This is a transcript of Lex Fridman Podcast #397 with Greg Lukianoff. The timestamps in the transcript are clickable links that take you directly to that point in the main video. Please note that the transcript is human generated, and may have errors. Here are some useful links:
Table of Contents
Here are the loose “chapters” in the conversation. Click link to jump approximately to that part in the transcript:
- 0:00 – Introduction
- 2:11 – Cancel culture & freedom of speech
- 16:42 – Left-wing vs right-wing cancel culture
- 25:27 – Religion
- 28:07 – College rankings by freedom of speech
- 34:15 – Deplatforming
- 48:50 – Whataboutism
- 53:53 – Steelmanning
- 1:01:29 – How the left argues
- 1:12:09 – Diversity, equity, and inclusion
- 1:24:00 – Why colleges lean left
- 1:31:38 – How the right argues
- 1:36:13 – Hate speech
- 1:45:00 – Platforming
- 1:54:31 – Social media
- 2:15:38 – Depression
- 2:27:09 – Hope
Greg Lukianoff … if the goal is the project of human knowledge, which is to know the world as it is, you cannot know the world as it is without knowing what people really think. What people really think is an incredibly important fact to know.
Every time you’re actually saying, “You can’t say that,” you’re actually depriving yourself of the knowledge of what people really think. You’re causing what [inaudible 00:00:24], who’s on our Board of advisors calls preference falsification. You end up with an inaccurate picture of the world.
Which by the way, in a lot of cases because there are activists who want to restrict more speech, they actually tend to think that people are more prejudice than they might be. Actually, one very real practical way it makes things worse is when you censor people, it doesn’t change their opinion.
It just encourages them to not share it with people who will get them in trouble. It leads them to talk to people who they already agree with and group polarization takes off.
Lex Fridman The following is a conversation with Greg Lukianoff, free speech advocate, First Amendment attorney, president and CEO of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. He’s the author of Unleashing Liberty, co-author with Jonathan Haidt of Coddling of the American Mind.
Co-author with Rikki Schlott of a new book coming out in October that you should definitely pre-order now called, The Canceling of the American Mind, which is a definitive accounting of the history, present, and future of cancel culture. A term used and overused in public discourse, but rarely studied and understood with the depth and rigor that Greg and Rikki do in this book, and in part in this conversation.
Freedom of speech is important, especially on college campuses, the very place that should serve as the battleground of ideas, including weird and controversial ones that should encourage bold risk-taking, not conformity. This is a Lex Fridman Podcast to support it. Please check out our sponsors in the description.
Cancel culture & freedom of speech
Now, dear friends, here’s Greg Lukianoff. Let’s start with a big question. What is cancel culture? Now, you’ve said that you don’t like the term as it’s been quote “dragged through the mud and abused endlessly” by a whole host of controversial figures. Nevertheless, we have the term, what is it?
Greg Lukianoff Cancel culture is the uptick of campaigns, especially successful campaigns starting around 2014 to get people fired, expelled, de-platformed, et cetera, for speech that would normally be protected by the First Amendment. I always say would be protected because we’re talking about circumstances in which it isn’t necessarily where the First Amendment applies.
What I mean is as an analog to say things you couldn’t lose your job as a public employee for. Also, the climate of fear that’s resulted from that phenomenon, the fact that you can lose your job for having the wrong opinion. It wasn’t subtle that there was an uptick in this, particularly on campus.
Around 2014, John Ronson wrote a book called, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, it came out in 2015 already documenting this phenomena. I wrote a book called Freedom from Speech in 2014. It really was in 2017 when you started seeing this be directed at professors.
When it comes to the number of professors that we’ve seen be targeted and lose their jobs, I’ve been doing this for 22 years and I’ve seen nothing like it.
Lex Fridman There’s so many things I want to ask you here. One, actually just look at the organization of FIRE. Can you explain what the organization is because it’s interconnected to this whole fight and the rise of cancel culture and the fight for freedom of speech since 2014 and before?
Greg Lukianoff FIRE was founded in 1999 by Harvey Silverglate. He is a famous civil liberties attorney. He’s a been on the show. He’s the person who actually found me out in my very happy life out in San Francisco, but knew I was looking for a First Amendment job. I’d gone to law school specifically to do First Amendment.
He found me, which was pretty cool. His protege, Kathleen Sullivan was the dean of Stanford Law School. This remains the best compliment I ever got in my life is that she recommended me to Harvey. Since that’s the whole reason why I went to law school, I was excited to be part of this new organization.
The other co-founder of FIRE is Alan Charles Kors. He’s just an absolute genius. He is one of the leading experts in the world on the enlightenment and particularly about Voltaire. If any of your listeners do the great courses, he has a lecture on Blaise Pascal. Blaise, of course is famous for the Pascal’s wager.
I left it just so moved and impressed and with a depth of understanding of how important this person was.
Lex Fridman That’s interesting. You mentioned to me offline connected to this that at least it runs in parallel or there’s a connection between the love of science and the love of the freedom of speech.
Greg Lukianoff Yes.
Lex Fridman Can you maybe elaborate where that connection is?
Greg Lukianoff Sure. I think that for those of us who really have devoted our lives to freedom of speech, one thing that we are into, whether we know it or not, is epistemology, the study and philosophy of knowledge. Freedom speech has lots of moral and philosophical dimensions.
From a pragmatic standpoint, it is necessary because we’re creatures of incredibly limited knowledge. We are incredibly self-deceiving. I always love the fact that you’ve all heard Harari refers to the enlightenment as the discovery of ignorance because that’s exactly what it was.
It was suddenly being like, “Wow, hold on a second. All this incredibly interesting folk wisdom we got,” which by the way, can be surprisingly reliable here and there. When you start testing a lot of it is nonsense and it doesn’t hold up. Even our ideas about the way things fall as Galileo established, even our intuitions, they’re just wrong.
A lot of the early history of freedom of speech, it was happening at the same time as the scientific revolution. A lot of the early debates about freedom of speech were tied in. Certainly, Galileo, I always point out Kepler was probably the even more radical idea that they weren’t even perfect spheres.
At the same time, largely because of the invention of the printing press, you also had all these political developments. I always talk about John Huss from a famous Czech hero who was burned at the stake and I think in 1419. He was basically Luther before the printing press.
Before Luther could get his word out, he didn’t stand a chance and that was exactly what John Huss was. A century later, thanks to the printing press, everyone could know what Luther thought, and boy did they. It led to, of course, this completely crazy hyper disrupted period in European history.
Lex Fridman Well, you mentioned to jump around a little bit, the First Amendment, first of all, what is the First Amendment? What is the connection to you between the First Amendment, the freedom of speech, and cancel culture?
Greg Lukianoff I’m a First Amendment lawyer, as I mentioned, and that’s my passion, that’s what I studied. I think American First Amendment law is incredibly interesting. In one sentence, the First Amendment is trying to get rid of basically all the reasons why humankind had been killing each other for its entire existence.
That we weren’t going to fight anymore over opinion, we weren’t going to fight any more religion. That you have the right to approach your government or redress grievances, that you have the freedom to associate that All of these things in one sentence we’re like, “Nope, the government will no longer interfere with your right to have these fundamental human rights.”
One thing that makes FIRE a little different from other organizations is however, we’re not just a First Amendment organization. We are a free speech organization. At the same time, a lot of what I think free speech is can be well explained with reference to a lot of First Amendment law.
Partially because in American history, some of our smartest people have been thinking about what the parameters of freedom of speech are in relationship to the First Amendment. A lot of those principles, they transfer very well just as pragmatic ideas.
The biggest sin in terms of censorship is called viewpoint discrimination, that essentially you allow freedom of speech except for that opinion. It’s found to be more defensible. I think this makes sense that if you set up a forum, and we’re only going to talk about economics to exclude people who want to talk about a different topic.
It’s considered rightfully a bigger deal if you’ve set up a forum for economics, but we’re not going to let people talk about that kind of economics or have that opinion on economics most particularly. A lot of the principles from First Amendment law actually make a lot of philosophical sense as good principles for what is protected and unprotected speech. What should get you in trouble, how you actually analyze it, which is why we actually try in our definition of cancel culture to work in some of the First Amendment norms just in the definition, so we don’t have to bog down on them as well.
Lex Fridman You’re saying so many interesting things, but if you can linger on the viewpoint discrimination, is there any gray area of discussion there, what is and isn’t economics for the example you gave? Is it a science or is it an art to draw lines of what is and isn’t allowed?
Greg Lukianoff If you’re saying that something is or is not economics, “Well, you can say everything’s economics, and therefore I want to talk about poetry.” There’d be some line drawing exercise in there, but let’s say at once you decide to open up to poetry even, it’s a big difference between saying, “Now, we’re open to poetry, but you can’t say Dante was bad. That’s a forbidden opinion now officially in this otherwise open forum.”
That would immediately at an intuitive level strike people as a bigger problem than just saying that poetry isn’t economics.
Lex Fridman I mean, that intuitive level that you speak to, I hope that all of us have that basic intuition when a line is crossed. It’s the same thing for pornography when you see it. I think there’s the same level of intuition that should be applied across the board here.
It’s when that intuition becomes deformed by whatever forces of society, that’s when it starts to feel like censorship.
Greg Lukianoff I mean, people find it a different thing if someone loses their job simply for their political opinion, even if that employer has every right in the world to fire you, I think Americans should still be like, “Well, it’s true. They have every right in the world, and I’m not making a legal case that maybe you shouldn’t fire someone for their political opinion.”
Think that through, what kind of society do we want to live in? It’s been funny watching, and I point this out, yes, I will defend businesses’ First Amendment rights of association to be able to have the legal right to decide who works for them. From a moral or philosophical matter, if you think through the implications of if every business in America becomes an expressive association in addition to being a profit maximizing organization, that would be a disaster for democracy.
You would end up in a situation where people would actually be saying to themselves, “I don’t think I can actually say what I really think and still believe I can keep my job.” That’s where I was worried I felt like we were headed because a lot of the initial response to people getting canceled was very simply, “Oh, but they have the right to get rid of this person.”
That’s the beginning and end of the discussion. I thought that was a dodge. I thought that wasn’t actually a very serious way that if you care about both the First Amendment and freedom of speech of thinking it through.
Lex Fridman To you, just to clarify, the First Amendment is a legal embodiment of the ideal of freedom of speech and then freedom of speech-
Greg Lukianoff As applied to government.
Lex Fridman … it’s very specific applied to government. Freedom of speech is the application of the principle to everything, including the high level philosophical ideal of the value of people being able to speak their mind.
Greg Lukianoff It’s an older, bolder, more expansive idea. You can have a situation, and I talk about countries that have good free speech law, but not necessarily great free speech culture. I talk about how when we sometimes make this distinction between free speech law and free speech culture, we’re thinking in a very cloudy kind of way.
What I mean by that is that law is generally, particularly in a common law country, it’s the reflection of norms. Judges are people too, and in a lot of cases, common law is supposed to actually take our intuitive ideas of fairness and place them into the law.
If you actually have a culture that doesn’t appreciate free speech from a philosophical standpoint, it’s not going to be able to protect free speech for the long haul even in the law because eventually, that’s one of the reasons why I worry so much about some of these terrible cases coming out of law schools.
I fear that even though, sure, American First Amendment law is very strongly protective of First Amendment for now, it’s not going to stay that way if you have generations of law students graduating who actually think there’s no higher goal than shouting down, you’re an opponent.
Lex Fridman That’s why so much of your focus or large fracturing of your focus is on the higher education or education period is because education is the foundation of culture.
Greg Lukianoff We have this history, ’64, you have the Free Speech Movement on Berkeley. In ’65 you have Repressive Tolerance by Herbert Marcuse, which was a declaration of, “By the way, we on the left, we should have free speech, but we should have free speech for us.”
I mean, I went back and reread Repressive Tolerance and how clear it is. I had forgotten that it really is like, “These so-called conservatives and right wingers, we need to repress them because they’re regressive thinkers.” It really doesn’t come out to anything more sophisticated than the very old idea that our people are good, they get free speech. They should keep it. Other side bad and we have to retrain society.”
Of course, it ends up being another, and he was also a fan of Mao, so it’s not surprising that of course the system would have to rely on some kind of totalitarian system, but that was a laughable position say 30, 40 years ago. The idea that essentially free speech for me, not for as the great free speech champion Nat Hentoff used to say was something that you were supposed to be embarrassed by.
I saw this when I was in law school in ’97. I saw this when I was interning at the ACLU in ’99, that there was a slow motion train wreck coming. That essentially there was these bad ideas from campus that had been taking on more and more steam of basically no free speech for my opponent we’re actually becoming more and more accepted.
Partially because academia was becoming less and less viewpoint-diverse. I think that as my co-author Jonathan Haidt points out that when you have low viewpoint diversity, people start thinking in a very tribal way. If you don’t have the respected dissenters, you don’t have the people that you can point to that I’m like, “Hey, this is a smart person. This is a smart, reasonable person that I disagree with. I guess, not everyone thinks alike on this issue.”
You start getting much more only bad people, only heretics, only blasphemers only right wingers can actually think in this way.
Left-wing vs right-wing cancel culture
Lex Fridman Every time you say something I always have a million thoughts and a million questions that pop up. Since you mentioned there’s a drift as you write about in the book and you mentioned now there’s a drift towards the left in academia.
We should also maybe draw a distinction here between the left and the right, and a cancel culture as you present in your book, is not necessarily associated with any one political viewpoint that there’s mechanisms on both sides that result in cancellation and censorship in violation of freedom of speech.
Greg Lukianoff One thing I want to be really clear about is the book takes on both right and left cancel culture. They’re different in a lot of ways and definitely cancel culture from the left is more important in academia where the left dominates. We talk a lot about cancel culture coming from legislatures.
We talk a lot about cancel culture on campus as well because even though most of the attempts that come from on campus to get people canceled are still from the left, there are a lot of attacks that come from the right, that come from attempts by different organizations.
Sometimes when there are stories in Fox News, they’ll go after professors and about one third of the attempts to get professors punished that are successful actually do come from the right. We talk about attempts to get books banned. In the book, we talk about and talk about suing the Florida legislature, Ron DeSantis had something called the Stop WOKE Act, which we told everyone this is laughably unconstitutional.
