Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.
Nico Perrino: So, Anthony Leaker, thank you for coming on the show today.
Anthony Leaker: Thank you for inviting me.
Nico Perrino: So, you in your essay for the Cato Institute, say that you’re against free speech, and you have a book coming out that I’m assuming will be an expansion of this essay. And I just wanted to begin this conversation by exploring what it actually means to be against free speech in your conception of it.
Anthony Leaker: Yeah, so I should clarify that I would like to be against free speech in inverted commas, because I think to be against free speech in itself is impossible or stupid or idiotic or self-defeating. There are many, many ways of challenging the notion of being against free speech. So, first I should say that as a title it is polemical, but I do have a whole set of arguments that I’ll try and outline. So, against free speech in inverted commas, I realize that’s quite a kind of irritating post-modern/post structuralist gesture to put things in inverted commas or quotation marks.
But what I mean by that is that free speech today or now or in the last three or four years, has become so fetch-sized or so narrativized or misused that it’s become an ideological tool that is becoming increasingly removed from its true ideal. And so that’s really what I want to argue against, is against the way in which free speech is being used. Having said that, I do think there are some useful arguments to be made against free speech as a principle because I think the invocation of principle is a means of evading looking at some of the practical circumstances or consequences of the way free speech is used.
So, every time free speech is invoked as a principle, it is a deflection away from talking about the particular issues. So, I do think that principles themselves, some liberal democratic principles, need to be interrogated.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, one of the things that I was very interested in talking with you about after reading your essay, is whether you just dislike the cultural discourse surrounding free speech or are you actually in favor of implementing stronger regimes of censorship and speech codes, or is it a little bit of both?
Anthony Leaker: Yeah, well, this is going to sound evasive. I’m not against speech codes but more importantly, I think that they already exist, and not only the ones that are seemingly egregious or outrageous or these kind of 60-page documents the universities, for example, have with all of these codes and guidelines and rules, I can see precisely why the fire or sparks online or other organizations would be against those. They can seem absurd.
But what I would like to argue for is the recognition that language, in all context, whether in a university or in business or in the media, is already deeply coded and policed and that censorship, if you like, operates in all areas all the time. And there doesn’t seem to be that much recognition of that in the dominant discourse around free speech that I read coming in from the mainstream press. There’s this kind of assumption that free speech is a straightforward ideal or principle or set of practices, and I don’t think it is. I think all context imply a set of rules and codes and, most importantly, power structures.
So, I wouldn’t really want to get drawn into saying I’m in favor of speech codes or censorship or hate speech laws because I think I would want to take that on a case-by-case basis.
Nico Perrino: There’s one thing that you do in your essay in describing free speech. You say it’s often used today by some free speech advocates as a Trojan horse as cover for some of their more retrograde ideas. You say free speech crisis is a self-serving myth manufactured or at least capitalized on by people like Tommy Robinson, Geert Wilders. I’m assuming you would also lump people like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos into that category.
And in those cases, I think I’m sympathetic to your argument. It does seem as though they have gotten immense criticism for their ideas and they have seized upon the cultural capital that free speech has to say this is a debate about free speech, not my ideas. But at the same time, I do think their critics give them that argument by actually censoring them in certain cases. For example, Tommy Robinson speaks at Columbia University and his speech is shouted down and he’s not actually able to give the speech. So, I do think he has an argument there and it distracts from what otherwise would be a conversation about their ideas. Do you not agree with that?
Anthony Leaker: I don’t know why Tommy Robinson was ever invited to Columbia University. So, to that extent, by all means put me in the disinvitation camp. How did it come about that these people – I don’t think 10 years ago, Tommy Robinson would have had the kind of profile he has today.
Nico Perrino: And for our listeners in America, can you just kind of describe who Tommy Robinson is?
Anthony Leaker: Well, he’s most known for being kind of critical, at best in friendly terms, being critical of Islam. But in my view, being Islamophobic. But he was a member of a group called English Defence League, which is the U.K. Independence Party which was instrumental in bringing Brexit around, about. It was kind of quite successful as a fringe political party up until about two years ago. It’s now not doing so well.
But, yeah, he’s sort of a – Richard Spencer is an about equivalent. He’s a spokesperson for various political organizations, and they be all on the right if not on the far right. Most famously, he has been arrested a couple of times I believe for contempt of court, which is potentially damaging. A court case against a group of men who were accused of prostitution, I believe.
Nico Perrino: So, do you draw a distinction, then, between what speech should be allowed in a University context and what speech should be policed in broader society by, say, the government. In the United States, and I’m not quite as familiar with the system overseas, but in the United States, a lot of public universities are a functionary of the government so they’re bound by the First Amendment. But how do you think about that distinction?
Anthony Leaker: Again, I would want to say, can we just have some recognition of the way in which language is policed all the time, the way in which language or conversations or views and opinions are framed and structured and conditioned by a whole set of unwritten codes, conventions, rules, and usually – and this is going to come across as a generalization – but usually, I would say in most of these circumstances, they privilege White, straight men. And I would say the university is no different to that.
I think the university is structured in such a way, and that could be the seminar space or lecturing in a set of ways that have a history. University teaching, university courses, university outlines, university hierarchies have a history and they have, traditionally, privileged a certain form of the individual. And that obfuscates their gender and their race and their class. But these are White, middle class, straight men. And so, I am in favor of trying to challenge that. And this is where I kind of agree, I think, with you probably. I don’t think the solution is to empower the government. I don’t think the government is the ideal solution.
This is where I wouldn’t be in favor of censorship or I wouldn’t be in favor of legal redress. Ideally, I would like to change the kind of conversation. I mean, can I just quickly mention, I listened to Jonathan Haidt on your podcast. I think it was a month or two ago where it was the panel discussion around is there a free speech crisis on universities. And there were Andrew Sullivan and Jeffrey Sachs, I believe.
Nico Perrino: Suzanne Nossel.
Anthony Leaker: He said the most important thing – I’m paraphrasing – and he might correct me. But he said, “We need to think about the narratives.” And he presented three different narratives. He said, “You know, we can look at data and we can think about surveys. But what’s most important are the narratives.” And I actually disagree with almost everything Jonathan Haidt has written about free speech but that I agree with him.
The crucial things here are the narratives. And I was quite surprised to hear him say that because that’s the kind of thing that’s a cultural theory lecturer like myself would say, that what matters here are narratives of the stories that are being heard. It’s these constructions, and in my view, he says these lead to kind of myths. And the narrative of free speech being under threat at universities I would want to challenge.
Nico Perrino: Well, yeah, I guess the impasse that I have in understanding that argument is challenged in what way? We can talk about how speech should be viewed but if it doesn’t actually lead to any cultural changes either legal or otherwise, what are we actually looking to accomplish in this case?
Anthony Leaker: Say a student of color objects to a given text or something that was said in university or a given – I mean, you would be more familiar with some of the controversies that have taken place in the States and I would around race. But generally, the patent that I witness is that there’ll be an incident and the particulars of the students protesting, the particulars of their argument or their case or what they are criticizing doesn’t get heard. What gets heard is that free speech is under threat in campuses.
