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The Importance of Free Speech Culture

An interview with the co-author of The Canceling of the American Mind.

In their new book The Canceling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott provide countless examples of people who have been canceled across the political spectrum—from the left, the right, and everywhere in between. Following is an interview with Schlott, who argues for the importance of free-speech culture and suggests how higher education and broader society might better support it.

Jonathan Wai: What is “free speech culture” and why is it important?

Rikki Schlott: Free speech culture is the antidote to cancel culture. But before I define that for you, let’s first get to the heart of what cancel culture is.

We define cancel culture as the uptick beginning around 2014, and accelerating in 2017 and after, of campaigns to get people fired, disinvited, deplatformed, or otherwise punished for speech that is—or would be—protected by First Amendment standards, and the climate of fear and conformity that has resulted from this uptick.

We argue that the roots of cancel culture can be traced back to academia over several decades but that social media and a general cultural alienation from free speech values allowed it to explode in roughly the past decade.

Surveys show roughly 4 in 5 Americans think cancel culture is a problem. They’re right. We believe the only way to fight back against cancel culture is to re-embrace a free speech culture. For older Americans, this isn’t a new idea. For many younger Americans, sadly, some of the fundamental values that have underpinned American society are alien.

A free speech culture is a set of cultural norms rooted in older democratic values. Buying into a free speech culture requires a recommitment to old idioms like “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” “To each their own,” “It’s a free country,” and “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” As cliche as they may sound, we think our society has lost sight of these values.

And, if we might, we’d like to add another few idioms that we believe an anti-cancel-culture-culture must adopt: “Always take seriously the possibility you might be wrong,” “It’s important to know what people really think,” and “Just because you hate someone doesn't mean they’re wrong.”

JW: In your book, you illustrate multiple examples of “cancellations” of people who are politically on the right, the left, and all across the spectrum. What is going on?

RS: Our book is littered with case studies of cancel culture in all crevices of society—from higher education to journalism to the literary world to scientific fields and even comedy.

Those who say cancel culture isn’t happening are simply ignoring the endless list of people who have been unceremoniously torn down for something they said or did. My co-author is the president and CEO of FIRE (The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression), which defends the free speech rights of students and professors on campuses, so we had unprecedented access to a treasure trove of data about cancellations in academia.

The numbers are truly frightening. From just 2014 to 2023, we’ve tallied more than 1,000 attempts to get professors fired, punished, or silenced for their speech. And two-thirds of them are punished in some way. To give you a sense of just how unprecedented that is in the scheme of American history, it’s estimated that 100 to 150 professors lost their jobs during the Red Scare from 1947 to 1957. That’s a moment we rightfully look back upon and condemn. In the last decade, we’ve seen 200 professor terminations. Historians will one day study what exactly happened on campuses in the beginning of the 21st century.

And you’re right. It might surprise some readers to find out that around a third of the attempts to get professors fired actually come from the political right. Cancel culture isn’t a right-versus-left issue. It is a liberal-versus-illiberal one.

Canceling of the American Mind

JW: What are some ideas to help reform higher education to support free speech culture?

RS: As you can probably tell by now, Greg and I share a passion for protecting free speech in the culture more broadly—but especially on college campuses where we’ve seen firsthand just how dire the situation is.

The third portion of the book is dedicated to presenting solutions on how we get ourselves out of this mess. We have chapters on how to raise kids who aren’t cancellers, keeping your corporation out of the culture war, fixing K-12 education, and reforming higher ed itself.

Honestly, we’re pretty radical. We think the situation is so urgent that we should be entertaining solutions and alternatives that upend the current system.

Working within the framework of our current institutions, we think a few low-hanging solutions include adopting viewpoint neutrality as an institution, banning DEI statements and political litmus tests in the hiring process, and installing an academic freedom ombudsman.

Also, the past couple months have demonstrated just how much power donors (many of whom are alumni) have to demand change. We suggest that anyone who gives to their alma mater tie their checks to demands that the school adopts a written official commitment to free speech and commits to defending students and professors under siege.

Zooming out, we also are excitedly following the creation of new institutions like the University of Austin.

We also think employers should rethink college degree requirements where possible. Colleges and universities are drunk on their power as the gatekeepers to success. We can fight back and demand better of them by opening our minds to non-graduates in the hiring process, too.

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