Individual rights is something essential for a genuinely free society, and there are a lot of things that we should never take for granted. Right at the top of the list is free speech. Greg Lukianoff, New York Times best-selling author, and the President and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), is a passionate advocate for free speech. His whole appreciation for freedom of speech comes in part from being an immigrant kid living in a neighborhood with a lot of other kids from different parts of the country. Greg talks about his background, the books he’s authored, and the path that took him to the organization he now leads, FIRE.
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Free Speech, Individual Rights, And Education with Greg Lukianoff
I’m excited to talk with my guest. His name is Greg Lukianoff. He is an attorney and New York Times bestselling author and the President and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. He’s the author of a number of books including Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, Freedom from Speech and FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus. FIRE is the acronym for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. He also has a book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. The co-author of that book was Jonathan Haidt. Greg, I’m super excited to have you on. Thanks for taking the time.
Thanks for having me.
Tell us about your background and the path that took you to the organization you now lead, FIRE, and the books you’ve authored.
My father was a Russian refugee who grew up in Yugoslavia. My mother is ethnically from an Irish group in Britain and thinks herself as British. Growing up, my parents had very different ideas of the value compared to the value of truthfulness versus politeness, with my mom having an exaggerated sense of politeness coming from being an Irish girl in Britain. Sometimes you want to be more British than the British. My dad has a Russian sense that you want to be fairly coddling and that’s like as my mother would say, “Politeness is a form of deception,” which it is to be fair. I joke that my earliest memory was Christmas when I was four years old and it’s true. I got a toy that I didn’t like and it was the first time I remember getting a toy that I didn’t like. My mom wanted me to be polite and my dad wanted me to be honest.
I do what any good four-year-old would do, I break out in tears. My oldest sister, Katie, was like, “Poor baby got a toy he didn’t like, starts crying.” I don’t want to have the words for this but the problem here is a societal paradox. I didn’t know how to explain it. I was put in a situation where I couldn’t say what I wanted to say because it was considered wrong, but I had to be honest and I couldn’t do both. Partially my whole appreciation for freedom of speech comes in part from being an immigrant kid and living in a neighborhood with a lot of other first-generation kids or all the kids from different parts of the country. That meant that more or less you had to develop your own rules. The first one is you had to hear people out. You couldn’t impose anybody else’s idea of politeness because nobody’s parents agreed on what politeness meant. It’s essential to how I got excited about this. I went to undergrad at American University where I was a student journalist. That gets you radicalized with regards to freedom of speech.
You’re coming to your office saying, “Can you fire so and so?” It’s like, “No, I can’t fire so and so. What’s your reason?” Watching the wheels turn in people’s heads to become like, “I don’t know why I should censor you or how I could get away with it but give me some time.” I realized how felicitous we were at this whole process. I went to law school and I specialized in First Amendment. I went to Stanford for law school. I took every class that they had on First Amendment and then when I ran out of that, I did six credits on censorship during the Tudor Dynasty. That’s how you know if something is your passion is if you tell people about it and they’re like, “That sounds ridiculous.”
I interned at the ACLU of Northern California and despite all of this experience, when I started at FIRE, when it was only a year and a half old way back in 2001, I was shocked at how easy it was to get in trouble on the modern college campus. What was different back then, and this is the bulk of my career, is that the students were actually the best constituency on campus for freedom of speech. They got it. They love their Dave Chappelle. They got offensive comedians. They got even the hard but bonus credit questions when it comes to First Amendment stuff in a way that some professors did, but not all. In a way that a lot of administrators get. I sometimes explain my career as being a chunk of pretty much 2001 to 2013 being when I was almost exclusively dealing with administrators, silencing people.
It’s interesting to see how influences shaped your view of the world, personality, what you think and what you come to believe. I would assume in law school specifically, how did you get to the point where you understood individual rights? Maybe the connection it had to education to the level where you pursued making this your career, especially with FIRE.
I’m not sure if I understood it as being anything more than just something essential for a genuinely free society. It’s funny because sometimes people who are not first generation or not immigrants, including my wife, could pick on us. My mother, we call each other on the 4th of July. We wished each other, “Happy 4th of July,” and my wife thought that was cute and silly. This is one thing that immigrant kids get that other people don’t. There’s a lot to like about this country and there are a lot of things that we should never take for granted. Right at the top of the list is free speech. It’s unusual in human history. It’s unusual in the world in general and it is probably one of the great innovations in all of human history, but it’s also extraordinarily fragile. I went in there like a real believer anyway, but I didn’t give the education element that much thought until I was recruited by FIRE back in 2001. When they thought about it, I was like, “I have run into some of this stuff in college.” It was never that terrible.
