“Tyranny is trying to tread into somebody’s mind to distort it and to form it to reflect what you think is good,” says Arthur Milikh.
Milikh, the Executive Director of the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life, argues that identity politics and critical race theory are a new form of tyranny over the mind.
Back in May 2020, he wrote the prescient report, “‘Hate Speech’ and the New Tyranny over the Mind” for The Heritage Foundation.
Jan Jekielek: Arthur Milikh, it’s such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Arthur Milikh: Thank you very much for having me.
Mr. Jekielek: Arthur, a centerpiece of the American way of life actually has been free speech. Free speech is something that’s becoming a bit of a question for Americans. It certainly is in my home country of Canada. In the 80s, and 90s, there was this notion of political correctness. You knew that there were certain things you shouldn’t talk about or weren’t really talked about in polite company. Today, all of that seems to be on overdrive, in a manner of speaking. So tell me what’s going on here?
Mr. Milikh: You’re right that in the 80s and 90s, political correctness was a kind of social pressure exerted on the American public, which constrained the things one could say and think in polite society, but that has greatly progressed. It has progressed because the doctrines beneath it have become more and more radical, and because the tools to suppress that kind of speech have also expanded in their power.
In the 80s and 90s there was no Google, for example, that controlled 90 percent or so of the internet or of the world’s internet searches. Today, Google has an identity politics doctrine beneath its speech codes, that aims to restrict the kinds of information that can be found and therefore the kinds of thoughts that can be thought.
Moreover, there is great progress in the radicalness of the doctrine. In other words, in the 90s, it had a lot to do with politeness—you shouldn’t say this, because it’ll hurt people’s feelings. But today, there’s an entire doctrinal world beneath controlling so-called hate speech. It can basically be summarized in somewhat of a crude way in this regard. It has to do with silencing the thoughts and speech of the so-called oppressor group, so as to increase and free the speech of the so-called marginalized.
These two groups are in conflict, as the theorists of this claim. So what must happen is there must be less speech from the oppressor group and more and more speech from the marginalized. Hate speech laws, or hate speech policies and companies are really about silencing the opinions and thoughts of the so-called oppressor group.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s super interesting, One thing that we’ve been hearing a lot about lately is critical race theory, how it’s being taught in the workplace and in the federal government. There was an executive order recently to prevent that from happening that was rescinded. We hear the idea that equity is a very important principle that’s being put forwards—equity, not equality, there’s a distinction. Hopefully you’ll explain that distinction to me as well later. How does critical race theory, which is the thing that most people are aware of, fit into this?
Mr. Milikh: There are a lot of people, mainly on the right, who say, “This nation would really benefit from some kind of religious reawakening.” What they often fail to see is that we’re actually living through one right now, and it’s called critical race theory or let’s say identity politics. It’s an attempt to purify and purge the world of evil, and evil it defines as oppression, the lack of equity, as you said.
The way to do that is you have to use the laws, use speech, use pressure mechanisms to wrestle away the power and the self respect, as they claim, of this oppressor group. Critical race theory is a kind of sophisticated, or I should say pseudo-sophisticated, understanding that tries to teach, and in my view propagandize, people by saying that all of history was oppression. There was nothing good whatsoever in the past.
We right now are riding a wave of justice, and for it to blossom, to mix metaphors, for it to cover over the world with goodness, what must be done is the rational faculty of either oppressor groups or their sympathizers must be washed clean by showing them that they are really evil. They are unconscious beneficiaries of all sorts of privileges and they, therefore, should remain silent when told what justice is. They should remain silent when they are told, “You don’t belong in this classroom or in this dormitory.” That is its goal, in my view.
Mr. Jekielek: Something that’s very interesting in this also is that it’s very much about group identity, not individual identity. How does that fit in?
Mr. Milikh: It does organize the world into groups, but in this, as I said, rather crude way that there is pure evil, and then there is pure goodness, and it’s the marginalized that are pure. They don’t shy away from saying this: it’s white Americans—this is all over their literature; it’s almost being said publicly by politicians now—that contain evil. Now, one of the very important things to understand is, what are the implications of this kind of morality, this kind of metaphysic?