And so, what I would like to see change is different voices being heard, different voices actually having the opportunity to make their critiques in or on major platforms; so, in major publications. I know, if you really seek them out, you can kind of find the arguments in student newspapers or elsewhere that some students have made some really valid criticisms of certain, to their mind, racist or sexist or transphobic practices. And they seem like very convincing arguments to me but they very rarely get heard.
What happens is that free speech gets invoked and it’s a kind of deflection. It’s a deflection away from the particulars of the argument. And you get this argument about principles and it’s evasive. It’s avoiding the particular issues that these students are raising.
Nico Perrino: Can’t we simultaneously try and raise those students’ voices and concerns up while also standing steadfast against any calls that might be inherent in that narrative for censorship? I’m reminded of a common line among the waves of student protests that occurred here in about 2015-2016. I don’t know if there was a similar wave overseas, but it was students expressing many valid concerns about the environment for racial, sexual, gender injustices on campus. But as part of some of those demands, and you can actually go to the demands.org to see a lot of these students demands, there were calls for explicit speech codes.
And the position of FIRE was a nuanced one that kind of gets lost in the culture war battle. It’s like, these students have a right to their voices, their protests should be protected. But at the same time, to the extent that they’re making any demands for censorship, those need to be stood fast against. And then, of course, we always make the argument about why free speech and academic freedom and free inquiry are crucial to the mission of the university. Is it possible, you think, to do that or do you think that that’s going to be a challenge?
Anthony Leaker: I mean, I’d like to think it’s possible. This is complex because it’s so partly to do with a relation between organizations like FIRE or the students themselves and the mainstream media. It is true that FIRE has a nuance position, I mean, it is true that FIRE, some of the cases you defend, it seems to me like across the spectrum, right.
Nico Perrino: Of course, yeah.
Anthony Leaker: But the representation of FIRE, possibly in the views of some or in certain representations that I’ve read, is that FIRE is similar to someone like Spiked in the U.K. And I know you interviewed Brendan O’Neill on your podcast. And in my view, Spiked are provocateurs. I mean, they are just out to provoke. I don’t think there’s anything nuance whatsoever about anything they do and I think FIRE has rightly or wrongly been associated with them to a certain extent or is associated with the kind of unsafe speech toward took place in the States a year ago. Is that true?
Nico Perrino: Yeah, we had one person speak on one of the panels about a regulation in the United States called Title IX. But no, we weren’t a sponsor, I don’t believe. Spiked and I have many friends over there. Spiked’s mission is much more expansive than ours. They’re involved in the Brexit discussions and a lot more cultural issues. Our mission is very narrowly focused on the First Amendment and First Amendment values. And our position is that we agree with, generally, how the Supreme Court has outlined speech protections here in the United States.
We think it is a sophisticated view at both the harms that can be coupled, perhaps, with speech when we’re talking about truth reps or incitement to imminent lawless action, while leaving a wide girth for participation in the democratic process which we think requires open discourse, sometimes offensive discourse. But our cases come from across the political and ideological spectrum. We just defended a professor at Rutgers University successfully who criticized White gentrification in Harlem.
Anthony Leaker: Yeah, I saw that. James Livingston.
Nico Perrino: We’re on the frontlines of defending a professor at Temple University who is very critical of Israel. But at the same time, we defend strong defenders of Israel and sometimes speakers whose speech has been accused to be racist or maybe even is racist, we’ll defend to the extent that a university allows people to rent out space on campus. It’s a public university.
If Richard Spencer wants to rent out that space, we believe he has a right to do so. We also believe that students have a right to raise their voices in opposition to it and that universities must protect those protests. So, it’s a very “stick to the First Amendment” approach. At private universities, it’s more of a moral argument about what values a university should uphold in regard to academic freedom and free inquiry. But we’re not so much a cultural commentator in that sense.
Anthony Leaker: Yeah, I heard your colleague, I think Will –
Nico Perrino: Will Creeley?
Anthony Leaker: Yeah, I mean he was saying this annoys me the way that FIRE get wrapped up these culture wars. That’s not what we’re doing. Just look at our casework please. And I thought that was great. I thought he sounded great. And so, I would say, on the one hand, that sounds really great what FIRE are doing. But in practical terms, it’s really great work and it’s very, very valuable that there’s an organization holding universities to account and is doing this kind of work that, possibly, no one else would be doing, that the media wouldn’t be doing. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be, individually, to get legal redress for these issues. So, in practical terms, I think that’s great.
But philosophically, it presumes neutrality, right. So, this defense of the First Amendment doesn’t address structural inequality. It doesn’t address the power imbalance. It doesn’t address the fact that, predominantly, the people who suffer the most from offense being protected, are the people who are already suffering the most because of structural and other forms of inequality, right. It’s just evident to me that in the United States, as in the U.K., there are very, very serious structural problems of racism and other forms of discrimination, sexual discrimination, gender discrimination, and that something needs to be done to address that.
The argument we’re defending all, it’s just neutral and we’ll defend all cases, well that’s kind of good. But is it really, in the long term, going to address some of the more egregious injustices that exist because of structural inequalities?
Nico Perrino: Legally, I don’t know how you do anything but adhere to neutral principles without vast abuses of power. One of the things that – and I know you have more of a cultural narrative concern here.
Anthony Leaker: Exactly, yeah. Of course, legally –
Nico Perrino: I don’t want to say that you’re in favor of legal regimes of censorship, –
Anthony Leaker: Not at all.
Nico Perrino: – but one of the confusions that occurs to me in seeing some of the protests on campus is, at the same time that you are protesting against an administration, for example, it could be on campus or it could be the Trump Administration, that abuses its power, and that allegation can be true or false. We’d have to look at any individual case, but that’s the allegation.
At the same time, we want to give them more authority to determine, this abusive authority, more authority to determine what speech should occur on campus or what speech should be privileged or unprivileged on campus. In the United States, our appreciation for the First Amendment, at least within liberal circles, and I know you are a strong critic of neo-liberalism, which we can get into. Or at least that’s a suggestion from your essay.
Anthony Leaker: I am, yeah, no 100%.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, but that all stems from a history in the United States, of suppression, of the voices of civil rights activists, of gay rights activists, of women’s suffrage activists. And you have a Samuel Johnson quote in your essay. You said, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from slave drivers?” Well, some of the loudest yelps for liberty in the United States, historically, for free speech have come from people like Frederick Douglass, like Ida B. Wells, who wrote for the newspaper, the Free Speech, like Martin Luther King, like the current Congressman John Lewis who said that the civil rights movement without free speech would have been a bird without wings.
So, while I’m sympathetic to a lot of what you’re saying, I’m just, again, at that impasse. It’s like, yes, we should be including as many voices in the process, in the conversation as possible. But we can’t abandon free speech, especially in an era where we’re seeing, as you write in your essay, rising authoritarianism both domestically and in countries outside the United States.
I just don’t want to give an inch on this idea of who can and cannot speak in a democracy. And I don’t want to start that calculation of okay, well, we determine just what the power imbalance might be here, investigate people’s backgrounds, how marginalized their voice be. I just don’t see how you conduct that analysis or construct that calculation.