They tried to ban particular topics in higher ed. We’re like, “No, this is a joke. This will be laughed out of court.” They didn’t listen to us and they brought it, they passed it and we sued and we won. Now, they’re trying again with something that’s equally as unconstitutional and we will sue again and we will win.
Lex Fridman Can you elaborate on Stop WOKE Act? This is presumably trying to limit certain topics from being taught in school?
Greg Lukianoff Basically woke topics, it came out of the attempt to get at critical race theory, so it’s topics related to race, gender, et cetera. I don’t remember exactly how they tried to cabinet to CRT, but the law is really well established that you can’t tell higher education what they’re allowed to teach without violating the First Amendment.
When this got in front of a judge, he was exactly as skeptical of it as we thought he’d be. I think he called this dystopian and it wasn’t a close call.
Lex Fridman If you’re against that kind of teaching, the right way to fight it is by making the case that it’s not a good idea as part of the curriculum as opposed to banning it from the curriculum?
Greg Lukianoff Yeah. Just the state doesn’t have the power to simply say to ban what professors in higher education teach. Now, it gets a little more complicated when you talk about K-12 because the state has a role in deciding what public K-12 teaches because they’re your kids.
It’s taxpayer funded and generally the legislature is involved. There is democratic oversight of that process.
Lex Fridman For K-12, is there also a lean towards the left in terms of the administration that manages the curriculum?
Greg Lukianoff Yeah, there definitely is in K-12. I mean, my kids go to public school. I have a five and a seven-year-old. They have lovely teachers, but we have run into a lot of problems with education schools at FIRE. A lot of the graduates of education school end up being the administrators who clamp down on free speech in higher education. I’ve been trying to think of positive ways to take on some of the problems that I see in K-12. I thought that the attempt to just dictate you won’t teach the following 10 books or 20 books or 200 books was the wrong way to do it. Now, when it comes to deciding what books are in the curriculum, again, that’s something a legislature actually can have some say in.
That’s pretty uncontroversial in terms of the law. When it comes to how you fight it, I had something that since I’m stuck with a formula I called Empowering of the American Mind, I gave principles that were inconsistent with the groupthink and heavy emphasis on identity politics that some of the critics are rightfully complaining about in K-12.
That is actually in The Canceling of the American Mind, but I have a more detailed explanation of it that I’m going to be putting up on my blog, The Eternally Radical Idea.
Lex Fridman Is it possible to legally, this is a silly question, perhaps create an extra protection for certain kinds of literature 1984 or something to remain in the curriculum? I mean, it’s already all protected, I guess, to protect against administrators from fiddling too much with the curriculum like stabilizing the curriculum. I don’t know what the machinery of the K-12 public school.
Greg Lukianoff In K-12 state legislatures-
Lex Fridman They’re part of that.
Greg Lukianoff … they’re part of that and they can say, “You should teach the following books.”Now, of course, people are always a little bit worried that if they were to recommend teach the Declaration of Independence, that it will end up being, “Well, they’re going to teach the Declaration of Independence was just to protect slavery, which it wasn’t.
Lex Fridman Teaching a particular topic matters, which textbooks you choose, which perspective you take all that kind of stuff. Of course, there’s religion starts to creep into the whole question of how is the Bible, are you allowed to incorporate that into education?
Greg Lukianoff I am an atheist with an intense interest in religion. I actually read the entire Bible this year just because I do stuff like that. I never actually had read it from beginning to end. Then, I read the Quran because, and I’m going to try to do the Book of Mormon.
Lex Fridman Sorry, you’re so fascinating. Do you recommend doing that?
Greg Lukianoff I think you should just to know, because such a touchstone in the way people talk about things, it can get pretty tedious. I even made myself read through all of the very specific instructions on how tall the different parts of the temple need to be and how long the garbs need to be and what shape they need to be.
Those go on a lot, surprisingly a big chunk of Exodus. I thought that was more like in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but then you get to books like Job Wow, I mean Job is such a read and no way Job originally had that ending. Job is basically, it starts out as this perverse bet between God and Satan about whether or not they can actually make a good man renounce God.
Initially, they can’t, it’s all going very predictably. Then, they finally really tortured job and he turns into the best, why is God cruel? How could God possibly exist? How could a kind God do these things? He turns into the best lawyer in the entire world and he defeats everyone, all the people who come to argue with him, he argues the pants off of them.
Then, suddenly at the end, God shows up and He’s like, “Well, I am everywhere.” It’s a very confusing answer. He gives an answer like, “I am there when lionesses give birth and I am there. By the way, there’s this giant monster Leviathan that’s very big and it’s very scary and I have to manage the universe.”
I’m like, “God, are you saying that you’re very busy? Is that essentially your argument to Job. You don’t mention the whole that I have a bet, that’s why I was torturing you, that doesn’t come up. Then at the end, he decide God’s decides Job’s like, “No, you’re totally right. I was totally wrong, sorry.”
God says, “I’m going to punish those people who tried to argue with you and didn’t win.” He gets rid of the, I don’t know exactly what he does to them, I don’t remember. Then he gives Job all his money back and it makes him super prosperous. I’m like, “No way that was the original ending of that book because this was clearly a beloved novel that they were like, “But it can’t have that ending.”
It’s a long way of saying, I actually think it’s worthwhile. Some of it was you’re always surprised when you end up in there are parts of it that will sneak up on you like Isaiah’s a trip. Ecclesiastes, Depeche Mode.
Lex Fridman You said you also the Quran.
Greg Lukianoff Which was fascinating.
Lex Fridman It’d be interesting to ask, is there a tension between the study of religious texts or the following of religion and just believing in God and following the various aspects of religion with freedom of speech?
Greg Lukianoff In the First Amendment, we have something that we call the religion clause. I’ve never liked calling it just that because it’s two brilliant things right next to each other. The state may not establish an official religion, but it cannot interfere with your right to practice your religion. Beautiful, two things at the same time, and I think they’re both exactly right.
I think sometimes the right gets very excited of the free exercise clause and the Left gets very excited about establishment. I like the fact that we have both of them together. Now, how does this relate to freedom of speech and how does it relate to the curriculum like we were talking about.
I actually think it would be great if public schools could teach the Bible in the sense of read it as a historical document. Back when I was at the ACLU, every time I saw people trying this, it always turned into them actually advocating for a Catholic or a Protestant or some or Orthodox even read on religion.
If you actually make it into something advocating for a particular view on religion, then it crosses into the establishment clause side. Americans haven’t figured out a way to actually teach it, so it’s probably better that you learn outside of a public school class.
Lex Fridman Do you think it’s possible to teach religion from world religions course without disrespecting the religions?
Greg Lukianoff I think the answer is it depends on from whose perspective?
Lex Fridman Well, the practitioner say an orthodox follower of a particular religion, is it possible to not piss you off in teaching all the major religions of the world?
Greg Lukianoff For some people, the bottom line is you have to teach it as true. Under those conditions then the answer is no, you can’t teach it without offending someone at least.
Lex Fridman Can’t you say these people believe it’s true to reform, so you have to walk on eggshells essentially?
Greg Lukianoff You can try really hard and you will still make some people angry, but serious people will be like, “No, we actually tried to be fair to the beliefs here.” I try to be respectful as much as I can about a lot of this. I still find myself much more drawn to both Buddhism and stoicism though.
College rankings by freedom of speech
Lex Fridman Where do I go? One interesting thing to get back to college campuses is FIRE keeps the college free speech rankings at rankings.thefire.org.
Greg Lukianoff I’m very proud of them.
Lex Fridman I’d highly recommend because forget even just the ranking, you get to learn a lot about the universities from this entirely different perspective than people are used to when they go to pick whatever university they want to go to. It just gives another perspective on the whole thing.
It gives quotes from people that are students there and so on about their experiences. Maybe you could speak to the various measures here before we talk about who’s in the top five and who’s in the bottom five. What are the different parameters that contribute to the evaluation?
Greg Lukianoff People have been asking me since day one to do a ranking of schools according to Freedom of Speech. Even though we had the best database in existence of campus speech codes, policies that universities have that violate First Amendment or First Amendment norms, we also have the best database of, we call the disinvitation database. Actually, it’s better named the de-platforming database, which is what we’re going to call it.
Lex Fridman These are all cases where somebody was invited as a speaker to campus and they were disinvited?
Greg Lukianoff Disinvited or de-platformed also includes shouting down.
Lex Fridman They showed up and they couldn’t really speak?
Greg Lukianoff Yeah, exactly. Having that, what we really needed in order to have some serious social science to really make a serious argument about what the ranking was to be able to, one, get a better sense of how many professors were actually getting punished during this time.
Then the biggest missing element was to be able to ask students directly what the environment was like on that campus for freedom of speech. Are you comfortable disagreeing with each other? Are you comfortable disagreeing with your professors? Do you think violence is acceptable in response to a speaker?
Do you think shouting down is okay? Do you think blocking people’s access to a speaker is okay? Once we were able to get all those elements together, we first did a test run, I think in 2019 about 50. We’ve been doing it for four years now. Always trying to make the methodology more and more precise to better reflect the actual environment at particular schools.
This year, the number one school was Michigan Technological University, which was a nice surprise. The number two school was actually Auburn University, which was nice to see. In the top 10, the most well-known prestigious school was actually UVA, which did really well this year.
University of Chicago was not happy that they weren’t number one, but University of Chicago was 13. They had been number one or in the top three, four years prior to that.
Lex Fridman Can you explain? It’s almost surprising, is it because of-
Lex Fridman Really? So can you explain, it’s almost surprising. Is it because of the really strong economics departments and things like this, or why?
Greg Lukianoff They had a case involving a student, they wouldn’t recognize a chapter of Turning Point U.S.A., and they made a very classic argument that we, and classic in the bad way, that we hear at campuses across the country. Oh, we have a Campus Republicans, so we don’t need this additional conservative group. And we’re like, no, I’m sorry. We’ve seen dozens and dozens, if not hundreds, of attempts to get this one particular conservative student group de-recognized or not recognized.
And so we told them, like listen, we told them at FIRE that we consider this serious and they wouldn’t recognize the group. So that’s a point down in our ranking. And it was enough to knock them from, they probably would’ve been number two in the rankings, but now they’re 13 out of 248. They’re still one of the best schools in the country. I have no problem saying that. The school that did not do so well at a negative 10.69, negative 10.69, and we rounded up to zero, was Harvard. And Harvard has been not very happy with that result.
Lex Fridman The only school to receive the abysmal ranking.
Greg Lukianoff And there are a couple of people-
Lex Fridman Oh, Harvard.
Greg Lukianoff Oh, Harvard. And there are a couple people who have actually been really, I think making a mistake by getting very Harvard sounding, by being like, I’ve had statisticians look at this, and they think your methodology is a joke. And pointing out, an this case wasn’t that important, and that scholar wasn’t, one of the arguments against one of the scholars that we counted against them for punishing was that wasn’t a very famous or influential scholar.
So your argument seems to be snobbery, like essentially you’re not understanding our methodology for one thing. And then you’re saying that actually that scholar wasn’t important enough to count. And by the way, Harvard, if we-
Lex Fridman That’s the Harvard camera.
Greg Lukianoff … even if we took all of your arguments as true, even if we decided to get rid of those two professors, you would still be in negative numbers. You would still be dead last, you would still be after Georgetown and Penn. And neither of those schools are good for freedom of speech.
Lex Fridman I should say, the bottom five is the University of Pennsylvania, like you said, Penn, the University of South Carolina, Georgetown University, and Fordham University,
Greg Lukianoff All very well-earned. They have so many bad cases at all of those schools.
Lex Fridman What’s the best way to find yourself in the bottom five, if you are a university? What’s the fastest way to that negative, to that zero?
Greg Lukianoff A lot of de-platforming. When we looked at the bottom five, 81% of attempts to get speakers de-platformed were successful at the bottom five. There were a couple of schools, I think Penn included, where every single attempt, every time a student group objected to that speaker coming, they canceled the speech. And I think Georgetown was a 100% success rate. I think Penn had a 100% success rate. I think Harvard did stand up for a couple, but mostly people got de-platformed there as well.
Lex Fridman So how do you push back on de-platforming? Well, who would do it? Is it other students? Is it faculty? Is it the administration? What’s the dynamics of pushing back of, basically, because I imagine some of it is culture, but I imagine every university has a bunch of students who will protest basically every speaker. And it’s a question of how you respond to that protest.
Greg Lukianoff Well, here’s the dirty little secret about the big change in 2014 and FIRE, and me, and Height have been very clear that the big change that we saw on campus was that for most of my career, students were great on freedom of speech. They were the best constituency for free speech, absolutely unambiguously until about 2013, 2014. And it was only in 2014 where we had these very kind of sad for us experience where suddenly students were the ones advocating for de-platforming and new speech codes, in a similar way that they had been doing in say the mid-eighties, for example. But here’s the dirty little secret.
It’s not just the students, it’s students and administrators, sometimes only a handful of them though, working together to create some of these problems. And this was exactly what happened at Stanford when Kyle Duncan, a Fifth Circuit Judge tried to speak at my alma mater and a fifth of the class showed up to shout him down. It was a real showing of what was going on. That 10 minutes into the shout down of a Fifth Circuit Judge, and I keep on emphasizing that because I’m a constitutional lawyer, Fifth Circuit Judges are big deals. They’re one level below the Supreme Court.
About a fifth of the school shows up to shout him down. After 10 minutes of shouting him down, an administrator, a DI administrator, gets up with a prepared speech that she’s written that’s a seven-minute-long speech where she talks about free speech, maybe the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.
And we are at this law school where people could learn to challenge these norms. So it’s clear that there was coordination amongst some of these administrators. And from talking to students there, they were in meetings, extensive meetings for a long time. They show up, do a shout down, then they take additional seven minutes to lecture the speaker on free speech, the juice of free speech not being worth the squeeze. And then for the rest of it, it’s just constant heckling after she leaves.
