Battle in Print: How heretic-hunting breeds totalitarianism

Arthur Versluis interviewed by Amol Rajan, 20 November 2007

Amol Rajan: In The New Inquisitions you outline a lineage between medieval Inquisitions and modern, totalitarian states. Clearly, inquisitional tendencies are not restricted to totalitarian states. Do you agree that the charge of heresy has undergone something of a revival in recent times? If so, where do the principal threats to intellectual freedom come from today?

Arthur Versluis: It’s true that inquisitionalism isn’t limited to totalitarian states. For instance, it seems incredible now, but only a couple of decades ago, there was a widespread episode of witch-hunting in the US. The 1980s in the United States saw what has been deemed a ‘Satanic panic’ in which self-appointed ‘cult experts’, aided by mass media, some evangelical Christians, and various arms of law enforcement, ginned up claims of ‘Satanic cults’ all across the country. This is an example of relatively recent inquisitionalism that took place in a more or less liberal state. But much of The New Inquisitions is devoted to the origins and nature of the modern totalitarian state, and in particular to its insistence on ideological purity. As Czeslaw Milosz points out, the one thing that Leninism-Stalinism could not abide is ‘heresy,’ that is, any disagreement whatsoever with state ideology. I think that we are in an ideologically charged era now, and that the principal threats to intellectual freedom come from the same places that they did in the twentieth century - from those people who wish to violently impose their ideology upon others. This is actually why I wrote and published this book: I thought that by doing so, by pointing out the inquisitional tendencies in modernity, and their historical origins and nature, it might be possible to help forestall the next ideocracy and, by extension, its taking of victims.

You write that during the Inquisitions, the ‘crime’ in question is fundamentally a ‘crime’ of thought, that is, by definition, ‘heresy’ is independent thought that diverges from standard Church doctrine. Are there any circumstances in which it is reasonable to criminalise thought?

No. I can’t think of any such circumstances offhand. In the realm of ideas, those who wish to criminalise particular kinds of thoughts are playing the role of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, who tells others what to think ‘for their own good.’ I strongly believe that we should be able to discuss controversial subjects, but, of course, that is not always the case, is it?

There is a marvellous neologism in your introduction: ‘An “ideocracy”’, you write, ‘is a form of government characterised by an inflexible adherence to a set of doctrines, or ideas, typically enforced by criminal penalties’. Do ‘ideocracies’ only become dangerous when criminal penalties enforce the ruling doctrines? And what is the difference between ‘ideocracy’ and ideologically motivated government?

I think there’s a spectrum here. We see this in what is often called ‘political correctness.’ Some ideas are more or less taboo, but there’s no criminal penalty for expressing them. However, some taboos are actually given the force of law, and that seems to me pretty dangerous, given the consequences of the more extreme ideocracies of the twentieth century. We have to be on guard against the spectre of ideocracies, especially those imposed by violence, and I really don’t think most of us have confronted this extremely disagreeable legacy of the twentieth century. If we don’t consciously understand the danger of ideocracy, we run the risk of being caught in or even participating in one.

Much of the book focuses on the absorption by secular states of an impulse toward censorship that was originally motivated by Church doctrine. And you note that a principal feature of the archetypal Inquisition was ‘the juncture between religious and secular power’. Is such a juncture central to modern heretic-hunting too? Or, as in the case of Bolshevism (as you suggest in the book) is it possible that secularism can hunt heresies without the need for religion?

Actually, one of the most striking elements of many modern totalitarian states - and I discuss this at length in the book - is the substitution of the state for religion, and a consequent seemingly ceaseless desire on the part of the state functionaries to extirpate religion from the polis. Religion becomes the ‘heresy.’ We still see this in the Chinese authorities, whose war against Tibetan Buddhist culture continues to this day, who criminalise mention of or even a photograph of the 14th Dalai Lama, and who go so far as to claim the ‘right’ to appoint Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders. This last seems a particularly strange claim for a ‘secular’ governmental authority to make. For some reason, the authorities there still believe Tibetan Buddhist culture is a ‘threat’ to the state. Only an ideocrat thinks that way.

