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.
The issue that conservatives look to as being the most symbolic here was the rise of the term “safe space.” The problem with the safe-space movement is that at this point in my career, I’ve seen probably seven different definitions of what a safe space is. Some are absolutely not problematic at all. If you want to have a group of like-minded people to get together and form an agreement to hang out with each other, more or less, you have every right to do that. In other cases, you saw students asserting that a residential college that was supposed to be educational was in its entirety a safe space, so things that were offensive to them should not be allowed in an educational environment.
In 2013 and 2014, then, we start seeing these trends that are problematic when it comes to freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus — trends that showed a decreasing tolerance for an appreciation for freedom of speech on campus.
What really made it different was that students were medicalizing the requests for increased policing of speech.
This is one of the things that really piqued my interest. If Ray Kelly, for example, came to speak on campus, rather than saying, “I think his policies are bigoted and I dislike stop and frisk,” part of the argument was that it would be traumatic to have someone like him on campus for students given the reality of stop and frisk.
This medicalization struck me as odd. No psychologist would say, “If you have an aversion to something, or if you have a phobia of it, that means that everybody around you has to not mention that topic, not discuss that topic, not remind you of it in any way.” In fact, mainstream psychological thinking is that you don’t want to create a situation where someone’s fear around a particular topic just keeps on growing, and when the entire community is participating and protecting them from a topic that they find particularly unpleasant.
If that happens, you run the risk of transforming something that might have simply at first been an aversion into a phobia. Then with time, the most dangerous thing that can happen is it becomes more like a schema — a deep self-definition.
So it seemed like we had succeeded, unfortunately, in teaching a generation of students the intellectual habits of anxious and depressed people. I thought this would be harmful not only to the psychology health of students but also to the atmosphere for free speech and academic freedom. I brought this idea to Jonathan Haidt. We met in the Village. We went to an Indian restaurant. We talked about what I thought was an interesting approach, a way to think about it. To my delight and surprise, he wanted to write an article about it. That was 2014. About a year later, we wrote an article called “The Coddling the American Mind” for The Atlantic.
OR: What was the response like?
Lukianoff: For at least several months after the article came out in August 2015, we got very positive responses to it. People were talking about seeing these problems themselves. Students were coming forward saying that in some cases, being treated differently because people knew about someone’s trauma could actually make them feel worse and more excluded and less a part of a society of friends and equals.
For a while, the article the second most-read cover story in the history of The Atlantic. Unfortunately, after the article came out in the summer 2015, the kind of trends we were talking about continued to get a lot worse. It was clear by 2016 that we needed to write a book about it and to go much more in depth.
One of the trends that came up that really underlined that the problem was much worse than we initially thought was when we started getting good data on the psychological makeup of the incoming class of 2016. They were having dramatically higher rates of anxiety and depression than students who entered in 2012.
Our prediction that anxiety and depression would increase ended up being much more dramatic than we ever expected, and really genuinely horrifying. When it comes to self-reports, you have in some cases a tripling of self-reports of psychological problems. You have lots of reports of students attending counseling services in larger numbers.
People that say this could just be that students are more comfortable talking about psychological issues. I’m a little skeptical of this. While that could certainly account for some of the variance, it would be surprising if there was really that much difference from 2012 to 2016.
Regardless, the saddest and most troubling piece of data that underlined our concern was an increase in the suicide rate of about 25 percent for male students when compared against the first decade of the millennium. 25 percent is very bad. When it came to women, the stats were dramatically higher. They were on average about 70 percent higher. But if you look at 2008 versus 2017-2018, the suicide rate actually doubled for young women and girls, which is horrifying.
In the book, we try to figure out what on earth was so different about the incoming class around 2013-2014. The number one trend that seems to come out in the data we saw is social media use. This was essentially the first generation of students to enter college who had smartphones in their pockets and were using social media on a regular basis. We definitely think this is one of the reasons why you saw this very rapid uptick in anxiety and depression. We think it also helps explain why it disproportionally affects girls, partially because male interrelationship hostility tends to be taken out in the form of physical aggression. Whereas for women a lot of the difficulty of, say, junior high school is in relational aggression.
