Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.
Nico Perrino: Okay, welcome back to So to Speak: The Free Speech Podcast, where every other week we take an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations. I’m coming to you, not every other week this week, because we just released a podcast yesterday and now I’m sitting with my boss, FIRE President and CEO, Greg Lukianoff. How are you doing, Greg?
Greg Lukianoff: You know, all things considered, pretty good.
Nico: Yeah, I wanted to do an update for our listeners about kinda what’s going on with FIRE and the Coronavirus. And you also wrote a very interesting article, that surprisingly in this time where people are – seem to be thinking about everything except freedom of speech, for good reason of course. You wrote an article about the Coronavirus and the failure of the ‘Marketplace of Ideas’, kind of synthesizing some of your thoughts about the Marketplace of Ideas theory of freedom expression and it got a lot of traction.
Greg: Yeah, – no it – definitely the – the – the scale of people reading it kinda surprised me, the fact that it got picked up and recommended by The Washington Post Editorial Board was a bit of a surprise.
Nico: Yeah, yeah, right, and it’s now —
Greg: It’s – it’s – it’s a long read think piece so I was like, okay.
Nico: – that you kinda slapped together for FIRE’s website, you’re starting a blog.
Greg: I didn’t slap it together, I dictated it to my phone when I was doing dishes.
Nico: Well, —
Greg: But it is something I had thought about for a long time —
Nico: – yeah.
Greg: – to be clear. That’s why it was easy.
Nico: And you had kinda teased it in an article you written – you had written for cnet —
Greg: cnet, yeah.
Nico: – in 2013, but I wanna kinda hold off on —
Greg: Sure, sure.
Nico: – discussing this article and rather talk about FIRE right now. FIRE had sent its employees home last week, right?
Greg: Monday, I think actually.
Nico: Yeah, a little bit before other companies and the government had kind of recommended that.
Greg: Yeah. We – we – we tried to respond earlier than most people. The – a lot of us were just kinda following what the trajectory of the disease was, the range of things we knew about it, and we definitely were well away that this things was gonna be really bad. And the good thing about FIRE is that a lot of what we can do, not quite everything, but close to it, can actually been done remotely. So, it became more of a why not? We also tried to make sure that all the staff, given a lot of us, including me, we all have our kids back and not really anybody else who can take care of them.
So, we wanna be flexible with schedules; we wanna make sure that people are supported in – in – in every way. So, the first step was to place the staff first and make sure that they are, as I’ve been saying a lot, safe and sane.
Nico: Yeah, well lucky for us, a lot of the work that we do can be done online. As our listeners know, there was a two plus year period where I was working from home in New York City and so for me it’s like not missing a beat; it’s just going back to what I was doing a year and a half ago.
Greg: Yeah and it’s kinda funny because it’s amazing how many things haven’t changed after this massive switch because we – the number of case submissions we get now – we get around 1,000 each year —
Nico: A thousand plus, yeah.
Greg: Yeah, 1,000 plus.
Nico: Every year it goes up.
Greg: Every year it goes up and so there are a lot of cases on campus where we have to play catch up. And that’s gonna last months, we’re gonna be catching up with case submissions, that we had before the Coronavirus, for quite some time now.
Nico: Yeah. Our listeners are probably aware of this, but most colleges and universities in the United States have moved online or closed right now, either because of spring break or they’re just delaying – there’s a kind of – a lot of universities are taking different approaches to it.
Greg: I can hardly believe that this was, I think just last Tuesday, but I was supposed to give a speech at Middlebury, the scene of the assault of Allison Stanger, wonderful professor, one of the most compassionate people I’ve met, who has been permanently injured in the process of trying to defend Charles Murray, who she disagrees with in that horrible incident, —
Nico: She was gonna be the moderator or the interlocutor during that event.
Greg: Yeah in 2017, so I was invited and I get to – I fly all the way up there, I’m eating lunch, getting ready for my talk and they’re like, they decided to shut down campus. And I’m like, I called yesterday to let you guys know that I was – I wanted to make sure that this thing was still going on, but I apparently, was a low priority.
Nico: Yeah, Middlebury was on our 10 worst colleges for free speech list this year, as well, for what it did last year with Ryszard Legutko, I forget how to pronounce his last name; he’s a Polish politician who was invited to campus and then was actually on campus when they decided that they weren’t gonna host the event any more. So, —
Greg: Oh, wait, so I didn’t realize that’s exactly what happened to him too. I mean, of course the reason —
Nico: For different reasons, of course.
Greg: – yeah, the reason for me is totally different, but it was still like, could you have told me this six hours ago? Anyway.
Nico: Yeah, we’re in a luckier position than, of course, a lot of workers in the United States, insofar as we can do our work online and we have the generous support of our donors who help keep us going during these difficult times. But we also have a lot of big projects that were in the works, that this’ll give us some time to focus on.
Greg: Yeah, absolutely. I mean some of the most exciting stuff that we’re doing is stuff that can very easily be done off-line and one of the things I am the most excited about, and Nico can talk a lot more about this, is our documentary about Ira Glasser.
Nico: Yeah, I’ve talked about it a little bit on this podcast before, but for our listeners who haven’t heard me talk about it, we haven’t officially announced it yet, and I don’t know that we will until later in the summer. But for the past three years, I’ve been working on a passion project about the life and career, with a particular focus on the free speech career of Ira Glasser, who ran the ACLU from 1978 to 2001, as its executive director. He worked at the New York Civil Liberties Union a little bit before that, but then he retired in 2001. I had met him when I was at Nat Hentoff’s funeral, he had approached me with Norman Siegel, who —
Greg: Oh, and just to be clear for people – people will know this name and some won’t, Nat Hentoff is one of the great free speech champions of the previous century and he was a big fan of FIRE, he was on our board of advisors, I’d get calls from him sometimes at 10:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning, actually I got one the day after my 40th birthday party, but he was a real force.