In my view, there are two rather shocking conclusions: first, the marginalized are both morally and intellectually superior to their oppressors. They’re morally superior because the oppressor group is fundamentally distorted by its powers, by its privilege, by its institutions, and therefore cannot hear the just pleas or cries of the marginalized. But the marginalized, even though they claim to be oppressed and distorted by all of these things, nonetheless understand justice, understand who deserves what in a way that the oppressor simply cannot.
The second regard is that is the claim that they are intellectually superior, too. They are intellectually superior because they can understand all of these “white superstructures.” They can understand the nature of privilege, they can understand the legal system on which America is founded and say that it is racist, it is unjust, it is evil.
While on the other hand, when the supposed oppressor tries to understand their culture, for example, their perspective, that is called appropriation, that is called not being able to grasp, but demanding that you merely sympathize, because you cannot understand fundamentally this plight.
Mr. Jekielek: In your recent op-ed that you did in the Epoch Times, it’s actually titled, “Freedom of Speech Versus Identity Politics,” and you make this obvious, stark juxtaposition. Why are these two juxtaposed so tightly?
Mr. Milikh: Maybe the way to get into that is to talk a little bit about why we have the freedom of speech at all. There are three reasons why we have the freedom of speech. The first one is more or less obvious to all of us having some experience of political liberty, which is that if you’re going to be a free people that rules yourself, you have to have the freedom of speech to deliberate on matters that concern your local community, your state, and ultimately the nation. You have to be able to speak these things out with your representatives. That’s one. That’s an obvious one, but the two others are less obvious and more interesting in a way.
The second is that freedom of speech has to do with the intellectual tradition upon which this nation was founded, which was the highest human good, which is the search for the truth. In other words, to search for the truth, you have to have a freedom of mind. You search for that truth in philosophy, religion, and science. Now, this requires an important caveat, which is that freedom of speech is a right because your mind belongs to you, and because your mind belongs to you, your speech therefore belongs to you.
When the identity politics regime says that certain kinds of speech are harmful or should not be said, to somewhat radicalize that view, they’re saying that your mind should belong to me, as a person in a marginalized group. Your thoughts, your inner thoughts should reflect my views of my own self-respect.
This is something that the Founders thought could happen, such a demand. But they thought that there is an absolute wall, whereby your mind, your reason, your opinions, and your conscience belong to you, because tyranny is trying to tread into somebody’s mind, to distort it and to form it to reflect what you think is good.
The third reason, I think the one that is least understood today, regrettably, is that the freedom of speech develops a certain character in a people, and that character is one of reasonableness. What I mean by that is it means developing the capacity to both persuade people by making arguments to them and simultaneously possess an openness of soul to being persuaded by rational arguments. That kind of disposition, that kind of character formation, took generations to develop, and it’s actually a very rare thing.
Sometimes you may see clips on YouTube or wherever of foreign Parliaments where they come to fisticuffs because of some disagreement. One could say that the practice of the freedom of speech has not fully blossomed, has not fully developed. Because the opposite of me persuading you by reason is me forcing you, is me demanding that you believe me. And when you don’t, I force you.
So those are the three main reasons that the freedom of speech has been so powerfully important for us. It’s for those very reasons that the disappearance of the freedom of speech is so harmful. [It’s] to take away political liberty, to take away this freedom of the mind, and to take away this capacity in us to be reasonable, to persuade and be persuaded, which is ultimately connected to our capacity to make political judgments too. You’re practiced in reasoning. You’re practiced in thinking about things.
And that prevents people from falling in love with the impossible, with impossible hopes, impossible revolutionary hopes. You see in America radical thoughts spring up frequently in the public square, but then they’re discussed and they become moderated, and if they’re bad ideas they usually go away. The danger of restricting the freedom of speech is that those radical ideas don’t go away. They’re actually ensconced in laws and institutions and ingrained and nobody can provide any rational opposition, no matter how reasonable that opposition would be.