Anthony Leaker: Yeah, I don’t either. I am talking about a kind of cultural set of narratives and I am really talking about the culture war that’s going on. And so, it seems to me that there’s been such a kind of powerful set of narratives around there being a free speech crisis or both a free speech crisis on university or free speech and crisis in general, or –
Nico Perrino: And FIRE’s never argued that, to be clear. I think you listened to the podcast in which we explicitly said we don’t have a position. But, yes.
Anthony Leaker: But I think it’s hard for free speech advocates not to be caught up in that. So, what I argued in the essay was the onus is on true defenders on free speech, right. So, the onus is on you to distinguish yourself from, firstly, the right-wing co-option of it. Or not the right wing but the far-right co-option of it to – yes, okay, that’s true about Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells in that free speech has been in the service of all sorts of very just causes.
But it seems to me it shifted, right. The role it’s playing ideologically and the role it’s playing as a kind of tool of critique has shifted in the last 10 or 15 years. And why is that? Why has that occurred? I mean, that’s one of the things I’m trying to think about. How has it come about that free speech is now most often associated, at least in the U.K., with these kind of demagogues or with these, you know –
Nico Perrino: Well, it might be, and I don’t have any strong theory here, but it might be because you see a lot of these conversations happening on college campuses. And the argument is that conservatives are far-right or right-wing individuals or groups are censored on these campuses and it’s the left. And most of these universities that have some sort of cultural hegemony, if not administrative power.
And so, the idea could be we’re seeing allegations of censorship or even just cultural criticism that some people, we can loop Milo Yiannopoulos in here, that’s so intense that they feel as though it ventures almost into a free speech discussion, and that’s rightly or wrongly. And you can maybe see this in the culture generally where the left, broadly speaking, and I hate using those terms, seems to have a cultural stranglehold on the media, on movies.
Anthony Leaker: Finally.
Nico Perrino: That’s exactly my point. We’re in the middle part of the century, we look at the purge of alleged communists from the movie industry and it seemed as thought the right, the America firsters back then, held all the wheels of power. And so, the censorship was of those who didn’t hold that cultural power, which was those on the left. So, you’re seeing a shift where the left is taking, not taking over the culture necessarily, but has more say in the culture, has more power in the culture and so you’re seeing the wheels of censorship turn in a different direction.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said that America is nothing if not a pendulum. When it swings one way, it swings the other way. And my concern as someone who is kind of apolitical but has sympathies to the left, is that it will swing back the other way. And if we knock down the walls that allow for these neutral principles, we’re pursuing expediency more than anything else. And you see this in the United States all the time right now with the removal of, for example, 60 votes required to confirm a Supreme Court Justice.
You get rid of that, the replies the republicans did for Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, great, you might get Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, but there might be a moment when you’re not in power. And so, you want those checks and balances. And so, I guess that’s a long-winded way of my kind of exploration of why we might be seeing the narrative shift and we might be seeing the victims, or alleged victims, of censorship be more on the right than they were when Martin Luther King was marching into Selma, for example.
Anthony Leaker: I mean, my explanation would be, or one possible explanation, is that this all needs to be reviewed in the context of the financial crash of 2007-2008. So, you have this major, major economic disaster which has a huge impact in the U.K. and the U.S. and the rest of the world. And then, five years later, you get this, in the broader sense, culture war both in the U.K. and in the U.S. And a kind of smaller part of that is this ongoing sense of free speech being in crisis or a narrative about free speech being in crisis, there being a free speech crisis.
So, what’s the relationship between those things? Well, it would be pretty hard to fully establish it. But clearly, there is a politics of reaction that exists that has brought about Brexit, that has brought about Trump, that brought about massive support for Le Pen in France and elsewhere across Europe with the support for these ethno-nationalist discourses or ethno-nationalist politicians, I should say who use ethno-nationalist, racist if not white supremacist narratives to garner support from the so-called left-behind from these apparently disempowered and disenfranchised groups of people.
But what caused that disenfranchisement? What caused that disenfranchisement was, yes, neo-liberalism, and, in particular, the financial crisis. And so, politicians are capitalizing on this economic crisis and using culture and using cultural narratives as a way of gaining support and also avoiding addressing any of the deeper structural problems which are to do with quite extreme form of capitalism that is producing mass, mass inequality both in the U.S. and in the U.K. where you’ve got an increased division between the richest and the poorest which it seems to be only getting worse.
So, what I would want to see this. This kind of obsession with culture as a result of a failure to address anything concrete with the economy. The economy hasn’t changed. The economic system, if you like, hasn’t changed since the financial crisis. And liberal democracy itself has been massively undermined. Everything that you’ve kind of said in defense of free speech, in principle, I agree with.
But in the concrete situation in which we both exist and the political circumstances in which your vote is cast and which my vote is cast, well it’s largely – a farce is a bit too strong – but we do live in a kind of post-democratic age or in an age where liberal democracies are seriously under threat, right. Well, your president, I mean, probably, if we get into talking about your president, run. But, you know, there are problems, right. There are clear threats to democracy in both the U.S. and in the U.K. Democracy is threatened.
So, this idea that there’s this neutral marketplace of ideas, if we just bring all these ideas out into the sunlight and that we can have an open and free debate and the truth win out, it just seems remarkably naïve. It makes sense in [inaudible] [00:31:28], it makes sense in the seminar space that we can all sit together and we’ve got this established set of presuppositions and guidelines that will help us explore difficult or challenging ideas and come out and we’re all interested in truth. Well, that is not how democracies are operating now. Democracies are chasing, it’s the politics of fear, it’s politics of race-baiting, etcetera, etcetera.
Nico Perrino: How much of the Trump election and the Brexit referendum do you think stemmed from people feeling as though they didn’t have a voice except in the ballot box? For example, I have a lot of – I’m from the Midwest here in the United States – a lot of friends and family who felt like, culturally, they couldn’t say what they actually felt. And so, going to the ballot box and voting for Donald Trump was one way for them to express themselves in sort of a private or semi-private sphere.
Anthony Leaker: But what is it that they felt they couldn’t say? What are these things? This is used all the time. There are these things that people feel they can’t say. I don’t know what they are.
Nico Perrino: Well, in the United States, it might be certain feelings about immigration.
Anthony Leaker: Right, yeah, well that might [inaudible] [00:32:47].
Nico Perrino: In Brexit, that might also be the case. Now I can’t say –
Anthony Leaker: Immigration is never off the news. This is what I don’t understand. Why do they feel afraid to say these things when all – it’s one of the most dominant discussions in the mainstream press.
Nico Perrino: And I think the argument would be, to lay my political cards on the table, here I’m a pretty open borders libertarian in that sense. But the argument would be there is a “correct and incorrect” position on immigration and the narrative that you see is the one that comes from mainstream media, perhaps, and they’re the ones that present the correct opinion and because it’s a left-leaning opinion and those who hold contrary opinions are painted as racist or sexist on a lot of these different issues. They just feel like, well, it’s not even worth speaking up because I’m just going to get labeled something that I don’t see myself as.