Certainly, seeing columnists get in trouble when I was an undergrad was definitely pretty common. Stanford was an environment where even at that time it was easy to say the wrong thing because people were almost pulling for you to say the wrong thing. Living in San Francisco, that was my first experience with runaway group think. I lived in DC for six years and I missed the way we argued in DC when I was living out there. It was only when I started FIRE, when I started to realize how bad it was. It didn’t take me very long before I started having cases where they’re consistently cases where you’re saying to yourself, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” The case that we give in the book and I’ve given over and over again, but it’s probably one of FIRE’s most famous cases, is we had a student get in trouble for reading a book in public. The book was called Notre Dame vs. the Klan.
He was trying to educate himself on Klan history. What people to these days don’t know was that they were also anti-Catholic back then. They marched on Notre Dame back in ‘26 or ‘24. There was a great street battle. Students went out and fought them and they won. It’s a joyously anti-Klan book. Not that that it makes it any more or less protected, it just makes it more ironic that he got in trouble. He was found guilty of a racial harassment at a public school in Indiana because it made two employees allegedly uncomfortable with the title of the book and the picture of the rally on the cover. For a long time, nobody was paying attention to these kinds of cases.
I spent a lot of my career banging on this drum saying, “It’s much worse than you think.” That was my first book, Unlearning Liberty. It was more or less saying, “This is worse than you think.” That being said, in 2012 it seemed like things were on a positive trajectory. Things were getting better. The cases weren’t quite as ridiculous, which is one way to tell how good or bad your speech environment is. Somehow right around 2013, 2014, right after my book came out, we started seeing seemingly overnight this sudden push among the students to demand that speakers be disinvited. Not just, “I don’t want to hear this person and I’m going to protest outside their speech,” but, “I don’t want them setting foot on my campus.”
That’s when you start hearing about things like trigger warning requests and micro aggression policies. That’s when you start seeing the students taking themselves to the streets to be, in some cases, mob sensors, shouting people down, for example. This was not what I was used to and that seemingly happened very quickly. I wrote a short book and it’s one of the better things I’ve written in 2014 when this was all brand new to me called Freedom from Speech. It’s only about 9,000 words, but it’s me just explaining how I think freedom of speech is endangered by progress itself. What I mean by that is you as a society and you as an individual, as you get to have more technology and get to have more options in who you talk to both online and offline and live in communities that better reflect your values, you can physically move to areas that have more like-minded people. This is going to necessarily have a negative effect on freedom of speech because people who are in these echo chambers or people who are in these environments that sounds wonderfully pleasant to be like, “I’m going to live in communities where they reflect my values. I’m going to join internet communities that also reinforced my values.”Politeness is a form of deception. Click To Tweet
There’s a problem with that. The social science is very clear that when you just talk to people with whom you agree politically, for example, you tend to become much more radicalized in the position of the group. If only out of weight of argument that you know for your side and not for the other. I made the argument in Freedom from Speech that this is going to get worse and it’s going to be a condition of wealth and of progress. That was Freedom from Speech. Then in 2015, I had the pleasure of writing with my then very new friend, Jonathan Haidt. He is a famous and brilliant social psychologist who wrote two wonderful books, The Happiness Hypothesis, which is about taking a scientific approach to what makes people happy and trying to figure out which does. Short observations like don’t live by the airport and try to limit your commute, those are very robust findings. Then two things that came out very strongly were meditation and CBT, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
That’s why I wanted to talk to Jon back in 2015 about this idea I’ve been thinking. I’m very open about this in the book. It comes from getting very depressed back in 2007. I always had issues with depression in my life, but this was going to the hospital bad, which was the first time I ever had to go to the hospital. What got me out of that, which forever changed my relationship to my own depression, and I always want to be clear, I also took medications. I was criticized by someone saying like, “You don’t talk about medication.” I’m like, “Absolutely, talk to your psychiatrist. Get help. Talk to your doctor right away.”
CBT for the long-term was the thing that helped me. CBT is more or less learning some of the crazy exaggerations everybody’s brain makes like when you go on a date and it doesn’t go well and you’re like, “I’m going to die alone.” That’s a cognitive distortion because from this, you don’t know you’re going to die alone. This is just a crazy exaggeration that most people make. These include things like binary thinking: everything’s going to be all good or all bad, fortune telling. This idea of, “I’m going to die alone, catastrophizing. If I get a C on this paper, I’ll never get into Princeton or whatever.” These are all ideas that you have to learn to talk back to and it takes a lot of practice. If you get yourself in the habit of talking back to the sad and crazy and depressed voices in your head, they start having a lot less power over you. I still got depressed sometimes, but I now can fight back in a way that I never could before.
You’re talking about the spectrum of emotions or the spectrum of feelings. It’s interesting and I think this is what you’re alluding to but experiencing that is instrumental to growth and learning. You talked a lot about in the book safety-ism and protectionism. Those types of experiences, when there’s so much pressure there that you need to figure things out. It teaches you so much. At the same time, as you’ve been speaking, it’s one of those natural tendencies that we have to want to be saved. It’s in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
You want safety and people find safety in a lot of different things. When there’s a group of people that believe the way that they believe, and think the way that they think, they may come with thoughts and align with people with the same thoughts. Then when it’s there, it becomes so strong because the numbers or the collective is magnified, where something that’s different, it’s difficult to cope with that. At the same time, are you making the point that those difficulties, the experience of other point of views or things that are disruptive are in fact healthy and beneficial?