Mr. Jekielek: I think in just about every country, aside from the U.S., there are hate speech laws. People will say, “Well, here’s an example—Holocaust denial, obviously, that’s reprehensible. Things like that should be criminalized.” Frankly, I find it reprehensible as well. Hopefully, a lot of people watching do. But the question is, why should we allow that? Why is that necessary in a free speech society?
Mr. Milikh: The public view is that to criminalize hate speech really means ridding the public square of racial epithets and Holocaust denial. The truth is that’s not actually what these laws do. The truth is that these laws which claim stopping that kind of speech gets rid of violence is also not true. In Europe, the public square is full of hatred. It’s just that the hatred is directed against one group, and that is the oppressor group, the legacy populations of those nations, Christians. It’s free reign to speak ill of them.
So the point of these laws is not to protect everyone, even though they are framed as general laws that are equally applicable. The goal is rather to prevent any kind of speech that may do dignitary harm to so-called marginalized groups. But in effect, these laws don’t crack down on violence. In fact, they increase it.
So I’ll give you one example. In England, Jews are 13 times more likely to be subjected to anti-semitic violence than they are in the United States, which does not criminalize hate speech. In France, it’s four times as frequently, and again, France does criminalize anti-semitic hate speech. So the laws actually don’t work in the way that is claimed. In reality, Holocaust deniers are a tiny, discredited, repugnant minority, to whom nobody pays attention. But yet, what you do have in America is some semblance of political liberty, where you can discuss almost any question that a free people ought to be able to discuss. Whereas in Europe, that very frequently is not the case.
I’ll give you just one example. A member of parliament in Belgium was prevented from holding and running for public office for ten years, because he spread pamphlets that were against immigration. Now, whatever one may think of immigration, whether we should have open borders, or a totally closed society, everybody must at a certain level admit that this is one of these questions upon which the fate of a country depends. In that particular European country discussion of it is almost impossible because of these hate speech laws.
So what you have is a large populace that feels this kind of tyranny, that feels the lie. They are told on the one hand, “You’re free society,” while being told at the same time, “No, you can’t deliberate or discuss these kinds of questions.” Those people become angry and radicalized. There’s a great deal of harm that these kinds of laws create. Yet they do not actually fulfill the promise of what they were intended to do.
Mr. Jekielek: This is being taught as early as grade school, or even earlier in different kinds of manifestations. There was a Tucker Carlson episode fairly recently that was talking about advanced BLM [Black Lives Matter] studies as early as fifth grade. One of the elements is disrupting the Western prescribed nuclear family structure, it being one of the things that you have to fight against or purify, as you describe it. It’s incredible to me that things like this are taught at that level of schooling.
Mr. Milikh: It is incredible, and yet it makes perfect sense. There is a very interesting writer on the left who is a professor at a Big Ten Law School. He has been there from the beginning of the criminalizing hate speech movement. He says a very interesting and revealing thing, which is that the civil rights movement according to him has been a failure.
It’s been a failure, because sure, it took away discrimination in public accommodations. Sure, it took away discrimination in employment and in housing, but it didn’t accomplish its mission. Its mission was to get rid of discrimination in general. The last place where discrimination exists is in the minds of the oppressor. The laws in America are almost totally anti-discrimination laws.
So that last front, which according to him is the front where real discrimination exists, is oppressor minds. Essentially, he basically says, “white minds.” Those are his words. If that’s the case, then he has basically two prescriptions. Number one is education, and as young as possible. The core goal of that education is basically directed at oppressors, specifically, to get them to understand on the surface their privilege, understand the superstructure that they consciously or not partake in and uphold. Then at a slightly lower level or a slightly deeper level, the goal is to get them to despise themselves and to renounce that allegedly oppressive identity.
