Conversations with Charlie (11/19/21)

Conversation 13:

Charlie’s Friday’s podcast had him talking with Greg Lukianoff, co-author of the 2015 Atlantic article and 2018 book of the same name The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure along with Jonathan Haidt and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) (Nov. 19, 2021).

Before going any further, I’d like to take a moment to communicate by bias and stance on this matter. I know I have colleagues and friends who would disagree with the things that Lukianoff, through his foundation and book with Jonathan Haidt, has to say on matters of free speech and approaches to it. 

I, however, for whatever small qualms I may have agree on 90-95% of what Lukianoff and Haidt had to say in their 2015 article, which I regularly use with my own college students, and the subsequent book. 

Disagreements are good.

Agreement is good.

Too much either is bad. Balance is needed and the reality of the world, how one prepares people to face and deal with it quintessential to what college and higher education is meant to expose you to and should. 

As a people and as a nation, we need to be able to disagree and NOT turn it into new issues and conflicts that obscure the nuances of reality by reductionism to pathos and “I believe.”

Back to our regularly scheduled conversation and examination:

The main topic, though broad, under discussion between Charlie and Greg centered on Higher Education and the perveance of what is commonly called “cancel culture.”

To mention cancel culture, to dig into it, is quite a thorny issue. It clearly exists on both the right and the left, it is not singular to one side. It boils down to the idea of forbidding discussions and speaking, particularly things that make someone or some group of people uncomfortable. It tends to shut down any nuance debate.

That is a net negative for everyone whether they know it or not.

There is a simple solution to the problem of “if you don’t want to hear something or an opinion” and that is walk away, turn it off, or spend more time talking with yourself (Charlie’s take).

Charlie notes that he has been pushing back against similar issues like this, particularly free speech in higher education, for decades. He has been on the issue since the 1980s and 90s. What Charlie found annoying was the pervasive attitude of people getting indignant with someone over an opinion they didn’t like or a point of view they thought or felt to be offensive. The response was to shut down or lash out rather than take the opportunity to use the disagreement as a launch pad for constructive debate.

The entire purpose and point of modern universities is to expose people to new ideas, to learn, and some of those ideas and beliefs may make someone uncomfortable, but honestly, this is a good thing. You need that exposure to help you work out your own greater sense of self.

Dynamics over the past forty years have seen changes in how freedom of speech and freedom of expression are enforced. It began, and in some places it still is controlled, through speech codes. It began with the institutions dictating to students what could be said.

As Charlie points out, this was mirrored in the way that it was conservatives in the 80s and 90s who were incredibly critical of higher education. They still are in many ways. The issue is that has changed is that that criticism has penetrated to effect people who are considered moderates and even liberals.

Wanting to make it clear, because as noted earlier this is a thorny issue many people don’t take the time to engage with the complex details, Greg wants the audience to know that he is not some acolyte of the alt-right or so forth who is “gunning” for higher education. In fact, he states he is a Democrat. 

The problem though, driven by the lack of critical examination, that there is such resistance to dealing with the problem in a nontribal fashion that the same moderate and liberal critics are all being lumped in with those who are on the right. Who is doing that? People who don’t like their criticism, don’t like what they have to say.

Despite the fact that speech codes were defeated legally in the mid-1990s, research has shown that in 2008 almost 70+% of all universities in the country had some kind of speech code on campus.

They are still here and this begs the question:

How big is the problem really? What is the actual weight and impact of these speech codes?

There are new factions emerging in response to the issue. On one side you have intellectual figures who, believing the whole system of higher education has lost its way, are striking out on their own to form their own institution like the University of Austin being formed in Austin, TX. Right now it is only online and in the works.

“Its founders say it is dedicated ‘to the fearless pursuit of truth’”. One of the founders, Panos Kanelos’s opening announcement declares that “Our democracy is faltering, in significant part, because our educational system has become illiberal and is producing citizens and leaders who are incapable and unwilling to participate in the core activity of democratic governance.” 

This is not necessarily unreasonable, Greg even wishes them well in the endeavor, but whether it will take form and hold is another story.

There are other avenues, internal ones that might also be taken on too.

However, there is another party that looks at the system of higher education right now and sees nothing wrong at all.

Speaking as someone who is working in higher education, there is plenty wrong. I just am not one who is willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater yet. There are ways that good can be done within the existing system.

