Note: This is a unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.
Nico Perrino: Welcome to the first ever episode of So to Speak where we will take an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations. I’m your host, Nico Perrino, and I am the director of communications for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education, most commonly referred to, of course, as FIRE. FIRE is an organization devoted to protecting civil liberties, such as the freedom of speech, in higher education. And while FIRE’s focus is on higher education for the most part, we also have a broader goal of educating the public about free speech principles, and that’s what we’re going to try to do here on this show. Our goal, I hope, is to publish a new episode every other week. I listen to a ton of podcasts and I know that most podcasts like to stick to one kind of format: a news show, a commentary or interview show, or a scripted feature of sorts. But on So to Speak, we’re going to try to mix it up a little bit, and from time to time, we’ll feature episodes that have one or all of the above styles, depending, of course, on the story that we’re trying to tell. I’m actually here right now in Philadelphia at FIRE’s headquarters with FIRE President and CEO, Greg Lukianoff, who was kind enough to indulge me in this podcast idea of mine, which I’ve been bugging him about for months now. Greg, thanks for sitting down with me.
Greg Lukianoff: Thanks for having me.
Nico Perrino: So, today on this first episode of ours, we have a heck of a show. I was able to sit down for a super interesting interview in Washington with someone who I know is a personal hero of yours, and that’s Jonathan Rauch. For those of our listeners who are unfamiliar with Jonathan Rauch’s work, he is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, he’s a contributing editor of National Journal and The Atlantic, he’s a prominent gay rights activist, and he’s also the author of many books, including his free speech classic, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought. But, before we talk about Jonathan and his book – and we’ll spend most of the show talking about Jonathan and his book – Greg, I want you to tell us a little bit about yourself because you’re going to be a regular on this show, and will sometimes be a stand-in host for me. So, it’s important listeners get to know you. So, Greg, how did you get interested and involved in the fight for free speech, both on and off campus?
Greg Lukianoff: Well, I was the weird law student who went to law school specifically to do first amendment law. I’ve been interested in free speech since I was a little kid. A lot of times I attribute it to the fact that I have a Russian father and a British mother, and my British mom really emphasized politeness; my father really emphasized brutal honesty if necessary, talking about politeness as a form of deception.
Nico Perrino: You’ve really got that Russian accent.
Greg Lukianoff: That’s the thing; I could do my dad all day. And, I grew up in a neighborhood where there were a lot of other first generation American kids. So, interestingly, multiculturalism is a lot of times used as a way of explaining why we need censorship, and I think it’s the exact opposite. When we live in a genuinely multicultural environment, the first rule is, hear people out and try to figure out what they’re actually saying; not immediately jump on them with your norms about what you should say. And, I even got more passionate about freedom of speech as a student journalist at American University, working for The Eagle newspaper.
Nico Perrino: And you went to law school at Stanford.
Greg Lukianoff: I went to law school at Stanford, yeah. And, so, the amazing thing about being a student journalist is you get to see people come into your office, and you see the wheels turning and then they’re like, “You shouldn’t run that article, and I don’t know why yet, but I’ll figure it out.” And I realized seeing this in action so often, there’s a deep censorship instinct. People want to figure out an excuse to censor, and under those circumstances, that’s why you have to have a really broad protection for freedom of speech with very few exceptions. So, I went to Stanford, I took every class over law school, I took every class on first amendment; when I ran out of that, I did six credits on censorship during the Tudor dynasty. You know, this is my lifelong dream. I did get laughed at a little bit for the idea of wanting to do something as impractical as first amendment law for my career, but I’ve been doing it now since 2001, so –
Nico Perrino: Who were some of your free speech heroes while you were in law school?
Greg Lukianoff: So many. Nadine Strossen, who I’m very happy to be able to say is a friend of mine.
Nico Perrino: She was the president of the ACLU.
Greg Lukianoff: President of the ACLU. Floyd Abrams, who I was absolutely thrilled to have speak on our 15th anniversary. I didn’t actually know about Jonathan until I started working at FIRE, but he’s definitely become one of my free speech heroes.
Nico Perrino: How did you meet Jonathan?
Greg Lukianoff: It’s actually a funny story, and I’ve never told Jonathan all the details. What he probably didn’t know, but might have been able to put together, is that I met him because I’d heard a lot about him being this great defender of freedom of speech, but I hadn’t actually read his book Kindly Inquisitors yet. And, I have to explain, I’m kind of glad I hadn’t read it before meeting Jonathan, and I’ll explain why in a minute. So, I show up for this meeting with this very unassuming fellow. We went and got sushi together, partially because since I hadn’t read it, I didn’t know to be as intimidated by him as I would have been if I actually had read it. So, we probably didn’t talk about free speech the whole time. We talked about comic book characters, and lasers, and I went into a lot of depth about what the best superhero to be would be, and I’m definitely a Martian man hunter myself, although if I could have any powers from the Marvel universe, I’d immediately request Molecule Man. And, this was a great discussion, we really hit it off and he’s become one of my favorite people on the whole planet. And, I therefore read Kindly Inquisitors afterwards, and I remember reading it and being like, “Uh-oh, this guy’s a genius!” I was just like, “I wonder what I must have seen –
Nico Perrino: And he wrote that book when he was 28 or 29, he told me.