We also think social media speeds up one of our other causal threads: polarization. If you look at the demographic data (and this has been going this way for some time) we increasingly live in communities that are more politically homogeneous. This is much more pronounced than it was in, let’s say, the 1970’s. Red counties have become more red, blue counties have become more blue. Add to that the fact that we have also created these digital environments that really do give you a pat on the back for having a good echo chamber, where people follow you on Twitter because they already agree with you, where if you tweet something out, you just get more people saying, “I second that. I agree with that. You’re right.” Facebook, to a degree, does the same thing.
The hostility to people from the other party is so great that, when asked, people are now more concerned about their sons and daughters dating someone from that other party than they are about dating somebody from, for example, a different religious group. Cass Sunstein has dubbed this “partyism” and it is extremely pronounced in the U.S. right now.
The next most important factor we talk about in the book is — and the evidence is also very strong for this — the rise of helicopter and paranoid parenting styles. These really do promote a level of catastrophizing among students, where essentially they believe that if they don’t do very, very well in school, their life is going to be over. Right now I’m reading a great book by Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti, called Love, Money, and Parenting. It’s about how income inequality and class stratification in the United States almost certainly contribute to this atmosphere of high-stakes testing and high-stakes accomplishment. To a degree, we do really value disproportionately people who go to some of these extremely elite colleges.
It is a relatively safe and rational bet that if you can get your son or daughter into Princeton or into Harvard, they’re going to have very good prospects. Whereas if they decide not to go to college, they could end up dropping a few rungs on the socioeconomic ladder, to places where there are very high rates of depression, very high rates of drug abuse. All the things that make the idea of two Americas — an idea that everyone from John Edwards to Sarah Palin talked about — feel really pronounced. People are really anxious about staying in the upper- and upper-middle class. We talk about that in the book, but primarily as something that pushes paranoid parenting and helicopter parenting. Love, Money, and Parenting goes into it in much greater detail, and I highly recommend it to people.
Probably the most interesting chapter for us to write and to research was about the lack of free play. We think that the crowding out of free and unstructured time for children has had some really negative effects. Students actually need play. It’s the way they imagine and prepare for interaction in society in which they’re supposed to be self-governing. All of this free time that we enjoyed so much as kids helped develop a sense of resilience, helped develop a sense of autonomy and skills for interacting with people who aren’t like you and for resolving disputes. It also helps develop creativity and inventiveness. All these things really benefit from free play, and we think that a recommitment to play could actually help partially reduce some of the anxiety and depression you see among young people, both on and off campus.
I also talk in the book about the rise of bureaucratization at universities. This is one of the reasons why we see a single student’s demand that someone be disinvited gain traction. It wouldn’t really go anywhere if it weren’t for the fact that administrators in many cases are sympathetic to students they feel politically similar to. This huge bureaucratization of universities has led to more speech codes and more speech zones — policies that tell students that they need to restrict themselves to tiny little areas if they want to protest. This hyperbureaucratization is one of the contributing factors to a lack of respect for viewpoint diversity on campus.
We also talk about how new ideas on social justice can sometimes make things worse on campus. We talk about two different kinds of identity politics. One we dubbed “common humanity identity politics,” which we think of as being very positive. Look at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s great speeches saying that the principles advocated by the Founding Fathers should belong to everyone, and that includes black Americans. This was extremely morally powerful stuff, and it’s still very inspiring, and it’s a way to grow the circle of your community. The same thing happened in the gay rights movement. One of the most important developments in the gay rights movement was a relatively simple idea: people have to start coming out of the closet to their families and to their friends, so that gay people are no longer this mysterious faceless group but rather our sisters, and cousins, and uncles, and aunts.
The other version, which we think is more problematic, we call “common enemy identity politics.” This is something you see a lot of on Twitter, where in discussions of privilege — and privilege is a very real thing — it often sounds a great deal like there are good people, and there are bad people, and the more privilege you have, the worse you are. The less you have, according to theory, the more on the side of the angels you are. This gives users a rhetorical device that necessarily divides us into ever smaller and smaller groups, rather than bringing us together into a larger circle of common humanity.
OR: Where are we headed if these trends continue? What can we do as a way of ameliorating and pushing back against them? Do you see there being changes in the legal regime in America around free speech, and more broadly in the social norms protecting it?