My thinking on education overall is a lot of education is learning to overcome some of our worse nature. Some of it is our desire for comfort, our desire for affirmation. It can come up with some serious negative side effects. Even my horrifying depression, after the fact, I realized that I was anxious about taking the job as President. I was formerly the Legal Director of FIRE and I loved that job. It was a lawyer’s dream come true to be that. I was very anxious about becoming President, partially because I didn’t know if I could take it. You’re in the culture world all the time. It’s nasty and I was afraid I might have a breakdown. Then in 2007 I had one and then I got over it. I felt that fear of what I was capable of had put a cap on the possibilities for my entire life. That was lifted, which I paid a horrible price for. It was really difficult. At the end, it’s hard for me not to see that as something that I had to eventually work through or spend the rest of my life, always a little bit afraid of my own fragility.
Do you associate that as the driving force behind why there are issues on college campuses, why you have helicopter parents is just irrational sense of fear?
An exaggerated sense of fear, which is some are irrational at least. I’ll explain a little bit more about how the thought process happens. I’m working on college campuses trying to overcome my own depression and anxiety by teaching myself, don’t over generalize, don’t catastrophize, don’t personalize, don’t do all of these things that we talk about in the book. We have a list of cognitive distortions in the book that are super helpful. I was looking at what was going on a campus being like, it seems like administrators are constantly telling students, “You should catastrophize and personalize. You should do all these things.” I’m like, “This is going to make people depressed and anxious.” At the time I was saying to myself also, “Thank goodness students aren’t buying it.”
They’re not listening to it and so far it doesn’t seem to be having much effect on them. Then in 2013, 2014, it got a lot worse. It’s not unheard of for students to come out against freedom of speech. This happened in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s as well. That was the first-grade age of political correctness, where most of us remember that term from. At the time they were mostly talking about things like bigotry and racism and all this stuff. That was certainly still part of the argument in 2013, 2014, but the emphasis was very much on psychology. That this person, if they come onto campus, it’s not just that I’ll hate the fact that they’re there but I, or more importantly my fellow students, will find it psychologically harmful in a real medical sense for that person to be on campus.
I’m a psychology hobbyist to be like, “That doesn’t sound right. I should definitely get a sanity check from my friend, Jonathan Haidt about this.” I told them this idea about how it seems like we’re teaching cognitive distortions. To my delight, he said, “Let’s write an article about it.” I’m like, “Sure, I’d love to write an article with you.” This is back in 2014, right around the time that I was publishing Freedom from Speech. We published an article in The Atlantic called The Coddling of the American Mind. I didn’t love the title because it sounded insulting to students that I was trying to reach, but to give you a sense of how it was probably the right title to go with, my preferred title was Arguing Towards Misery which everybody we hear, it’s like, “That is boring.” We talk about micro aggressions. We talk about trigger warnings and about how this seems to be teaching students not to get over there if it hurts, not to confront ideas that make them uncomfortable.
We’re giving them a whole battery of things, which we said that’s a formula for making people more depressed and more anxious than they already are. We published the article, expecting to be beheaded because we were saying stuff that if you said on a campus would probably at least get you called to an office somewhere. We said it in The Atlantic and instead the response was shockingly positive. There was one person who wrote an article saying, “Her brother had killed himself several years ago and she was in a classroom where nobody knew that.” The story included someone jumping off of a building, which is where her brother committed suicide. It’s horrible. She said, “It was also the first time that anybody treated me not with kid gloves. Nobody stared at me.” Nobody censored it and it was the first time she felt normal in years.
I know that feeling when you’re like, “Please don’t treat me different. I need to just feel normal.” Some of those outpourings meant a lot to me. Jon and I were like, for a while there was a second most read cover story in the history of the Atlantic. We felt like we’d done our jobs and as I jokingly say, “We curate the whole problem.” We thought we were done with it. We thought we’d met our argument and it would go back to our other work. Unfortunately, everything got worse on the campus. We decided to write a book about it to go deeper most importantly under this question, what was so different about the entering class in 2013, 2014? What made this discontinuity so stark?
What was that epicenter? What was that ground zero of why that caused?Freedom of speech is endangered by progress itself. Click To Tweet
The whole book is dedicated trying to figure that out. The thing that made it certain that we had to do this research was because we had already agreed to do the book, but early on we started getting the data. At the time when we wrote the article in 2015, there unsurprisingly wasn’t a tremendous amount of data what the class of 2014 looked like, because it wasn’t ready yet. We started getting the data on the psychological profile of the incoming class of 2013, 2014 and the incoming class of 2015 and all the way up to 2016, and it was terrifying. You’re talking about self-reports of anxiety and depression tripling in some cases. Sometimes people are like, “This just means they’re more comfortable with it.” Also people being seen for anxiety and depression going way up. People say, “That just means that we’re responding to it more often.” I’m like, “Those are two big pieces of data right there that you’re dismissing.” The one that is undismissable though that’s not something that can be changed by definition is the saddest one: hospital admissions for self-harm and suicide.