Nico: – yeah, and he was also a great champion of jazz, kind of developed liner notes, which are notes on songs in the records as an art, essentially. He was a great, great writer and anyone who’s Greg’s assistant probably had interactions with Nat. He did not like to use the computer so would often ask for our press releases and other materials to be faxed over. There was one time where he asked, when we did a website redesign, for our old website to be faxed to him, not quite understanding the undertaking that is.
Greg: Yeah. And meanwhile, if you sent him anything more than six or seven pages, it would jam up his machine so he’d be mad about that.
Nico: There’s a great documentary about him I should mention as well, called the Pleasures of being out of step, that was put out, maybe around 2013, and it’s fantastic, I think you can find it on online streaming. I watched it of course, after he passed, but it was at his funeral I was approached by Norman Siegel and Ira Glasser, who knew Michael Myers from the New York Civil Rights Coalition, I was talking with him, they know Michael and Michael told them – introduced them to me said I work at FIRE and they said, oh, we love FIRE, you do what we used to do essentially. I was like, well, who are you? What did you used to do?
And then they explained, and I was just kinda blown away that I didn’t know them because they had kind of retired – you know, well Norman’s still working in private practice, but he’s no longer at the New York Civil Liberties Union; Ira retired, what 19 years ago? Anyway, we connected, I got their information and I ended up recording a podcast with Ira Glasser. He came over to my apartment in New York City and I wanted to talk to him about free speech and what he did. And when I reached out to him, he said, you know, I might not remember a lot. I was like, okay, well we’ll see how this goes. Two and a half hours later, I could have gone for another two and a half hours —
Greg: Ira is amazing.
Nico: – yeah, he’s got a steel-trap mind.
Greg: He’s brilliant; he’s charming; he’s funny; he’s about one of the most principled people you ever meet in your life. And so Nico doesn’t have to toot his own horn, Nico decided to do this as a passion project, and I try to encourage this among FIRE employees. If there’s something that they wanna do that’s related to our mission that’s outside of the box or cool, I’m like, run with it. And he, along with our video people, —
Nico: Yeah, Aaron Reese and Chris Maltby have been instrumental.
Greg: – pretty much on his own time, made this documentary that is absolutely fabulous, it’s really excellent, I’m excited for the world to see it and now we’re trying to figure out, when do we release this if the plague is still about?
Nico: Yeah, the plan was to release it sometime later this year, I mean, it’s pitch locked, it’s done. The only things that need to be done are, it needs to be color corrected; it needs to be – the audio needs to be mixed together, but before the audio can be mixed together, the composition – the scoring needs to be done, which is actually happening right now. I’ve heard some of the tracks from our composers, they are fantastic, but the challenge is, we have a string quartet who’s recording – who’s scheduled to record on April 10th in California, which is now on lockdown, mandatory shelter in place. So, we’re gonna see what happens with that, hopefully this doesn’t mess with our schedule.
There have a been a lot of things that I’ve learned in this process that have slowed it down, we’re not – we’re first-time filmmakers, I feel like I’ve gotten an advanced degree in film making. But we’re hopeful that, by come May, we can get it done and get it distributed. The big plan is of course, to have it available for everyone on streaming platforms, whether – how we release it is kind of up in the air. If there are any listeners who know any distributors or sales agents who might be interested in this sort of project, let us a know.
A little bit more about the project, it’s about Ira’s life and career; about him growing up in Brooklyn; about him being a Dodger’s fan; about his friendship with William F. Buckley, but also his involvement in the ACLU’s Skokie case.
Nico: And also his perspective on Charlottesville, kind of drawing parallels.
Greg: Yeah, Skokie, of course is when the ACLU defended Illinois Nazis, literally, right to protest and it was sort of disastrous on the short-term for the ACLU. But some of us who were coming up, when I was a kid in the 1980s, hearing about a group that was so principled it would defend its most bitter enemies, and keep in mind, these were a lot of cases, Jewish attorneys who were defending Nazis and it was just like, wow, they really mean this, they really believe. And so, that’s honestly, like I went to law school to do First Amendment law, I worked at the ACLU because of those stories so honoring the absolute to the core principle of someone like Ira Glasser is just thrilling for me.
Nico: Yeah, the main attorney in the case was David Goldberger, who was of course Jewish, and he’s featured in the documentary. I should note that the executive director of the ACLU at the time of the Skokie case was a guy named, Aryeh Neier, who wrote a great —
Greg: Oh my, God —
Nico: – fantastic —
Greg: – “Defending My Enemy” is one of the great free speech classics.
Nico: Yeah, and he’s – we have a podcast with him, if you wanna listen to it, I also recommend you listen to our podcast with Ira, but Ira was the head of the New York Civil Liberties Union during the Skokie case, had a big part in kind of defending the ACLU’s position on the east coast, especially in New York City where there’s a large Jewish population, but he took over the ACLU months after the case had kind of closed so he helped with the fallout.
Nico: And bring the ACLU – pulled the ACLU up – the debt that was not just because of the Skokie case, although they did loose some members as a result of it, but his story is fantastic, it’s not just about Skokie, it’s not just about free speech, it’s about much, much more, it’s about talking across lines of difference; friendships across party lines.
