There exists a social orthodoxy; rarely explicitly defined, but clearly and broadly understood. Such an orthodoxy is not surprising, nor regrettable. Indeed, the prevailing orthodoxy is a reflection of not just current taboos, but long-held and important social mores which govern modern civil society. It is good, for example, that social orthodoxy labels racism and its expression abhorrent and unwanted; that delinquency in caring for children is socially untenable and that women are, by their nature, constrained to a rigidly defined and pre-determined set of roles. The expression – if not always achieved – that social mobility is the so-called “American Dream” where anyone, quite literally anyone, can go from rags to riches with a good idea, tons of good luck, and a lot of hard work, is also an encouraging aspect of Western social orthodoxy. Even if some ideas constrained by orthodoxy are problematic — or even incorrect — they are still widely accepted and embraced as part of existing social constructs.
One of the functions of social orthodoxy is that frames political and social discourse within the context of a modern sensibilities. This is one reason it is so vital when considering the past, that we understand the words and actions of our ancestors within the context of the prevailing orthodoxy adhered to in their time. Don’t’ misunderstand. I fundamentally reject moral relativism so this is not to say that historical persons can be excused from bad behavior even if such behavior was in accordance with contemporary social mores. Relativism exists, without question; even when considering ethics. But the moral principles – even if not their specific application – are present in considerations of both past or present. In short, there are many ideas which at one time were not only freely expressed, but widely held, that we reject today because we have concluded that such behaviors or social constructions are immoral. We may well have good reason to do so. But we must never forget to ask ourselves, “why did our ancestors think this was morally acceptable?” Regardless of the answer, we will be instructed; either in the moral rightness of our present view or, in discovering unseen, yet foundational, assumptions used to support our current understanding.
Of course, it is not our adherence to social orthodoxy which is admirable but rather, our willingness to question assumptions and accepted wisdom. Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King Jr., for example, identified immoral, but widely-held social views and challenged them successfully; bringing about more fundamental civil freedoms for minorities and women. All social reformers question orthodoxy and raise awareness — often with strong opposition from those who seek to retain the status quo. And, while it is quite fashionable to cast such opponents as ignorant degenerates seeking only to retain their preferred, or comfortable, social position. By doing so, however, we rob ourselves of important voices which should be part of broad social discussion. This is not to suggest, of course, that KKK leaders be invited to a summit on civil rights. But the KKK are free to hold meetings, public demonstrations, and distribute literature. They more unorthodox groups express their views we — collectively — have the opportunity to examine their arguments and, if necessary, refute them. More often than not, however, groups on the fringe of orthodoxy rarely make substantive contributions to social discourse and as a result, are largely ineffective in swaying others to their viewpoint. So we should not fear the free and open expression of heterodox ideas; we should embrace such expression. Free and open civil discourse is the easiest way to marginalize a bad idea — not by simply labeling at such but rather, by demonstrating — through reason — why the idea is incorrect, harmful, or just downright silly.
The absolute worst thing we can do is stifle speech; even the most offensive and inept. Labeling any opinion as “unspeakable” makes us ideologues of the worst kind. We all question social orthodoxy in one way or another and to silence others is to eventually silence ourselves.