We’re talking about if you look at the trajectory for young women from 2008 to 2016, 2017, 2018, the suicide rate doubled. Overall, if you take the entire first decade of this century and compare them to the last couple of years, it’s up around 70% for girls. The mental health crisis has been hitting boys less severely. We have theories about why that is in the book. The whole book is dedicated to figuring out how this happened. Definitely, when we dug into it, we left with a strong belief that social media was making a lot of existing problems much worse. Social media accelerated all sorts of things. It also accelerated polarization, which is another thread that we talk about as having been a contributing factor to making feel like there are either people who agree with me or evil people more or less.
When it came to the anxiety and depression, the correlation was definitely there. That extensive social media use and depression and anxiety were pretty well-correlated. Why this generation? When you work backwards, figuring out what would have made this class different. They were probably the first class heading school that were on social media with a phone in their pocket as much as they want it to be. They came of age at unfortunately the right time. What people are skeptical about, for example, why does it hit girls harder, it’s like if you have sisters. Imagine the worst aspects of junior high school, but then imagine them 24 hours a day.
I have two daughters in middle school.
If you can keep them off social media for a little while. As we dug more into it, there are even some researches indicating that the lack of deep sleep from being on your phone all the time might be a contributing factor as well. That’s one of the reasons why I say 24 hours, because that’s a nasty environment. When people are in these social media bubbles, they’re even worse about it because there’s none of that face-to-face element. They’ve got a cheering section more or less behind them. The people who agree with you become much more salient in your social media life than they would. Even if you’re in a room being nasty to someone, there’s one person who’s like, “You’re being jerks.” That’s enough oftentimes to check that behavior.
On social media, the dynamic can be much nastier. We definitely think that when it comes to the genuine increase in mood disorders, social media plays a big role. We think that made the polarization part of it worse. We also talk about new ideas about social justice becoming much more popular. We talk about intersectionality in the book. Intersectionality is a concept that we’re very clear on. We think there’s a lot of validity to it. In order to understand someone’s identity, you can’t just take the broad category. The person who first proposed this was more or less saying there are issues faced by black people and there are issues faced by women. It’s not quite right to think that the same issues would be faced by the combination of black and women.
That can be an entirely different category of problem or at least a very different nature of a problem. Jon and I both say we think she’s entirely right. The way intersectionality has been interpreted on campus is something that we call common enemy identity politics versus common humanity identity politics. We’re very in favor of common humanity identity politics. This is like in the great speeches of MLK. He comes to this over and over again where he’s not saying that we’re enemies. He’s saying that you should understand us as your brothers and sisters and that we deserve the same dignity and rights that all of you have enjoyed and our founding fathers said, “We, the people enjoy this.” It’s incredibly morally compelling. It’s the approach that was eventually very successful in the gay rights movement and the women’s right movement as well. Just saying, “Calling us out is double standards,” and saying, “We deserve this too.” That’s very compelling and it broadens the definition of your society.
There’s something morally satisfying about it. Common enemy identity politics is more of what you’ll see on social media these days. When you see people talking about different intersections of privilege, to a large degree, they’re engaging in that. Then people are like, “You’re saying privilege doesn’t exist.” I’m like, “No, I’m not saying privilege doesn’t exist.” If your argument is effectively if you check off any of these boxes, I don’t have to listen to you. I have a quick rhetorical out of an argument with you. Unfortunately, that’s going to get abused and I haven’t. Sometimes I think people who believe in their intersectionality should be the most critical of people who just use it to get out of arguments that they don’t like.
If you follow the intersectionality, like the privilege theory down the rabbit hole, you realize pretty quickly that given all the tools that have come out of it, you can dismiss the opinions of 100% of the entire population of the species. That’s a very tempting argument thing to use rhetorically. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do anything to bring people together. It doesn’t do anything to make people feel happier about themselves or anything else. The other thing when I tried to explain what’s depressing about this ideology is because as it’s currently interpreted, it means that practically all of us, not us too but, most people on campus are both oppressed and oppressor. White men are merely oppressors, unfortunately. Almost everybody else. It is some combination of the two and it’s treated as if it is just a fact of nature and there’s nothing you can do to change it and it’s going to be this way forever.
It’s a fascinating topic and the relevance is clearly there with college campuses, but it’s everywhere. It’s throughout society. I read the acronym of FIRE, which the individual rights are big, that’s the meat in the middle. I can’t help but think that it’s the understanding of what the collective and a group is in a society, in a class versus an individual. It’s the mesh of that and the misunderstanding or just not the right view of what an individual is and what their rights are and then what a group is and what their rights are. I’ve at least tried to talk to my kids and my girls because they’re dealing with it daily now. I look at them wanting to fit in, them wanting to be part of a group.