Greg: Yeah, he was friends with William F. Buckley and as far as like – they couldn’t disagree more on every single political issue, but it is a reminder of what it looks like to be a happy warrior; what it looks like to be someone who is comfortable with people disagreeing with them; comfortable that people even hating him in some cases and goes about with cheer and reason.
Nico: Yeah, yeah, there’s this great scene in the documentary where Ira – or Ira, yeah, and William go on the subway together to a Mets baseball game.
Greg: Buckley had never been on the subway.
Nico: I think he had been —
Greg: Had never been —
Nico: – 30 years before, I think yeah.
Greg: Oh my, God, never been to a baseball game and so it’s actually kind of adorable.
Nico: Yeah, Buckley calls it his lacuna, which was a word I didn’t know existed before that.
Greg: I kinda hate the word lacuna, —
Nico: Yeah, it’s like – I guess it means a gap in one’s knowledge.
Greg: Yeah, it’s like myriad, it’s basically like, why don’t I use this fancy, obnoxious word that means lots? Anyway, so you should know that I kind of sprung that on Nico a little bit, I’m – and I’m genuinely supper excited about Mighty Ira, I’m supper excited about this – this – this documentary and I wanna start talking it up. Other things we’re doing, of course, is we – one of the things that FIRE was planning to do anyway, that fits wells unfortunately with having more time to do research, is the fact that we really wanna step up our educational efforts.
As far as an area that we really wanna broaden our reach, it’s teaching people about the principles, philosophy, deep ideas that undergird the law of the First Amendment and beyond that. So, this includes stepping up our high school outreach, which we’ve already done; we had a curriculum that we developed for high schools that we managed to get out just as people were starting to send all the kids home so we had a huge uptick in the people downloading our curriculum. By all means, download our curriculum, we’re working on several reports.
I’m actually launching a blog, called the Eternally Radical Idea, of course that refers to free speech. I know it’s kind of goofy to launch a blog in 2020, but I miss having my platform at the Huffington Post, which I had for almost 10 years, where I could just directly publish things. Now, I try to be clear, I don’t have the time to publish there all the time, but for articles like I recently wrote, the Coronavirus —
Nico: The Coronavirus one.
Greg: – and the failure of the ‘Marketplace of Ideas’, it’s nice to be able to just have a place where I can write it exactly how I wanna write it and get it up pretty quickly.
Nico: Yeah, so this was essentially the opening salvo in your – the Eternally Radical Idea blog so we’re really excited about it and it’s actually – the blog is up on the website right now, it only has this article and your past things that you’ve written for outside publications.
Greg: And this might – Nikki Eastman, who was our graphic designer person, she created a logo for it, an image for it that I am just absolutely thrilled about. It’s a elliptical orbit of a blue planet around a yellow sun and it’s an exaggerated elliptical orbit because actually it turns out that the sun is – our orbit around the earth is surprisingly close to a circle, but Johannes Kepler figured out this idea – figured out just by looking at the math, that the earth actually goes around in an egg-shaped orbit in which the sun is not really at the center, in this kind of whipping kind of mash and it even goes at different speeds, as it’s falling towards the earth and then being slingshotted back.
And I wanted there because one it shows heliocentrism, which was one of the original Eternally Radical Ideas, and it also – and also the weirdness of being like, it’s not a perfect circle, I thought everything in heaven should be perfect. And it’s kind of the opening of – of – of the discovery of, I don’t know who the thinker who coined this, but it’s such a great term, the discovery of ignorance.
So, people talk about the scientific revolution, but really to a degree, the scientific revolution was learning, wait a second, we know like nothing. We’ve just been guessing, we’ve been listening to ancient people’s opinions on stuff that none of them ever tested, except Aristotle to a very limited degree, and it turns out, our senses lie to us; our intuitions are wrong; superstitions don’t seem to have any real basis and that’s the original Eternally Radical Idea, that essentially we aren’t very smart, we only become smart through testing and simply to know the smallest thing about reality is an ongoing, every day struggle.
Nico: So, this is of course, what your title of your blog is reference to. I wanna get to that first blog posting —
Nico: – blog, but before we do, I also wanna talk about another big project we’re working on right now, which is our campus climate surveys.
Greg: Oh, yeah, really excited about them.
Nico: I mean what you, I believe it was in December or maybe even November, you had put out five things that college presidents can do on their campus.
Nico: One of them was survey their campus on FIRE-related issues. How well is the – how good is the climate for free speech, open discourse, free inquiry, academic freedom? We don’t know many colleges that have taken us up on that yet.
Greg: University of North Carolina and we actually came out with in July. I just got kinda – I’m gonna write about this in the blog, I got sidelined by health issues unfortunately.
Nico: Yeah, yeah, wait did that really come out in July?
Greg: It came out in July.
Greg: Yeah, it’s – time —
Nico: Even a week ago seems –
Greg: A week ago seems like forever and July seems like last week.
Nico: Yeah, my sense of time is all messed up, but we’re taking it into our own hands and trying to do individual campus climate surveys on a large scale, 50 campuses.
Greg: And partially came from, we got really animated about this because – and, you know, in “Coddling of the American Mind”, my book with Jon Haidt, and within FIRE, we kinda take for granted that some campuses are relatively fine and some campuses are incredibly conformist. And we did a national survey, but we didn’t know there was any way to do individual ground surveys.
And we – I visited Haverford a year ago, Nico visited Williams and we both came back – and to be clear, I had done actually a series of sort of like more working class schools in a row and it was kind of – faced classic issues like administrative – administrators are overriding their power, that some of the things wasn’t political at all, it was more like don’t embarrass the university. And I started to get lulled into a sense of complacency, even though I knew that schools that were more working class and less elite, would have different kinds of problems, even though I had said it a million times.
