help admiring the fact that MacKinnon was not just a talker but a doer.  On the other hand, Posner can't stop himself from insulting MacKinnon.  How does he know to what extent the quality of her arguments accounts for her influence?  And for that matter, why should one assume that "polemical skills" are independent of the quality of the arguments one uses those skills to advance?

Perhaps more to the point, given what modern neuroscience teaches about the essentiality of the emotional centers of the brain to decision making (including moral decision making), Posner's entire exercise seems directed against a straw man.  An argument that appealed only to reason, conceived as completely separate from emotion, would indeed fail to persuade, but effective argumentation appeals to emotion; it must or the brain cannot process it.

Does that mean that the South African and Chinese censors were committing a tactical error by permitting Coetzee and Dworkin to speak their minds?  Not necessarily.  Part of the calculus could simply be that intellectuals in most societies are a small minority.  Moreover, they are not prone to revolutionary action; indeed, they are not prone to action at all.  Woody Allen captured the point well in this scene from Manhattan:

Funny, to be sure, and Allen certainly has a point about a certain style of intellectual, but at the end of the day, I've got to think that repressive regimes are making a tactical error in discounting intellectuals.  Ideas matter, especially in the long run.  Unfortunately, some of the last century's most brutal regimes--including China during the Cultural Revolution and Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge--acted upon this view, singling out intellectuals for special persecution.  The good news, such as it is, is that a repressive regime's persecution of intellectuals tends to undermine the regime itself, although that too may be only a long-run phenomenon.