And I lived in New York City at the time of the Trump election. I actually was up the night of the election. It was one of the most surreal evenings of my life. I actually left my apartment at a certain point and I walked to the area where all the TV stations broadcast. And I walked over the NBC and you could see people crying. Then, I walked a couple of blocks over and I went to Fox News and people were cheering, they were wearing their red MAGA hats. And one of the reasons it was so surreal to me, because it painted the divide in America over two city blocks.
And also, I lived in New York City. I didn’t know a single person who voted for Trump, nonetheless, even like had any sympathies for him. But then I talked to my family back from Illinois and they didn’t know a single person who voted for Hillary Clinton. And there was this divide, and I talked to the family back there. And I say, well why do you vote for Donald Trump? Or my friends back there, why do you vote for Donald Trump? And they just say, he stood up to political correctness, he said a lot of the things that we felt.
And, of course, we can have a debate whether those feelings are justified or unjustified, but they just didn’t feel as though they had a voice in the mainstream media, and so the ballot box was their only choice. And in that sense, I think actually democracy is working. Maybe democracy doesn’t always give us the outcomes we want. But, you know, it’s a confluence of things. And when you talk about on campus how there are certain groups and I think in many cases, justifiably, who feel they don’t have a voice, I also think about those off campus, those people in middle America whose lives have been gutted, as you put it, by the financial crisis and I think that there’s actually some merit to that argument.
But they don’t feel like they can, and it’s one of the reasons the opioid crisis is so under-reported here in the United States. And you’re starting to see a little bit more reporting on it, but life expectancy in the United States has dropped dramatically as a result of the opioid crisis. And you’d think there’d be more coverage of it. But it’s so much of our cultural institutions are centered in the coasts, that there’s just this divide and it’s impossible to bridge.
Anthony Leaker: I just find it hard to see why they would think their voices aren’t being heard or that they’re not able to access the kind of narrative or information or opinion that they seem to think appeals to them or speaks to them, I being anti-political correctness. There’s been anti-political correctness going on for the last 25 years of so, Fox News, for example. But even the notion that The New York Times or CNN or other media outlets in the States are left. I mean that, to me, is laughable. They’re centrists. I don’t –
Nico Perrino: Well, I guess at this point, I should ask you to sort of define neo-liberalism. Because you would say they’re more neo-liberal institutions. And neo-liberalism is a new word, at least in my lexicon and I think, generally, in the cultural lexicon.
Anthony Leaker: So, neo-liberalism, the easiest way to think about it is as Reaganism or Thatcherism, which is the privatization of form of public goods. So, the privatization of gas, water, steel, airlines, you name it. In the U.K., almost every previously public industry was privatized, eventually flowed on the stock market, etcetera, etcetera. So, firstly, it’s the marketization of industry or public service that the market should govern. I mean, its origins are in Friedrich Hayek and a few other Austrian thinkers who believe that socialism or anything approaching socialism or any form of kind of state-managed economy, whether that’s welfare capitalism, was a severe threat to individual flourishing.
So, they privileged the individual and they felt that the best place for the individual to flourish is the market. But the consequences of that are the from privatizing public services you now have almost all areas of life as subject to kind of market logics or to a kind of logic of the metric of measurement. So that could be in terms of dating or in terms of university education, where everything is driven towards some kind of end of investment, right. Everything has to be viewed under the lens of “what’s this worth?”
Nico Perrino: And you would characterize –
Anthony Leaker: Reading a book is no longer valuable in itself, what’s it going to give me, what’s it going to do for me, what’s it going to add to my CV, how’s this going to make me a better form of human capital? So, who should I date? Should I date this person, what will this do for me? Everything’s become instrumentalized.
Nico Perrino: And you would argue that these cultural institutions like The New York Times, broadly fit within this, sort of, rough category?
Anthony Leaker: I don’t know about New York Times. What I’d say about The New York Times and others, and I’d include the Guardian in this, it’s that they are liberal in the philosophical sense, political liberals, not in the American sense where you distinguish liberal and conservative, but liberals as in endorsing traditional political liberalism, which is the philosophy that comes from John Locke and Thomas Hobbes and up through Mill and through others, which I would say is the basic political common sense of our culture, both the U.K. and the U.S.
I think the U.K. and the U.S. have been liberal since – well, America since 1776. I think the constitution is one of the great documents of liberalism and I think there’s a lot to be said for liberalism. But in its foundings, liberalism was exclusionary, excluded indigenous people and excluded Black people. And White supremacy is the kind of political system that never gets named.
But White supremacy in the U.S. has dominated U.S. politics. And in the U.K., it’s a form of colonialism and, kind of, post-colonialism. The U.K.’s liberalism is inextricably linked to colonialism. And so, the empire was built through a narrative of promoting the U.K. as a place for freedom and flourishing and civilization. But this was on the backs of the economic and political exploitation of all the colonized nations. This isn’t even my argument, right, I should say. Aziz Rana wrote an amazing book called – he’s an American academic, I think he’s at Cornell.
He wrote this great book, I think it’s called The Dual Faces of Freedom. And he’s saying American freedom is great. It’s one of the great inventions of human society that America has enabled people to be truly free. But that freedom is always been for a select group of people. And yes, certain groups of people have managed to enter into that fold, if you like, through campaigning and partly thanks to free speech, as you say, suffragettes and the civil rights movement. But it’s still going on, it’s still exclusionary. This is a very long version.
So, I would say that The New York Times and CNN, they claim to be kind of just neutral but they don’t interrogate the kind of liberalism that underlies everything they do. And as I was saying right at the beginning, this fails to address deeper structural forms of oppression and inequality.
Nico Perrino: So, would you say that you’re a Marcusian? We’ve talked about him a little bit on the podcast before, but he wrote his Critique of Pure Tolerance. And from what I can here, you say thus far, I don’t think you would go as far as Herbert Marcuse because he seems to suggest that the laws should change in the direction of what he calls repressive tolerance. I just kind of want to get your sense of where you fit in in that philosophical tradition, if at all.
Anthony Leaker: I have to confess I haven’t properly read Repressive Tolerance by Marcuse. I mean, I know it and I’m familiar with it and I probably should read it properly. I’ve skim read it. No, so I wouldn’t say I’m Marcusian, precisely because I’m properly engaged with his work.
Nico Perrino: Well, we can pull away from that.
Anthony Leaker: Like I say, I’m totally speaking –
Nico Perrino: Or The Frankfurt School.
Anthony Leaker: Yeah, I’ve got a lot of sympathy for The Frankfurt School. I’ve got a lot of sympathy for Adorno’s Critique of the Culture Industry. I mean, I think Adorno and possibly Marcuse, I don’t know, but Adorno certainly is interested in the flourishing of individuals. But it’s all wedded to a social critique so Adorno sees capitalism as an all-pervasive kind of ideology that incorporates us in such a path away that, when we think we are choosing something, we are kind of under an illusion. I mean, it’s much more sophisticated than that.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, of course.
Anthony Leaker: But, yeah, I am sympathetic. I mean, the label cultural Marxism that’s thrown around that’s largely quite auspicious label, but I don’t necessarily have a problem being associated with some of things that cultural Marxism’s accused of, you know, wanting to get rid of God, for example. I don’t have a problem with that. God is a self- structuring tool in society. I don’t have a problem with God as a form of individual belief. If people want to believe in God, great. I’m not in support of the New Atheist. But yeah, I shouldn’t have gone into cultural Marxism. I think it’s not that helpful. I would say I believe in socialism, basically.