But then I went to Haverford and was told by students that a lot of people have just given up talking about serious stuff and it was kinda horrifying, I was like, wow, this seems like a really awful environment for people to have disagreement. And you went to Williams, can you tell me a little bit?
Nico: Yeah, I went to Williams and I was invited there by a group of students who wanted to have a panel discussion about free speech on college campuses, in particular at Williams, which had had some free speech controversies at the time and I think still continues to have free speech controversies and I was just kind of struck by how – the culture of self-censorship that existed there and the discouraging of open discourse, if it didn’t fit some sort of predetermined orthodoxy, there just didn’t seem to be enough ideological diversity on the campus to encourage the sort of dynamic thinking that I remember when I was on campus a decade ago.
And you and I have spent a lot of time at college campuses and I’ve spent time on campuses that are good, time on campuses that aren’t so good, but Williams was the worst that I have been to and it just so happened that at this time, there was another company that was starting up called, College Pulse, which was developing a way, national panel of college students, large panels at individual colleges that would give us the means to test or to ask questions of a large enough sample, a representative sample on individual college campuses.
So, that’s kind of what we’re doing to learn about the culture at colleges like Williams, at colleges like Haverford, now I don’t think those two are in our first sample, we’re doing some of the larger ones first, I believe it’s like the largest top 50 schools or something like that.
Greg: Our prediction is, we’re gonna see some real difference between and among schools, but we’ll see. We could be wrong because you always gotta remember, for all the political stuff that goes on on campuses, there’s probably at a lot of places, kind of a big middle that just doesn’t care all that much. But, we’ll see, it’s – we’re going in open-minded to see what the stats actually say.
Nico: Yeah, we don’t really know because this hasn’t really been done before. There have been a lot of national samples, especially sort of around the 2017, 2018 years, but nothing quite like this so we’re excited and we hope to have the data released to all of you and I’m sure we’ll do a podcast about it in the school – early part of the next school year.
Greg: And before we get to talk about my article, one of the reasons why we decided to do this podcast was so that people aren’t constantly bombarded with how is District Taco holding up to Coronavirus? It’s like my favorite taco place.
Nico: All those emails, yeah.
Greg: And people have been kind of overwhelmed by it. But partially, particularly for FIRE fans, I did wanna communicate that we’re just going forward. It is an opportunity for us to do some deeper research, some of the – almost everybody at FIRE has some kind of passion project that involves deeper research that they haven’t had time for and we’re gonna be doing that. But we’re also gonna try to come up with new and innovative content, we’re including – should I tell people about the —
Nico: Why not?
Greg: – the Supreme Court? Yeah, we’re doing audio versions of Supreme Court cases, read by narrators, there are software you can get that will read it to you, but otherwise I was really shocked to find that nobody’s done audio book versions of classic Supreme Court cases. And so FIRE is gonna be doing some of those in-house, it’ll probably be a relatively slow process, but the idea of having classic First Amendment cases so that people can just listen to them the same way you listen to a podcast, is – is – is another way that we’re trying to make learning about free speech easy – easier.
And honestly, the – for me, I talk about this stuff all the time, but I can’t explain it better than West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette; Texas v. Johnson for goodness sakes, these were beautifully written poems about free speech and philosophy. Now, the one thing that we’re doing is we’re adjusting the citations so that they’re more abbreviated so you don’t end up with a paragraph of someone saying blah, blah, blah, but as far as innovative stuff that we’re doing that I’m excited about, that’s right at the top of the list.
Nico: That should hopefully – people should be able to access the first couple of those opinions here within the next month or so I presume, but by summer of course. But I remember when I was working at the Institute for Justice, one of my colleagues there, Diane, I’ll throw her name out there, would listen to Supreme Court arguments on her runs while she was working out and we always thought that was kinda nerdy, but you need to listen —
Greg: You think that’s kinda nerdy? I shouldn’t have opened my mouth.
Nico: But there’s easy ways to access oral arguments. But there aren’t easy ways to access audio versions of opinions and this will give law students, or anyone else who is interested in hearing these, while they’re doing dishes, while they’re working out, a way to do so. So, we’re really excited about that and we’re really excited to be one of the first, if not the first place to do it, and our focus initially is gonna be on the First Amendment.
Greg: Yeah. So, do you wanna talk about the article?
Nico: Yeah, yeah. So, let’s get started here, the aforementioned article of course is called, Coronavirus and the failure of the ‘Marketplace of Ideas’. Now, I think people are gonna be a little bit surprised to hear a free speech advocate talk about the failure of the Marketplace of Ideas because it’s – the Marketplace of Ideas, the search for truth, that’s been one of the underlying values boosting the First Amendment for the last century or so. We did talk a little bit about First Amendment values on our last podcast and we might reference it a couple times, but why, Greg Lukianoff, free speech absolutist, are you saying there’s a failure in one of the core values of the First Amendment, and free speech in particular?
Greg: Yeah – no, I kinda pulled a fast one a little bit there and it was funny because as far as people you immediately discount are people who only read titles and don’t actually read the article.
Nico: You mean 50% of people who talk about anything?
Greg: Yeah, exactly so it got Tweeted out by Harmeet Dhillon, which was great, but one of the first responses I got was, was like, that’s the most ridiculous, outrageous title. And then it’s kind of like, well, read – that’s provocative, I’m trying – and really what I mean by the failure of marketplace ideas is pretty simple, metaphors matter, they really affect the way we think about things. We have less cognitive ability, than we like to think we do, and we have to fall back on heuristic and little ways – little other tricks of looking at things and metaphors are dominant.
