In the latest rendition of “Conversations with Cabrera,” President Ángel Cabrera hosted First Amendment lawyer and free speech advocate Greg Lukianoff to discuss freedom of speech on college campuses.
Full Video of President Cabrera's conversation with Greg Lukianoff. Credit: Georgia Tech
Lukianoff is a well-known defender of free speech in the United States, co-authoring The Coddling of the American Mind and serving as the President and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Like in his conversation with Cabrera, Lukianoff (and his co-author Johnthan Haidt) argues in The Coddling of the American Mind that a culture of “safetyism” has undermined free inquiry and contributed to a rise in mental health problems on university campuses.
With Georgia Tech drawing national attention for being the site of both a speech given by conservative commentator Matt Walsh and the subsequent protests surrounding the issue of transgender athletes in collegiate sports, President Cabrera called the conversation “incredibly timely.”
First Image: Supporters of "This One is For the Girls" greet spectators exiting the NCAA Women's Swimming Championships on Thursday. Credit: Nathaniel Greve, The Liberty Jacket
Second Image: Georgia Tech's Turning Point chapter host Daily Wire contributor Matt Walsh to speak on the issue of Lia Thomas and transgender women in women's sports. Credit: Nathaniel Greve, The Liberty Jacket
Third Image: Protestors supporting Lia Thomas and other transgenders outside of the building where Matt Walsh was speaking. Credit: Angela Hill, The Liberty Jacket
Lukianoff began by providing historical context to the current state of free speech on college campuses: Freedom of speech is a rare phenomenon in human history, with the idea gaining real traction only after the “discovery of ignorance” during the Enlightenment. Once the First Amendment gained teeth in the 1950s, the protection of speech became a vital piece of American culture, paving the way for the social movements of the twentieth century. During this time, freedom of speech became “part and parcel of what higher education was supposed to look like.”
Yet robust freedom of expression did not last forever:
“Unfortunately, when something has been around for a long time, we take it for granted,”
Lukianoff remarked. Americans, particularly on college campuses, began treating free speech as a given, not the precious gift that it is.
In 2014, Lukianoff noticed a complete paradigm shift in students’ attitudes toward free speech: Young people went from being “the best constituency” for free expression to viewing free speech as “part of the problem.” Since the mid-2010s, students have been demanding trigger warnings, safe spaces, speech codes, microaggressions, and other policies and forms of conduct that regulate speech.
Advocates of speech regulations have viewed these policies as compassionate, but Lukianoff does not see it the same way:
“Not everything that seems to be intuitively kind and compassionate really is.”
Lukianoff argues that seeking to repress speech on the grounds that it damages mental health has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: He highlights a correlation between the rise in campus’s acrimony toward free speech and the surge in mental health issues in higher education.
Image: Lukianoff's book, "The Coddling of the American Mind", is available here. Credit: WSJ
After his experience using cognitive behavioral therapy to battle severe depression in 2007, Lukianoff has observed that students are engaging in cognitive distortions around speech. He believes these cognitive distortions have contributed to rises in anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems. Lukianoff expressed concern that:
"limiting free speech leads people to be more fragile… than they really are.”
Since the 1980s, the politics of freedom of speech have curiously shifted, with free speech transitioning from the “defining idea of being a liberal,” to a value held dear by American conservatives. In Lukianoff’s view, this transition is due in part to the growing dominance of the political left on American college campuses, particularly in faculty departments. As conservatives have increasingly become the minority among student bodies and university faculty, they have begun to see the value in the protection of free speech. In a democratic society, Lukianoff remarked,
“Minority viewpoints always need freedom of speech.”
Recent technological changes, such as the Internet, social media, and cable news have revolutionized communications by giving people the ability to interact with billions of others across the globe.
“We’re in a very weird period of human history,”
Lukianoff stated. As with previous revolutions in communication, these new technologies have led to unrest. Lukianoff mentioned that cable news, social media, and other means through which we consume information have taught people to model “atrocious behavior” in intellectual conversations.
Related: The Liberty Jacket's About Page detailing our origins
Lukianoff recognizes the difficulty that professors face in fostering freedom of inquiry: If students enter the classroom afraid of being “canceled,” it’s already too late to nurture open discussion. Nonetheless, he encourages professors to diligently teach their students how to engage in conversations with “scholarly detachment.”
Since Lukianoff believes that freedom of speech is useful only if the engaged people have different worldviews to begin with, he encouraged college administrations to introduce more working-class and international students to campus.
Lukianoff advised students to
“[give] everyone the benefit of the doubt” and “[understand] how rare the views held on college campuses really are,” compared to the rest of the world.
If a student is offended by something someone else said, he encourages them first to ask themselves, “Why do they think that?” To students with heterodox opinions, Lukianoff recommended they lean on a circle of close friends and family to allow them to keep the antipathy of others in perspective.
Related: 2020 Campus Reform article "Georgia Tech rejects funding for 'inherently religious' Alveda King... and gets sued"
The state of free speech on college campuses is precarious. If current trends continue unmitigated, universities risk losing the very principles upon which they were founded - discourse, debate, and freedom of thought.
In his discussion, Lukianoff made it clear that he understands the uphill battle that universities face:
“[It is] never easy to fix a problem so raw as truth itself.”
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