The basics is that there are real problems and Greg’s organization FIRE has recently turned to documenting much of the situation. They have been around since 2001, but only recently have become large enough to not have to dedicate all their time to putting out fires as part of their primary mission to defend the rights of students and faculty in regards to their free speech.

What most people know about the issues of free speech on university campuses stems from those extreme cases that have “broken out” into the mainstream media. However, the vast amount of cease are far less politically fraught ones and as a result are less frequently discussed in the media as a whole. Media is exponentially more interested in extreme controversies because that is what their audience is into. Shock value, strong emotional responses. That’s the hit of dopamine one wants.

Greg tells Charlies that one of the things FIRE has been trying to document is how often a professor is targeted for something he or she says. They published a report in 2020, statically the worst year for free speech on campus that they have recorded, in it found over 120 professors targeted for being fired. 

The number may seem insignificant in a large-scale view, but Greg really thought that this should be put in perspective because there are those who don’t think there’s a problem at all, who are using this as justification for blowing it off is no big deal rather than a problem to be addressed.

The majority of complaints are only coming from the larger universities like Stanford, Yale, Harvard, etc. And there’s an issues currently playing itself out at Yale law school that Greg points out to Charlie.

It started as a jokey email, written by a gay Native American student, which was sent out inviting students to a party. The email used the term “Traphouse” in its description and this is apparently a slang for a place that sells drugs. Keep in mind this was a joke email and it was written to be such, but apparently the joke didn’t land with some people.

It ended up being portrayed as racially insensitive against African American student, some of whom apparently took offense and thought they were targeted as a result.

This is making news now, but for people at FIRE this is just every day.

Another example is the Dorian Abbott case.

Abbott came under fire for writing an opinion a letter, he’s a scientist University of Chicago, stating that he thought the efforts for multi-cultural diversity being implemented were being misused and circumventing the need for merit admissions. It was an opinion, based in his scientific field of knowledge, and designed to bring attention to a problem. It rather caused a problem. As a consequence Abbott was disinvited from speaking at MIT. The disinvite was done because of what he said in the article and had nothing to do with what he was being asked to come speak about. 

That’s what’s making news, but the reality is that it’s happening quite a lot at other institutions as well.

Dorian Abbott sin wasn’t a scree on Facebook or using a racial slur, but expressing an opinion about the scientific merits of admission to science programs. That was his sin.

Greg does not think that to simply label this an example of the negative impact of “wokism” but to understand that there is much more complexity going on here all together. In the book, Lukianoff and Haidt point to SIX threads or factors that have brought us to the situation we are in:

1. Increasing political polarization since the 1980s

2. Rise in rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide among American adolescents

3. Emergence and intensification of safetysim among parents since the 1980s.

4. A decline in unsupervised free play in children since the 1980s.

5. Bureaucratic expansion and corporatization of the education system, particularly at eth college level.

6. A shift in how social justice is conceptualized, from a focus on equity and proportionality and the promotion of equal opportunity, to focus on equality of outcome.

It is the first issue Greg wants to talk more on, the spiraling expansion of political divide.

Part of the problem is that university disparity in political views has gotten incredibly wide. In the 1980s and 90s it was like 2:1 liberals to conservatives, which has increased to being closer to 10:1 in many places. 

The problem is not political bias but lack of diversity in viewpoints that can lead to an imbalance leading to groupthink and tribalism.

This is only increased thanks to the hyper-hierarchical nature of universities and the overreach and sometimes micromanagement by the administration.

Greg points out that the overwhelming amount of cases FIRE deals with are not malicious ones but are made up of nice students and nice professors saying something that they did not realize was going to trigger a negative response or interpretation in someone else. This made up 1500 incidents in 2020 alone.

The other factor involved is realizing that roughly 400 schools in this country educate about 50% of the higher education student population. It’s a factor of concentration that, again, is a nuance not discussed enough. 

Produced now in higher education, with its concentration and hierarchical structures running into hypersensitive student bodies, are students who are sometimes looking to get offended. Not only that, but they are then going to use that offense as a cudgel against someone else. It is incredibly unhealthy for people emotionally and for participation in an institute of higher learning.

Have people become more hypersensitive?

Yes, but that the same time there is more occurring…the nuance.

There are cynical cases where someone targets a professor because they don’t like them, but there is also a real and dangerous phenomenon of students coming to college with the belief that words can hurt them. 