Greg Lukianoff: Yeah, I know. It’s absolutely amazing. But, I’ve never told him that part of the story – that I hadn’t actually read it before I met him. But, after reading it, I was like, “Wow!” And, it’s just so amazing because he’s such a humble, decent and morally courageous person.
Nico Perrino: So, that’s a good segue into Kindly Inquisitors. You’ve called his book, Kindly Inquisitors, one of the best modern defenses of free speech. Why do you think this little book – and it’s a little book. It’s something like a 150 pages. Why do you think it’s so important?
Greg Lukianoff: Well, it’s a philosophical defense of freedom of speech; it’s not a legalistic defense of freedom of speech. And, I may be a first amendment lawyer, but I get frustrated with my own people to a degree because I think there’s a tendency to explain, “Free speech is important because the first amendment protects it.”
Nico Perrino: It’s a circular argument.
Greg Lukianoff: Yeah, well, as a law professor, I would say there’s a certain roundness to that argument. And, I think it’s really important to get down to the philosophy of it. And when it comes down to it, there’s not that much accessible work on the importance of freedom of speech. Certainly, Karl Popper talked about ideas of the open society and that kind of stuff, but he’s not the most accessible work in the world. And so, when I talk about books about freedom of speech, I always talk about how it’s a shame that we have to refer back to this wonderful book written in 1859 all the time, which is John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, same year that Darwin’s On the Origin of Species came out.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, exactly.
Greg Lukianoff: That’s how old it is. And it’s a fabulous book, don’t get me wrong. But, there really haven’t been that many accessible books about freedom of speech since. But, I always make this exception; with the exception of 1993’s Kindly Inquisitors, there hasn’t been a classic since 1859.
Nico Perrino: In 2012, you published a book of your own Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, which Jonathan actually recommends in our interview. I’m curious. Was Jonathan’s work an inspiration for the ideas you talk about in your book, and how do your two arguments tie together?
Greg Lukianoff: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I’m working on a next book right now and I, pretty much every chance I get, I mention something about Rauch’s work. And, I think giving the sort of intellectual system that’s open-ended and you can’t claim special authority, this enlightenment era system, giving it a name, which he named Liberal Science, is so important. Because, as Jonathan points out, it’s a system that’s been so successful, we didn’t even bother to name it because it was everywhere. And, it really helped me understand that – I get excited about scientific history, but a lot of people sometimes will talk about freedom of speech by comparing it to scientific method. And really, what Jonathan helped me understand is that the scientific method is just a smaller part of this massive system of liberal science where you start skeptically inquiring about your world, that no argument is ever really over. So, yeah, he’s had a tremendous effect on my thinking about this.
Nico Perrino: And, at the end of your book, you have a list of suggestions for students. How to improve, not only their lives, but also their ideas. What are some of those things?
Greg Lukianoff: Well, one of them is to always remember that the things that make us most uncomfortable to talk about are often times the most important things for us to be talking about, and that applies to relationships and societies just the same. But, the one that I really want to emphasize is that I don’t think you should think of yourself as educated unless you see it as an intellectual duty to seek out intelligent people with whom you disagree. And I think if we followed that simple lesson, we would live in a much more intellectually productive and much more bearable society than we currently do.
Nico Perrino: During my conversation with Jonathan, we talk about the role that free speech plays in defending minority rights. It’s something that Jonathan, a minority himself, likes to talk a lot about, as you know. And, this got me thinking about a case FIRE’s been involved in recently at Williams College in Massachusetts, a small liberal arts school. And, I believe this case sort of illustrates many of the trends that we’ve seen on campus today. You’ve got an overbearing, overprotective administration that likes to protect its students from wrong-headed ideas, student demands for censorship – But, there was also a student at the center of this story that perhaps best illustrates the free speech principles and practices that you and Jonathan advocate in your books, and that you’re going to advocate in your new book, so far as I’m aware of it, especially this idea of free speech as a way of life. You’ve been telling this story in a lot of your recent speeches. Can you rehash for us the story, and tell us a little bit about this unique student, Zach Wood?
Greg Lukianoff: Well, for years now, there’s been a program at Williams College that I was actually a speaker at, believe it or not.
Nico Perrino: Oh, when was that?
Greg Lukianoff: Yeah, that was a couple of years ago. I was part of this uncomfortable learning program where they try to bring controversial speakers to campus to talk about things.
Nico Perrino: Like Greg Lukianoff?