But this writer goes one step further. He in addition says that may not be enough. What is needed in addition is a fundamental transformation of the oppressor group’s culture. What one must do is change all of society’s images, movies, commercials, sitcoms, and advertisements so that, as he says, the marginalized are viewed as heroes—that’s his word—and so that the marginalizer or the oppressor is viewed as, if not evil, then somebody that should be ignored and put to the sideline. The purpose of this, just like in K-12 education, is to take away or distort the identity of the oppressor, while building up the self respect of the so called marginalized.
Mr. Jekielek: Why do you call this a religion?
Mr. Milikh: It has many of the features—I have some trepidation in saying this—of religious piety and fanaticism. It says that, as I said: All of history is evil. There is a scapegoat and that is the oppressor group. To purge the world of evil, to purify it, so that the purity of the marginalized can rise up, and so that the good or as the Bible says, “The meek can inherit the earth,” there must be this kind of cleansing, purification, and propagation.
One of my colleagues who is also a professor at Georgetown University, Josh Mitchell, recently wrote a book on this, which I think is very interesting and impressive. He explains how this is a form of secularized Christianity in its apocalyptic nature, in its demand for this kind of purification. But regrettably, it is a Christianity without a God that can forgive, and so it leads to a perpetual struggle, that probably necessarily must become violent at some point.
Mr. Jekielek: What’s the endgame here? Is it for the roles to flip or how does this work?
Mr. Milikh: I don’t think that they have a full answer. In a way, yes, what you said, for the roles to flip. They seem to think that they can be successful in this. And of course, nobody knows. But what they will get with their success will either be one great resistance to it, as one already sees manifesting in the country, or it will be some kind of tyranny.
And with that tyranny, many things that are good about this country will be lost. Not just political liberty, not just the equal protection of the law, but also a thriving economy will go out the door. So too, will scientific progress, and innovations go out the door. You already see an inkling of this bubbling up in the universities today, where the demand is that one’s qualifications to being a physicist or chemist, whatever it is, are tied to being a member of a marginalized group.
Science does not progress under those conditions. Science progresses when simply the best—no matter what gender, what color skin you have, it doesn’t matter—the most brilliant minds make these openings. When you get rid of that standard, science also starts to first halt and then revert.
Mr. Jekielek: There also seems to be this element where if science doesn’t conform to the ideology, the ideology takes precedence. Correct me if I’m wrong here.
Mr. Milikh: Yes. I think that’s true. Look, I’ve been talking about hate speech for a couple of years. When I first started this, I would say the following thing—and I’d get looks from the audience like, “You’re crazy, this isn’t possible,” but now everybody kind of sees it and it’s this—certain facts can be viewed as racist, xenophobic, anti-trans, and by virtue of that, even if they are true, they are removed from utterances and attempted to be removed from minds This is very much rooted in the identity politics thinking.
I’ll give you a couple of examples. There’s a battle currently going on between medical professionals, doctors, biologists on the one side, and transgender activists on the other side. The medical people say, “No, sex is by birth.” The transgender activists say, “No, it’s not at all. It’s merely assigned at birth, and we decide what gender we are.” It is becoming rather evident that there is a great interest in shutting down those kinds of scientific facts. Even if science claims that they aren’t true, they are still considered transphobic facts.
I’ll give you another example. With disparities in crime among groups, there is a great push to say, “Well, it may be true on paper, but it doesn’t matter.” That should be an unutterable fact. Regrettably, this is where this is going. Anyways, a lot of people that are promoting this kind of ideology think that there are only people of ill will on the other side, and think that by ushering forth these kinds of facts, they are trying to demean or diminish or harm people.
That’s simply not true. With this disparate crime example among groups, I think that every group wants to live in safe neighborhoods. Every American does. When you take away the capacity to speak about these facts, you’re taking away, in this case, safety in neighborhoods, but ultimately, this ability to rule yourself by getting rid of problems in your community.
It’s a fundamental distortion of the intellect that says that your mind simply should not go there, because certain facts are racist or transphobic. Regrettably, a lot of people, I think, underestimate that people that cite these facts are not convinced by these things. They just be quiet, but they grow angrier and angrier in knowing the damage to the truth that is being done.