Nico Perrino: I want to talk about John Stuart Mill for a second, because in your essay, you critique how John Stuart Mill is used in this cultural dialogue surrounding free speech. And I’ll just quote a second here from your essay.
You say that “John Stuart Mill is so often called upon to support such a free speech defense as questionable at best. Mill sought to attack existing social arrangements, whereas today’s free speechers seek to defend and preserve them. Mill considered diversity central to social progress, whereas many of his supposed heirs promote fanciful notions of homogeneity. Mill was concerned with the oppressive nature of public opinion. He challenged dogma, stale arguments, and calcified points of view. He challenged custom described as nature.”
And my reading that, I agreed with almost everything you just laid out there about Mill. He was one of the early campaigners for women’s rights. But at the same time, I don’t think that negates his arguments in favor of free speech, nor is it easy to presume that he would, perhaps, take your approach in viewing free speech today. There are many people for whom I think they have good ideas but they have more sordid pasts, or they have bad ideas but their pasts are good. So, I just want to see what we actually draw from that critique in the context of what it actually means for free speech as a principle.
Anthony Leaker: Okay. The simplest way I could put this is to say free speech is a great principle, but we need to work on equality first. Free speech only functions properly if society is equal. Now that might sound Utopian, right. And so, I just said I probably would consider myself a socialist. But don’t ask me how to spell it out in terms of what you mean practically, and I can’t see in the future. But what it means to be is that equality at the moment, in these particular conditions, needs to be privileged over freedom, right. So, and this is why I would want to put all these arguments in a case by case basis.
Of course, you feel subject to a kind of an oppressive regime if you’re under a kind of authoritarian communist regime in the Soviet Union or in East Germany. Of course, freedom’s vital and I completely understand why freedom of speech and why freedom is a kind of slogan, not even a slogan. It’s an ideal to strive for was what was emphasized the most by the people trying to, by distance, some people trying to critique the system. That completely made sense.
But we’re not subject to that regime at the moment. We’re subject to a regime of extreme freedom for certain groups of people and, therefore, I think what needs to be done is to balance that out with an argument for equality. And it’s not that I’m thinking principle equality is better than freedom. But I’m saying, in this society, where there is such gross inequality, then what we need to promote are narratives and arguments and cases for equality. And that might involve some kind of structural meddling. It might involve speech codes here and there. It might involve affirmative action. It might involve a whole set of other things, because until we’ve got equality, freedom of speech doesn’t mean much.
If it’s only free for some people, if only certain people have a platform, if only certain people are heard, then what use is freedom of speech? So, that’s my main argument. Let’s just change the way we’re talking about it. We can’t keep defending it as a principle if we’re ignoring the reality for vast groups of people. And by groups of people, I mean entire identities, right.
Nico Perrino: So, we need to make society more equal. And equality is a laudable goal and I will never disagree with you on that. But I think I would disagree in the approach or the tactics to get there because when I think about power, I think about those – maybe I privilege too much institutions and who’s in control of those institutions – but in order to achieve this equality if you think about it in the free speech realm or any other realm, you need to have someone pulling the levers to make it possible. And I just don’t know that there’s any person with whom I would entrust the power to restrict my freedoms.
Now, I guess I would grant you that our freedom’s restricted every day in a certain sense. But how do you ever know when you’ve reached perfect equality? I mean, it does seem sort of like a Utopian goal to me and one that can only be achieved in certain respects through repression by those in power. And those in power here in the United States right now are people like Donald Trump, people who I assume you wouldn’t –
Anthony Leaker: I would not [inaudible] [00:49:30].
Nico Perrino: – yeah. But even if it was the perfect angel, mortal angel, none of us are immortal, and they will have successors and those successors will have the same access to power that their predecessors did.
Anthony Leaker: Yeah, but the true idea of democracy is that the people in power are just representing the interests of the people, right. So, if you believe in democracy, then the institutions that are managing the State, for example, and managing the laws, well they are just there. The people in charge of those institutions are there because they have a mandate from the people. The fact that our democracy is kind of screwed is the problem.
But if we had a radical democracy, if we had an actual functioning democracy where the public had a say in all sorts of things and where they were genuinely informed, we had an informed citizenry, not people subject to just endless propaganda, which is what I think the media for the most part produce. I think this is where, paradoxically, Trump is kind of onto something with fake news, the fact that Trump uses fake news as a tool to deflect critique of him, which is propagandistic in itself.
But actually, people on the left have been arguing that the news is a very, at best, biased, and, at worst, completely manufactured form of propaganda or ideology for years. Chomsky wrote Manufacturing Consent back in 1984. So, democracy isn’t functioning if you don’t have a properly functioning media and you don’t have a properly informed citizenry where politics operates according to all sorts of pacts or super pacts or whatever. The fact the Citizens United, for example, corporations can function as citizens in the States just seems bizarre to me.
Nico Perrino: Well, we could go down the rabbit hole of campaign finance –
Anthony Leaker: Campaign financing, etcetera.
Nico Perrino: – but to me, had that particular decision gone the other way, it would have meant that you can’t make a movie about a politician something like six months before an election. Because the question there was there was a corporation which is, of course, an amalgamation of people often organizing around a certain mission or ideology. And in this case, it was the organization Citizens United who were opposed to Hillary Clinton. And they made a documentary about her politics and the government, through its campaign finance rules, tried to say that you can’t make that movie
And the principle there, if it was upheld in the Supreme Court, would have extended to The New York Times, which is a corporation, and it would have prohibited them from writing editorials in support of this candidate or against that candidate. So, I mean, that case gets a lot of flack because people argue that it weaponizes the First Amendment and grants corporations certain rights. But I just don’t see any way around it if we want organizations like Amnesty International or Green Peace or the ACLU to be able to have a voice in the political process. There’s no other sort of –
Anthony Leaker: Okay, and that would be great in an equal society, but if the most powerful – if a big corporation has a lot more power than Amnesty or Green Peace, then you’re not operating in a marketplace of ideas that learn a kind of fair playing field.
Nico Perrino: Well, isn’t that the brilliant insight of the Bill of Rights? We’re not a perfect democracy. The vote protects the voice of the majority but it’s bounded by the rights protected in the Bill of Rights for the individual. And in some cases, there are protections for groups like the right to assemble. But those rights protect the minority of one. They’re neutral principles that should and are not always enforced on a viewpoint-neutral basis.
Anthony Leaker: Yeah, but if the individual is normalized as a White, property-owning, straight man, then that’s a problem, right.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, well, I’m not going to defend the early draft of the constitution that didn’t recognize a woman’s right.