And the Marketplace of Ideas metaphor is – it’s kind of, Oliver Wendell Holmes, who came up with it was a Darwinian, he was a social Darwinian as well, he thought that life was basically a struggle of the fit against the not fit. And in his understanding, they – not necessarily truth will always succeed, but it’s a battle that should always be worth having and by likening it to a marketplace, the idea is that you have all these ideas out there and some people will buy some and some people will buy others.
Now, this is a very limited point of view, this is a very limited point of view when it comes to free speech, in my opinion, because most of what we actually talk about has nothing to do about what you could call propositional truth, like we should take a normative action in politics or this scientific fact is true, most of it is, I feel this way; this is my preference; I’m angry about this; I’m willing to pay this much for a bottle of wine, all these kind of things, that’s the real explosion of information that happened after – with the first great information age of the printing press.
It wasn’t the discovery of objective truth, but if you listen to scholars, right now I’m actually feeling particularly grumpy about scholarship because I’m reading Karl Popper’s “The Open Society and Its Enemies”, where he takes vicious aim at Plato and I love it, it’s just so great because if you listen to the way scholars talk about Big T Truth, as they call it, they’re talking about objective truth.
And then they think they’ve got this kind of trump card to be kind of like, well, since we now know you cannot know objective truth, or at least you can’t know that you know objective truth, this is irrelevant and therefore I can replace this myth with my own politics. This is probably in its most raw expression in the lesser known descent to the Yale Woodward Report, which was written in 1974, Woodward Report being one of the great statements on free speech on campus.
And so what I’m saying in the article, essentially, is that I’m trying to create a new metaphor and I don’t know if I’ve done it well enough, but I’m giving it a shot and that’s one of the funny things – or one of the great things about having a blog, is I’ll have the opportunity to experiment with ideas and with metaphors. So, what I call it is the lab in the looking glass, that essentially, rather than thinking about this as a either Darwinian or Capitalist battle between ideas that are either – will – will – will rise or fall, what I’m saying is something much more expansive, that every single thing about humanity and about the world we live in is worth knowing.
And this is, in my opinion, approaching truth more like a scientist, more like someone studying human beings as if they’re baboons essentially, than about what we think should happen politically. And I do actually think that’s most of – most of what we use speech for. You were gonna ask a question?
Nico: Yeah, well you call this Coronavirus and the failure of the ‘Marketplace of Ideas’. How does Coronavirus fit into this?
Greg: Oh yeah, absolutely, yeah, and it was funny because I was talking about this with Robert Shibley, the executive director, about how this kind of show is my – what I call, pure informational theory of freedom of speech and it shows it pretty well and as I was talking it through, I’m like, oh wow, this isn’t a stretch, this actually pretty much exactly explains what I’ve been trying to write for a very long time. That essentially it’s not about the success of arguments that’s really important about speech, although that is a part of it and to be clear, I don’t think the Marketplace of Ideas is a useless idea, I just think it applies to a much smaller area of speech than is important for everyday life.
But in this case, China shut down people who were trying to be whistleblowers about the Wuhan – about the disease in Wuhan about the Coronavirus; they shut down individual bloggers, they really clamped down on information as if unflattering information was the real virus that they had to stop.
Nico: Yeah, they marshalled their great fire wall, —
Nico: – censored terms, censored people from discussing this.
Greg: And this was stuff that people like me and Sarah McLaughlin, who’s a – works for FIRE with a focus on international abuses. We were both watching this going like, wow, we really just don’t know what’s happening there, but it’s gotta be bad if they’re clamping down on it this much. And my point there is, if it had been a more open society, and we got to see that unflattering picture earlier, that unflattering terrifying picture of this weird disease, we could of – we could have responded to it quicker and I talk about the counterfactual of what would it look like if the Coronavirus broke out somewhere in the U.S.?
I make the point that because we have very limited power to clamp down on speech in the U.S., people would be on Twitter talking about it; people would be on Facebook talking about it, you’d run the risk of a small, localized panic, sure, but we probably would understand that something serious was going on far, far earlier than we did in this circumstance and therefore could have responded to it. And this is my whole sort of pure informational, it’s not as if people were – and of course, some people were making propositional arguments about factual truth, other people are just saying, I’m frightened; I’m sick, —
Nico: This thing is novel?
Greg: – yeah, this is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and that’s the kind of information that actually really, to a degree, kind of the world really relies on, not this sort of propositional factual statement.
Nico: Yeah, the world relies on knowing the world as it is.
Nico: Or as people – even if it’s just knowing the world as people believe it is.
Nico: And you wrote an article in cnet in 2013, making this argument in that article, which I’ll link in the show notes, it’s called, “Twitter, hate speech, and the costs of keeping quiet”, in the context of hate speech. You essentially argued, it’s important to know the world as it is, especially in those cases where people believe silly or even dangerous or stupid things.
Greg: Yeah. And I believe that thoroughly because I watch these – basically, my overall theory is, I think people are thinking about the word truth wrong. And so one thing you see is kind of like a slight of hand, that people don’t even realize they’re doing, is they’re looking at whether or not the factual version coming out of someone’s mouth is true and that’s the important truth and therefore if you’re a bigot, and this is – you’re saying something horrible, it’s quote/unquote low value speech.