This is clearly, and something very similar happened a number of times at Yale, where it was very clearly administrators were helping along with a lot of these disruptions. So I think every time there is a shout down at a university, the investigation should be first and foremost, did administrators help create this problem? Did they do anything to stop it? Because I think a lot of what’s really going on here is the hyper bureaucratization of universities with a lot more ideological people who think of their primary job as basically policing speech, more or less. They’re encouraging students, sorry, they’re encouraging students who have opinions they like, to do shout downs.
And that’s why they really need to investigate this. And it is at Stanford, the administrator who gave the prepared remarks about the juice not being worth the squeeze. She has not been invited back to Stanford, but she’s one of the only examples I can think of, when these things happen a lot where an administrator clearly facilitated something that was a shout down or a de-platforming, or resulted in a professor getting fired, or resulted in a student getting expelled, where the administrator has got off scot-free or probably, in some cases, even gotten a promotion.
Lex Fridman And so a small number of administrators, maybe even a single administrator, could participate in the encouraging and the organization, and thereby empower the whole process.
Greg Lukianoff And that’s something I’ve seen throughout my entire career. And the only thing that’s kind of hard to catch this sort of in the act, so to speak, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s helpful for people to know about this. Because there was this amazing case. This was at University of Washington, and we actually featured this in a documentary made in 2015 that came out in 2015, 2016, called Can We Take a Joke?
And this was when we started noticing something was changing on campus. We also heard that comedians were saying that they couldn’t use their good humor anymore. This was right around the time that Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock said that they didn’t want to play on campuses, because they couldn’t be funny. But we featured a case of a comedian who wanted to do a musical called The Passion of the Musical, making Fun of the Passion of the Christ, with the stated goal of offending everyone, every group equally. It was very much a South Park mission. And it’s an unusual case because we actually got documentation of administrators buying tickets for angry students and holding an event where they trained them to jump up in the middle of it and shout, I’m offended. They bought them tickets, they sent them to this thing with the goal of shouting it down. Now, unsurprisingly, when you send an angry group of students to shut down a play, it’s not going to end at just, I’m offended. And it got heated.
There were death threats being thrown, and then the Pullman Washington Police told Chris Lee, the guy who made the play, that they wouldn’t actually protect him. Now it’s not every day you’re going to have that kind of hard evidence of actually seeing the administrators be so brazen that they recorded the fact that they bought them tickets and sent them. But I think a lot of that stuff is going on, and I think it’s a good excuse to cut down on one of the big problems in higher education today, which is hyper bureaucratization.
Lex Fridman In your experience, is there a distinction between administrators and faculty in terms of perpetrators of these kinds of things? So if we got rid of all, Harvey’s talked about getting rid of a large percentage of the administration, does that help fix the problem? Or is the faculty also, small percent of the faculty, also part of the encouraging in the organization of these kind of cancel models?
Greg Lukianoff And that’s something that has been profoundly disappointing, is that when you look at the huge uptick in attempts to get professors fired that we’ve seen over the last 10 years, and actually over the last 22 years, as far back as our records go. At first, they were overwhelmingly led by administrators, attempts to get professors punished. And that was most, I’d say that was my career up until 2013, was fighting back at administrative excesses. Then you start having the problem in 2014 of students trying to get people canceled, and that really accelerated in 2017. So one thing that makes it easier to document are the petitions to get professors fired or punished, and how disproportionately those actually do come from students. But another big uptick has been fellow professors demanding that their fellow professors get punished. And that to me-
Lex Fridman Makes me really sad.
Greg Lukianoff It’s kind of shameful. You shouldn’t be proud of signing the petition to get your fellow professor. And what’s even more shameful is that we get, this has almost become a cliche within FIRE, when someone is facing one of these cancellation campaigns as a professor. I would get letters from some of my friends saying, I am so sorry this has happened to you, and these were the same people who publicly signed the petition to get them fired.
Lex Fridman Yeah, integrity. Integrity is an important thing in this world, and I think some of it, I’m so surprised people don’t stand up more for this. There’s so much hunger for it. And if you have the guts as a faculty or an administrator to really stand up with eloquence, with rigor, with integrity, I feel like it’s impossible for anyone to do anything because there’s such a hunger. It’s so refreshing. I think everybody agrees that freedom of speech is a good thing.
Greg Lukianoff Oh, I don’t-
Lex Fridman Well, okay, sorry, sorry.
Greg Lukianoff I don’t agree.
Lex Fridman The majority of people, even at the universities, that there’s a hunger, but it’s almost like this kind of nervousness around it because there’s a small number of loud voices that are doing the shouting. So again, that’s where great leadership comes in. And so presidents of universities should probably be making clear declarations of this is a place where we value the freedom of expression.
Greg Lukianoff And this, all throughout my career, a president, a university president who puts their foot down early and says, nope, we are not entertaining firing this professor. We are not expelling this student. It ends the issue often very fast. Although sometimes, and this is where you can really tell the administrative involvement, students will do things like takeover the president’s office and then that takeover will be catered by the university.
People will point this out sometimes as being kind of like, oh, it was clearly, my friend Sam Abrams, when they tried to get him fired at Sarah Lawrence College. That was one of the times that it was used as oh, this was hostile to the university because the students took over the president’s office. And I’m like, no, they let them take over the president’s office. And I don’t know if that was one of the cases in which the takeover was catered, but if there was ever a sign that’s kind of like, yes, this is actually really quite friendly.
Lex Fridman Well, in some sense, protesting and having really strong opinions, even ridiculous, crazy wild opinions, is a good thing. It’s just it shouldn’t lead to actual firing or de-platforming of people. It’s good to protest, it’s just not good for the university to support that and take action based on it.
Greg Lukianoff And this is one of those tensions in First Amendment that actually I think has a pretty easy release, essentially. You absolutely have the right to devote your life to ending freedom of speech and ridiculing it as a concept. And there are people who really can come off as very contemptible about even the philosophy of freedom of speech, and we will defend your right to do that. We will also disagree with you, and if you try to get a professor fired, we’ll be on the other side of that.
Now, I think you had Randy Kennedy, who I really, I love him. I think he’s a great guy, but he criticized us for our de-platforming database as saying this is saying that students can’t protest speakers. I’m like, okay, that’s silly. We, FIRE, as an organization, have defended the right to protest all the time. We are constantly defending the rights to protestors, not believing that the protestors have the right to say this, basically that would be punishing the speakers. We’re not calling for punishing the protestors, but what we are saying is you can’t let the protestors win if they’re demanding someone be fired for their freedom of speech.
Lex Fridman So the line there is between protestors protesting and the university taking action based on the protest.
Greg Lukianoff Yeah, exactly. And of course, shout downs, that’s just mob censorship. And that’s something where the university, the way you deal with that tension in First Amendment law is essentially of the one positive duty that the government has. The first, the negative duty, the thing that it’s not allowed to do is censor you. But its positive duty is that if I want to say awful things, or for that matter, great things that aren’t popular in a public park, you can’t let the crowd just shout me down. You can’t allow what’s called a heckler’s veto.
Lex Fridman Heckler’s veto. That’s so interesting, because I feel like that comes into play on social media as well. There’s this whole discussion about censorship and freedom of speech, but to me, the carrot question is almost more interesting. Once the freedom of speech is established is, how do you incentivize high quality debate and disagreement?
Greg Lukianoff I’m thinking a lot about that, and that’s one of the things we talk about in canceling of the American mind, is arguing towards truth. And that cancel culture is cruel, it’s merciless, it’s anti-intellectual, but it also will never get you anywhere near truth. And you are going to waste so much time destroying your opponents in something that can actually never get you to truth through the process, of course, of you never actually get directly at truth, you just chip away at falsity.
Lex Fridman But everybody having a megaphone on the internet with anonymity, it seems like it’s better than censorship, but it feels like there’s incentives on top of that you can construct to incentivize better discourse. To incentivize somebody who puts a huge amount of effort to make even the most ridiculous arguments, but basically ones that don’t include any of the things you highlight in terms of all the rhetorical tricks to shut down conversations. Just make really good arguments for whatever, it doesn’t matter if it’s communism for fascism, whatever the heck you want to say. But do it with skill, with historical context, with steel-manning the other side, all those kinds of elements.
Greg Lukianoff We try to make three major points in the book. One is just simply cancel culture is real. It’s a historic era and it’s on a historic scale. The second one is you should think of cancel culture as part of a rhetorical, as a larger, lazy, rhetorical approach to what we refer to as winning arguments without winning arguments. We mean that in two senses without having winning arguments or actually having won arguments. We talk about all the different, what we call rhetorical fortresses, that both the left and the right have that prevent you from, that allow you to just dismiss the person, or dodge the argument, without actually ever getting to the substance of the argument.
Third part is just how do we fix it? But the rhetorical fortress stuff is actually something I’ve very passionate about because it interferes with our ability to get at truth and it wastes time. And frankly, it also, since cancel culture is part of that rhetorical tactic, it can also ruin lives.
Lex Fridman It would actually be really fun to talk about this particular aspect of the book, and I highly recommend if you’re listening to this, go pre-order the book now. When does it come out?
Greg Lukianoff October 17th.
Lex Fridman Okay. The Canceling of the American Mind. So in the book, you also have a list of cheap rhetorical tactics that both the left and the right use, and then you have a list of tactics that the left uses and the right uses. So there’s the rhetorical, the perfect rhetorical fortress that the left uses, and the efficient rhetorical fortress that the right uses.
First one is what about-ism. Maybe we can go through a few of them that capture your heart in this particular moment as we talk about it. And if you can describe examples of it or if there’s aspects of it that you see that are especially effective. So what about-ism is defending against criticism of your side by bringing up the other side’s alleged wrongdoing.
Greg Lukianoff I want to make little cards of all of these tactics and start using them on X all the time, because they’re so commonly deployed. And what about-ism I put first for a reason.
Lex Fridman It’d be an interesting idea to actually integrate that into Twitter/X, where people, instead of clicking heart, they can click which of the rhetorical tactics this is. And then there’s actually community notes. I don’t know if you’ve seen on X, people can contribute notes and it’s quite fascinating. It works really, really well. But to give it a little more structure, that’s a really interesting method actually.
Greg Lukianoff I actually, when I was thinking about ways that X could be used to argue towards truth, I wouldn’t want to have it so that everybody would be bound to that. But I think, imagine almost being a stream within X that was truth focused, that agrees to some additional rules on how they would argue.
Lex Fridman Man, I would love that. Where there’s, in terms of streams that intersect and could be separated, the shit-talking one, where people just enjoy talking shit.
Greg Lukianoff Go for it, man.
Lex Fridman And then there’s truth, and then there’s humor, then there’s good vibes. I’m not somebody who absolutely needs good vibes all the time, but sometimes-
Greg Lukianoff It’s nice to have.
Lex Fridman … it’s nice to just log in and not have to see the drama, the fighting, the bickering, the cancellations, the moms, all of this. It’s good to just see, that’s why I go to Reddit, or Ahh, or whatever, the cute animals ones where there’s cute puppies and kittens and it’s like-
Greg Lukianoff I just want to see Ryan Reynolds singing with Will Ferrell.
Lex Fridman Sometimes it’s all you need.
Greg Lukianoff I need that in my heart.
Lex Fridman Yeah, not all the time, just a little bit, then right back to the battle for truth. Okay, so what about-ism.
Greg Lukianoff What about-ism, that’s everywhere when you look at it. When you look at Twitter, when you look at social media in general. And the first, what we call the obstacle course is basically time-tested, old-fashioned, argumentative dodges that everybody uses. And what about-ism is just bringing up something, someone makes an argument like Biden is corrupt, and then someone says, well Trump was worse.
And that’s not an illegitimate argument to make back, but it seems to happen every time someone makes an assertion, someone just points out some other thing that was going on, and it can get increasingly attenuated from what you’re actually trying to argue. And you see this all the time on social media. And I was a big fan of John Stewart’s daily show, but an awful lot of what the humor was and what the tactic was for arguing was this thing over here. It’s like, oh, I’m making this argument about this important problem. Oh, actually there’s this other problem over here that I’m more concerned about.
Let’s pick on the right here. So January 6th, watching everybody arguing about CHOP, like the occupied part of Seattle or the occupied part of Portland, and basically trying to like, oh, you’re bringing up the riot on January 6th, and by the way, I live on Capitol Hill. So believe me, I was very aware of how scary and bad it was. My dad grew up in Yugoslavia, and that was a night where we all ate dinner in the basement, like, oh, when the shit goes down, eat in the basement. It was genuinely scary.
And people would try to deflect from January 6th being serious by actually making the argument that, oh, well, there are crazy horrible things happening in all over the country. Riots that came from some of the social justice protests. And of course the answer is, you can be concerned about both of these things and find them both problems. But if I’m arguing about CHOP, someone bringing up January 6th isn’t super relevant to it. Or if I’m arguing about January 6th, someone bringing up the riots in 2020, isn’t that helpful.
Lex Fridman We took a long dark journey from what about-ism, and related to that is straw-manning and steel-manning. So misrepresenting the perspective of the opposing perspective. And this is something also, I guess, it’s very prevalent and it’s difficult to do the reverse of that, which is, steel-manning requires empathy or requires eloquence. It requires understanding, actually doing the research and understanding the alternative perspective.
Greg Lukianoff My wonderful employee, Angel Eduardo, has something that he calls star-manning, and I find myself doing this a lot. It’s nice to have two immigrant parents, because I remember being in San Francisco in the weird kind of a ACLU/Burning Man kind of cohort, and having a friend there who was an artist who would talk about hating Kansas. And that was his metaphor for middle America, is what he meant by it. But he was kind of proud of the fact that he hated Kansas. And I’m like, you got to understand, I still see all of you a little bit as foreigners and think about change the name of Kansas to Croatia, change the name of Kansas to some, that’s what it sounds like to me.
And the star-manning idea, which I like, is the idea of being like, so you’re saying that you really hate your dominant religious minority, and that’s when you start actually detaching yourself a little bit from it, how typical. America is exceptional in a number of ways, but some of our dynamics are incredibly typical.
It’s one of the reasons why when people start reading Thomas Sowell for example, they start getting hooked, because one of the things he does is he does comparative analysis of country’s problems and points out that some of these things that we think are just unique to the United States exist in 75% of the rest of the countries in the world.