They want to be liked and they find identity in that. However, there’s so much weight there as opposed to the actual individual they are, which is unique to them and celebrating that. It’s almost this pull between the two desires, the two driving forces, wanting to be part of a group but also recognizing that you are an individual. I think that’s where social media has been amazing, but it’s also been very destructive. Maybe the common theme is the lack of understanding when it comes down to what an individual is, what their rights are, what a group is and what their rights are. Are you following that? Does that have relevance to how you’ve written about these things and potentially with some of the solutions are?
One of the reasons why we have individual rights in our name is not just because freedom of speech and due process are our individual rights. When Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglate were thinking about these issues going back to the 1980s and ‘90s, there was a sense that individual rights was a dirty word almost because more of the idea is this group rights idea, that having a better concept of group rights would somehow set us free or make us more progressive or something like that. The thing I was trying to explain is that individual rights protect group rights. If you have the right to decide what group you can join is entirely within your rights to decide. The primary way you evaluate yourself is by your membership in whatever particular group.
It has to be left up to the individual to also say, “I prefer not to make the dominant part of my self-identification to be my race or my economic background or any of this stuff.” Someone who’s free to identify themselves more as a Mormon for example or for that matter as an Atheist. The problem with group rights is it takes that freedom away from individuals and treats them like automatons. More or less like, “Here’s your leader. Good luck with that.” It makes it very hard to be a dissenter. If you look at the way we argue on campus, take a contrarian like Glenn Loury at Brown University. He’s a black professor who a lot of times will be the one leading the charge against silly expressions of political correctness.
For that, he gets treated with a lot of cases like some trader. Now he’s old enough that he just doesn’t care anymore, which is one of the nice things about getting older. It is interesting because it speaks to this idea. I haven’t written about this yet, but I call this the perfect rhetorical fortress. If you look at all of the things that colleges have excelled at from the 1980s on, it’s using a lot of IQ power to figure out a series of defenses that mean you never have to have an argument with somebody ever again or at least never have to listen to someone that you disagree with. It was simple enough when I was in school, if you could dub someone conservative, you didn’t have to listen to them anymore. That was even back in the ‘90s and that’s surely primitive and silly, but it was weird. I hate to say it was even effective on me in some cases and I’m not ashamed of that. As you go on, you start seeing the privilege ideology does allow you to dismiss at least 99% of the entire population of the planet, if not more.A lot of education is learning to overcome some of our worse nature. Click To Tweet
Then you add things like class and economic privilege and Conor Friedersdorf wrote about this, he calls them The Idioms of Non-Argument, assuming bad motives. Congratulations, you have multiple defenses that allow you to dismiss without addressing the substance of their argument of every single person you ever meet that you disagree with. The wonderful trick is you don’t have to use that for anybody you agree with. It could be the whitest richest person in the entire world, but you don’t have to dismiss them and you wouldn’t probably want to if you 100% agree with them. This is a strong reminder that when people had all these rules about argumentation, about trying to address the substance of someone’s argument, that’s in the face of our natural inclination to find some other dodge, some other way to get out of it. That doesn’t mean I have to have this unpleasant experience of an argument.
That’s the biggest opportunity for growth. I’ve had hundreds of employees over the years and I’ve had tons of hardships and meltdowns years ago. A lot of what we’re talking about, I’ve thought through a lot and discovered certain things here and there, but we have a saying now which has become one of our values, which is “It doesn’t matter who’s right, it’s understanding what’s right and the discovery of what’s right oftentimes comes about through facing the fear of being wrong.” There’s such a tremendous fear there because the people relate being wrong from the perspective of somebody else somehow it equates to something wrong with you and it’s not true. That’s where I look at it.
It’s the opportunity to grow and because of society, that was a huge point that you made, which is society is changing daily. The groups are getting stronger and stronger because the sense of uncertainty is strengthening. At the same time, I think uncertainty is so beautiful because of how it lets a person make tremendous progress, groups to make progress. We have to face that fear of being wrong because everybody has that. That’s just the nature of life and humanities. We have quirks and nuances and things were not good at, but we have things we’re great at. That’s where the convergence of different personalities and strengths in individuals allows for incredible discovery. It dates back to the wars that existed since the beginning of time, which is this group versus this group.
I look at college and the education that past the point where a child is at their parents’ home and have a sense of safety and stability there. This is an environment where bodies are changing, minds are changing, they’re maturing. It could be an environment in which our future and the future of our society can be amazing and incredible. At the same time, I look at this clamp down on, it doesn’t matter what’s right. It’s, “I’m right and you’re wrong.” It’s been faced in history for how many hundreds of years and it hasn’t led to anything great. It’s only when those difficult things to talk about and they can only be talked about in the environment where people are okay with being wrong and want to discover what’s right. Right is where progress is made.