Lukianoff: I wrote a very short book in 2014 called Freedom from Speech, in which I argue that increased censorship is likely the more technologically advanced we get as a society, the more affluent we get as a society, the more physical mobility we have as a society. This is a problem of progress: physically being able to move into communities that reflect your values sounds like a wonderful paradise. Being able to join groups online that share your intense political and ideological commitment sounds lovely. All of these are the results of the idea that we have technology that doesn’t tie us to downtown city centers as much as we were in the past, which lets us move around more.
There’s a dark side to all this. One is that if people don’t have any actual practice in constructively disagreeing with one another, they’re not going to be good at it. Just the fact that people lived in communities that were less class-stratified means that people had some practice in having discussions with people from different economic classes. I think this is extremely healthy.
There’s something even worse: group polarization and tribalism. As people cluster together in increasingly like-minded groups, there’s a tendency to imbue your ingroup with positive moral qualities and the outgroup with negative moral qualities. This tribalism in human beings is very deeply wired. Unfortunately, I think we’re looking at a period, and possibly a long period, of things getting worse for free speech. I believe that that’s actually already happening globally even though the law in the United States hasn’t been much affected by it, if you see some of the numbers. If you read Jean Twenge’s book iGen you see that there is some increased hostility towards freedom of speech that I think is going to get worse.
But we shouldn’t be throwing in the towel immediately. Campuses and high schools haven’t done really minimal stuff to address this trend. For example, a lot of high schools don’t even have civics requirements, classes that explain basic things about the structure of the government and Constitutional principles. I’m familiar with very few colleges that talk about freedom of speech or have sessions on freedom of speech during orientation. In my opinion, every single college in the country should have these, because it isn’t as intuitive as people my age or older tend to think. It’s not obvious that you should actually hear people out, even if you think that their opinions are just completely backwards and wrong. We need to actually have that explained to students, and they need to practice it somewhat from the very first day. Or else we can frankly expect some of these principles to fall into serious disrepair.
OR: Should things change for the worse, what does that imply for the structure of our democratic society? Can there really be a democracy absent a base level of societal commitment to debate?
Lukianoff: There’s been a whole slew of books about the failure of small-L liberalism. Some of these books are really impressive and really distressing. One thing that you learn, as a First Amendment person, is that the legal value of freedom of speech doesn’t matter. Even if you have a strong First Amendment on paper, you don’t benefit from it if nobody really respects freedom of speech as a principle that goes beyond legal values.
For example, you can have every point of view under the sun protected legally and have these protections be not that useful to society if there is no norm of hearing out people on the other side of the political fence. I think that we’ve been used to the United States functioning surprisingly well, even in the face of adversity. But when there is this kind of tribalism, are we going to end up with what National Review writer David French calls “the great divorce?” If there’s such hostility towards our fellow citizens, and it’s roughly split 50/50 along political lines, is that the formula for something much worse than minor dysfunction? I’m genuinely worried about that. There is no reason to assume that things will just keep on working. If people don’t protect some of the basic democratic norms, it would be foolish to assume that they’re just going to protect themselves.
OR: What advice would you give students to combat this trend?
Lukianoff: I would tell them: think of it as your duty to find smart people with whom you disagree. We have to value discussion and debate, and right now I don’t think we do value them. So it’s hard to get very far with just legal freedom of speech, without an idea that it’s useful to listen to people from different sides of the fence.
I also sometimes recommend that people put on their anthropologist hats be curious about where people are coming from. Rather than, for example, simply having contempt for someone who voted for Trump, you should try to figure out why. You should try to hear out what their concerns are coming from. Not because you’re going to agree with any of them, but out of curiosity to know what human beings are actually like. This is one of the things that make me different from a lot of First Amendment people: I don’t think of freedom of speech primarily as the marketplace of ideas that Oliver Wendell Holmes came up with. As I see it, it’s always valuable to know what people think. Not only if it’s troubling to you, but especially when it’s troubling to you. Right now, we have a profound lack of curiosity on both sides of the political fence about what our fellow citizens think and why. Trying to instill that curiosity could help protect the Republic.