Francis Fukuyama’s, the book that I’m reading right now, Origins of the Political Order, actually does this wonderful job of pointing out how we’re not special in a variety of ways. This is actually something that’s very much on my mind. And Fukuyama, of course, it’s a great book. It’s stilted a little bit in its writing because his term for one of the things he’s concerned about what destroys societies is repatrimonilization, which is the reversion to societies in which you favor your family and friends.
And I actually think a lot of what I’m seeing in the United States, it makes me worried that we might be going through a little bit of a process of repatrimonialization. And I think that’s one of the reasons why people are so angry.
I think the prospect that we very nearly seem to have an election that was going to be Jeb Bush versus Hillary Clinton. It’s like, are we a dynastic country now? Is that what’s kind of happening? But also it’s one of the reasons why people are getting so angry about legacy admissions, about how much certain families seem to be able to keep their people in the upper classes of the United States perpetually. And believe me, we were poor when I was a kid and I got to go to one of the fancies, I got to go to Stanford.
And I got to see how people, they treat you differently in a way that’s almost insulting, basically suddenly to a certain kind of person. I was a legitimate person. And I look at how much America relies on Harvard, on Yale, to produce its, I’m going to use a very Marxist sounding term, ruling class. And that’s one of the reasons why you have to be particularly worried about what goes on at these elite colleges. And these elite colleges, with the exception of University of Chicago and UVA, do really badly regarding freedom of speech, and that has all sorts of problems. It doesn’t bode well for the future of the protection of freedom of speech for the rest of the society.
Lex Fridman So can you also empathize there with the folks who voted for Donald Trump? Because as precisely that, as a resistance to this kind of momentum of the ruling class, this royalty that passes on the rule from generation to generation,
Greg Lukianoff I try really hard to empathize with, to a degree everybody, and try to really see where they’re coming from. And the anger on the right, I get it. I mean, I feel like the book, so Copying the American Mind was a book that could be sort of a crowd pleaser to a degree, partially because we really meant what we said in the subtitle that these are good intentions and bad ideas that are hurting people. And if you understand it and read the book, you can say it’s like, okay, this isn’t anybody being malicious. This is people trying to protect their kids. They’re just doing it in a way that actually can actually lead to greater anxiety, depression, and strangely, eventually pose a threat to freedom of speech.
But in this one, we can’t be quiet. Me and my, oh, I haven’t even mentioned my brilliant co-author, Rikki Schlott, a 23-year-old genius. She’s amazing. I started working with her when she was 20, who’s my co-author on this book. So when I’m saying we, I’m talking about me and Rikki.
Lex Fridman She’s a libertarian.
Greg Lukianoff Libertarian journalist.
Lex Fridman And a journalist, and has a brilliant mind.
Greg Lukianoff But we can’t actually write this in a way that’s too kind because cancelers aren’t kind. There’s a cruelty and a mercilessness about it. I started getting really depressed this past year when I was writing it, and I didn’t even want to tell my staff why I was getting so anxious and depressed. It’s partially because I’m talking about people who will, in some of the cases we’re talking about, go to your house, target your kids.
So that’s a long-winded way of saying, I kind of can get what sort of drives the right nuts to a degree in this. I feel like they’re constantly feeling like they’re being gaslit. Elite education is really insulting to the working class. Part of the ideology that is dominant right now kind of treats almost 70% of the American public like they’re, we developed this a little bit in the perfect rhetorical fortress, like they’re to some way illegitimate and not worthy of respect or compassion.
Lex Fridman The general elitism that radiates, self-fueling elitism, that radiates from the people that go to these institutions.
Greg Lukianoff And what’s funny is the elitism has been repackaged as a kind of, it masquerades as kind of infinite compassion that essentially, it’s based in a sort of very, to be frank, overly simple ideology and over simple explanation of the world and breaking people into groups and judging people on how oppressed they are on the intersection of their various identities. And it came to that, I think initially, and had appeal from a compassionate core, but it gets used in a way that can be very cruel, very dismissive, compassion-less, and allows you to not take seriously most of your fellow human beings.
How the left argues
Lex Fridman It’s really weird how that happened. Maybe you can explore why a thing that has, kind of sounds good at first, can become such a cruel weapon of canceling and hurting people and ignoring people. I mean, this is what you described with a perfect rhetorical fortress, which is a set of questions. Maybe you can elaborate on what the perfect rhetorical fortress is.
Greg Lukianoff So the perfect rhetorical fortress is the way that’s been developed on the left to not ever get to someone’s actual-
Greg Lukianoff … on the left to not ever get to someone’s actual argument. I want to make a flow chart of this about here’s the argument and here is this perfect fortress that will deflect you every time from getting to the argument. I started to notice this certainly when I was in law school, that there were lots of different ways you could dismiss people. Perfect rhetorical fortress step one, and I can attest to this because I was guilty of this as well, that you can dismiss people if you can argue that they’re conservative. They don’t have to be conservative, to be clear. You just have to say that they are. I never read Thomas Sowell because he was a right-winger. I didn’t read Camille Paglia because someone had convinced me she was a right-winger. There were lots of authors when I was in law school among a lot of very bright people.
It really was already an intellectual habit that if you could designate something conservative, then you didn’t really have to think about it very much anymore or take it particularly seriously. That’s a childish way of arguing, but nonetheless, I engaged in it. It was a common tactic. I even mentioned in the book there was a time when a gay activist friend, who I think decided to lean to my left, but nonetheless had that pragmatic experience of actually being an activist, said something like, “Well, just because someone’s conservative doesn’t mean they’re wrong,” and I remember feeling scandalized at some level of just being like, “Well, no, it’s not the whole thing. What we’re saying is that they’re just kind of bad people with bad ideas.”
Lex Fridman You can just throw, “Oh, that guy’s a right-winger.” You can just throw that.
Greg Lukianoff Don’t have to think about you anymore.
Lex Fridman Yeah, and then if you’re popular enough, it can be kind of sticky, and it’s weird because-
Greg Lukianoff Because it’s effective. That’s why it keeps on getting used. Essentially, it should have hit someone’s… Because I have a great liberal pedigree. Everything from working at the ACLU to doing refugee law in Eastern Europe. I was part of an environmental mentoring program for inter-city high school kids in DC. I can defend myself as being on the left, but I hate doing that because there’s also part of me that’s like, “Okay, so what? Are you really saying that if you can magically make me argue or convince yourself that I’m on the right, that you don’t have to listen to me anymore?” Again, that’s arguing like children. The reason why this has become so popular is because even among, or maybe especially among elites, that it works so effectively as a perfect weapon that you can use uncritically. If I can just prove you’re on the right, I don’t have to think about you. It’s no wonder that suddenly you start seeing people calling the ACLU right wing and calling the New York Times right wing because it’s been such an effective way to delegitimize people as thinkers.
Steven Pinker, who’s on our board of advisors, he refers to academia as being the left pole that essentially it’s a position that from that point of view, everything looks as if it’s on the right, but once it becomes a tactic that we accept, and that’s one of the reasons why. I’m more on the left. I think I’m left or center liberal. Ricky is more conservative, libertarian, and initially, I was like, “Should I be really be writing something with someone who’s more on the right?” And I’m like, “Absolutely, I should be.” I have to actually live up to what I believe on this stuff because it’s ridiculous that we have this primitive idea that you can dismiss someone as soon as you claim rightly or wrongly that they’re on the right.
Lex Fridman Well, correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel like you were recently called right wing, FIRE, maybe you by association, because of that debate you support-
Greg Lukianoff Oh, LA Times.
Lex Fridman The LA Times?
Greg Lukianoff Oh, fun. Let’s talk about the LA Times.
Lex Fridman Yes, there’s an article, there’s a debate. I can’t wait to watch it because I don’t think it’s available yet to watch on video. You have the attend in person. I can’t wait to see it, but FIRE was in part supporting, and then LA Times wrote a scathing article about that everybody in the debate was basically leaning right.
Greg Lukianoff Okay, so much to unpack there. Bari Weiss has this great project, The Free Press. I’ve been very impressed. It’s covering stories that a lot of the media, right or left, isn’t willing to cover. We hosted a debate with her and we wanted to make it as fun and controversial as possible, so FIRE and The Free press hosted a debate, “Did the sexual revolution fail?” The debate was really exciting, really fun. The side that said that sexual revolution wasn’t a failure that Grimes and Sarah Haider were on, one, it was a nice, meaty, thoughtful night. There was a review of it that was just sort of scathing about the whole thing, and it included a line saying that, “FIRE, which claims to believe in free speech but only defends viewpoints to degrees with.”
I can’t believe that even made it into the magazine because it’s not just calling us because, of course, the implication, of course, is that we’re right wing, which we’re not. Actually, the staff leans decidedly more to the left than to the right. But we also defend people all over the spectrum all the time. That’s something that even the most minimal Google search would’ve solved. We’ve been giving LA Times some heat on this because it’s like, “Yeah, if you said, in my opinion, they’re right wing,” we would’ve argued back saying, “Well, here’s the following 50,000 examples of us not being,” but when you actually make the factual claim that we only defend opinions we agree with, first of all, there’s no way for us to agree with opinions because we actually have a politically diverse staff who won’t even agree on which opinions are good and what opinions we have.
Yeah, one time when someone did something like this and they were just being a little bit flippant about free speech being fine, I did a 70 tweet long thread just being like, “Hey, do you really think this is fine?” I decided not to do that on this particular one, but the nice thing about it is it demonstrated two parts of the book, Canceling of the American Mind, if not more. One of them is dismissing someone because they’re conservative and because that was the implication. Don’t have to listen to FIRE because they’re conservative. But the other one is something, a termite that I invented specifically for the way people argue on Twitter, which is hypocrisy projection. “Hi, I’m person who only cares about one side of the political fence and I think everyone else is a hypocrite, and by the way, I haven’t done any actual research on this, but I assume everyone else is a hypocrite.”
You see this happen all the time, and this happens to FIRE a lot where someone would be like, “Where is FIRE on this case?” And we’re like, “We are literally quoted in the link you just sent but didn’t actually read,” or it’s like, “Where’s FIRE on this?” It’s like, “Here’s our lawsuit about it from six months ago.” It’s a favorite thing, and also Jon Stewart, Daily Show, the whataboutism and the idea that these people must be hypocrites is something that greatest comedy, but as far as actually a rhetorical tactic that will get you to truth, just assuming that your opponent or just accusing your opponent of always being a hypocrite is not a good tactic for truth, but by the way, it tends to always come from people who aren’t actually consistent on free speech themselves.
Lex Fridman Hence, the projection, but basically, not doing the research about whether the person is or isn’t a hypocrite and assuming others or a large fraction of others reading it will also not do the research. Therefore, this kind of statement becomes a kind of truthiness without a grounding in actual reality. It breaks down that barrier between what is and isn’t true because if the mob says something is true, it takes too much effort to correct it.
Greg Lukianoff There are three ways I want to respond to this, which is just giving example after example of times where we defended people on both sides of basically every major issue, whether it’s Israel-Palestine, whether it’s terrorism, whether it’s gay marriage, abortion. We have defended both sides of that argument. The other part, and I call these the orphans of the culture war, I really want to urge the media to start caring about free speech cases that actually don’t have a political valence, that are actually just about good old-fashioned exercise of power against the little guy or little girl or little group on campus or off campus for that matter because these cases happen. A lot of our litigation are just regular people being told that they can’t protest, that they can’t hold signs. Then the last part of the argument that I want people to really get is like, “Yeah, and by the way, right- wingers get in trouble too, and there are attacks from the left,” and you should take those seriously too.
You should care when Republicans get in trouble. You should care when California has a DEI program that requires this… California Community Colleges has a DEI program policy that actually requires even chemistry professors to work in different DEI ideas from intersectionality to anti-racism into their classroom, into their syllabus, et cetera. This is a gross violation of economic freedom. It is as bad as it is to tell professors what they can’t say like we fought and defeated in Florida. It’s even worse to tell them what they must say. That’s downright totalitarian and we’re suing against this. What I’m saying is that when you’re dismissing someone for just being on the other side of the political fence, you are also making a claim that none of these cases matter as well, and I want people to care about censorship when it even is against people they hate.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion
Lex Fridman Censorship is censorship. If we can take that tangent briefly with DEI, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, what is the good and what is the harm of such programs?
Greg Lukianoff I know people who are DEI consultants. Actually, I have a dear friend who I love very much who does DEI. Absolutely decent people. What they want to do is create bonds of understanding, friendship, compassion among people who are different. Unfortunately, the research on what a lot of DEI actually does, there’s oftentimes the opposite of that. I think that it’s partially a problem with some of the ideology that comes from critical race theory, which is a real thing, by the way, that informs a lot of DEI that actually makes it something more likely to divide than unite. We talk about this in Coddling of the American Mind as the difference between common humanity identity politics and common enemy identity politics. I think that I know some of the people that I know who do DEI, they really want it to be common humanity identity politics, but some of the actual ideological assumptions that are baked in can actually cause people to feel more alienated from each other.
Now, when I started at FIRE, my first cases involved 9/ 11, and it was bad. Professors were getting targeted, professors were losing their jobs for saying insensitive things about 9/11, and both from the right and the left, actually. In that case, actually, it sometimes a lot more from the right. It was really bad and about five professors lost their jobs. That’s bad. Five professors in over a relatively short period of time being fired for a political opinion? That’s something that would get written up in any previous decades. We’re now evaluating how many professors have been targeted for cancellation between 2014 and middle of this year, July of 2023. We’re in well over 1,000 attempts to get professors fired or punished, usually driven by students and administrators, often driven by professors unfortunately as well. About two-thirds of those result in the professor being punished in some way, everything from having their article removed to suspension, et cetera. About one-fifth of those result in professors being fired. Right now, it’s almost 200, it’s around 190 professors being fired.