Greg Lukianoff: Yeah, exactly. My only thing is, like, I’m really not as controversial as you guys think, or maybe I am more controversial. Who knows? But, it was a great talk, it was a great turnout, great feedback, and they’ve had a lot of people a lot more controversial than me over the years. And the new president of it is an African-American student named Zach Wood. He’s politically liberal, but he loves this idea of fostering meaty conversations, and he wanted to invite the controversial John Derbyshire. For people that don’t know who John Derbyshire is, he was a writer for the National Review, he wrote some fairly successful books, but he also wrote some really racist articles towards the end of his time at National Review, which led to him being fired from National Review. So, John Derbyshire is really well known for some of these racist articles, and Zach Wood was like, “Wow. I want to debate this dude. I want this guy to come on campus, and I want to debate John Derbyshire and I want to see what he has to say for himself.” And that is the kind of discussion and intellectual bravery that universities should really foster. But in this case, the university president, who was an older White man, decided to prevent his own student from having this debate that he really wanted to have. And I mean, talk about misguided paternalism. This could have actually been a great and invigorating debate. The student should have been complemented for inviting him, but instead, they decided it was better off that that debate never take place.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, it’s strange. In our interview with Jonathan that’s coming up here shortly, Jonathan talks about how, as a gay man, the only way they were able to secure rights for themselves was by holding the other side’s argument up in plain view, and then slowly demonstrating to your opponents that there’s something wrong with the picture that they’ve created for themselves of the world. And, we also talk within that interview about a case of a Black man befriending a member of the KKK, and through force of demonstration, force of example and dialogue, showing him that his worldview was wrong, eventually leading to that man turning in his robe and leaving the KKK. And actually, there is no longer a KKK in Maryland as a result of this guy, Daryl Davis’s work in that state. So, let’s jump into our interview with Jonathan Rauch. Greg, thanks for joining me today.
Greg Lukianoff: Thanks so much for having me.
Nico Perrino: Well, Jonathan Rauch, thank you for coming on the show today.
Jonathan Rauch: It’s great to be here, Nico.
Nico Perrino: It’s really come full circle for me because when I was an intern at FIRE back in 2010, they actually assigned Kindly Inquisitors for all of us to read, and then that summer, you had given a speech at our student network conference. And I recall it being one of the best speech – I’ve been to five student network conferences, for FIRE at this point. I remember it being one of the better keynote addresses. Greg always –
Jonathan Rauch: One of the better. I thought we were friends.
Nico Perrino: The best. I hope none of the other keynote addressees hears this podcast. But, Greg always talks about this book and it came out in 1993, and it feels like it’s just as timely today as if it was –
Jonathan Rauch: Alas, yes. It’s fresh as a daisy, isn’t it.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, yeah. But, Greg talks about it being one of the best modern defense of free speech that we have today, and it’s been praised by Penn Jillette, George Will called it “slender and sharp as a stiletto.” Why is Kindly Inquisitors – well, let’s start off, what is Kindly Inquisitors? Who is a kindly inquisitor?
Jonathan Rauch: A kindly inquisitor is a well-intentioned person who wants to shut down speech, or debate or criticism because it’s offensive and hurts somebody’s feelings. It’s what I call in the book, ”the humanitarian challenge to freedom of speech and freedom of thought,” which is if I call you a name right now, pick whatever name you were called in school that you hate.
Nico Perrino: “Jerk.”
Jonathan Rauch: “Jerk?” Aw, we can do better than that. It’s going to hurt you at some level, right? Maybe. Maybe you’re very thick-skinned, but maybe you’re not. So, the argument began to take shape in the late 80s and early 90s that words that wound were a form of so-called verbal violence. That they were verbal behavior, that they created a hostile environment, so we had a right not to be exposed to them. And, this gradually took shape and has become, I think, the biggest challenge out there in America right now, maybe the world, to freedom of speech and freedom of thought. So, Kindly Inquisitors brings together the fact that the motives, as almost always is the case, are to try to be kind, and try to be good and generous and do something good for society. But, the result of that is an inquisition, which is where you investigate and punish people for thinking what they think and saying what they say.
Nico Perrino: It’s funny because I was actually re-reading this book for probably the fourth time at this point over the weekend, and right in the first chapter, you talk about how, “A very dangerous principle is now being established as a social right: Thou shalt not hurt others with words. This principle is a menace – and not just to civil liberties. At bottom it threatens liberal inquiry – that is, science itself.” So, where is the science angle come in here?
Jonathan Rauch: This book is unusual. It’s not a first amendment book, and it’s not about law or the constitution. It’s about what it is that science broadly defined as it’s really special. By “science,” I don’t just mean people in labs. I mean journalists, historians, psychologists, people at FIRE who are blogging. All of the people who are involved in the development and creation of knowledge because they’re all doing a version of the same thing. They’re putting hypotheses out there – ideas. And, they’re subjecting them to this vast international web of public criticism – people trying to shoot each other’s ideas down. We kill each other’s ideas rather than each other. Great human innovation. So, you get social peace as a result of that, but you also get knowledge because at the end of the day, the ideas that survive are our knowledge on that day. That whole process depends on two things. First, people need to be able to publicly state their hypotheses –
Nico Perrino: And these are the rules that you lay out in the book.