Writing in defence of religion recently, the English philosopher Roger Scruton suggested that French writer Rene Girard’s explanation of religion warranted sympathy. Paraphrasing Girard, Scruton writes: ‘Primitive societies are invaded by “mimetic desire”, as rivals struggle to match each other’s social and material acquisitions, so heightening antagonism and precipitating the cycle of revenge. The solution is to identify a victim, one marked by fate as outside the community and therefore not entitled to vengeance against it, who can be the target of the accumulated bloodlust, and who can bring the chain of retribution to an end. Scapegoating is society’s way of recreating “difference” and so restoring itself’. In line with Girard, Scruton suggests this is a reasonable explanation of Christ’s virtue. He offered to be a scapegoat. How accurate a description does the above seem to you of the motivation behind the Inquisitions?

That’s an interesting question. To answer directly your question concerning the ‘beneficial’ role of scapegoating in society at large: I am unconvinced. This kind of argument is actually fairly close to, though not identical with, an argument often advanced by apologists for various Inquisitions - that the Inquisition is necessary for social stability or whatnot. Thus Joseph de Maistre, for instance, vigorously defended the Spanish Inquisition as having been very good for the Spanish population. Torture or kill off a few ‘heretics,’ create an atmosphere of intimidation, and the land is imagined to be somehow better off. This is the reasoning, once again, of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. In general, of course, ‘scapegoats’ don’t volunteer, but are drafted by violence. Is society somehow mysteriously better with an institutionalised practice of scapegoating? No, I just don’t believe that it is. Forgiveness, compassion, basic human decency seem much wiser operative principles, and after all, isn’t that what Christ taught? I don’t recall verses advocating scapegoating of others.

In your conclusion, you cite Steven Bartlett’s The Pathology of Man. Drawing on his work, you suggest that ‘a particular kind of human quasi-religious pathology ... is visible in modern “secularity”’. But in recent times we have seen the charge of ‘denial’ revived for those who do not subscribe to prevailing orthodoxies on, for example, climate change, AIDS, or the Holocaust. The charge of ‘denial’ clearly has pathological overtones, raising the spectre of mental illness (‘you’re in denial’). Isn’t the pathologisation of heresy always dangerous? Is that not simply the medicalisation of a thoughtcrime?

You’re right to be cautious. The term ‘inquisitional pathology’ is a metaphor to describe a particular kind of behaviour - hunting perceived ‘heretics’ from state-enforced ideology. Naturally, such a metaphor only goes so far. But there is a very real sense in which inquisitionalism can be transmitted throughout a society, generating paranoia, and making life quite nightmarish. In his book Captive Mind, Czeslaw Milosz wrote about just such a society, which he had experienced firsthand behind the Iron Curtain. What you’re referring to - the ‘medicalisation of a thoughtcrime’ - is actually an aspect of many totalitarian societies, where to disagree with the official ideology is deemed a kind of ‘medical condition’ or ‘insanity’. One finds this in communist societies - it happened in the Soviet Union, for instance.

Understandably, The New Inquisitions focuses on Western thought. Is there something uniquely ‘Western’ about heretic-hunting, other than its origins in the medieval church?

When we look at Buddhist or Taoist cultures, for instance, we don’t see enduring bureaucratic apparati generated in order to hunt out ‘heretics,’ torture them into ‘confessions’ of their errors, and murder them by way of ‘rendering to the secular arm’. Why not? This isn’t to say heretic-hunting appears nowhere else - a species of it exists in some forms of Islam, for example. But why did the institutional Inquisition arise in the West, in Christianity? Why was it extolled as a fine contributor to ‘social stability’, even by influential ‘secular’ intellectuals? I realise that these may be uncomfortable questions, but it seems to me valuable to inquire. We need to understand and avoid such institutions, which we also see in modern totalitarianism. We must beware of the temptation to generate or adhere to an ideocracy - especially in times of economic and social disruption. As Sinclair Lewis put it in the title of his 1930s novel, It Can Happen Here. The West has a great legacy that emphasises not centralised power, but decentralisation, subsidiarity, federalism. This is the legacy of cherishing individual liberty, a very precious contribution to the world, and one I would like to emphasise. As an herbalist used to say, the cure is often found growing near the poisonous plant. Thank you for the interview and for your thoughtful questions.


Arthur Versluis is professor of American Studies at Michigan State University and author of The New Inquisitions: Heretic-Hunting and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Totalitarianism.

Festival Buzz
Each to his iPod or Great Music For All

View: Each to his iPod or Great Music For All

"It was like having sex with Richard Dawkins and the Pope at the same time. Incredibly stimulating arguments. "
Julian Gough, novelist