I want to give some context here. The Red Scare is generally considered to have been from 1947 to 1957. It ended, by the way, in ’57 when it finally became clear, thanks to the First Amendment, that you couldn’t actually fire people for their ideologies. Prior to that, a lot of universities thought they could. This guy is a very doctrinaire communist. “They can’t be just waited. I’m going to fire them.” They thought they actually could do that, and it was only ’57 when the law was established, so right now, these are happening in an environment where freedom of speech, academic freedom, are clearly protected at public colleges in the United States and we’re still seeing these kind of numbers. During the Red Scare, the biggest study that was done of what was going on is I think this came out in ’55, and the evaluation was that there was about 62 professors fired for being communists and about 90 something professors fired for political views overall that usually is reported as being about 100, so 60, 90, 100 depending on how you look at it.
I think the number is actually higher, but that’s only because of hindsight. What I mean by hindsight is we can look back and we actually find there were more professors who were fired as time reveals. We’re at 190 professors fired, and I still have to put up with people saying this isn’t even happening, and I’m like, “In the nine and a half years of cancel culture, 190 professors fired. In the 11 years of the Red Scare, probably somewhere around 100, or probably more.” The number’s going to keep going up, but unlike during the Red Scare where people could clearly tell something was happening, the craziest thing about cancel culture is I’m still dealing with people who are saying this isn’t happening at all, and it hasn’t been subtle on campus.
We know that’s a wild under count, by the way, because when we surveyed professors, 17% of them said that they had been threatened with investigation or actually investigated for what they taught, said, or their research, and one-third of them said that they were told by administrators not to take on controversial research. Extrapolating that out, that’s a huge number. The reason why you’re not going to hear about a lot of these cases is because there are so many different conformity inducing mechanisms in the whole thing, and that’s one of the reasons why the idea that you’d add something, like requiring a DEI statement to be hired or to get into a school under the current environment, is so completely nuts. We have had a genuine crisis of academic freedom over the last, particularly since 2017, on campuses. We have very low viewpoint diversity to begin with. Under these circumstances, administrators just start saying, “You know what the problem is? We have too much heterogeneous thought. We are not homogeneous enough. We need another political litmus test,” which is nuts.
That’s what a DEI statement effectively is because there’s no way to actually fill out a DEI statement without someone evaluating you on your politics. It’s crystal clear. We even did an experiment on this. Nate Honeycutt, he got something almost like 3,000 professors to participate evaluating different kinds of DEI statements. One was basically the standard kind of identity politics intersectionality, one was about viewpoint diversity, one was about religious diversity, and one was about socioeconomic diversity. As far as where my heart really is, it’s that we have too little socioeconomic diversity particularly in elite higher ed, but also in education period. The experiment had large participation, really interestingly set up, and it tried to model the way a lot of these DEI policies were actually implemented. One of the ways these have been implemented, and I think in some of the California schools, is that administrators go through the DEI statements before anyone else looks at them, and then eliminates people off the top depending on how they feel about their DEI statements.
The one on viewpoint diversity, I think half of the people who reviewed it would eliminate it right out. I think it was basically the same for religious diversity. It was slightly better, like 40%, for socioeconomic diversity, but that kills me. The idea that kind of like, “Yeah, that actually is the kind of diversity that I think we need a great deal more of in higher education.” You can agree with… It’s not hostile to the other kinds by the way, but the idea that we need more people from the bottom of three quarters of American society in higher education, I think, should be something we could all get around, that the only one that really succeeded was the one that sprouted back exactly the kind of ideology that they thought the readers would like, which is like, okay, there’s no way this couldn’t be a political litmus test. We’ve proved that it’s a political litmus test test, and still, school after school is adding these to its application process to make schools still more ideologically homogenous.
Lex Fridman Why does that have a negative effect? Is it because it enforces a kind of group think where people start becoming afraid to sort of think and speak freely, liberally, about whatever?
Greg Lukianoff Well, one, it selects for people who tend to be farther to the left in a situation where you already have people, a situation where universities do lean decidedly that way, but it also establishes essentially a set of sacred ideas that if you’re being quizzed on what you’ve done to advance anti-racism, how you’ve been conscious of intersectionality, it’s unlikely that you’d actually get in if you said, “By the way, I actually think these are dubious concepts. I think they’re thin. I think they’re philosophically not very defensible.” Basically, if your position was, “I actually reject these concepts as being over simple,” you’re not going to get in. I think that the person that I always think of that wasn’t a right-winger that would be like, “Go to hell,” if you made him fill one of these things out, it’s Feynman. I feel like if you gave one of these things to Richard Feynman, he would tear it to pieces and then not get the chop.
Lex Fridman Yeah, there’s some element of it that creates this hard to pin down fear. You said the firing… The thing I wanted to say is firing 100 people or 200 people. The point is even firing one person, I’ve just seen it, it can create this quiet ripple effect of fear.
Greg Lukianoff Of course.
Lex Fridman That single firing of a faculty-
Greg Lukianoff Oh, absolutely.
Lex Fridman … has a ripple effect across tens of thousands of people, of educators, of who is hired, what kind of conversations are being had, what kind of textbooks are chosen, what kind of self-censorship and different flavors of that is happening. It’s hard to measure that.
Greg Lukianoff Yeah. When you ask professors about are they intimidated under the current environment, the answer is yes, and particularly, conservative professors already reporting that they’re afraid for their jobs in a lot of different cases.
Lex Fridman You have a lot of good statistics in the book, things like self-censorship. One provided with a definition of self-censorship, at least a quarter of students said they self-censor fairly often or very often during conversations with other students, with professors, and during classroom discussions, 25%, 27%, and 28% respectively. A quarter of students also said that they are more likely to self-censor on campus now at the time they were surveyed than they were when they first started college. So college is kind of instilling this idea of self-censorship.
Greg Lukianoff Back to the Red Scare comparison, and this is one of the interesting things about the data as well, is that that same study that I was talking about, the most comprehensive study of the Red Scare, there was polling about whether or not professors were self-censoring due to the fear of the environment, and 9% of professors said that they were self-censoring their research and that what they were saying. 9% is really bad. That’s almost a tenth of professors saying that their speech was chilled. When we did this question for professors on our latest faculty survey, when you factor together, if we ask them are they self-censoring in their research, are they self-censoring in class, are they self-censoring online, et cetera, it was 90% of professors. So the idea that we’re actually in an environment that is historic in terms of how scared people are actually of expressing controversial views, I think that it’s the reason why we’re going to actually be studying this in 50 years the same way we study the Red Scare. The idea that this isn’t happening is we’ll just be correctly viewed as insane.
Why colleges lean left
Lex Fridman So maybe we can just discuss the current leaning of academia goes to the left, which you describe in various different perspectives. One, there’s a voter registration ratio chart that you have by department, which I think is interesting. Can you explain this chart and can you explain what it shows?
Greg Lukianoff Yeah. When I started FIRE in 2001, I didn’t take the viewpoint diversity issue as seriously. I thought it was just something that right-wingers complained about. But I really started to get what happens when you have a community with low viewpoint diversity, and actually, a lot of the research that I got most interested in was done in conjunction with the great Cass Sunstein who writes a lot about group polarization because as… The research on this is very strong that essentially, when you have groups with political diversity, and you can see this actually in judges, for example, it tends to produce reliably more moderate outcomes, whereas groups that have low political diversity tend to sort of spiral off in their own direction. When you have a super majority of people from just one political perspective, that’s a problem for the production of ideas. It creates a situation where there are sacred ideas.
When you look at some of the departments, I think the estimate from the Crimson is that Harvard has 3% conservatives, but when you look at different departments, there are elite departments that have literally no conservatives in them, and I think that’s an unhealthy intellectual environment. The problem is definitely worse as you get more elite. We definitely see more cases of lefty professors getting canceled at less elite schools. It gets worse as you get down from the elite schools. That’s where a lot of the one-third of attempts to get professors punished that are successful do come from the right and largely from off-campus sources, and we spend a lot of time talking about that in the book as well. It’s something that I do think is underappreciated, but when it comes to the low viewpoint diversity, it works out like you’d expect to a degree. Economics is what? Four to one or something like that? It’s not as bad, but then when you start getting into some of the humanities, there are departments that there are literally none.
Lex Fridman Is there a good to why did the university faculty administration move to the left?
Greg Lukianoff Yeah, I don’t love… This is an argument that you’ll sometimes run into on the left, just the argument that, well, people on the left are just smarter.
Lex Fridman Right.
Greg Lukianoff It’s like, “Okay.” It’s interesting because at least the research as of 10 years ago was indicating that if you dig a little bit deeper into that, a lot of the people who do consider themselves on the left tend to be a little bit more libertarian. There’s something that Pinker wrote a fair amount about. The idea that we’re just smarter is not an opinion I’m at least a bit comfortable with. I do think that departments take on momentum when they become a place where you’re like, “Wow, it’d be really unpleasant for me to work in this department if I’m the token conservative,” and I think that takes on a life of its own.
There are also departments where a lot of the ideologies kind of explicitly leftist. You look at education schools, a lot of the stuff that is actually left over from what is correctly called critical race theories is present, and you end up having that in a number of the departments, and it would be very strange to be in many departments a conservative social worker professor. I’m sure they exist, but there’s a lot of pressure to shut up if you are.
Lex Fridman The process on the left of cancellation, as you started to talk about with the perfect rhetorical fortress, the first step is dismiss a person. If you can put a label of conservative on them, you can dismiss them in that way. What other efficient or what other effective dismissal mechanisms are there?
Greg Lukianoff Yeah. We have a little bit of fun with demographic numbers, and I run this by height, and I remember him being like, “Don’t include the actual percentage.” I’m like, “No, we need to include the actual percentages because people are really bad at estimating what the demographics of the US actually looks like, both the right and the left in different ways.” So we put it in the numbers and we talk about being dismissed for being white, or being dismissed for being straight, or being dismissed for being male, and you can already dismiss people for being conservative, and so we give examples in the book of these being used to dismiss people and oftentimes on topics not related to the fact that they’re a male or whether or not they’re a minority.
Then we get to, I think it’s layer six and we’re like, “Surprise. Guess what? You’re down to 0.4% of the population and none of it mattered because if you have the wrong opinion, even if you’re in that 0.4% of the most intersectional person who ever lived and you have the wrong opinion, you’re a heretic and you actually probably will be hated even more.” The most interesting part of the research we did for this was just asking every prominent Black conservative and moderate that we knew personally, “Have you been told that you’re not really Black for an opinion you had?” Every single one of them was like, “Oh, yeah.” No, and it’s kind of funny because oftentimes, white lefties telling them that’s like, “Oh, do you consider yourself Black?”
John McWhorter talked about when he showed that he dissented from some of what he described as woke racism in his book, Woke Ideas. The reporter actually is like, “So do you consider yourself Black?” He was like, “What? Are you crazy? Of course, I do.” Coleman Hughes had one of the best quotes on it. He said, “I’m constantly being told that the most important thing to how legitimate my opinion is is whether or not I’m Black, but then when I have a dissenting opinion, I get told I’m not really Black, so perfect.” There’s no way to falsify this argument. That investigation really struck me.
Lex Fridman You lay this out really nicely in the book, that there is this process of saying, “Are you conservative? Yes, you can dismiss the person. Are you white? Dismiss the person. Are you male? You can dismiss the person.” There’s these categories that make it easier for you to dismiss a person’s ideas based on that, and like you said, you end up in that tiny percentage and you could still dismiss.
Greg Lukianoff It’s not just dismiss. We talk about this from a practical standpoint, the way the limitations on reality, and one of them is time, and a lot of cancel culture as cultural norms, as this way of winning arguments without winning arguments is about running out the clock because by the time you get down to the bottom of… Or actually even to get a couple steps into the perfect rhetorical fortress, and where has the time gone? You probably just give up trying to actually have the argument and you never get to the argument in the first place.
Lex Fridman All of these things are pretty sticky on social media.
Greg Lukianoff Social media practically invented the perfect rhetorical fortress.
Lex Fridman So that each one of those stages has a virality to it so it could stick and then it can get people really excited.
Greg Lukianoff It allows you to feel outrage and superiority.
How the right argues
Lex Fridman Yeah, because of that at the scale of the virality allows you to never get to the actual discussion of the point, but it’s not just the left, it’s the right. It’s also a efficient rhetorical fortress, so something to be proud of on the right, it’s more efficient so you don’t have to listen to liberals, and anyone can be labeled a liberal if they have a wrong opinion. I’ve seen liberal and left and leftist all used in the same kind of way. That’s leftist nonsense. You don’t have to listen to experts, even conservative experts, if they have the wrong opinion. You don’t have to listen to journalists, even conservative journalists, if they have the wrong opinion, and among the MAGA wing, there’s a fourth provision. You don’t need to listen to anyone who isn’t pro-Trump.
Greg Lukianoff Yeah, and we call it efficient because it eliminates a lot of people you probably should listen to at least sometimes. We point out sometimes how cancel culture can interfere with faith and expertise, so we get kind of being a little suspicious of experts, but at the same time, if you follow that and you follow it mechanically, and I definitely… I think everybody in the US probably has some older uncle who exercises some of these. It is a really efficient way to wall yourself off from the rest of the world and dismiss at least some people you really should be listening to.
Lex Fridman The way you laid it out, it made me realize that we just take up so much of our brain power with these-
Lex Fridman … is that we just take up so much of our brain power-
Greg Lukianoff So much time.
Lex Fridman With these things. It’s literally time-
Greg Lukianoff We could be solving things.
Lex Fridman And you exhaust yourself through this process of being outraged based on these labels and you never get to actually… There’s almost not enough time for empathy, for looking at a person thinking, “Well, maybe they’re right,” because so busy categorizing them and it’s fascinating.
Greg Lukianoff What’s the fun in empathy? I mean, what’s so interesting about this is that so much societal energy seems to be spent on these nasty, primal desires where essentially, a lot of it’s like, “Please tell me who I’m allowed to hate. Where can I legitimately be cruel? Where can I actually exercise some aggression against somebody?” And it seems to sometimes be just finding new justifications for that and it’s an understandable human failing that sometimes can be used to defend justice. But again, it will never get you anywhere near the truth.
Lex Fridman One interesting case that you cover about expertise is with COVID.
Greg Lukianoff Yeah.
Lex Fridman So how did cancel culture come into play on the topic of COVID?