Jonathan Rauch: Yeah, I lay out these rules in the book. I call it the science game because it’s a process. It’s like an open-ended process with rules. But, the rules are, everyone gets to put their ideas, their hypotheses into the mix, even if it’s something objectionable. You know, the Holocaust never happened; homosexuality is a curable disease. I’m gay and Jewish, so, I know this is not fun stuff. And then the second thing that needs to happen is all of that stuff needs to get subjected to criticism. And that’s painful, too, if someone is putting the Declaration of Independence out there and someone else is trying to refute it with racism, that’s unpleasant, too. But, that’s how we get knowledge. We’re vastly poorer if we shut that system down, and that’s what people are trying to do.
Nico Perrino: Now, you talk in the book a little bit about the inspiration behind it, and it goes back to Salman Rushdie and the Ayatollah Khomeini putting a bounty on his head. Why did you think you needed to write a response to that incident?
Jonathan Rauch: Apart from the fact that I was 29 years old and – actually 28 years old and thought the world was waiting to hear from me –
Nico Perrino: Well, I actually remember a speech that you gave at the Museum of Sex back in 2013, and you said –
Jonathan Rauch: My most popular speech.
Nico Perrino: It’s a great speech and I urge all of our listeners to go to YouTube and type in “Jonathan Rauch.” It’s one of the first videos that comes up. It’s a 2013 speech that he gave at the Museum of Sex. But in it, you talk about if you’re under 30 and you have a great idea, just go for it. Is that what you did here?
Jonathan Rauch: Yeah. I guess you remember the details, right, Nico? The vague story – I guess a lot of people are too young to remember this. So, Salman Rushdie was a novelist and he wrote a book called the Satanic Verses. And a lot of people who never read the book decided that by Satanic Verses, he meant the Koran. So, there were international protests against the book, and it was burned and people were killed. And then, the Ayatollah Khomeini, who was in charge of Iran at that point, put out a death sentence on Salman Rushdie forcing him to live underground in total hiding because Khomeini said basically, any Muslim in the world that wants to should kill this guy. So, that was bad. But what was even worse was this kind of very muddled response that came back from the West. Instead of saying, “You know, this guy – maybe the novel was offensive, maybe it wasn’t, but he had every right to publish it and we’re going to defend that right,” a lot of people said, “Well, you know, threatening someone with death goes too far, but it was an offensive book and you shouldn’t be out there offending people. And what do you expect? And we certainly don’t condone,” and so forth; on, and on and on.
And I realized, I thought that people had lost sight of the fundamental premise of intellectual freedom and the advancement of inquiry, which is, “No, if you can’t offend people, you can’t say the things that people need to hear in order to rebut and refute them.”
Nico Perrino: And also to create knowledge.
Jonathan Rauch: And to create knowledge.
Nico Perrino: Which is what are you going to do with this?
Jonathan Rauch: Which is what happens, yeah; which is the only way to get knowledge. Knowledge is like finding a needle in a haystack because it’s so hard to get. And the only way you get it is to harness everyone to the task of looking through the haystack by putting everything out there, and then putting everyone to work criticizing and sorting. So, that happened in 1989, and then right around then, the first wave of campus political correctness hit; which in some sense was very separate from Rushdie, but made a different version of the same argument which is: if you say things that are deeply offensive, they may not be blasphemy, but they may be racist, and that will damage our community, and that will make people feel unsafe, and it’s deeply offensive and wrong-headed. So, colleges began issuing speech codes. This was long before there was a FIRE, actually. That was pretty scary. So, those two things together made my think it’s time to defend not just the first amendment, but the reason we have a first amendment, which is the production of knowledge, and the creation of social peace. The ability to conflict over ideas peacefully, nonviolently.
Nico Perrino: And the Rushdie affair points to one of the two challenges to liberal science that you identify in your book, that is the humanitarian challenge, if I’m interpreting it right. The argument with the Rushdie affair, of course, was that these words hurt, they’re blasphemy. But, there’s also a second challenge, and that’s the egalitarian challenge. It’s a little bit different, right?
Jonathan Rauch: I actually mentioned three, and the third is the oldest. I call it the fundamentalist challenge, and that’s the idea that I know what the truth is, I don’t need to take seriously anyone who thinks I might be wrong, and why would you allow untruth to be propagated in the world? That’s as old as the hills. Plato went in for that.
Nico Perrino: I actually have an interesting question about that. Are you familiar with Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History?
Jonathan Rauch: Yeah.
Nico Perrino: Because, the argument there, of course, being that with the fall of the Soviet Union, capitalism has won out as the great organizer or way to allocate private resources. Is that what some of these people are arguing when they’re arguing that we’ve reached a point where we don’t need to have this debate anymore, we’ve reached the end of knowledge?