And my point is, that knowing someone’s a bigot; knowing someone believes in conspiracy theories; knowing someone actually believes the protocols of Zion is true, is an incredibly important thing to know about people and this is where – this is when on campus I say, put on your anthropologist hat; put on your scientist hats, you wanna understand the world you live, and honestly you do not stand a chance if you do not know what people really think. It’s incredibly important to know, conspiracy theories, to a degree, make the world go round and this kind of limited idea of well, is the platonic form of truth? Who cares?
Did Larry just confess that he’s a Nazi? That’s valuable.
Nico: Yeah, that’s what Harvey Silverglate always says. He says, he wants to know who the Nazi is in the room so he knows not to turn his back to them.
Greg: Yeah, exactly.
Nico: And Jonathan Rauch, of course, has the great metaphor where he says censorship is like breaking the thermometer. It doesn’t change the temperature, you just don’t know what it is any more.
Greg: Yeah, he says that’s like breaking a thermometer in response to global warming, essentially, ha ha, I can’t know any more, that’ll fix it.
Nico: So, you’re essentially arguing against blissful ignorance.
Nico: The idea that we can shut some sort of speech down or shut some sort of information down, as China did with the Coronavirus, and that will make that information go away.
Nico: And it won’t and it could, and unfortunately doing so, could cause a pandemic.
Greg: Yeah. And one of the reasons why I’m trying things like Lab in the Looking Glass and pure informational theory of speech, trying to figure out what actually can – what’s sticky? What – what – what can be a good metaphor that talks more about this expansive vision of free speech? But the – but I still think that probably the best way I’ve explained is a somewhat obnoxious quip about forcing hate speech underground is like taking Xanax for syphilis, sure you feel better, you just took a Xanax, it’s like, I’m not worried any more. But it’s not making – but your horrible disease is still getting worse.
Nico: As our listeners, who listened to the last podcast know, we kind of went over the three values that traditionally people have argued undergird our free speech approach here in the United States; those are that’s essential for democracy, you can’t debate policy without people being able to debate policy or anything else for that matter; individual autonomy, just the idea that myself as an individual shouldn’t be subject to the State’s control. And then there’s also, of course, this Marketplace of Ideas metaphor that you had referenced before; it started with John Milton in Areopagitica, John Stuart Mill discussed it a little bit.
And then, of course, in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, his descent in Abrams, he brought it up, although not using Marketplace of Ideas as the phrase, that came later, but writing, “When men have realized that time has upset many and fighting faith, they may come to believe even more than they believed the very foundations of their own conduct, that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade and ideas. That the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.” Do you disagree with that?
Greg: I just —
Nico: Or do you just not think it’s sufficient?
Greg: – it’s not sufficient. And that’s – the failure of Marketplace of Ideas, what I mean there is that it’s just not enough and I do think – and honestly I do think it applies to a pretty small chunk of what we actually talk about. About that tells – that gives great insight into who we are, what our world looks like, all – all – all of this kind of stuff. And we understand this when we study other animals or other phenomena, that almost everything about us is worth knowing.
And I mean this partially comes from the fact that I’ve been probably reading more psychology than law for a couple of years since I was working on my book, “Coddling of the American Mind” with my friend and famous social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt. and when you – I do the typical thing that seems to be required in every book about nature versus nurture these days, is I talk about prairie voles in the article. And if you read a lot of popular nonfiction, you’re gonna see this come up a lot. But prairie voles are famously monogamous, but —
Nico: And darn cute.
Greg: – adorable, absolutely adorable, but – and apparently, if you interfere with one – some other genetic information, or interfere with their production of oxytocin, a hormone, they can very quickly turn into lotharios into Don Drapers, into voles that are no longer monogamous, they sleep around. And the way I think we approach free speech is sometimes it’s very kind of almost, forgive me for saying so, sort of childish kind of, oh, if you have horrible thoughts, keep them to yourself because I find them unpleasant.
And there’s something really – this is unfortunately, I think that some of the arguments for censorship really come down to this kind of like, well, that’s not a nice thing. Meanwhile, it’s like, but is it important to know about your world? Do you really not choose to know that? Are you going to chide the prairie vole for like don’t behave like that or are you gonna study it? Or are you gonna try to figure out why it thinks that?
Nico: Why it’s the anomaly?
Greg: Yep. And so I do think that this is a little bit more of a sort of scientific way of looking at speech and I think that it sort of turns the low value speech on its head. Meanwhile, there’s also just the practical problem, as a First Amendment lawyer, all of us have probably found times where we’re trying to use language that talks about the success of ideas in the marketplace for things like – anything from crude lyrics in a song to lap dances to all these things that we all agree are expression.
But they don’t really fit an argument winning model, they fit more of a peculiarity of human nature; peculiarity of human expression; peculiarity of what’s on people’s minds, and we’ve all had to write briefs where we’re trying to sort of shoehorn some of these things that are more carnal or fundamental or abstract, or about preference into a model that is about argumentation and about the success of whether or not my argument is correct.
Nico: Yeah, I feel like when you talk about the Marketplace of Ideas metaphor to students these days, or people who are just being introduced to the topic for the first time, it kinda presumes what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes essentially presumed, that Darwinian idea that truth will win out. But we live in a society where truth doesn’t always win out.
Greg: Oh, of course not.
Nico: I think in the long run, it tends to.
Greg: Because it’s true.
Nico: Yeah, because it’s true. But in the short-term, you see untruths win out all the time.
Greg: Yeah. Well, and I listened to your last podcast and I really have to read that. What was the name of the professor again?
Nico: Joseph Blocher.
Greg: Yeah, really cool, a really cool podcast, highly recommended.
Nico: Smart guy, he got published in the Yale and Harvard Law Review Journals, within the same week.
Nico: If you’re not in academia, —
Greg: That’s showing off.