Greg Lukianoff Yeah. I think that COVID was a big blow to people’s faith and expertise and cancel culture played a big role in that. I think one of the best examples of this is Jennifer Sey at Levi’s. She is a lovely woman. She was a vice president at Levi’s. She talked about actually potentially to be the president of Levi’s Jeans. And she was a big advocate for kids and when they started shutting down the schools, she started saying, “This is going to be a disaster. This is going to hurt the poor and disadvantaged kids the most. We have to figure out a way to open the schools back up.”
And that was such a heretical point of view and the typical kind of cancel culture wave took over as they had all sorts of petitions for her to be fired and that she needed to apologize and all this kind of stuff. And she was offered, I think, a million dollar severance which she wouldn’t take because she wanted to tell the world what she thought about this and that she wanted to continue saying that she hadn’t changed her mind, that this was a disaster for young people. And now, that’s the conventional wisdom and the research is quite clear that this was devastating to particularly disadvantaged youth. Like people understand this as being, “Okay. She was probably right.”
But one of the really sad aspects of cancel culture is people forget why you were canceled and they just know they hate you. There’s this lingering like, “Well, I don’t have to take them seriously anymore.” By the way, did you notice they happen to be right on something very important? Now, one funny thing about freedom of speech, freedom of speech wouldn’t exist if you didn’t also have the right to say things that were wrong. Because if you can’t engage in ideaphoria, if you can’t actually speculate, you’ll never actually get to something that’s right in the first place. But it’s especially galling when people who were right were censored and never actually get the credit that they deserve.
Lex Fridman Well, this might be a good place to ask a little bit more about the freedom of speech. And so, you said that included in the freedom of speech is to say things that are wrong.
Greg Lukianoff Yep.
Lex Fridman What is your perspective on hate speech?
Greg Lukianoff Hate speech is the best marketing campaign for censorship and it came from academia of the 20th century. And that, when I talked about the anti-free speech movement that was one of their first inventions. There was a lot of talk about critical race theory and being against critical race theory and FIRE will sue if you say that people can’t advocate for it or teach it or research it because you do absolutely have the right to pursue it academically. However, every time someone mentions CRT, they should also say the very first project of the people who founded CRT, Richard Delgado, Mari Matsuda, etc., was to create this new category of unprotected speech called hate speech and to get it banned. The person who enabled this drift, of course, was Herbert Marcuse in 1965, basically questioning whether or not free speech should be a sacred value on the left and he was on the losing side for a really long time.
The liberals, the way I grew up, that was basically being pro free speech was synonymous with being a liberal. But that started to be etched away on Campus and the way it was was with the idea of hate speech that essentially, “Oh, but we can designate particularly bad speech as not protected and who’s going to enforce it? Who’s going to decide what hate speech actually is?” Well, it’s usually overwhelmingly can only happen in an environment of really low viewpoint diversity because you have to actually agree on what the most hateful and wrong things are.
And there’s a bedrock principle, it’s referred to this in a great case about flag burning in the First Amendment that I think all the world could benefit from. You can’t ban speech just because it’s offensive. It’s too subjective. It basically is… It’s one of the reasons why these kind of codes have been more happily adopted in places like Europe where they have a sense that there’s a modal German or a modal Englishman and, “I think this is offensive and therefore, I can say that this is wrong.”
In a more multicultural, in a genuinely more diverse country that’s never actually had an honest thought that there is a single kind of American, there’s never been. We had the idea of Uncle Sam but that was always kind of a joke. Boston always knew it wasn’t. Richmond always knew it wasn’t. Georgia always knew it wasn’t. Alaska… We’ve always been a hodgepodge and we get in a society that diverse that you can’t ban things simply because they’re offensive and that’s one of the reasons why hate speech is not an unprotected category of speech.
And I go further, my theory on freedom of speech is slightly different than most other constitutional lawyers. And I think that’s partially because some of these theories, although a lot of them are really good, are inadequate. They’re not expansive enough. And I sometimes call my theory the Pure Informational Theory of Freedom of Speech or sometimes when I want to be fancy, The Lab and the Looking Glass Theory.
And its most important tenet is that if the goal is the project of human knowledge which is to know the world as it is, you cannot know the world as it is without knowing what people really think and what people really think is an incredibly important fact to know. So every time you’re actually saying, “You can’t say that,” you’re actually depriving yourself of the knowledge of what people really think you’re causing… What Timer Kran, who’s on our board of advisors, calls preference falsification. You end up with an inaccurate picture of the world, which by the way, in a lot of cases, because there are activists who want to restrict more speech, they actually tend to think that people are more prejudiced than they might be.
And actually, these kind of restrictions, there was a book called Racial Paranoia that came out about 15 years ago that was making the point that the imposition of some of these codes can sometimes make people think that the only thing holding you back from being a raging racist are these codes. So it must be really, really bad. It can actually make all of these things worse. And one, which we talk about in the book, one very real practical way it makes things worse is when you censor people, it doesn’t change their opinion, it just encourages them to not share it with people who will get them in trouble. So it leads them to talk to people who they already agree with and group polarization takes off.
So we have some interesting data in the book about how driving people off of Twitter, for example, in 2017, and then again I think in 2020, driving people to gab led to greater radicalization among those people. It’s a very predictable force. Censorship doesn’t actually change people’s minds and it pushes them in directions that actually, by very solid research, will actually make them more radicalized. So yeah, I think that the attempt to ban hate speech, it doesn’t really protect us from it but it gives the government such a vast weapon to use against us that we will regret giving them.
Lex Fridman Is there a way to look at extreme cases to test this idea out a little bit? So if you look on Campus, what’s your view about allowing, say, white supremacists on Campus to do speeches or KKK?
Greg Lukianoff I think you should be able to study what people think and I think it’s important that we actually do. So I think that… Let’s take for example, QAnon. Yeah, QAnon is wrong. But where did it come from? Why did they think that? What’s the motivation? Who taught them it? Who came up with these ideas? This is important to understand history, that’s important to understand modern American politics. And so, if you put your scholar hat on and which… You should be curious about everyone, about where they’re coming from.
Daryl Davis, who I’m sure you’re familiar with, part of his goal was just simply to get to know where people were coming from. And in the process, he actually deradicalized a number of Klans members when they actually realized that this Black man who had befriended them actually was compassionate, was a decent person. They realized all their pre-conceptions were wrong. So it can have a deradicalizing factor, by the way. But even when it doesn’t, it’s still really important to know what the bad people in your society think. Honestly, in some ways, for your own safety, it’s probably more important to know what the bad people in your society actually think.
Lex Fridman I don’t know what you think about that but I personally think that freedom of speech in cases like that like KKK and Campus can do more harm in the short term but much more benefit in the long term. Because you can sometimes argue for this is going to hurt in the short term. But I mean, Harvey said this, it’s like consider the alternative. Because you’ve just made the case for this potentially would be a good thing even in the short term.And it often is, I think, especially in a stable society like ours. Whether it’s strong middle class, all these kinds of things where people have the comforts, the reason through things.
But to me, it’s like even if it hurts in the short term, even if it does create more hate in the short term, the freedom of speech has this really beneficial thing which is it helps you move towards the truth, the entirety of society towards a deeper, more accurate understanding of life on earth, of society, of how people function, of ethics, of metaphysics, of everything. And that, in the long term, is a huge benefit. It gets rid of the Nazis in the long term, even if it adds to the number of Nazis in the short term.
Greg Lukianoff Yeah. Well, and meanwhile just… And the reality check part of this is people will always bring up, “What about the Klan on Campus?” I’m like, “They’re never invited. I haven’t seen a case where they’ve been invited.” Usually, the Klan argument gets thrown out when people are trying to excuse… And that’s why we shouted down Ben Shapiro and that’s why you can’t have Bill Maher on Campus. That’s why… And it’s like, “Okay.” And it’s a little bit of that what about-ism again about being like, “Well, that thing over there is terrible and therefore this comedian shouldn’t come.”
Lex Fridman So I do have a question maybe by way of advice.
Greg Lukianoff Sure.
Lex Fridman Interviewing folks and seeing this like a podcast as a platform and deciding who to talk to and not… That’s something I have to come face to face with on occasion. My natural inclination before I started the podcast was I would talk to anyone and including people which I’m still interested in who are the current members of the KKK.
And to me, there’s a responsibility to do that with skill and that responsibility has been weighing heavier and heavier on me because you realize how much skill it actually takes because you have to know to understand so much. Because I’ve come to understand that the devil is always going to be charismatic, the devil’s not going to look like the devil. And so, you have to realize you can’t always come to the table with a deep compassion for another human being. You have to have 90% compassion and another 90% deep historical knowledge about the context of the battles around this particular issue and that takes just a huge amount of effort. But I don’t know if there’s thoughts you have about this, how to handle speech in a way without censoring, bringing it to the surface, but in a way that creates more love in the world.
Greg Lukianoff I remember Steve Bannon got disinvited from the New Yorker festival and Jim Carrey freaked out and all sorts of other people freaked out and he got disinvited from the… And I got invited to speak on SMERCONISH about this and I was saying, “Listen, you don’t have people to your conference because you agree with them. We have to get out of this idea that…” Because they were trying to make it sound like that’s an endorsement of Steve Bannon, that’s nonsense. If you actually look at the opinions of all the people who are there, you can’t possibly endorse all the opinions that all these other people who are going to be there actually have. And in the process of making that argument I got…
And also, of course the very classic, it’s very valuable to know what someone like Steve Bannon thinks, you should be curious about that. And I remember someone arguing back saying, “Well, would you want someone to interview a jihadi?” and I’m like… Because at the moment, it was at the time when ISIS was really going for it and I was like, “Would you not want to go to a talk where someone was trying to figure out what makes some of these people tick?” That changes your framing that essentially it’s like, “No, it’s curiosity, is the cure for a lot of this stuff,” and we need a great deal more curiosity and a lot less unwarranted certainty.
Lex Fridman And there’s a question of, “How do you conduct such conversations?” and I feel deeply underqualified.
Greg Lukianoff Who do you think are especially good at that?
Lex Fridman I feel like documentary filmmakers usually do a much better job and the best job is usually done by biographers. So the more time you give to a particular conversation, really deep thought and historical context and studying the people, how they think, looking at all different perspectives, looking at the psychology of the person, the upbringing, their parents, their grandparents, all of this. The more time you spend with that, the better the quality of the conversation is because you get to really empathize with the person, with the people he or she represents, and you get to see the common humanity, all of this. Interviewers often don’t do that work. So the best stuff I’ve seen is interviews that are part of a documentary. But even now, documentaries are like there’s a huge incentive to do as quickly as possible. There’s not an incentive to really spend time with the person.
Greg Lukianoff Yeah. There’s a great new documentary about Floyd Abrams that I really recommend. We did a documentary about Ira Glasser called Mighty Ira which was my video team and my protege, Nico Purino and Chris Malby and Aaron Reese, put it together and it just follows the life and times of Ira Glasser, the former head of the ACLU.
Lex Fridman If you could just linger on that, that’s a fascinating story.
Greg Lukianoff Oh, yeah.
Lex Fridman Who’s Ira?
Greg Lukianoff Ira’s amazing. Ira, he wasn’t a lawyer. He started working at the NYCLU, the New York Civil Liberties Union back in, I think, the ’60s. I think Robert Kennedy recommended that he go in that direction and he became the president of the ACLU right at the time that they were suffering from defending the Nazis at Skokie. And Nico and Aaron and Chris put together this… They’d never done a documentary before and it came out so so well and it tells the story of the Nazis in Skokie. It tells the story of the case around it. It tells the story of the ACLU at the time and what a great leader Ira Glasser was. And one of the things that’s so great is when you get to see the Nazis at Skokie, they come off the idiots that you would expect them to.
There’s a moment when the rally is not going very well and the leader gets flustered and it almost seems like he’s going to shout out like, “You’re making this Nazi rally into a mockery.” And so, it showed how actually allowing the Nazis to speak at Skokie took the wind out of their sails like if they had… The whole movement, it all dissolved after that because they looked like racist fools that they were, even Blues Brothers made jokes about them, and it didn’t turn into the disaster that people thought it was going to be just by letting them speak.
And Ira Glasser, okay, so he has this wonderful story about how Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and how there was a moment when it was seeing someone, an African-American as literally on their team and how that really got them excited about the cause of racial equality and that became a big part of what his life was. And I just think of that as such a great metaphor is expanding your circle and seeing more people as being quite literally on your team is the solution to so many of these problems. And I worry that one of the things that is absolutely just a fact of life in a America is like we do see each other more as enemy camps as opposed to people on the same team. And that was actually something in the early days, like me and Will Creeley, the legal director of FIRE wrote about the forthcoming free speech challenges of everyone being on Facebook. And one thing that I was hoping was that as more people were exposing more of their lives, we had realized a lot of these things we knew intellectually like kids go to the bar and get drunk and do stupid things.
That when we started seeing the evidence of them doing stupid things that we might be shocked at first. But then, eventually, get more sophisticated and be like, “Well, come on. People are like that.” That never actually really seemed to happen. I think that there are plenty of things we know about human nature and we know about dumb things people say and we’ve made it into an environment where there’s just someone out there waiting to be like, “Oh, remember that dumb thing you said when we were 14? Well, I’m going to make sure that you don’t get into your dream school because of that.”
Lex Fridman That’s offense archeology. Whereas-
Greg Lukianoff Yeah. That’s not my term though. It’s a great term.
Lex Fridman Well, it’s a great term. We steal from the best. Digging through someone’s past comments to find speech that hasn’t aged well.
Greg Lukianoff And that one’s tactical. That one isn’t just someone not being empathetic. They’re like, “I’m going to punish you for this,” or… And that’s one of the reasons why I got depressed writing this book because there’s already people who don’t love me because of The Coddling of the American Mind, usually based on a misunderstanding of what we actually said in Coddling of the American Mind but nonetheless.
But on this one, I’m calling out people for being very cruel in a lot of cases. But one thing that was really scary about studying a lot of these cases is that once you have that target on your back, what they’re going to try to cancel you for could be anything. They might go back into to your old post, find something that you said in 1995, do something where essentially it looks like it’s this entire other thing. But really, what’s going on is they didn’t like your opinion, they didn’t like your point of view on something. And they’re going to find a way that from now on, anytime your name comes up, it’s like, “Oh, remember this thing I didn’t like about them?” and it’s, again, it’s cruel. It doesn’t get you anywhere closer to the truth but it is a little scary to stick your neck out.