Jonathan Rauch: Well, you know, these people always thought certainty is the same thing as reliability. I don’t know about the end of history or the end of knowledge, but people assume that where knowledge comes from is me making up my mind. So, if I sit alone in a room, and I say, “Nico Perrino has brown hair,” and I conclude that it must be true based on the fact that I’ve concluded it. But they’re wrong about where knowledge comes from. Say you have a guy with crazy white hair sitting in his room by himself, scribbling equations. That guy might be Einstein, but he might also be a madman. There is no way to know which one of those things he is, even in principle until you take those ideas and put them in front of other people for testing and replication. The only place we get knowledge is through social interaction through this process of checking, and the greatest advance in the entirety of human civilization, bar none, is the creation of not just a national, but a global network of checkers – people who can check anything, almost right away. The internet’s part of that. So, that’s a great thing, but it’s also counterintuitive because it says we could be wrong about anything.
I could be mistaken about our hair color. We need to ask these other guys in the room here – the sound guy, and the guy in the headphones over here. What do you think? Is his hair brown? Blond? Do we have a vote for brown?
Male Speaker 1: Well, I’m colorblind, so I don’t think I get a vote here.
Male Speaker 2: I say brown.
Jonathan Rauch: So, they’re all saying brown. So, that gives us some confirmation that the hypothesis might actually be true. Of course, it might turn out eventually to be false. But, that’s where knowledge comes from. And the fundamentalist challenge has always been, “Well, we don’t need to do that because I already know the truth. It’s in the Bible, or it’s in some other place.” So, that one’s as old as the hills. And then, there’s one I call the egalitarian challenge, and that’s a much newer idea that everyone should be treated equally and whatever anyone thinks is knowledge because, after all, we all have different points of view.
Nico Perrino: And you talk in the book about those who argue for equal time for creationism in school and you talk a little bit about faith healing as well.
Jonathan Rauch: Right. And Christian science and all these other groups that have come forward – Afrocentrists – And so, wait. Who gives biologist at universities the right to say how humans evolve? We’ve got our own idea for that, and it demands equal time in the classroom. Well, they’re wrong. The only way you validate knowledge is through this process of checking. And other ways, you can say anything you want, but you can’t teach it as knowledge. But then the big one, I think, is humanitarian. It’s really at the heart of what we’re seeing right now on campus with microaggressions, the tantrum behavior we’re seeing at places like Yale. It’s going on and on, this idea that if you hurt me words, if you deeply offend me, then you have violated my rights.
Nico Perrino: So, your book came out in 1993, and was reissued, and it’s never gone out of print, which is amazing, and, I think, a testament to the arguments that you make in it. But, you reissued the book in 2013 with a new afterword. A lot’s changed since 2013, even in the world of free speech. What’s the argument you made in the afterword, and then, does the afterword need a new afterword given everything that’s happened in the past three years?
Jonathan Rauch: Yes, the afterword needs a new afterword, but this book really should be in a three-ring binder because you’re going to have to update it for the end of time. I try to remind people, this doesn’t directly answer your question, Nico, but it’s important to say, and it’s a reason people should write checks to FIRE after they’ve, of course, bought my book for twelve dollars on Amazon.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, reiterate –
Jonathan Rauch: Did everyone get that? Everyone in the room here?
Nico Perrino: Write checks to FIRE, buy Kindly Inquisitors, guys.
Jonathan Rauch: Not necessarily in that order. But, here’s the reason what FIRE does is so important. The greatest idea that humans ever had is also the most counterintuitive idea. It comes up very recently in human history in the 17th century with John Locke, and then James Madison writes it into the Constitution. And that’s that we should not only tolerate speech and thought that is wrong-headed, seditious, offensive, obnoxious, heretical or blasphemous, but that we actually benefit from this as a society. No one had ever said that before. They always said, of course you shouldn’t tolerate seditious speech, criticism of the king, criticism of religion. Well, it turns out that this is a fantastic mechanism for creating knowledge, and that through toleration, you get social peace. But it also turns out that everyday people are born as humans who don’t believe that because our instinct is to say, “If someone’s wrong, we shouldn’t put up with that.” So, every day, we have to push the rock back uphill. We’ve just got to start defending the first amendment all over again, every day for the rest of time, and we’ve just got to be cheerful about that. That’s the burden that falls to folks like FIRE and me – and you’re a generation younger than I am – I guess, what, 26, 27?
Nico Perrino: [Inaudible] [00:27:46].
Jonathan Rauch: And your kids are going to be doing the same thing. So, yeah. This thing will need constant updating. There is no breather; there is no stopping point in the defense of free inquiry. And, I’ve put arguments out there in my book, and then people come up with new attacks on free speech. So, it goes on and on. The specific answer to your question is that I added an afterword to the book because a new kind of argument was that minorities need to be protected from hurtful and hateful speech, and as a member of two minorities, one of them savagely oppressed in America until recently, gay, that’s the opposite of the truth. Gay people got where we are only because we had freedom of speech. So, I needed to say that.
Nico Perrino: So, over the weekend, one of my colleagues here at FIRE, Nate O’Connor had recommended this podcast to me called Love + Radio, and a specific episode called The Silver Dollar. And, it’s about this man who lives in Maryland, I believe, named Daryl Davis. He’s a Black musician. But, I believe it was in the 80s or 90s he befriended an Imperial Wizard of the KKK, and through dialogue, actually convinced him to quite the Klan. And when he convinced him to quit the Klan, he actually gave Daryl his Klan robe. And, I want to play a clip from that podcast, because it goes back to a lot of the things that you talk about Jonathan, about minorities can’t win unless they can engage the opposition in dialogue and show to them, through force of example, why they are wrong. So, I’m going to pull up that clip right now.