Anthony Leaker: Yeah, but I’m not sure that things have – I mean, they’ve changed a great deal, but there are still gross and great structural inequalities. And there are also discursive inequalities, discursive meaning in the way in which language normalizes certain individuals over others. So, this notion of invoking the individual is great in an ideal society, but neither you nor I live in an ideal society. We live in a society structured by gross inequalities like economic and political.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, I guess I just don’t see: (1) What you can do until we get to that point, and (2) How you even get to a – and maybe we have different definitions of equality – my thought is mostly equality under the law but I know that you place a great emphasis on the cultural concerns. But when I think of perfect equality, I think of Kurt Vonnegut’s essay Harrison Bergeron, in which certain people who are really smart have a buzzing in their ear so they’re not as smart, or people who are super athletic have weights attached to their feet.
And I know that’s not the equality you’re talking about but that’s the recognition of equality under the laws, that nobody’s born with talents in every field. But we should recognize, despite the inequalities that we’re born with, that everyone should be treated equally by the government. And that’s what I hope the First Amendment does. And it doesn’t sound like you disagree with, necessarily, that [inaudible] [00:55:56].
Anthony Leaker: I don’t disagree with that. But the issue isn’t just for the government. Again, this is why for me, the argument about free speech always being about protecting us from the government. I mean, the government is the least of our worries to a large extent, right. You know, corporations are very powerful. But also, other groups in society are very powerful, and other individuals are very powerful. So, I don’t think this battle around free speech is purely to do with the government. I’m obviously very sympathetic to the idea that the government should be held to account and I don’t think the government, especially the kind of ruling governments at the current moment, should have great power.
So, I am arguing, you know, kind of slightly more idealistic playing which is, well, if you want free speech to function, then you need a functioning democracy. And you need to have greater equality. I’m not going to come up with a set of practical suggestions for how equality would be achieved. I’m saying it’s something we should aim for. So, again, going back to my earlier point, it’s about trying to shift the narrative.
It’s a recognition, or it’s calling for a recognition, of the fact that the narrative around free speech in the mainstream media is neither doing a service to you, to FIRE, the kind of work that FIRE’s doing, and nor is it really doing a service to how free speech should and could function. What it tends to be doing is serving vested interests, at worse it’s serving kind of far-right opportunists and demagogues like Tommy Robinson. I mean, I didn’t really finish speaking about Tommy Robinson.
But why is he invited to Columbia in the first place, why is he invited to the Oxford Union, why are these institutions, why are some of these people on the BBC, right, the BBC’s having been infused with Marine Le Pen and all of these people they wouldn’t have 10 years ago. Now you could say, well, look if we hear their views, they’re more likely to dissipate, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Well, it hasn’t worked.
Nico Perrino: Well, it worked with Milo Yiannopoulos. I mean, it seems like –
Anthony Leaker: That’s a very specific case of what he disclosed. That’s not because of his ideas. That’s because he disclosed a particular thing that happened to him when he was younger.
Nico Perrino: But we let him talk and he seemed to defend pederasties. And that was, I guess you could say, it was a bridge too far, and I definitely would. But you might argue that the bridge too far happened far before that. But it was free speech, allowing him to air his views that, eventually, was his undoing.
Anthony Leaker: But let’s recognize there’s a bridge, right. And so, this is precisely my point. There are limits of what’s acceptable. We would all, I hope, argue that pedophilia is wrong. This is a very obvious example to use in defense of censorship. Surely, there are things that need to be censored. And if you agree that some things that need to be censored then you can’t make the case for free speech absolutism.
Nico Perrino: Well, I don’t know that I would have censored Milo Yiannopoulos in that case.
Anthony Leaker: No, but you would censor images of underage children, surely.
Nico Perrino: Oh yeah, of course.
Anthony Leaker: Naked images. Right, so you accept there are limits.
Nico Perrino: But that limit stems from an underlying crime, which is you can’t take pictures of underage children. And, also, they can’t provide the consent that be even necessary even if they were adults. So, there’s an underlying crime at play in there.
Anthony Leaker: Okay, but you don’t accept that there limits that are less egregious than that. There are limits about how one would, to take a really innocent example, about how one would speak if one was on TV and you wouldn’t use swear words, you wouldn’t use F bombs, for example, right. Well, you could say I’m being censored but I’m on a morning TV show with Oprah or I don’t know who.
Nico Perrino: But the First Amendment and free speech, when we’re talking about the culture is a very dynamic philosophy and the BBC and – well the BBC is unique because it’s a semi-governmental institution. But let’s talk about CNN, for example. They have editorial discretion as to what they will or will not allow on their platform as a private institution. And that same thing goes for Facebook. Facebook is a private institution, and while I might disagree with how they implement their speech codes, they do have editorial control with what can exist there.
My main concern, of course, is with government wielding that power and privileging certain viewpoints over others. But I don’t want to dismiss the idea that I have a cultural concern, too, about what happens when we don’t allow people to be who they are and speak their minds.
Anthony Leaker: So, let’s go back to that. You said that some of your friends or people you knew in the Midwest, in Illinois, etcetera, said that they felt afraid to speak up or to express their real issues because they don’t see themselves as racist. But they wanted to express some kind of views immigration, for example. Now, (a) I’m not sure that one gets to determine whether you’re racist or not. It’s not your choice. I can’t say, I’m not racist. That’s the classic racist move. I’m not racist, but.
So, and I’m not saying that these people are or are not, but it’s not up to them to determine whether they are. If they say racist things or think racist thoughts or carry out racist actions, that makes them racist whether they want to be or not, right.
But more importantly, what makes them think that immigration is a problem? Have these people in the Midwest or have the people in the U.K., for example, gone out and done the research? Or, have they been fed certain narratives from the media that have put into their minds this idea that immigrants, for example, are taking all of their jobs, or that immigrants are a strain on the national economy, or immigrants are taking advantage of our national health service, right? I doubt very much that people actually know. These are narratives that have been manufactured by the media.
Nico Perrino: Well, let’s say I grant you every single thing you just said, my question is how do you overcome that narrative? You allow people to speak up, either with their facts or with their prejudices and we sort it all out. I mean, I think the problem here is that there was a “correct” opinion that those who held cultural power said one must have, and if you did not have that, your voice isn’t allowed on campus, it’s not allowed on CNN, it’s not allowed in the pages of The New York Times. And so, people just decided, well, I held an incorrect opinion. What’s the point of me speaking up anyway? So, they go to the ballot box and that’s kind of the exhaust valve in that sense.
Anthony Leaker: But it’s not like there’s only The New York Times or the CNN as media outlets. I mean, there’s the whole spectrum in the U.S., right?
Nico Perrino: Yeah, yeah, and you have places like Breitbart.
Anthony Leaker: So, whey do they feel they’re being oppressed by this kind of – let’s just say that there’s this culturally dominant, slightly leftist or liberal, politically correct set of values and ways of speaking that dominates. But is it really that dominant in America?
Nico Perrino: In America, you see most of the free speech conversation surrounding college campuses. Now there’s a free press conversation that’s happening in the country right now surrounding the Trump Administration. But on college campuses, you do see, for example, people who are opposed to affirmative action or people who are for stronger immigration laws. Anything short of abolishing ICE is considered, in some cases, a form of racism. And they feel silenced.
Now you and I can have a debate as to whether that’s justified or not, but I will say there are cases where you do see people who make these arguments who are subject to disinvitations or disinvitations at times, or who can’t tape or do their affirmative action bake sale on campus.
