Sunday, November 5, 2023

Lukianoff and Schlott on Cancellation

Last week I was honored to be moderator for a discussion with Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott on their new book "Canceling the American Mind" at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco.  Link here, if the embed above doesn't work 

Here are my questions. I shared them with Greg and Rickki ahead of time, so the actual questions are a bit shorter. But this may give you some interesting background, and I think they're good questions to ponder in general.


1) The book is full of great stories. Perhaps you can help everyone get a sense of the book with one or two of the most informative cancellation stories. 

2) I notice a progression in your work. “Coddling” has moved to “canceling” and is moving to “censorship.”  People think of  “canceling” as a social phenomenon, twitter pile-ons. But, as you show in the book, it has now moved on to organized institutional censorship, in universities, scientific societies and publications,  medicine and medical schools, journalism, media and tech, publishing, psychotherapy, law schools, and corporations, which not only punish transgressors but enforce ideological conformity. I’d like you to choose a few stories, explain some of these mechanisms,— for example “DEI” bureaucracies, speech surveillance, curriculum mandates, and so on. 

3) There is an important distinction between free speech and academic freedom. It is one thing to censor and fire people for political tweets, but entirely another that whole lines of research are censored — covid, sex and biology, race and policing are examples. And the spread of censorship to the formerly hard sciences seems more damaging than just how much of a lost cause the humanities are. 

Yet academic freedom in research and teaching is not absolute. If you’re hired to research and teach cosmology, the university is right to say you can’t do lots of creationism, and the right to invest in what it thinks are promising fields.  I don’t like “where do you draw the line” discussions, but I would like your thoughts on academic freedom. 

It also strikes me that we find your stories so compelling simply because the things people are censored for seem so reasonable, and their censorship so ridiculous. Yet the ideologues think we’re ridiculous. It’s not clear that academic freedom is the central issue, rather than just how ridiculous and politicized most universities have become in their teaching and research priorities. Perhaps free speech and academic freedom are  necessary but not sufficient to fix universities.

4) A softball: Free speech is all well and good but surely “hate speech and disinformation must be regulated.” —usually stated in that maddening subject-free passive voice, leaving who and how unsaid.

5) Censorship now infects the government. Since you wrote the book, the twitter files and the savage Missouri V. Biden injunction have come out, detailing how the government got tech companies to silence its political critics. A notable example includes the Great Barrington declaration signatories who turned out to be right about masks, vaccine mandates, lockdowns, and school closures.  I fear that social media and AI regulation are really all about censoring political speech, which now includes scientific discourse. Are you?

6) You also wrote the book before the Hamas terrorist attack in Israel. Campuses and much of Europe exploded with pro-Hamas protests. University leaders, used to denouncing every small injustice in the world, issued muddles. Long-time donors are rebelling. 

Well, they say, don’t you believe in freedom of speech and academic freedom? If we want to go on a campus rampage with “kill the jews” signs, that’s freedom of speech. If we want to run an exercise in class where we make Jewish students stand apart, that’s academic freedom.   

Follow up: In my view, the main lesson is not the hilarious hypocrisy, or a pointless “where do you draw the line” on free speech.  The real question is why universities have chosen to admit, hire, and promote so many people who, given free speech, choose to use it on murderous anti-semitism? How do you process these events?

7) Your book valiantly tries to balance “left" and “right.” I want to push us to a more nuanced view, which may help to defuse partisan sentiments. It’s not really “left” and “right,” as most people on each side still support free speech.  [Greg pushed back hard on that, which was very interesting.] Rather there is a small, but influential minority of each that is the enemy of free speech. And let’s get past whose “fault” it is.

a) Let’s start with the left. I think of the free speech enemies as the totalitarian progressives, sometimes called “woke,” but I try to avoid that charged term. Who do you see the as enemies of free speech on the left, what do they want, and what dangers they pose? 

b) Now on the right. I was surprised to learn how much cancellation is coming from the right.  Who are they? In your book, I count some ham handed anti-woke politicians, some traditional book-banning social conservatives, a smattering of “national conservatives,” “common good conservatives” and a vortex of Trump supporters rallying around his peccadillos. But I shouldn’t put words in your mouth. Who are they and what do they want?

c) You try to be even handed, but I want to push you on that. The anti-speech forces on the left have won the long march through the institutions. You describe a string of selection mechanisms starting in grade school to enforce left-wing ideological conformity. They’re on the advance. On the right you describe have ham-handed “anti-woke” legislators, and what you call a “fringe theory from the Opus Dei wing of the conservative movement.” The the left has Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford.  You cite right-wing cancellations at Collin College, University of Rhode Island, Montana State and University of Kentucky. Is not the present danger to freedom really mostly from the small minority of left-wing activists, and the crowd of bien-pensants who go along with them?

8) I have to admit I’m a bit disappointed about your “cures.”  Maybe depressed is the right word — if you two don’t have magic bullets, we’re in real trouble. You outline a radical restructuring of universities, which is great, but not who is going to take over universities to do it. You emphasize nice rules for a better rhetoric: free speech, logic and evidence, ignore what someone said about another topic, no ad-hominem attacks, and so on. But the opponents of free speech ignore traditional enlightenment rhetoric for a reason. The far left says that logic and evidence are colonialist white supremacist racist thinking; we don’t have to listen to evil people. And faced with their latest ideological word salad, it’s hard to see what there is to discuss on a factual basis anyway. The far right says, we are faced with a Maoist / Bolshevik cultural revolution, aimed at seizing power. There’s no free speech in a war. Voluntarily abiding by better rhetoric doesn't seem likely. Neither side likes your “free speech culture.” 

9) Let’s close with another softball. As you note, free speech is a rare and recent idea. Censorship for political or religious reasons has been the norm in human societies.  In your words, why is freedom of speech and thought so crucial? 


  1. Thanks to John Cochrane for his thinking on this topic.

  2. I am reminded that a major part of John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty" is about the way social pressure can be as coercive as government force.

  3. Cure? Turn off the money.

    There's too much free money around. Part of that is caused by non-profit status. Let universities pay taxes like everybody else. The other part is student loans that are being forgiven salami-like. Student loans should be on commercial terms with the possibility of bankruptcy, like any other personal loan.

    The higher ed sector is way too big. Watch it shrink.

  4. Much of this is enabled by fiat money. Fix the money and force everyone to have honest discussions about trade offs. For example, if colleges were on the hook for the first loss piece on student loans a lot of silliness would stop.

  5. I'm not usually one for sitting through videos and podcasts, but this was a very interesting discussion.

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  8. Nice interview overall, thank you, John. Sorry, it looks like you deviate from a full support of freedom of speech for some topics, noticeably the topics of Israel and Ukraine. Freedom of speech should be without bounds. If someone supports Hamas (could be a support of their political position, not atrocities committed by them), then he/she has a right to do so, while other people have a right to disagree. It is also noteworthy that during a war propaganda is spread by both sides. Let us remember the words by Voltaire, a father of liberalism: “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Unfortunately liberalism means something different nowadays. (Disclaimer: I prefer Israel to win their war because of Realpolitik considerations, yet it is sad to see each party of the war seemingly to view the other one as subhumans).


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