Lex Fridman Okay. In terms of solutions. I’m going to ask you a few things. So one, parenting.
Greg Lukianoff Yeah. Five and seven year old.
Lex Fridman So I’m sure you’ve figured it all out then.
Greg Lukianoff Oh god no.
Lex Fridman From a free speech culture perspective, how to be a good parent.
Greg Lukianoff Yeah. I think the first quality you should be cultivating in your children if you want to have a free speech culture is curiosity and an awareness of the vastness that will always be unknown. And getting my kids excited about the idea that’s like, “We’re going to spend our whole lives learning about stuff and it’s fast and exciting and endless. And we’ll never make a big dent in it, but the journey will be amazing.” But only fools think they know everything and sometimes, dangerous fools at that. So giving the sense of intellectual humility early on.
Also, saying things that actually do sound old-fashioned. I say things to my kids like, “Listen, if you enjoy study and work,” both things that I very much enjoy, I do for fun, ” your life is going to feel great and it’s going to feel easy.” So some of those old-fashioned virtues are things I try to preach.
Counterintuitive stuff like outdoor time, playing, having time that are not intermediated experiences is really important. And little things like I talk about in the book about when my kids are watching something that’s scary. And I’m not talking about zombie movies, I’m talking about a cartoon that has a scary moment and saying that they want to turn the TV off. And I talk to them and I say, “Listen, I’m going to sit next to you and we’re going to finish this show and I want you to tell me what you think of this afterwards.”
And I sat next to my sons and by the end of it, every single time when I asked them, “Was that as scary as you thought it was going to be?” and they was like, “No, daddy. That was fine,” and I’m like, “That’s one of the great lessons in life. The fear that you don’t go through becomes much bigger in your head than actually simply facing it.” That’s one of the reasons why I’m fighting back against this culture. I’d love for all of our kids to be able to grow up in an environment where people give you grace and accept the fact that sometimes people are going to say things that piss you off, take seriously the possibility you might be wrong, and be curious.
Lex Fridman Well, I have hope that the thing you mentioned which is because so much of young people’s stuff is on the internet that they’re going to give each other a break. Then, everybody is cancel worthy.
Greg Lukianoff Generation Z hates cancel culture the most and that’s another reason why it’s like people are still claiming this isn’t even happening. It’s like, “No, you actually can ask kids what they think of cancel culture,” and they hate it.
Lex Fridman Yeah. Well, I think of them as the immune system. That’s the culture waking up to like, “No, this is not a good thing.”
Greg Lukianoff I am glad though. I mean, I am one of those kids who is really glad that I was a little kid in the ’80s and a teenager in the ’90s. Because having everything potentially online, it’s not an upbringing I envy.
Lex Fridman Well, because you can also do the absolutest free speech, I like leaning into it where I hope for a future where a lot of our insecurities, flaws, everything’s out there and to be raw, honest with it. I think that leads to a better world because the flaws are beautiful. I mean, the flaws is the basic ingredients of human connection.
Greg Lukianoff Robert Wright, he wrote a book on Buddhism and I talked about trying to use social media from a Buddhist perspective as if it’s the collective unconscious meditating and seeing those little angry bits that are trying to cancel you or get you to shut up and just letting them go the same way you’re supposed to watch your thoughts trail off.
Lex Fridman I would love to see that visualized. Whatever the drama going on, just seeing the sea of it, of the collective consciousness just processing this and having a little panic attack and just breathing it in-
Greg Lukianoff Yeah. Look at the little hateful, angry voices pop up and be like, “Okay. There you are and I’m still focused on that thing.” Because that is one of the things is… Okay. Yeah. Actually, this is probably late in the game to giving my grand theory on this stuff but-
Lex Fridman Never too late.
Greg Lukianoff So what I was studying in law school when I ran out of First Amendment classes, I decided to study censorship during the Tudor Dynasty because that’s where we get our ideas of prior restraint that come from the licensing of the printing press which was something that Henry VIII was the first to do. Where basically, the idea was that you can’t print anything in England unless it’s with your Majesty approved printers. It will prevent heretical work and anti-Henry VIII stuff from coming out. Pretty efficient idea if nothing else.
And so, he started getting angry at the printing press around 1521 and then passed something that required prints to be along with parliament in 1538. And I always think of that as where we are now because we have this… Back then, we had the original disruptive technology. Writing was probably really that but the next one which was the printing press which was absolutely calamitous. And I say calamitous on purpose because in the short term, the witch hunts went up like crazy because the printing press allowed you to get that manual on how to find witches. That the religious wars went crazy. It led to all sorts of distress, misinformation, nastiness.
And Henry VIII was trying to put the genie back in the bottle. He was kind of like, “I want to use this for good like I feel like it could be used,” but he was in an unavoidable period of epistemic anarchy. There’s nothing you can do to make the period after the printing press come, came out to be a non-disruptive, non-crazy period other than absolute totalitarianism and destroy all the print presses which simply was not possible in Europe.
So I feel like that’s where we are now. That disruption came from adding, I think, several million people to the European conversation and that eventually the global conversation. But eventually, it became the best tool for disconfirmation, for getting rid of falsity, for spotting bad ideas, and the long-term benefits, of the printing press are incalculably great.
And that’s what gives me some optimism for where we are now with social media because we are in that unavoidably anarchical period. I do worry that there are attempts in states to pass things to try to put the genie back in the bottle. Like if we ban TikTok or we say that nobody under 18 can be on the internet unless they have parental permission. We’re going at something that no amount of top down is going to be able to fix it.
We have to culturally adapt to the fact of it in ways that make us wiser that actually… And allow it, potentially, to be that wonderful engine for disconfirmation that we’re nowhere near yet, by the way. But think about it, additional millions of eyes on problems thanks to the printing press helped create the scientific revolution, the enlightenment, the discovery of ignorance. We now have added billions of eyes and voices to solving problems and we’re using them for cat videos and canceling.
Lex Fridman But those are just the early days of the printing press-
Greg Lukianoff Exactly.
Lex Fridman It all starts with the cats and the canceling. Is there something about X, about Twitter, which is perhaps the most energetic source of cats and canceling?
Greg Lukianoff It seems like the collective unconscious of the species. I mean, it’s one of these things where the tendency to want to see patterns in history sometimes can limit the actual batshit crazy experience of what history actually is. Because yes, we have these nice comforting ideas that it’s going to be like last time. We don’t know. It hasn’t happened yet and I think how unusual Twitter is.
Because I think of it as the… Because people talk about writing and mass communications as expanding the size of our collective brain, but now we’re looking at our collective brain in real time and it’s filled just like our own brains with all sorts of little crazy things that pop up and appear like virtual particles all over the place of people reacting in real time to things. There’s never been anything even vaguely like it and it can be at its worst, awful to see.
At its best, sometimes seeing people just getting euphoric over something going on and cracking absolutely brilliant immediate jokes at the same time. It can even be a joyful experience. I feel like I live in a neighborhood now on X where I mostly deal with people that I think are actually thoughtful, even if I disagree with them and it’s not such a bad experience. I occasionally run into those other, what I call neighborhoods on X, where it’s just all canceling, all nastiness, and it’s always an unpleasant visit to those places. I’m not saying the whole thing needs to be like my experience but I do think that-
Greg Lukianoff … be, like my experience. But I do think that the reason why people keep on coming back to it is it reveals raw aspects of humanity that sometimes we prefer to pretend don’t exist.
Lex Fridman Yeah, but also it’s totally new, like you said.
Greg Lukianoff Yeah.
Lex Fridman It’s just the virality, the speed that news travels, that opinions travel, that the battle over ideas travels.
Greg Lukianoff The battle over information too.
Lex Fridman Yeah, of what is true and not, lies travel, the old Mark Twain thing, pretty fast on the thing.
Greg Lukianoff Yeah.
Lex Fridman And then it changes your understanding of how to interpret information.
Greg Lukianoff It can also stress you out to no end. Remember to get off it sometimes. The stats are pretty bad on mental health with young people, and I’m definitely in the camp of people who think that social media is part of that, I understand the debate. But I’m pretty persuaded that one of the things that hasn’t been great for mental health of people is this just constantly being exposed.
Lex Fridman Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s possible to create social media that makes a huge amount of money, makes people happy. To me it’s possible to align the incentives. So in terms of making teenagers, making every stage of life giving you long-term fulfillment and happiness with your physical existence outside of |social media and on social media, helping you grow as a human being, helping challenge you just the right amount, and just the right amount of cat videos, whatever gives this full rich human experience. I think it’s just a machine learning problem. It’s like, it’s not easy-
Greg Lukianoff Interesting.
Lex Fridman To create a feed, so the easiest feed you could do is maximize engagement.
Greg Lukianoff Yeah.
Lex Fridman But that’s just a really dumb algorithm. For the algorithm to learn enough about you to understand what would make you truly happy as a human being to grow longterm, that’s just a very difficult problem to solve.
Greg Lukianoff Have you ever watched Fleabag? It’s absolutely brilliant, British show, and it sets you up, one of the reasons why people love it so much is it sets you up that you’re watching a raunchy British Sex in the City, except the main character is the most promiscuous one. It’s like, okay, and you roll your eyes a little bit, but it’s kind of funny and it’s kind of cute and kind of spicy.
And then you realize that the person is actually kind of suffering and having a hard time, and it gets deeper and deeper as the show goes on. And she will do these incredible speeches about, tell me what to do. Just, I know there’s experts out there, I know there’s knowledge out there, I know there’s an optimal way to live my life, so why can’t someone just tell me what to do? And it’s this wonderfully accurate, I think, aspect of human desire that, what if something could actually tell me the optimal way to go? Because I think there is a desire to give up some amount of your own freedom and discretion in order to be told to do the optimally right thing, but that path scares me to death.
Lex Fridman Yeah, but see, the way you phrased it, that scares me too. So there’s several things, one, you could be constantly distracted in a TikTok way by things that keep you engaged.
Greg Lukianoff Yeah.
Lex Fridman So removing that and giving you a bunch of options constantly, and learning from long-term what results in your actual long-term happiness. So which amounts of challenging ideas are good for you?
Greg Lukianoff Four.
Lex Fridman For somebody like me… Exactly.
Greg Lukianoff Just four.
Lex Fridman But there is a number like that for you, Greg.
Greg Lukianoff Yeah, that’s a lot.
Lex Fridman For me that number is pretty high. I love debate, I love the feeling of realizing, holy shit, I’ve been wrong.
Greg Lukianoff Yes.
Lex Fridman But I would love for the algorithm to know that about me and to help me, but always giving me options, if I want to descend into cat videos and so on.
Greg Lukianoff Well, the educational aspect of it.
Lex Fridman Yes, educational.
Greg Lukianoff The idea of both going the speed that you need to and running as fast as you can.
Lex Fridman Yeah. I mean, there’s the whole flow thing. I just feel YouTube recommendation, for better or worse, if used correctly, it feels like it does a pretty good job. Whenever I just refuse to click on stuff that’s just dopamine based and click on only educational things, the recommendation it provides are really damn good. So I feel like it’s a solvable problem, at least in the space of education, of challenging yourself, but also expanding your realm of knowledge, and all this kind of stuff.
Greg Lukianoff And I’m definitely more in the, we’re in an inescapably anarchical period and require big cultural adjustments, and there’s no way that this isn’t going to be a difficult transition.
Lex Fridman Is there any specific little or big things that you’d like to see X do? Twitter do?
Greg Lukianoff I have lots of thoughts on that. With the printing press, an extra millions of eyes on any problem can tear down any institution, any person, or any idea. And that’s good in some ways because a lot of medieval institutions needed to be torn down, and some people did too, and a lot of ideas needed to be torn down. Same thing is true now, an extra billions of eyes on every problem can tear down any person idea or institution, and again, some of those things needed to be torn down, but it can’t build yet. We are not at the stage that it can build yet. But it has shown us how thin our knowledge was, it’s one of the reasons why we’re all so aware of the replication crisis, it’s one of the reasons why we’re all so aware of how shoddy our research is, how much our expert class is arrogant, in many cases.
But people don’t want to live in a world where they don’t have people that they respect and they can look at, and I think what’s happening, possibly now, but will continue to happen is people are going to establish themselves as being high integrity, that they’ll always be honest. I think you are establishing yourself as someone who is high integrity, where they can trust that person. FIRE wants to be the institution that people can come to, it’s like, if it’s free speech, we will defend it, period. And I think that people need to have authorities that they can actually trust. And I think that if you actually had a stream that maybe people can watch in action, but not flood with stupid cancel culture stuff or dumb cat memes, where it is actually a serious discussion bounded around rules, no perfect rhetorical fortress, no efficient rhetorical fortress, none of the BS ways we debate, I think you could start to actually create something that could actually be a major improvement in the speed with which we come up with new better ideas and separate truth from falsity.
Lex Fridman Yeah, if it’s done well it can inspire a large number of people to become higher and higher integrity, and it can create integrity as a value to strive for.
Greg Lukianoff Yeah.
Lex Fridman There’s been projects throughout the internet that have done an incredible job of that, but have been also very flawed. Wikipedia is an example of a big leap forward in doing that.
Greg Lukianoff It’s pretty damn impressive. What’s your overall take? I mean, I’m mostly impressed.
Lex Fridman So there’s a few really powerful ideas for the people who edit Wikipedia, one of which is each editor for themselves declares, I’m into politics and I really am a left leaning guy, so I really shouldn’t be editing political articles because I have bias.
Greg Lukianoff That’s great.
Lex Fridman They declare their biases, and they often do a good job of actually declaring the biases. But they’ll still, they’ll find a way to justify themselves, like something will piss them off and they want to correct it, because they love correcting untruth into truth. But the perspective of what is true or not is affected by their bias.
Greg Lukianoff Truth is hard to know.
