Unsafe Space

An Interview with Greg Lukianoff

Octavian Report: How did you get interested in First Amendment issues on campus?

Greg Lukianoff: The impetus goes pretty far back, even to before law school. I wanted to do First Amendment work, particularly with a focus on freedom of speech. That's what I went to law school hoping to do. I took every class that Stanford Law School offered on the First Amendment, and when I ran out, I did independent studies on censorship during the Tudor dynasty and I interned at the ACLU of Northern California. Even at a place that's as warm and fuzzy as Stanford, people thought it was a little bit odd that I was putting all of my eggs in one basket.

After I graduated, I was approached by Harvey Silverglate, who was the co-founder of FIRE, to be FIRE's first legal director. I jumped on the opportunity. Even in 2001, it was surprisingly easy to get in trouble for what you said on campus. That was something that the public wasn't paying a lot of attention to at the time. People were familiar with political correctness on campus, particularly the rise of speech codes in the late '80s and early '90s. But by 2001, people had largely taken their eye off the ball. It was surprising to end up in this atmosphere where a relatively innocent verbal misstep off campus could get you in a lot of trouble.

My first book, Unlearning Liberty, is really my best explanation of what things were like on campus for the first large chunk of my career. One thing that readers will probably notice is that the people who you were at that time most likely to get in trouble with were not your fellow students. Students were generally quite good on freedom of speech. They were probably its best constituency on campus. But they were getting in trouble with administrators — usually relatively low-level or mid-level administrators. In a case that I talk about a lot in Unlearning Liberty, this trouble actually came directly from the president's office.

This case involved a student named Hayden Barnes. He was kicked out of school without so much as a hearing for publishing a Facebook collage that was critical of the university president's decision to go forward with a parking garage project. Barnes thought the congestion on campus could be answered in more environmentally friendly ways. Because he had named the collage The President Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage, he was accused of threatening the life of the university president. It was one of the worst cases of my early career, because it became quite clear that the president didn't feel threatened by this particular collage. Nonetheless, Barnes was kicked out of school. It was particularly ironic because the student in question was a Shambhala Buddhist. He was a believer in non-violence very publicly. He was a decorated EMT — decorated for saving people's lives. So not really someone that you could convince most people was actually a threat to the university.

Octavian Report: How did you come to write The Coddling of the American Mind?

Lukianoff: In 2007 — and I'm very public about this in the book — I had a dangerous bout of depression. I ended up in the hospital because of it. While I was recovering from that, one of the things that really helped me was cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT.

The way you do CBT is you try to identify in your own thoughts exaggerated factual statements that tend to make people anxious or depressed. A typical cognitive distortion would be going on a date and, if it is not going very well, thinking to yourself, "Oh my God, I'm gonna die alone." We all think things like this to a greater or a lesser degree. Unsurprisingly, anxious and depressed people do this a lot more often, and it tends to be worse the more anxious and depressed you are, creating sort of a feedback loop.

In CBT, they give you a whole list of cognitive distortions — typical mental exaggerations that people engage in. A classic one is catastrophizing. There's also fortune-telling, where you presume to know that something relatively minor will lead to some horrible, horrible outcome. There's binary thinking.

While I was studying all these cognitive distortions I was also watching what I saw on campus, and I started to realize that I felt like administrators were more or less teaching the habit of cognitive distortion. In other words, they were teaching the habits of anxious and depressed people. We've had many cases in which, just like in the Hayden Barnes case, something that could not reasonably be interpreted as a threat to the community is treated as a great danger.

The good news, from 2007 all the way up to about 2013, was that students didn't seem to be buying it. For the most part, students seemed to roll their eyes at the idea that they needed to be much more frightened than they really were. That was great, and that was what I was used to with regards to the students: they weren't really buying it.

This all changed really dramatically in 2013 and 2014. Seemingly overnight, you start having students in large numbers demanding that speakers be disinvited, even in cases where people could easily not attend the talk. We're not talking about commencement addresses, here. Sometimes when speakers weren't disinvited, students would shout them down. Shoutdowns are not unheard-of on campus by students, but this was definitely one of the first times I saw students being lionized for rather than apologizing for a shoutdown.

This is also when you start seeing a discussion of microaggression policies. I try to be very clear about this in the book: I think microaggressions are real. I think that they're extremely interesting from an academic standpoint as well. I think it's healthy and useful for people to know the ways that we unintentionally slight each other. But as soon as they become policy, they start looking a lot more like the ideological or political preferences of whoever wrote the policy, which is a very typical situation for First Amendment people to run into. You also have in this period the first popularization of the idea of trigger warnings, which really caught a lot of people's attention, even though we've seen very few attempts to actually make trigger warnings mandatory. That is really the only situation in which FIRE would be concerned (or at least overly concerned) with them.