Yes, words can hurt. They hurt more if you let them. You have a choice though, to perceive those words as hurtful and let that define you or to build up a stronger internal system, to be more resilient. Greg is a bit fuzzy here, but there is more that can be investigated.

Getting back to the origins of things on campuses, Greg notes that before 2014 it was mainly administrations who were guilty of speech codes and creating student fragility on campus.

However, around 2014 there was something like a lightning bolt that struck. Greg and others now noticed that it was the students, who had been the most vocal defenders of freedom of speech, became activists in favor of speech codes and safe spaces. 

It was this flip that Greg and Jonathan Haidt were trying to find the underlying cause of in their Atlantic article in 2015 that became the book of the same name in 2018: The Coddling of the American Mind

Greg and Jonathan saw that students were already arriving on campuses believing what they called “the three great untruths.” 

1. The untruth of fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.

2. The untruth of emotional reasoning: Always trust your feelings.

3. The untruth of Us versus Them: Life is a battle between good and evil people.

Education is becoming a larger and larger battlefield in our current culture wars, as has been discussed much before here, but it is not simply a partisan issue. Instead, there is now a pincer movement underway against education from illiberal elements on the far right and left.

The impact on free speech overall is that idioms in this country like “it’s a free country” have fallen by the wayside and “You’re free to say what you want” has been replace with “Speech is violence.” That is not progress, which is regression. 

The danger to free speech and discourse comes from that conception of speech as a form of violence.

There must be a distinction a distinction between what is protected speech, what is protected by the first amendment, and what is not.

None of this is really new though. Speech and violence have been locked in a continuum for a long time. It needs to be said that yes, speech can lead to violence, something one says in the past could lead to someone being in a duel or getting their head chopped off.

It is our choice, as a culture to make the strong and difficult decisions here to preserve the difference.

Speech can be violence. If someone is actually threatening you, that is NOT protected speech, that crosses a line. Sexual and racial harassment are NOT protected speech. The nuance and distinctions are important. The mistake people make is that they are unable to discern that the speech they think is violence is NOT protected under the first amendment.

If we succumb to the quick emotional responses, misconceptions and distortions are leading us to perceive violence where it is not and undermines our ability to have meaningful discourse.

The problem here is that if one believes speech is violence then applying it towards other means they can apply it back at you. It cuts both ways. It can create a downward spiral of violence.

Such a spiral has been increasing over the last 10 years.

The underlying issue to all of it, again, is that potent and nuanced argument is part and parcel of what is needed in a democracy. Democracy calls us to settle with words what we used to settle on fields of battle with weapons. The halls of government are meant to battlefields of words, not weapon.

Institutions of higher education need to be places open to all and to all forms of expression, a place to debate those ideas. Instead, campuses are becoming perfect rhetorical fortresses (PDF) as Greg calls them. If you are conservative, they are efficient rhetorical fortresses.

What this means is that in the perfect or efficient, one has immediate permission to end any line of discourse or discussion, to not hear the other side. It justifies the layer upon layer use of ad hominem attacks to be launched by academics at any disruption in order to avoid a substantive argument one deems as “uncomfortable” to them.

There are layers to it too. 

On level one, someone can simply make a dismissal on th grounds of political disagreement. On level two, one can dismiss the discourse on grounds of identity. It is all layered as to never get to the heart of the real problem by giving those involved a myriad of avenues to excuse themselves from participation.

As a result, our current political rhetoric it is not there to persuade anyone but simply to signal, to mark out tribal identification.

If you do argue at all, the PRF is designed to be a cut one off through t personal attacks rather than substantive debate.

Higher education needs openness and it needs to be open itself to experimentation to improve it as an institution.

The provocative question is this: Aare there any ideas that should be prohibited in higher education?

Generally, the ideal would be for everyone to remember the notion of academic detachment, of being able to enter a counterfactual mindset that allows one to see the whole picture from all sides. This is a return to being able serve as a devil’s advocate in order to get deeper into issues rather than explore or avoid them based on identity or political preference.

So, where is all of this heading?

Greg is afraid it will get worse before it gets better.

No one is yet stepping up to say this is going too far yet and that’s a bad sign.

All for now.

J C Evans


The Bulwark Podcast: “Greg Lukianoff: We Are Creating a Culture of Student Fragility”


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