Mr. Jekielek: You’re making the case here for why criminalizing hate speech or speech in general is a potential problem. You’ve also mentioned in some of the things you’ve written that, actually, some of the building blocks for doing that exist as we speak,
Mr. Milikh: There are two areas from which this emerges. The first, as I mentioned a little bit before is civil rights law, and especially the bureaucracy that is the outgrowth of 1960’s civil rights laws. Again, the goal was to get rid of discrimination in housing, in employment, and in public accommodations, which are noble tasks. But when that is not enough, it is pretty clear that that bureaucracy can expand into the workplace, can expand into public universities, can indefinitely expand in order to shut down speech which it does not like, which it views as discriminatory.
The EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,] for example, is already in the process of testing the waters on that, as some of their directives show. The next area in the law where, again, there is a precedent already laid down is in the court cases that led up to the 2015 ruling of Obergefell versus Hodges, where Justice Kennedy says that we have a right to choose our own identity, and that identity must be recognized by others.
What that essentially means is that if others don’t recognize my chosen sexual identity, for example, my transgender identity, then that harms me, that does a fundamental harm to me if they don’t recognize me, if they criticize me, or if they are simply silent about my identity, because as we know now, silence is a form of violence. I think that ambitious lawyers, the political party that is interested in furthering this hate speech regime will act out, will advocate for using these two precedents.
One last thing that I’ll mention, which is perhaps the most alarming of all, is that just recently, our national security infrastructure has announced that it too will be policing speech, radical speech, as they claim, supremacist speech, whatever that means. As they say in their own words, they will be on guard for one thing, specifically, or two things I should say. One is mentions of “deep state,” and mentions of “global elite.”
So they have so far in their not fully worked out way, declared that these kinds of thoughts will be sought after, in the social media of their recruits, and we simply don’t know where else in the public at large. This is one of the most significant developments of the past generation, that the national security state will now be openly focusing on speech that it disapproves of, without any possibility of moderating what they’re doing, without any possibility for adjudication of those that will be punished. It’s a shocking thing.
Mr. Jekielek: We’ve been talking about various vantage points of this question of free speech and of identity politics and the intersection of those. What you’ve just described I agree sounds very deeply disturbing. Probably a lot of our viewers are feeling this way. What can people do in this climate? It seems to be accelerating, as you describe it.
There are a couple of paths. First, we should think about which institutions have a disproportionate power over policing speech and thought. One I’ve named before is Google. It’s unconscionable in my view, that one company controls 90 percent of the world’s searches, and therefore is essentially the portal into the internet.
But the internet in our time has become the public square. Print is declining, cable is declining with each quarter, more and more. The internet is where a lot of political speech takes place, where citizens rule themselves, persuade one another, etc. No free country could tolerate that one corporation could define what is and is not possible to say, and could moreover, attempt to skew the kind of information that is available so as to benefit their moral worldview. So that’s one.
Another is the universities. My view is that the universities have been captured by a very radical element of the left for quite some time now. I don’t think that a free people need to tolerate these kinds of things. These universities, nearly all of them, depend on federal and state budgets. Well, the state of Florida, its citizens can very easily defund the University of Florida. No offense to it, I don’t know anything about it, but just to use that one example. There are avenues that have not yet been tried, that are clearly available and that are above board and legal.
But more importantly, while the freedom of speech still exists in America, we have to speak out against these very dangerous and unjust ideologies, elaborate what they do, what they say, elaborate the kind of America that they want to create. There are a great deal of men and women of goodwill on both sides, which find these kinds of racialized caste systems and the castigation of oppressor groups, they find them unconscionable. So to speak about these things is extremely important.
Mr. Jekielek: One suggestion that I heard recently was actually from Dinesh D’souza. His suggestion is to create new online universities with a very reasonable cost to them, and you can quickly displace all sorts of academic institutions in this country. What are your thoughts?