There’s this great book by Jonathan Rauch called Kindly Inquisitors that he wrote. Actually, Penn Jillette is a big fan of it. He did the audio book for the twentieth anniversary of Kindly Inquisitors a little while back. It’s all about something that when I first met with people, I have to explain this. It’s most of human history is what Rauch calls fundamentalist. He doesn’t mean that in a religious sense. He means that authority and truth come from the top down, whether from your chief or your oligarchs or your theocratic or pharaoh. That’s the way figuring out truth works. That’s most of human history. It’s a radical idea to start being like, “I am going to stop burning heretics. I’m going to stop making a loud mouse drink hemlock. I’m going to stop crucifying the people who say ideas that bother me.” All of these we have done to either dissenters or weirdos, burning them at the stake, beheading them, all of these things. We’ll weight the dissenter and ages past, not only will I tolerate that person, I’m going to listen to them.
It’s crazy and it’s a very hard social order to maintain. It doesn’t come naturally to us. With time, this approach has real advantages. It does undermine that comfortable certainty, I’ve talked about this in terms of Dostoyevsky, that I feel one of the messages throughout Dostoyevsky’s book is great human evil comes out of the desire to explain the meaning of life in ten words or less. Having that ideology, having that theory that you can always come back to, that frees you of the duty to think is very tempting, but there’s great evil there. Freedom of speech, hearing people you disagree with, none of this comes very naturally. Unfortunately, I feel like some institutions on campus are pushing us towards our more negative instincts on this that listen to the people you already agree with. In the book we have, people know about the Milo riots at Berkeley. I understand people not liking Milo Yiannopoulos. I’m not the biggest fan myself but it was an absolutely out of control riot in which there are people who were very badly hurt.
If you watch the videos of them being assaulted, you were like, “I can’t believe those people survived.” Being hit across the head with a twenty-foot flagpole. It was terrifying. We also talk about the Evergreen State University case involving Bret Weinstein. We got Pamela Paresky who is our chief researcher on this, went out and did some of the interviews on that. It’s much worse than I thought. Even sad incidents where a very respected young philosophy professor wrote a piece talking about the ideas of Rachel Dolezal, was the one who convinced everybody that she was black when she was actually a white woman and she became a President of local NAACP and worked for a university.
A professor wrote about this saying, “If we think that gender is more fluid and it’s up to you to decide what your gender identity is, why don’t we apply this to racial identity?” It was done in a very academic way and done in a very thoughtful way. We liken it to a witch hunt that it was a relatively small transgression and suddenly they’re demanding that the magazine withdraw the article, which is unusual. They’re recommending this person to be fired, this Rebecca Tuvel. What’s even more messed up about it was that some of the professors who had signed these circulated petitions saying, “Down with Professor Tuvel,” would contact her independently and say, “I’m sorry what’s happening to you.” That’s the dynamic of when a mob lost its mind. It’s like, “I couldn’t disagree with the mob.”
The mob is an individual. Here’s the individual apologizing. You can write volumes of books on all of these because as much as it applies to education, it applies to politics, the economy and business. One thing I’ve been thinking as you’ve been talking and making these points is the purpose of college is X. People go in with the expectations of these are the results I want to get by finishing college, which is getting a job, having a profession, figuring out what I want to do, but that’s the thing. It’s at the corporate world. With me, we’ve gotten to the point where we don’t look at necessarily colleges as a good thing sometimes.
We look at where they went to college and then their personality and how they fit within culture. If you have mob mentality or mob theory, it’s not good for a company. It could be in a sense if values are aligned. Most companies want creativity, they want strengths. They’d look at being able to combine multiple people with different perspectives and different backgrounds in order to accomplish a common end. If you reared with this mob rule, it’s difficult to fit into a company and it’s going to hurt going to certain colleges in a sense if you think about it.
Unfortunately, we’ve come to a very similar conclusion. I want to say this. I want to be very clear about this. I went to American University as a scholarship student. It was a school that I always felt some hostility towards it because they kept on chipping away at my scholarships even though I had very good grades and I’ll never forgive them for that. It definitely was a place that was less dogmatic than Stanford, where I went to law school. I always want to be clear, I received a world class education there. It was great. They were smart and interesting people, but now I do wonder, particularly for some of these elite colleges. I’ve said this flat out in some cases. We’ve had great luck hiring people from University of Indiana, from a lot of the big high-quality state schools.
I think that some of this dysfunctional ideology is less present there. A lot of these people don’t want to come forward, but I’ve talked to people who work for cause organizations like big legal representation organizations that do a good job of helping homeless people when they’re working on the side of the angels and all sorts of stuff. They’ll say candidly that they’ve been paralyzed by some of the expectations from the younger employees, from some of the elite schools because they’ve gotten so used to this very inward looking way of arguing that more or less assumes all of your allies are trying to oppress you. That’s not functional. If you end up having schools that are producing employees who are not able to look beyond their own personal drama that actually deliver to the greater good of what the company’s trying to do, it’s poison.