Daryl Davis: He said that he respected me. The Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. He said we may not agree on everything, but at least he respects me to sit down and listen to me, and I respect him to sit down and listen to him. The most important thing that I learned was that while you are actively learning about someone else, you are passively teaching them about yourself. All right? So, if you have an adversary, an opponent with an opposing point of view, give that person a platform. Allow them to air that point of view, regardless of how extreme it may be. And believe me, I’ve heard some things so extreme at these rallies, it will cut you to the bone. Give them a platform. You challenge them. But you don’t challenge them rudely or violently, you do it politely and intelligently. And when you do things that way, chances are, they will reciprocate and give you a platform. So, he and I would sit down listen to one another. Over a period of time, that cement that he talked about, that held is ideas together began to get cracks in it. And then it began to crumble, and then it fell apart. And then a few years ago, Roger Kelly quit the Ku Klux Klan. He no longer believes, today, what he said on that videotape. And when he quit the Klan, he gave me his robe and hood, which is a robe of the Imperial Wizard.
Nico Perrino: That story from Daryl Davis really made me think back to a lot of the things that you said. Specifically, one thing that you said in a video that FIRE came out with a while back where you said, “We can’t earn their respect or admiration –” – “they,” in this case, meaning the opposition; those who are opposed to rights for minorities. “We can’t earn their respect or admiration by hiding from them. We’ve got to be in situations where we can confront and encounter them, sometimes angrily, but more often with persuasion.” So, I was wondering if you could respond not only to that video, but elaborate on what you had said in that video. And if you can, tie in that story of Frank Kameny that you always tell.
Jonathan Rauch: Well, that’s a great and wonderful and long story. But, the sentiments you just heard in the audio clip were exactly what my experience has been as someone who was born in 1960, gay in America – a deeply, thoroughly, completely repressive and oppressive society. Gay people had no votes, we had no money, most of us were hidden from public view, and we were hated. But, the reason we were hated was not that most people get up every morning and say, “Who am I going to hate on today?” We were hated because we were feared, because of misconceptions and lies that were told about us. If you think that someone’s going to seduce your children, or rape your children, or commit sedition against the US government, or has a secret network of Communists who overthrow the government or is conspiring to end the American family, well you’re going to hate that person. So, what gay people had to do, little by little, was engage in dialogue with our haters, which is not always fun, but we would never have changed minds had we just said, “You know what? You people are all wrong. Give us our rights right now.” I tell people that hate speech laws, suppressing speech that’s wrong-headed and hateful is like curing global warming by breaking the thermometers. The root problem is fear and ignorance and hatred, and you go for that by correcting people.
So, here’s what happens. In the late 1950s, the Supreme Court, in a landmark case that no one’s ever heard of – it’s called One v. Oleson – amazing case – overturns the US government and several lower courts by allowing a openly gay magazine to publish. Not pornographic, a magazine of essays and thought. That gave gay people a voice in public debate. Until that happened, we were censored by the government.
Nico Perrino: And the Post Office, I believe, in that case wouldn’t mail some of these issues.
Jonathan Rauch: Right, right. The way they got us was through the indecency statues because advocating homosexuality was indecent. So, the Post Office wouldn’t mail it, which meant you couldn’t distribute it because there was no internet in those days. So, the Supreme Court, in a one-line sentence says First Amendment protects gay people’s ability to speak. At almost that exact same time, a couple of weeks later, a man named Frank Kameny is fired from his government job as an astronomer for the US Army Map Service, and he’s fired because he’s gay. No other reason, but because he’s gay. Most people in those days, if they were fired for being gay, they slunk away into disrepute. Often, they couldn’t get another job or were drummed out of their industry. Both were true of Kameny. He never got another job, he never served as an astronomer again, but he was unusual because he did not back down. He believed that the Declaration of Independence was a personal promise that the founders had made to him, and he decided to cash that promissory note. So, he began an opposition movement. He appealed his firing all the way up to the highest levels of the US government; he failed. He appealed it to the US Supreme Court; they refused to hear his argument. He appealed to the US Congress; he was summarily rejected by congressmen writing letters saying things like, “Of all the letters I’ve ever received, yours is the most disgusting.” 1965, he and some other people led the first peaceful, openly gay protest with a protest march in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
Nico Perrino: Home of FIRE.