Lex Fridman And it is true that there is a left-leaning bias on the editors of Wikipedia. So for that, what happens is on articles, which I mostly appreciate, that don’t have a political aspect to them, scientific articles or technical articles, they can be really strong. Even history, just describing the facts of history that don’t have a subjective element, strong. Also, just using my own brain, I can filter out if it’s something about January 6th, or something like this, I know I’m going to be like, whatever’s going on here, I’m going to kind of read it, but mostly I’m going to look to other sources, I’m going to look to a bunch of different perspectives on it. It’s going to be very tense, there’s probably going to be some kind of bias, maybe some wording will be such, which is this is where Wikipedia does its thing, the way they word stuff will be biased, the choice of words. But the Wikipedia editors themselves are so self-reflective they literally have articles describing these very effects, of how you can use words to inject bias in all the ways that you talked about it.
Greg Lukianoff That sounds healthier than most environments.
Lex Fridman It’s incredibly healthy, but I think you could do better. One of the big flaws of Wikipedia to me that Community Notes on X does better is the accessibility of becoming an editor, it’s difficult to become an editor, and it’s not as visible, the process of editing. So I would love, like you said, a stream, for everyone to be able to observe this debate between people with integrity, of when they discuss things like January 6th, of very controversial topics, to just see how the process of the debate goes, as opposed to being hidden in the shadows, which it currently is in Wikipedia. You can access that, it’s just hard to access.
And I’ve also seen how they will use certain articles on certain people. Articles about people I’ve learned to trust less and less, because they literally will use those to make personal attacks. And this is something you write about, they’ll use descriptions of different controversies to paint a picture of a person that doesn’t, to me at least, feel like an accurate representation of the person. And it’s like writing an article about Einstein, mentioning something about theory of relativity and then saying that he was a womanizer and abuser and controversy. Yeah, he is, Feynman also, they’re not exactly the perfect human in terms of women. But there’s other aspects to this human, and to capture that human properly, there’s a certain way to do it. I think Wikipedia will often lean, they really try to be self-reflective and try to stop this, but they will lean into the drama if it matches the bias.
But again, the world, I believe, is much better because Wikipedia exists. But now that we’re in these adolescent stages, we’re growing and trying to come up with different technologies, the idea of a stream is really, really interesting, because you get more and more people into this discourse where the value is, let’s try to get the truth.
Greg Lukianoff Yeah, yeah, and that basically you get the little cards for nope, wrong, nope, wrong.
Lex Fridman And the different rhetorical techniques that are being used to avoid actually discussing.
Greg Lukianoff Yeah. And I think actually it can make it a little bit fun by you get a limited number of them. It’s kind of like, you get three whataboutism cards.
Lex Fridman So gamifying the whole thing, absolutely.
Greg Lukianoff Yeah.
Lex Fridman Let me ask you about, you mentioned going through some difficult moments in your life.
Greg Lukianoff Sure.
Lex Fridman What has been your experience with depression? What has been your experience getting out of it, overcoming it?
Greg Lukianoff Yeah, I mean, the whole thing, the whole journey with Coddling of the American Mind began with me at the Belmont Psychiatric Facility in Philadelphia back in 2007. I had called 9-1-1 in a moment of clarity because I had gone to the hardware store to make sure that when I killed myself that it stuck. I wanted to make sure that I had my head wrapped and everything, so if all the drugs I was planning to take didn’t work, that I wouldn’t be able to claw my way out. It’d been a really rough year, and I always had issues with depression, but they were getting worse.
And frankly, one of the reasons why this cancel culture stuff is so important to me is that the thing that I didn’t emphasize as much in Coddling of the American Mind, which by the way, that description that I give of trying to kill myself was the first time I’d ever written it down. Nobody in my family was aware of it being like that, my wife had never seen it, and basically the only way I was able to write that was by doing, you know how you can kind of trick yourself? And I was like, I’m going to convince myself that this is just between me and my computer and nobody will see it. And it’s probably now the most public thing I’ve ever written.
But what I didn’t emphasize in that was how much the culture war played into how depressed I got, because I was originally legal director of FIRE, then I became president of FIRE in 2005, move to Philadelphia, is where I get depressed, and just I don’t have family there, there’s something about the town, they don’t seem to like me very much. But the main thing was being in the culture world all the time. There was a girl that I was dating, I remember she didn’t seem to really approve what I did, and a lot of people didn’t really seem to. And meanwhile, I was defending people on the left all the time, and they’d be like, “Oh, that’s good that you’re defending someone on the left,” but they still would never forgive me for defending someone on the right. And I remember saying at one point, I’m like, “Listen, I’m a true believer in this stuff, I’m willing to defend Nazis, I’m certainly willing to defend Republicans.” And she actually said, “I think Republicans might be worse.” And that relationship didn’t go very well.
And then I’ve nearly gotten in fistfights a couple of times with people on the right because they found out I defended people who crack jokes about 9/11. This happened more than once, by that time I’m in my 20s, I’m not fist fighting again. But yeah, it was always like that. You see how hypocritical people can be, you can see how friends can turn on you if they don’t like your politics. So I got a early preview of this, of the culture we were heading into, by being the president of FIRE, and it was exhausting, and that was one of the main things that led me to be suicidally depressed. At the Belmont Center, if you told me that that would be the beginning of a new and better life for me, I would’ve laughed if I could have, but I don’t… you can tell I’m okay if I’m still laughing, and I wasn’t laughing at that point.
So I got a doctor and I started doing cognitive behavioral therapy. I started having all these voices in my head that were catastrophizing, and it gave overgeneralization and fortune-telling, mind reading, all of these things that they teach you not to do, and what you do in CBT is essentially you have something makes you upset and then you just write down what the thought was, and something minor could happen and your response was like, “Well, the date didn’t seem to go very well, and that’s because I’m broken and will die alone,” and you’re like, okay, okay, okay, what are the following? That’s catastrophizing, that’s mind reading, that’s fortune-telling, that’s all this stuff. And you have to do this several times a day, forever. I actually need to brush up on it at the moment.
And it slowly, over time, voices in my head that had been saying horrible, horrible internal talk, it just didn’t sound as convincing anymore, which was a really subtle effect. It was just like, oh wait, I don’t buy that I’m broken, that doesn’t sound true, that doesn’t sound like truth from God like it used to. And nine months after I was planning to kill myself, I was probably happier than I’d been in a decade. And that was one of the things that, the CBT is what led me to notice this in my own work, that it felt like administrators were kind of selling cognitive distortions, but students weren’t buying yet. And then when I started noticing that they seemed to come in actually already believing in a lot of this stuff, that it would be very dangerous, and that led to Coddling of the American Mind, and all that stuff.
But the thing that was rough about writing Canceling of the American Mind, and I’ve mentioned this already a couple of times, I got really depressed this past year because I was studying. There’s a friend in there that I talk about who killed himself after being canceled. And I talked to him a week before he killed himself, and I hadn’t actually checked in with him because he seemed so confident I thought he would be totally fine, because he had an insensitive tweet in June of 2020 and got forced out. In a way that didn’t actually sound as bad as a lot of the other professors, he actually at least got a severance package, but they knew he’d sue and win, because he had before.
And so I waited to check in on him, because we were so overwhelmed with the requests for help, and he was saying people were coming to his house still, and then he shot himself the next week. And I definitely… And because everyone knows, I’m so public about my struggles with this stuff, everybody who fights this stuff comes to me when they’re having a hard time, and this is a very hard psychologically taxing business to be in. And even admitting this right now, I think about all the vultures out there, they’ll have fun with it. Just like the same way, when my friend Mike Adams killed himself, there were people celebrating on Twitter that a man was dead because they didn’t like his tweets, but somehow that made them compassionate for some abstract other person.
So I was getting a little depressed and anxious, and the thing that really helped me more than anything else was confessing to my staff. Books take a lot of energy, so I knew they didn’t want to hear that not only was this taking a lot of the boss’s time, this was making him depressed and anxious. But when I finally told the leadership of my staff, people that even though I try to maintain a lot of distance from, I love very, very much, it made such a difference, because I could be open about that. And the other thing was, have you heard this conference Dialogue?
Lex Fridman Oh yes.
Greg Lukianoff It’s like an invite only thing, it’s Auren Hoffman runs it. It intentionally tries to get people over the political spectrum to come together and have off the record conversations about big issues. And it was nice to be in a room where liberal, conservative, none of the above we’re all like, oh, thank God someone’s taken on cancel culture, and where it felt like maybe this won’t be the disaster for me and my family that I was starting to be afraid it would be, that taking the stuff on might actually have a happy ending.
Lex Fridman Well, one thing that just stands out from that is the pain of cancellation can be really intense. And that doesn’t necessarily mean losing your job, but just even, you can call it bullying, you can call it whatever name, but just some number of people on the internet, and that number can be small, saying bad things to you, that can be a pretty powerful force to the human psyche, which was very surprising. And then the flip side also of that, it really makes me sad how cruel people can be.
Greg Lukianoff Yeah. Thinking that your cause is social justice in many cases can lead people to think, I can be as cruel as I want in pursuit of this, when a lot of times it’s just a way to vent some aggression on a person that you think of only as an abstraction.
Lex Fridman So I think it’s important for people to realize that whatever negative energy, whatever negativity you want to put out there, there’s real people that can get hurt. You can really get people to one, be the worst version of themselves, or two, possibly take their own life, and it’s not as real.
Greg Lukianoff Yeah. Well, that’s one of the things that we do in the book to really address people who still try to claim this isn’t real, is we just quote. We quote the Pope, we quote Obama, we quote James Carville, we quote Taylor Swift on cancel culture. And Taylor Swift’s quote is essentially about how behind all of this, when it gets particularly nasty, there’s this very clear kill yourself kind of undercurrent to it, and it’s cruel. And the problem is that in an environment so wide open, there’s always going to be someone who wants to be so transgressive and say the most hurtful, terrible thing.
But then you have to remember the misrepresentation, getting back to the old idioms, sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me, has been re-imagined in campus debates in the most asinine way. People will literally say stuff, but now we know words can hurt. And it’s like, now we know words can hurt? Guys, you didn’t have to come up with a special little thing that you teach children to make words hurt less if they never hurt in the first place, it wouldn’t even make sense, the saying, it’s a saying that you repeat to yourself to give yourself strength when the bullies have noticed you’re a little weird. This might be a little personal. And it helps, it really does help to be like, listen, okay, assholes are going to say asshole things, and I can’t let them have that kind of power over me.
Lex Fridman Yeah, yeah, it still is a learning experience because it does hurt.
Greg Lukianoff But for the good people out there who actually just sometimes think that they’re venting, think about it, remember that there are people on the other side of it.
Lex Fridman Yeah, for me it hurts my faith in humanity, I know it shouldn’t, but it does sometimes, when I just see people being cruel to each other, it floats a cloud over my perspective of the world that I wish didn’t have to be there.
Greg Lukianoff Yeah. That was always my flippant answer to, if mankind is basically good or basically evil, being the biggest debate in philosophy, and being like, well, the problem, first is there’s nothing basic about humanity.
Lex Fridman Yeah. What gives you hope about this whole thing? About this dark state that we’re in as you describe, how can we get out, what gives you hope that we will get out?
Greg Lukianoff I think that people are sick of it. I think people are sick of not being able to be authentic. And that’s really what censorship is, it’s basically telling you don’t be yourself, don’t actually say what you think, don’t show your personality, don’t dissent, don’t be weird, don’t be wrong, and that’s not sustainable. I think that people have had enough of it. But one thing I definitely want to say to your audience is it can’t just be up to us arguers to try to fix this. And I think that, and this may sound like it’s an unrelated problem, I think if there were highly respected, let’s say extremely difficult ways to prove that you’re extremely smart and hardworking, that cost little or nothing, that actually can give the Harvards and the Yales of the world a run for their money, I think that might be the most positive thing we could do to deal with a lot of these problems, and why.
I think the fact that we have become a weird America with a great anti-elitist tradition has become weirdly elitist in the respect that we not only, again, are our leadership coming from these few fancy schools, we actually have great admiration for them, we look up to them. But I think we’d have a lot healthier of a society if people could prove their excellence in ways that are coming from completely different streams that are highly respected.
I sometimes talk about there should be a test that anyone who passes it gets a BA in the humanities, like a super BA. Not a GED, that’s not what I’m talking about, I’m talking about something that one out of only 100 people can pass, some other way of actually, of not going through these massive, bloated, expensive institutions that people can raise their hands and say, I’m smart and hardworking. I think that could be an incredibly healthy way. I think we need additional streams for creative people to be solving problems, whether that’s on X or someplace else. I think that there’s lots of things that technology could do to really help with this. I think some of the stuff that Sal Khan is working on at Khan Academy could really help.
So I think there’s a lot of ways, but they exist largely around coming up with new ways of doing things, not just expecting the old things that have, say, 40 billion in the bank, that they’re going to reform themselves. And here’s my, I’ve been picking on Harvard a lot, but I’m going to pick on them a little bit more. I talk a lot about class, again, and there’s a great book called Poison Ivy by Evan Mandery, which I recommend to everybody, it’s outrageous, it sounds like me on a rant at Stanford, which was, and I think the stat is elite higher education has more kids from the top 1% than they have from the bottom 50 or 60% depending on the school. And when you look at how much they actually replicate class privilege, it’s really distressing. So everybody should read Poison Ivy.
Lex Fridman And above all else, if you’re weird, continue being weird.
Greg Lukianoff Yeah, please.
Lex Fridman And you’re one of the most interesting, one of the weirdest, in the most beautiful way, people I’ve ever met, Greg, thank you for the really important work you do. This was-
Greg Lukianoff Everybody watch Kid Cosmic.
Lex Fridman I appreciate the class, the hilarious that you brought here today, man. This was an amazing conversation, thank you for the work you do. Thank you, thank you. And for me, who deeply cares about education, higher education, thank you for holding the MITs and the Harvards accountable for doing right by the people that walk their halls. So thank you so much for talking today.
Thanks for listening to this conversation with Greg Lukianoff. To support this podcast, please check out our sponsors in the description. And now let me leave you with some words from Noam Chomsky, “If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like. Goebbels was in favor of freedom of speech for views he liked, so was Stalin. If you’re in favor of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.” Thank you for listening, and hope to see you next time.