I know from personal experience when you were trying to run a professional shop, one disruptive person and particular if you don’t trust that person. That’s something that I’ve said to my employees a million times. I’m like, “We try to be very good to our employees. We try to find the people and keep them, but if I can’t trust you, you’ll be fired in a heartbeat.” It scares people first of all, but I’m talking about like, “Don’t lie to me. Don’t try to pull a fast one, because if I see that in your character, that’s not someone I ever want to work with again.” I’ve given two pieces of advice for people running businesses, be careful hiring younger people from some of these elite colleges. Also, my stock tip is if you can invest in human resources organizations, do. They’re going to have a lot of work in the next five to ten years.When it comes to the genuine increase in mood disorders, social media plays a big role. Click To Tweet
There’s a segment, Simon Sinek is a big one, for the personal development space. It’s focusing on all of this. That’s where I’ve learned a ton because it’s like trying to work with somebody who doesn’t want to be wrong. They can’t be wrong. They are afraid of being wrong. It’s the worst thing in the world. There’s no progress that’s made, because justifications are in everything that doesn’t necessarily go as planned. It’s one of those things where I have kids and I understand the nature of coddling. I think about it all the time. I’m like, “I love these kids.”
I have a one-year-old and a three-year-old and I always say this. I want to be very clear. I’m not saying not coddling your kids is easy. It’s hard because that’s all you want to do. I just want to hug my sons and make sure that nobody ever makes them cry.
If you think about some harm coming to them, it’s like you want to break down walls.
There was a great book by Sara Zaske called Achtung Baby, which is about how the Germans are doing a better job of raising their kids in a free independent environment than we are. Everything’s switched in this respect. The home of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn now has helicopter parenting whereas Germany, the classic or authoritarian culture at least in our imaginations have a strong societal commitment to raising independent and self-reliant kids. One thing that I thought was so important about that book though is it’s very easy to dismiss some of these cultural norms as just being a peculiarity of that culture.
That’s why it’s so great that Sara Zaske is the author of it, put in an interview with one of the German parents where they were like, “No, you don’t understand, this is very hard for us.” I want to run up and hug my kids and make sure that they don’t go off to the overnight slumber camp too early. They know it’s good for them and you have to value it as a society. You can do such great harm if you don’t teach children to think for themselves, to be independent and to be at least to some degree self-reliant. Arm them right down to their locus of control. Locus of control is a psychological idea. It’s very common sense. It’s like if you feel you have no control over your own life, it’s a great way and it’s a great formula for making people depressed and anxious.
This is the one reason why I don’t particularly love the title Coddling is because sometimes it gives you the idea of this spoiled pampered kid. When I think about a lot of these kids who were going to the elite colleges, they work very hard and they’ve been working very hard since they were very young. They’ve been scheduled from 6:00 in the morning, 10:00 at night for a lot of their childhoods. I think of the more very finely designed rocket that only knows how to do one thing, but then they show up on campus. We did a lot of interviews with Julie Lythcott-Haims who wrote this great book called How to Raise an Adult, which came out of her dealing with students who are incoming to Stanford, freshmen incoming. These sad scenes of this brilliant kid who’s constantly on the phone with their parents, asking them what to do and they don’t know how to do their laundry. They don’t know how to cook for themselves and all of these little things. They’re what make you feel like you can live your life on your own and be successful. They’re essential. They’re not little things.
No, they’re not. It creates a sense of confidence, a sense of certainty. There’s this idea of dependence and independence. We can talk about that for eons because that dates back to the beginning of time too. There are certain principles associated with it, but they absolutely apply to rearing kids. That comes down to what’s the result that you’re looking for. I can see how wanting to coddle, that desire, it’s the same desire as understanding, getting a child from this idea of dependence and independence. It’s the same desire. You want what’s best for you child, but it comes down to the same thing we’ve been talking about, which is they’re going to be independent at some point. There are ways in which you can create the environment so that they can experience some adversity. They can experience tension and pressure and learn from it. You can’t teach that. There are certain things that just have to be experienced in order to learn. There’s no app for it. You can’t go into YouTube and experience it.
Maybe VR, maybe you could experience it that way, but my point is there’s nothing that can replace that, which you’re figuring things out and understanding other perspectives and failing. This goes to Peter Gray, we’re talking about his Free to Learn where failure is a concoction of, in a sense, the school system because you look at failure and it’s like not doing something right is just, “I’m going to do it better next time.” It’s part of the process. Whereas failure is like “We’re done. I’m dumb and I can’t learn anything.” I look at the experience I’ve had in life and in business and with kids. I think there are principles that are old as time and you reference a lot of them in the book and they date back to Aristotle. They date back to Socrates.