Jonathan Rauch: Home of FIRE. Symbolism was very intentional. And another one in front of the White House. You can see tapes of it on YouTube. These gay men and lesbians in their Sunday best, walking peacefully, holding signs, things like, “The government should meet with homosexual Americans.” Crazy in this day. So, he does stuff like that. He’s the first openly gay person to run for Congress in 1970. He challenges the psychiatric diagnosis of homosexuality as a disease. He does all this stuff for years and no one ever listens until they do start listening. In the 70s, people begin to notice what he and other gay activists are saying, and they begin to understand there’s some sense in this. Because we’re holding the other side’s argument up to plain view. They’re saying horrendous things about us. We’re child seducers, we’re all crazy, we’re sick. And then, they’re looking at us and saying, “Well, no; there’s something wrong with this picture. An argument unfolds and amazingly, within a generation, we win the argument, and – Like, folks your age think nothing of same-sex marriage.
Nico Perrino: Yeah. And there were some interesting and extraordinary outcomes at the end of Kameny’s life. Do you want to talk about some of those?
Jonathan Rauch: Oh, yeah. Well, I do. I always –
Nico Perrino: [Inaudible] [00:36:53] management, which was –
Jonathan Rauch: I always tear up when I do because it’s such an amazing story, but, it’s tears of joy. So, just a quick comparison. The world I was born into, 1960 and on through the 70s, gay people could not work for the government, they could not have security clearances, they could not serve in the military. They were shunned by almost every religious group. They were viewed as mentally ill by the psychiatric profession. They were arrested in their own homes for making love to each other, given criminal records for that. They were beaten on the streets, and if they called the police, the police would often join in the fun, arrest the homosexual instead of the person who committed the crime. I could go on and on about that world. That’s the world Kameny fought. So, Frank died in 2011 in his, I think, 86 – age 86. He lived long enough, not only to see same-sex marriage be legal in multiple states, and to see sodomy laws overturned, and to see gay people serving in US government in secure positions, and to see gay people in the military. He lived long enough in 2009 to receive a formal apology from the US government from the very agency that fired him, now called the Office of Personnel Management. He received their Theodore Roosevelt prize for public service, their highest prize; he received a formal apology, which he accepted. He said, “I accept!” And best of all, to me, the director of the agency that had fired him, that was now apologizing, was –
Nico Perrino: Gay.
Jonathan Rauch: Openly gay.
Nico Perrino: I know this story. I’ve heard you say it many times, and it never –
Jonathan Rauch: It’s an incredible story.
Nico Perrino: It never tires on me.
Jonathan Rauch: So, that’s what speech and argument and confronting bad ideas will do for a minority group in one generation. There is no hate crime law, or no antidiscrimination statue that can come anywhere near what speech and debate can do for us.
Nico Perrino: And Frank Kameny’s story, and also Daryl Davis’s story, I think, are testaments to that. If people want to learn more about this extraordinary man – How do you spell Kameny?
Jonathan Rauch: Kameny. K-A-M-E-N-Y. Someday, his name will be known to students across America. It’s not, just yet. I’ve got an account of this that’s fairly succinct in the new afterword to Kindly Inquisitors, which, have we neglected to mention –
Nico Perrino: That people should buy, right?
Jonathan Rauch: People could buy for only about, mm, twelve dollars on Amazon.
Nico Perrino: Amazon.com. If you type in “smile” before Amazon.com, you can also send a portion of that purchase to FIRE. So, you’re killing two birds with one stone. I want to pivot a little bit, because you’re a Yale grad, right?
Jonathan Rauch: Yeah.
Nico Perrino: And earlier in this conversation, you had mentioned the incident that happened at Yale back in November where a group of students confronted a faculty member on campus whose wife had sent an email saying, “Well, maybe the administration shouldn’t have used such a heavy hand in determining what students wear on Halloween.” I don’t really want to talk so much about that incident, but I do want to talk about your time at Yale and whether any of these issues were on your radar then. What was the environment like for free speech? And, I specifically want to ask because in 1975, they came out with their famous Woodward Report, which free speech advocates like us at FIRE always reference because it has some of the most eloquent language in defense of free speech and academic freedom within the university context. It says we should think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable and challenge the unchallengeable. Was that the ethos while you were at Yale?
Jonathan Rauch: Yeah, it was the ethos when I was at Yale. I was Op-Ed page editor of the Yale Daily News, so I was in the midst of publishing stuff that sometimes people didn’t like. I went and recruited the first hard right-wing conservative columnist that Yale had had – a guy by the name of David Frum. Maybe you’ve heard of him.
Nico Perrino: I have heard of him. He went out to become a very famous conservative columnist.
Jonathan Rauch: Yeah, and something of a heretic in conservative ranks, and a lot of people disagreed very strongly with a lot of the stuff David said. I mean, he was pro-Reagan for heaven’s sake. Try that on a college campus. But, the four years I was there, I do not remember a single incident of shouting down or of disinvitation. The whole campus was a free speech zone, and if someone had tried to restrict that, I think the students would have been first in line to say, “Oh, no you don’t!” Remember. In those days, this is the late 70s, early 80s. So, not only is the Woodward Report recent, but so is the Berkeley free speech movement. The ethos was very different then. Students in those days were looking for a freedom from en loco parentis, the doctrine that the university should be our mommy and daddy, look out for us, keep us safe. We didn’t really want that. We thought that was condescending. So, it was pretty much the whole campus was a free speech zone, and I just don’t think it would have occurred to anyone to go to the administration with a grievance if we heard another student say something we didn’t like.