Nico: – you don’t know how big of a deal that is.
Greg: Actually, I think they would.
Nico: Those two, in addition to the 17 other academic articles he’s published on the First Amendment, he’s also a Second Amendment scholar too, but yeah you were saying you had read it.
Greg: Yeah, it was definitely a very cool read.
Nico: Yeah, and his argument essentially was that in analyzing the Marketplace of Ideas, there should be some sort of privilege for expert knowledge. I kind of think of that as being a little bit platonic in the sense that we have our philosopher kings who – but he said it was more essentially being able to explain why you believe something. How that actually —
Greg: I just wanna clarify, sorry I didn’t read it, I listened to the podcast.
Nico: – you listened to the podcast, yeah.
Greg: It was awesome.
Nico: But you should read it, yeah. Any way —
Greg: And it’s interesting because John Rauch is working on a book and I’m very honored, it’s one of my free speech heroes, and he asked me for some feedback on this book that he’s working on. And, man that guy’s brilliant, he’s just so – it’s just such an honor to be reading him, but it definitely, it was like the third conversations I’ve had in a day that involves people trying to figure out how to privilege expertise.
Now, this is a very important sort of epistemic job to remind people, knowing even the smallest amount of truth is really, really hard for human beings and it requires institutions; it requires back and forth; it requires checking and double-checking because there is a sense that experts are – are – are being ignored, but at the same time, when it comes to – and that really closely relates to the special privileges of academic freedom, but mine is a little bit sort of sidestepping that to a degree, it’s more or less saying that if we are going to think as experts, if we are going to think as open-minded, we should really take seriously the project of humanism, which is to know us and our world as it is.
And like I said, that’s an ongoing process, we’ll never fully get there, it will have changed by the time we get some knowledge, but we honestly do not stand a chance if we don’t know what people are really thinking.
Nico: And that actually made me think of Annie Dukes book, “Thinking in Bets”, —
Greg: Oh, man, yeah.
Nico: – which essentially it says —
Greg: That’s a great book.
Nico: – that the more information you have, the better you’re able to make a decision and the decision still might not be the correct one. But the way you have the fighting chance is by getting as much information as possible; it’s almost impossible to have perfect information, but as we discussed in that podcast, —
Greg: It’s literally impossible to have perfect information.
Nico: – yeah. As we discussed in that podcast, censorship is a way to prevent you from getting information.
Greg: I’m gonna do the obnoxious nerd thing and mention Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which is probably out-sized for its – it actually probably gets too much credit because it actually applies to a relatively narrow thing, but basically the principle is you can’t look at atomic motion, you can’t look at the motion of very small particles without interfering with them. So, if just the act of observing something interferes with it, you’re always gonna have some ambiguity in what you can know.
Nico: Yeah, now, before I let you go here, I wanna steal man your argument by presenting two challenges to it. The first is one you actually bring up in your article, or hat tip in your article, which is national security. Is there a scenario in which not giving people access to perfect information, or to as much information possible, is better than the alternative?
Greg: This is absolutely something that whenever I talk about this, like I said, I’m trying to work on metaphors, I’m trying to work on things that stay in people’s mind that can help them think through a sort of more expansive vision of this. So, I’ll say things like, you are not safer for knowing less about the world in which you live, which I think is pretty clarifying. And there is this dude on Twitter who always chimes in saying, well, what about national security secrets? And I did I leave – do I still have a footnote about that in there?
Nico: No, I don’t think the footnote – we don’t have a great way to insert footnotes into FIRE’s blog post, but Greg had a longer —
Greg: I had footnotes in it and hopefully we’ll figure out a way to do that, —
Nico: We did figure out a way, it just requires some coding that’s maybe beyond the reach of the people who typically post our – anyway, —
Greg: The technology to do footnotes is decades away. And so yeah, I had that in there because I wanted to nod at it, but I didn’t wanna put it in the main text because I do mean this overwhelmingly. Are there exceptions? Sure, but when people make the national security exception to free speech, I get a little – I bristle a little bit because you look at all the stuff that we consider top secret now, or what we dub top secret in the U.S. Government and it’s ridiculous.
It’s this huge swath of things around actual important secretes. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has talked about, the example they give is, the time and location of the troop transports going out being the perfect example of a national security secret that you could potentially enforce because you’re trying to protect the lives of people on that troop transport. Now, the funny thing is though, the – and that’s a really persuasive, really vivid argument that actually does make —
Nico: Make sense.
Greg: – a point about knowing less sometimes, or the public knowing less is actually really quite protective. But I don’t wanna nod at that too much because we use the troop transport thing to say – to keep private that fact that someone met with a diplomat and it was really embarrassing.
Nico: Or the failures of Vietnam with the Pentagon Papers.
Greg: Oh, the Pentagon Papers, yeah, and for example, knowing that people had been saying, within the government, yeah, we’re never gonna win this thing, it’s just gonna be a meat grinder, that was something that they kept as a national security secret. And the public, after fighting this for a really long time and loosing 50,000 people, was a little bit like, ah, that would have been nice to know that earlier.
Nico: Yeah. So, the second question I had was, disinformation.
Nico: It is a sort of information, but it’s an information that is meant to make people think falsehoods.
Nico: So, it is your – what are your thoughts about that? Because you do have, especially with the Coronavirus, you have Facebook taking down articles that they deem disinformation; you’ve had Twitter doing this with Russian bots and trolls for a while as they seek to sow discord here in the United States. How should we think about that?