So, it does come from somewhere. And I think, in the United States, one of the biggest applause lines Trump ever got was when he was speaking at Ohio and he said he was going to defeat censorship on campus, which I kind of rolled my eyes at. But he was visibly, if you see the video, taken aback by the amount of applause he got. I don’t think he has any remote idea as to what’s happening on campus.
But that seems to be where conservatives don’t have cultural capital and that seems to be where the free speech fights are happening. And I can’t say they’re without merit, because we certainly do see censorship on college campuses. And I don’t want to say it’s exclusively conservative. You know, we can circle back here and talk about whether the concentrating on the culture war speech debates is actually very representative of what happens on campus. But anyway, that’s a longwinded way of saying I think they do have at least some argument when it comes to college campuses.
Anthony Leaker: No doubt and certainly some of the students that I teach here in the U.K. do claim that there is a kind of an unwritten set of boundaries about what’s acceptable and what’s not. And some would want to express views that they feel, if they did, they would be possibly vilified. What I would say to that is that those views, that there are plenty other spaces to express those views, that those views are those of the mainstream, those views are the views of The Daily Mail newspaper, which in the U.K. is huge. It’s one of the biggest selling newspapers or it’s the most viewed on the internet, millions of viewers.
To make an argument against immigration is a very common argument. So, yeah, okay, let’s say the university is a left space. But I’d rather think of it as a critical space. I think it’s a space for critiquing what’s going on in society. So, yes, it’s trying to counter the dominant set of narratives and values and arguments that are being propagated by the powerful, by the mass media, by the corporate elite, right.
So, yeah, the university and, thank you to FIRE for defending academic freedom. Academic freedom is there to be critical of what’s going on in the mainstream. And if the mainstream is more right-leaning or more centrist then it kind of makes sense that university might be a space that is left, but purely because it’s critical. So, if the political climate changed in the mainstream, I would assume that the university would change.
Nico Perrino: Well, I would think that the university, being a critical institution, would welcome these arguments, would welcome these challenges as a place where that critique can happen. I don’t know that it’s necessarily the mission of a university to take a position on every issue and then counter them, as you said.
Anthony Leaker: We do welcome debate. But one of the problems is these arguments have been made for years. So, maybe there’s a bit of impatience, but we could think of the Charles Murray case in the States, but we could think of the case here in, I think it was Oxford, a professor, he’s called Nigel Biggar, wanted to kind of start an institute that was trying to, in his view, take a more balanced look at colonialism.
Now, I would argue and others would argue, we don’t need a more balanced look at colonialism. We need to be critical of colonialism, right. There was enough promotion of colonialism for the last 150 years. There was enough literature out there promoting colonialism. What we need is to counter that. So, this argument that, somehow, we need to hear more voices that speak to the good things that Britain did while it was colonizing over half the world. No, we’ve heard that. It’s over. The arguments are over.
Nico Perrino: Isn’t the best way to critique an argument to first present that argument and then present it in the most charitable way possible and then attack it?
Anthony Leaker: But again, this is a structural thing. Because this is to do with funding. This is why campuses are attacked in the U.S., right. Because the campuses do have power, right. It’s to do with structure. So, it’s symbolically someone getting a, and I don’t know if it was an institute or funding or what, or a journal, but someone getting these kind of support has to be challenged. There are some arguments we don’t need to hear anymore. The argument against racism has been made. We don’t need to hear any more arguments about it. But, do you not think?
Nico Perrino: No, I think –
Anthony Leaker: I mean, Mill would argue these are the kind of notion of human progress. This is the point of his speech. We can have the argument, we’re done, we’ve worked out what’s wrong. See you later. We don’t need to keep revisiting. We shouldn’t have to keep making the argument as to why racism’s wrong.
Nico Perrino: Well, Mill also talked about the fatal tendency of mankind being to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful. He calls it the deep slumber of a decided opinion. I think the learner and the teacher go to sleep when where is no enemy in field. That’s another Mill quote. And I think it’s important to have that enemy and to be confident in your ideas and to challenge them. We’re talking about 18, 19, 20-year-olds here, some of whom might not have any opinions on these issues. They hear them in the mainstream media, they regurgitate them in your classroom. I think we should be charitable with them, kind to them.
You’re a very compelling speaker and a compelling writer. I was very struck by your prose in that essay. I have no doubt that facts will win out in the end – well, I hope – if we have a neutral playing field here on campus and we allow these ideas to be heard, interpreted charitably, and then defeated.
Anthony Leaker: Yeah, sure. We want to challenge students, we do. But I don’t think it’s challenging students to hear retrograde ideas. You know, the are new ideas. There are new forms of critique. There are developments within particular disciplines that we can focus on. We don’t need to hear stale, old, dogmatic arguments about biological racism, for example. And I don’t even know what Charles Murray’s schtick is. He wrote The Bell Curve. He said something along the lines that it’s genetically the case that White people are intellectually more advanced. I mean, is that his argument?
Nico Perrino: I think, I haven’t read his book, but I think his argument is generally that there are differences in IQ across groups but the greatest differences come within those groups and amongst individuals. You know, I don’t want to defend his book or sort of claim to know exactly –
Anthony Leaker: But should he be given a platform?
Nico Perrino: To the extent his book is a bestseller, people buy into it, I think the university is the best place to litigate those ideas. I mean, it’s the place where you hope that institutional disconfirmation can occur and institutional disconfirmation is this idea that an idea gets presented and you have systems and processes within the university that insure that these aren’t just dogmatic arguments that are going to be made. But there will always be challenge because that’s how we push knowledge forward.
And I’m sympathetic to the idea that we shouldn’t have to relitigate whether racism is okay. I’m totally sympathetic to that. But I also understand the history here in the United States that that same argument was made on campuses in the 1950s and 60s about communism. And it was the impetus for throwing people out of professorships, for expelling students, you saw the huge expulsion within the movie industry here. I mean, it was taken for granted in the same way a lot of this stuff is taken for granted that these ideas were bad. And I think Cultural Marxism, The Frankfurt School, a lot of these had very valuable things to add to the academy. And the academy was worse off for not engaging with those ideas.
Anthony Leaker: Yeah, but the difference there was that, okay, that’s broadly speaking McCarthyism and that was the government that’s in power. But what’s happening today is that the campus is a counter way, surely, to the government. The campus is a kind of form of checks and balances.
Nico Perrino: Well, in the 1950s, Harvard was getting rid of hosting tribunals and getting rid of –
Anthony Leaker: Yeah, but they were on the side of the government. That’s what I mean. I’m saying, it was all on one side. Everything was stacked on one side. So, I don’t see the fear around what’s going on in the campus. I would see the fear if the kind of politics of the campus was shared by the politics of the U.S. government. But that isn’t the case. So, they’re in dialogue. I mean, in a very loose sense, they’re in dialogue. But there isn’t this kind of monolithic, anti-communist, for example, power structures.