Nico Perrino: So, we’re running out of time here, Jonathan. I wanted to ask you, and I want ask this of every guest that comes on the show. Greg talks about how there’s no great modern defense of free speech, and he always points to your book which is now 23 years old, I believe.
Jonathan Rauch: Though recently revised, and available on Amazon.
Nico Perrino: And available on Amazon.com. Who is your favorite author? And we’ve discussed this before. You point to someone who is recent and has written recently about these issues, and you think, quite convincingly. A favorite author on a free speech issue, of course.
Jonathan Rauch: You must refer to Greg Lukianoff. You want me to plug Greg’s book, which, Greg has actually written two excellent books on free speech.
Nico Perrino: I was actually referring to Flemming Rose’s book.
Jonathan Rauch: And they deserve a plug, too. Greg has really, in some ways, been at the front edge of civil liberties, arguments to the campus. But, yeah. There’s this extraordinary man out there whose name is Flemming Rose – he was the editor at the Danish newspaper, which I can’t pronounce –
Nico Perrino: Jyllands-Posten.
Jonathan Rauch: Jyllands-Posten.
Nico Perrino: Which I am told is like the Wall Street Journal in that region.
Jonathan Rauch: Or “Yi-“llands-Posten. Yeah. – who made the decision to publish cartoons about the prophet Mohammed which set off to, shock and surprise, riots and several hundreds of killings around the world, very serious death threats against him, against the newspaper, against Kirk Verstergaard who was the cartoonist who drew the cartoons.
Nico Perrino: I had actually met Flemming back in September of 2015 and he was actually flanked by two large, bald Danish bodyguards. It was an incredible sight seeing it.
Jonathan Rauch: And he will for the rest of his life, and this continues to reverberate in the famous Charlie Hebdo incident last year. We saw another place that was demolished because of alleged portrayals of prophet Mohammed and so on. So, the amazing thing about Flemming Rose is having faced a superhuman amount of personal pressure on himself and his family, he has not backed down. Instead, he has written a wonderful book called The Tyranny of Silence saying that the harm that is done is not just through the law when people legislate against freedom of speech; it’s through the whole culture when people chill what they say because they’re worried about threats of violence. And when that happens, of course, the terrorists win. And he has personally led his life standing up for this principle and being an example of the refusal to be cowed in much the same way that Frank Kameny did two generations earlier. If you ever meet Flemming, he’s the most modest, unassuming, ordinary guy. He’s the last person who would say he’s a hero.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, FIRE has a video coming out that features him. I record an interview when I met him, and he’s just very mild-mannered.
Jonathan Rauch: He is. And he’d say, “I’m no hero.” But the fact is, he is a hero and he’s an example of the fact that ordinary people who are sometimes called upon to stand up in life will sometimes do that with amazing effects. So, yeah, he’s written brilliant book called the Tyranny of Silence and I cannot recommend it too strongly.
Nico Perrino: You can add it to the Amazon cart with Kindly Inquisitors.
Jonathan Rauch: Better yet, if you write Nico Perrino a letter or an email, he will send you all of these books for free.
Nico Perrino: Oh! Am I on the hook for that now? Maybe FIRE will let me expense it. But, Jonathan, I really appreciate your coming on the show today. You’re a busy guy, but your stories, the stories you tell really resonate with those who support free speech, and we are indebted to you for your efforts.
Jonathan Rauch: Well, we’re indebted to you. Keep up the good work. The hope is with your generation, and it’s so important that people in their 20s and people in their teens take up this torch. So, thank you.
Nico Perrino: Thank you, Jonathan. That was Jonathan Rauch. Jonathan is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, which, as Jonathan pointed out, is available on Amazon.com. You can learn more about Jonathan and his work by visiting jonathanrauch.com, or by simply Googling his name. But before we sign off here, I want to let everyone know about another exciting project sponsored by FIRE, and that’s the feature-length documentary Can We Take a Joke? Can We Take a Joke is the hilarious look at free speech, censorship and outrage culture through the lens of standup comedy. And the documentary features some pretty damn notable comedians such as Penn Jillette, Adam Carolla, Gilbert Gottfried, Lisa Lampanelli, Jim Norton and more. And, it actually also features our very own Greg Lukianoff who is an executive producer for the film. The film was just acquired in April by Samuel Goldwyn and is set to make its wide release in theaters and elsewhere the first week of August, so stay tuned for that. You can also learn more about the film by visiting its website canwetakeajoke.com or simply Googling its name. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter.
And with that, I want to thank you all for joining us on this very, very special first episode of So to Speak. Stay tuned for our next episode two weeks from now, and be sure to like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and of course, subscribe to us on iTunes or wherever else you stay up to date on your podcasts. You can find links to all those pages in the description to this podcast episode. This episode of So to Speak was produced by me, your host, Nico Perrino, and edited and recorded by Aaron Reese and Chris Maltby. You can learn more about our sponsor, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education, at thefire.org. See you next time.