Mr. Milikh: I hope so. I think that’s possible. We, as a people believe way too strongly in credentialing. One of my friends once said, “Can you imagine what would have become of Abraham Lincoln, this kind of self-taught genius, had he gone to Harvard today?” There’s a lot of good sense and good practical wisdom in a lot of Americans.
I actually think that college has begun to distort them and deform them, intellectually and morally. So maybe online alternatives are good. I’m a very deep believer in liberal education. But broadly speaking, what needs to take place is the creation of solid, intelligent, apprenticeship programs, so as to avoid making college the end-all, be-all credentialing institution.
Mr. Jekielek: Then what about Google? Are you advocating that Google be broken up through antitrust law? How do you expect to deal with, let’s not just focus on Google, but big tech in general?
Mr. Milikh: Google is the main one. It’s the most powerful, it’s the most successful, it has the broadest reach. My view is that conservatives have talked about Section 230 reform, and walked into this bizarre trap, whereby for the past couple of years they just tried to use it as a bludgeon and a threat. It was never going to have the effect that they wanted.
We have a long tradition of using antitrust laws in order to make the public square more republican, make it freer. If, in 1950, The New York Times gathered up enough capital to buy 90 percent of all American newspapers, and therefore to use that power to effectively determine the outcome of elections by persuading people of wrong things or limiting the flow of information, no American would have thought that, “Well, that’s perfectly normal. We should just live with that. That’s a great idea.”
So there are avenues available to us. But regrettably, many people have been sleeping for a very long time, thinking that things just work themselves out somehow, but that’s not what statesmanship is.
Mr. Jekielek: Presumably, by more republican, you mean lowercase republican?
Mr. Milikh: Absolutely.
Mr. Jekielek: Okay.
Mr. Milikh: I mean self-rule, both at the local, the state and the national level. Absolutely. I don’t mean a party.
Mr. Jekielek: America is the only country in the world that I’m aware of that has freedom of speech enshrined in the way that it does. You’re suggesting the loss of freedom of speech is kind of the loss of the nation. But there are other countries out there that have done pretty well for themselves. So the folks from these countries might be looking at this wondering, “Hey, it doesn’t seem as extreme as it is, as what you’re claiming here.” Your thoughts?
Mr. Milikh: It’s a reasonable question. You’re right that we are the country with the freedom of speech enshrined in our Constitution. But many other countries, the UK, Canada, Australia, the Anglosphere, have been practicing freedom of speech for a very long time. Since about the ’70s, they have been running a very dangerous experiment.
The experiment is to get rid of the freedom of speech by legislating against hate speech, and see if that brings about peace, order, and prosperity. The answer is more or less clear that these countries more and more are run by administrations rather than politics. There is a great deal of unrest that is shooed under the carpet, especially among various ethnic groups.
What ends up happening is that you have a kind of light tyranny that perpetuates itself by spreading wealth. The question is, is that a sustainable model? Are a lot of real antagonisms in those countries that cannot be paid off forever? The freedom of speech would have been a means to either prevent that circumstance or to find some kind of moderate compromise once you’re in it.
Mr. Jekielek: Any final thoughts before we finish up?
Mr. Milikh: Many people, especially in Washington, have specializations. They work on agricultural policy or tax policy or whatever it is, and those issues are important. But my view is that the freedom of speech really is a civilizational level question. If we lose it, this country is in very bad shape and will not recover.
But if we preserve it, then America will be able to preserve because it will be able to advocate for all of the benefits, the things that continue to draw our affections to this nation, the equal rule of law, the prosperity of the sciences, the prosperity of commerce, all of those things require a country where the freedom of speech exists, so that abuses can be corrected, so that the tracks continue to run. With the loss of the freedom of speech, the country regrettably descends into an unrecognizable form of some kind of soft despotism that will be maybe almost impossible to get ourselves out of.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, Arthur Milikh, it’s such a pleasure to have you on.
Mr. Milikh: Thank you very much.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.