Nico Perrino: But that doesn’t mean that will always be the case on campus. If you allow the principle that there are certain ideas that are just beyond dispute to take hold on campus, today, we might love the ideas that have taken hold. But tomorrow, let’s say Trump is in power for another four years and his administration has more influence. I mean, it could go the other way and we could be talking about how the idea that climate change is manmade is just de facto not true. I mean that could conceivably happen sometime in the future.
But it’s less likely to happen if you allow for this institutional disconfirmation if you have a culture that allows minority viewpoints to be presented and you can always count on them to be challenged. And I think that’s what the role of a university. That’s kind of the ethos that FIRE takes. We recognize that not everyone would agree with that, but that’s what I say, that’s what I believe.
Anthony Leaker: I think, again, you know, in principle I agree. And in principle and in practice, in fact, what FIRE’s doing in terms of defending particular cases on campuses, of infringements and free speech, is great and admirable and we should be very grateful for that. Or people in the States should be very grateful for what you’re doing. But it doesn’t address other issues that need to be addressed, right. And I think that, from my understanding, campus politics or the campus activism, or attempts by students to challenge certain forms of oppression that they think exists, this is critique.
This is different to trying to establish the kind of law of the land. They are coming from a position of critique. Now, that doesn’t address the kind of speech codes that come from top down, from the kind of institution. That is a whole separate issue in there. I’m kind of much more sympathetic to you guys. But in terms of students and in terms of the student voices, well I just don’t think they are as powerful as they’re portrayed to be in the media.
You know, the famous [inaudible] [01:16:37] I’m a liberal professor and I’m terrified of my students or the stuff that Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff talk about in The Coddling of the American Mind. I mean they portray students as these – or not just them, a whole lot of them – they use words like authoritarian, fascist, McCarthyite. There’s this kind of apocalyptic, exaggerated language to describe students. And students are not that powerful. I just don’t see it. I don’t understand this terror of students. They are not Bill Gates, they are not [inaudible] corporations.
Nico Perrino: Well, students –
Anthony Leaker: They are trying to just redress the balance. They are trying to challenge norms that, in their view and in my view, are historically oppressive. And that’s exactly what Mill was about, right? Let’s break down customs. We assume he wrote in the 19th century that women can or can’t do this. And he says this has just come about through custom. And don’t tell me it’s natural because nature is just come about because of custom. And I think that’s what all the students are mostly doing. They’re trying to establish things that seem normal but are, in fact, deeply culturally [inaudible] [01:17:48].
Nico Perrino: But would you say that there are certain tactics that students take that can justifiably be called authoritarianism? For example, at Evergreen State College, they wouldn’t let the president leave a room, or they take over a classroom at Reed College, or they petition to get professors fired, in some cases, successfully disciplined for not having trigger word for something that they said in class that was – I mean, you must be sympathetic in a certain extent because you live in the classroom.
Anthony Leaker: Look, that’s all very possible and I could well imagine that were I to be shipped over to the States tomorrow and start teaching a class, I’d be terrified and horrified myself. But I might well agree with some of these narratives about students and their, kind of, authoritarian tactics. However, I would want to take a longer view and try and understand why is it that they feel they’re having to use these kind of tactics, right? And I would assume that, if they haven’t been heard or if they’re kind of – you know, please usually resort to extremes because the other tactics they used didn’t work. So, I’m assuming that students didn’t get heard, right. You only start shouting if people don’t listen to you.
Nico Perrino: Well, that presumes that everything the students asking for or argue has merit. And I’m not saying that –
Anthony Leaker: It’s perfectly possible it doesn’t.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, and of course, goes back to what you were saying at the beginning. We need to look at this on a case-by-case basis. But I realize that I’ve kept you a little bit longer than the hour. So, I want to close by just presenting something that I think you and I can agree upon.
I’m dismayed in the way that free speech has become a culture war issue and has really minimized the cases of censorship that occur on campus, and that’s what I know best because that’s where I work, that don’t fit a culture war narrative.
For example, you don’t see headlines written about students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute that are protesting the university’s takeover of the student-run union, or the case at Northern Michigan University which threatened students with suspension and expulsion if they talked with their fellow students about their depression or thoughts of self-harm, or the case at the University of North Alabama, which bars staff members and students from speaking with the press, or the student at Cal Poly Pomona who passes out PETA flyers and is told that he will be punished if he does so outside of the free speech zone.
I mean, these don’t fit into any culture war narrative but are just as much an infringement on someone’s rights, and they get lost when we make free speech a culture war debate. So, I think there’s something there for media to look critically at and for those of us who value sort of like the principle of free speech to try and amplify, to amplify these stories which, if you go through our case archive at FIRE, I mean, maybe half, maybe just slightly less than half fit no political narrative whatsoever. And they’re the ones that don’t get the attention.
Anthony Leaker: I completely agree with that and I would advise any listener to read the cases on FIRE, because I think that is a much more nuanced and a much more illuminating narrative of some of the things that are occurring on campuses, right. It hasn’t been selected. It’s not taking one [inaudible] [01:21:23] and try to build a more general narrative about campus free speech crisis. This is, I think, reading those cases is – everyone should do it. Anyone who’s ever written an article about free speech on campus should be forced to read all of those cases on the FIRE website.
So, I completely agree with that and I completely agree the narrative needs to be shifted. Who’s responsible for that, though. Who has an investment in this narrative? And I think not only should the media and cultural commentators take a more nuanced look at the actual cases of free speech infringement on university campuses by engaging with the work the FIRE is doing, but I also think there needs to be more said about the reality of student life on campus and the kind of diversity of student life, right.
For example, students aren’t all these kind of privileged activists at high-end schools like Yale, but there are many of them are working two, three, four jobs. Some students are working through the night, students are exhausted, students are under pressure, students are in debt, students are suffering from grave mental health crises. You know, there’s a whole set of other stores about students that just don’t get heard.
Nico Perrino: And I will say, I work in the communications department so I work with journalists a lot, and there have been times where I’ve pitched publications, stories, and those publications will remain unnamed, where they said, yeah, this is a good story, but the institution doesn’t have the name recognition that we’d want to write a story about it. Next time you have a case at Harvard or Yale, let us know. So, and we have a case right –
Anthony Leaker: That’s depressing.
Nico Perrino: No, it’s very depressing. And in that sense, I think your critique of the media is fair. I want to give you the last word here. What can we expect with your book, anything else you kind of want to plug here before we tune out?
Anthony Leaker: No, well, I just hope I get the book done. The book won’t be out until next November, probably. But, no. It’s been a real pleasure. I think more conversations like this, the better. One of the odd things about starting to write this book where I was initially kind of critical about the way free speech is used, is the more you read into the more you start to appreciate the value of free speech. So, I’m still very much have an ambivalent position. So, engaging with Cato Institute and speaking to you and reading more widely is a really useful exercise. So, I’d advise anyone who has a kind of fixed position to just engage in dialogue.
Nico Perrino: Well, I tell you what. When the book comes out, please do get back in touch. And we organize talks on campus, we’re often asked to participate in talks where they ask us who else should be invited. Let me know. We’d love to have you here in the United States to engage in more of these dialogues publicly. So, Anthony Leaker, thank you again so much for coming on the show. I look forward to the next time we get a chance to talk.
Anthony Leaker: All right. Thanks very much.