These ideas that have existed and they apply just as much now as they did then. Sometimes these types of events were schools fail. They’re failing because they’re loading kids with debt. They should be more pissed at that. Instead of being pissed off at opposing points of views, they should be pissed off all the money they’re getting charged that they’ve got to payback one day. It’s the idea that it’s not sustainable. There’s something that’s going to grow and get worse and blow up. Sometimes those are the events. They like people to step back and be like, “That didn’t work. Let’s now learn from it and move on.”
I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can fix higher education because there are parts of it that I truly love. Practically every book I read or at least a big chunk of them are written by university professors who are talking about what they’ve been working on their whole lives. I’m very aware of the special role and a very positive role that higher education has. I also spend a lot of time thinking about, surely we can figure out less expensive, higher yield, better ways. Also, my being an employer at FIRE, we have about 50 people working for us at this point, has colored my view of all of this stuff. Trying to figure out what you want in an employee.
Also, I’m a civic guy. I’m also like, “What do we also want as citizens?” I think if you broke it down, calculus is fun. It’s an interesting intellectual puzzle. I’d take someone who has a solid grounding in statistics or has some amount of numeracy, they know roughly what population sizes look like and that stuff. That’s the kind of stuff you want people to know. We’re not doing a very good job of delivering any of this. One of the reasons why there is this disproportionate favoritism for the elite colleges is because the elite colleges get to be in the position of finding kids who are already bright and hard working. Then all they have to do is not ruin them by four years.
Some would argue that they probably do their best job at it or they can improve their thinking. A lot of times they’re going for hard science degree. Surely there’s got to be a better way. It’s not as if we’re going to get rid of higher education or that I even want to, but I think a lot of the worst excesses everything from costs to dysfunctionality would be addressed if people could finally start figuring out breaking the riddle of what would be a good competitive model for this. We all remember when Apple finally became a real threat to IBM’s dominance that suddenly magically all of our computers got a lot better. If there was something that was enough to make the academy anxious, we would see a lot of these problems get fixed quickly.
We should probably end with this. I want to talk about FIRE and how people can get involved. That’s a great example. That’s what competition often reads. There are signs of that. You have a lot of online like ASU, which is known as a very reputable school system as online this, online that. There are things that are going to be disrupting, but the tidal wave of kids not being able to pay back their student loans, that right there is going to be one of those catalysts. There are so much pressure and so much negativity that pushes the up and coming generations to realize that, “I’m not paying $150,000 for school. I’m going to go this route.” Hopefully, that manifests soon because it’s still getting more out of control.The problem with group rights is it takes that freedom away from individuals and treats them like automatons. Click To Tweet
FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. You can find out more about us at TheFire.org. We’re celebrating our twentieth anniversary. We’re doing a big event in New York City. We defend free speech on college campuses, all across the political spectrum. If you get in trouble on a college campus, we defend you. One thing that is very unique about FIRE and I do believe that things can be very unique no matter what grammar people say, is that we have people who vote for different people all across the spectrum. We practice what we preach and we have an office in which Republicans and Democrats and Green Party and Christians, Jewish people, Muslim people and Atheists all work together for common cause. We came out with our Ten Worst Schools for Free Speech list.
It always surprises people what ends up getting on there, because some of the cases are political correctness. People now understand that that’s relatively common. There are also cases where like at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. It’s like, “Could you please stop criticizing the administration? We don’t like this very much.” We see those stories all the time. If you have kids that are going to college, we provide Guides to Due Process and Fair Procedure that every student should read before they go on. It’s what to do if you find yourself in front of one of these disciplinary tribunals. We also have a Guide to Freedom of Speech that you can use, and if worst comes to worst and you get in trouble on campus, we’re very successful in getting students and professors who get in trouble out of trouble.
We’ll make sure to get those out on our social media so we can increase the awareness of what you guys are doing to impact what seems to be the ominous at this point.
Thank you. It was a real pleasure talking to you.
It was an awesome conversation. I really enjoyed it. Thank you.
It was fun chatting with you. Take care.
- Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
- Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate
- Freedom from Speech
- FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus
- The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure
- Notre Dame vs. the Klan
- The Happiness Hypothesis
- The Coddling of the American Mind – article
- Kindly Inquisitors
- Achtung Baby
- How to Raise an Adult
- Free to Learn
- Ten Worst Schools for Free Speech – article
- Guide to Freedom of Speech
About Greg Lukianoff
Greg Lukianoff is an attorney, New York Times best-selling author, and the President and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). He is the author of Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, Freedom From Speech, and FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus. Most recently, he co-authored The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure with Jonathan Haidt. This New York Times best-seller expands on their September 2015 Atlantic cover story of the same name. Greg is also an Executive Producer of Can We Take a Joke?, a feature-length documentary that explores the collision between comedy, censorship, and outrage culture, both on and off campus.
Greg has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and numerous other publications. He frequently appears on TV shows and radio programs, including the CBS Evening News, The Today Show, and NPR’s Morning Edition. In 2008, he became the first-ever recipient of the Playboy Foundation’s Freedom of Expression Award, and he has testified before both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives about free speech issues on America’s college campuses.