Greg: Yeah, it’s interesting because I’m not going to pretend to have a perfect answer on that and I think, though, this is something that’s kind of haunting First Amendment people at the moment is, how easily we can be tricked, and particularly if people know – my brother does – knows a lot about marketing and research and demographs, and he’s freaked out by the fact that you can have – you can find out so much about an individual’s preferences that you can really manipulate them with —
Nico: And their biases.
Greg: – and – and – and their biases at a level that’s really distressing. I do – I think it’s honestly one of the reasons why I’m a little bit less of an anonymity hawk, and Nico knows this about me, than other First Amendment people, for this reason. If you know it’s an individual and you know which individual it is, you can be – you can – they develop a reputation and you can figure out if they’re reliable or if they’re just trying to spread falsehoods. When they’re bots, when they’re people who are elsewhere trying to – trying to – trying to mess with you, it’s harder to have that so in some ways, greater transparency makes a big difference.
A good example of this was when a lot of websites moved to having their comments tied to people’s Facebook, you had to sign in with Facebook because it was harming to your reputation to just make up stuff and also it’s, not perfect, but decent proxy for you being a real person. But, yeah, the handling of how we actual handle disinformation campaigns, it’s gonna have to be idiosyncratic, it’s gonna have to require some – some – some thinking along – some serious thinking about it. And I think we’re still trying to figure it out.
Nico: Yeah. Well, was there anything else you wanted to add on this topic? Anything else that you’re thinking that’s gonna be the fodder for blog posts moving forward?
Greg: Oh yeah.
Nico: Or is this kind of your initial salvo on this topic?
Greg: The Eternally Radical Idea blog is also just an opportunity for me, essentially, to workshop stuff and I hope that – and I was talking to a donor yesterday who seemed a little shy about saying that he disagreed with my theory and the article and I was like, great!
Nico: Yeah, let’s hear it.
Greg: Let’s hear it.
Nico: Let’s hear it.
Greg: This is all – it’s an experiment as all life is an experiment.
Nico: Yeah, well that’s actually part of the quote, right?
Greg: It’s one of my all-time favorites.
Nico: One of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes quotes that Greg has right at the beginning of the article is that, “That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.”
Greg: It’s just such a wonderful —
Nico: “Every year, if not every day, we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge.”
Greg: Show off again. That’s just such good writing. The, yeah, – and so I’m gonna be trying this stuff out and I would love to know if I’m wrong on – on – on things. The big thing, and it might be a month or more before we get done this, is I’m doing a large article with Adam Goldstein and Ron Vice called, “Catching up with Coddling”, which is trying to update the data that we have in “Coddling of the American Mind”. As we get closer, we’re not quite there yet, but closer to two years since we handed in the manuscript.
Unfortunately, what we find is that most of the trends have gotten worse. Some of them have gotten more, this is a horrible way to put it, more interesting, which we’ll talk about in the piece. But this will be a nice opportunity for me to make, in addition to pieces like “Coddling of the American Mind”, to try to bring in all of these people who have the book to hopefully help us in the battle for free speech, both on and off campus and for understanding the philosophy of it, to try to get those readers excited about what we do, that’s a big goal of things like “Catching up with Coddling”.
But another goal of the Eternally Radical Idea is just to kind of have a modular argument. And what I mean by that is having, rather than every time someone says this one particular type of frustrating thing online, having to respond to it, drop what I’m doing and respond to it, I can be like, I’ve made this argument for 20 years. One that’s coming up pretty soon is just my overall belief that I am a First Amendment exceptionalist.
And what I mean by that is that sometimes you can get kind of pooh-poohed if you’re in academic circles or in other countries, that oh, you’re silly, ridiculous, crazy First Amendment law that nobody else has. And then I start explaining what the principles are and people are like, that doesn’t sound really as dumb as I thought it would sound. And what I’m saying is, that even though it is, quote/unquote, just a body of law, this is what I believe about First Amendment jurisprudence.
It is the best, thought out theory on how to have free speech, in the real world, contributed to by some of the best minds in U.S. history, including people like Louis Brandeis, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Justice Brennan, and Thurgood Marshall over basically a century. So, there’s so many things we can actually draw from the law of First Amendment about, that are actually good principles for life.
Like viewpoint discrimination and actually viewpoint discrimination is one of the big no-nos in First Amendment law, there are very few circumstances in which singling someone out for their particular viewpoint can be quashed. And that’s one of the reasons why I’m somewhat critical of the Marketplace of Ideas argument because, under my theory, all opinions always, even if they’re just dumb, are – are – are protected.
Nico: Or important, —
Greg: Yeah, —
Nico: – they tell us something.
Greg: – or – or – or they tell – they tell us something about the world. So, I’m gonna be writing a lot more on this topic, to try to put together an argument in pieces.
Nico: Well, there it is, the Eternally Radical Idea blog and Greg’s first piece is Coronavirus and the failure of the ‘Marketplace of Ideas’, the subtitle is, Considering the “Lab in the Looking Glass” Greg, thanks so much for coming on the show today.
Greg: Always fun.
Nico: And stay healthy, we need ya.
Greg: Stay safe and sane, this thing sounds nasty, to understate.
Nico: Very good. If you have any thoughts about Greg’s argument about the pure informational theory of free speech, please do send them our way. This podcast is hosted, produced, and recorded by me, Nico Perrino, and edited by Aaron Reese. To learn more about So to Speak, you can follow us on Twitter at Twitter.com/freespeechtalk or you can like us on Facebook at Facebook.com/sotospeakpodcast. You can also email us feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider leaving us a review on Apple podcast or Google Play, they do help us attract new listeners to the show. And until next time, thank you again for listening.