Exclusive: ‘A Recipe for Cultural Suicide’—Peter Boghossian on Woke Ideology and the Case for Defunding Universities
“We can’t just keep funding people who are playing in make-believe-land, cranking out information to inform public policy that’s completely divorced from reality. It’s a recipe for cultural suicide,” says Peter Boghossian, assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University and co-author of “How to Have Impossible Conversations.”
A lifelong liberal and critic of former President Donald Trump, Boghossian believes describing people as left or right is losing utility. It’s those who demand you think a certain way who are on one side, while those who do not are on the other.
“We are facing an extraordinarily intolerant, dangerous ideology, perpetuated by people who want to rob us of our cognitive liberty,” he says.
Jan Jekielek: Peter Boghossian, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Peter Boghossian: Thank you, Jan. I appreciate it.
Mr. Jekielek: Peter, there are a great many things I would like to talk to you about today, but I think we have to start with a tweet that really caught my attention recently. I’m just going to read the whole thing. You said, “Thinking in terms of Left or Right, conservative or liberal, it is not an accurate way to understand the current cultural moment. A far more accurate lens is cognitive liberty. Those who demand you think a certain way are on one side, and those who do not are on the other.” Clearly, this idea resonates with a lot of folks here and I want you to dig in and tell me more of what you’re thinking.
Mr. Boghossian: I think the terms conservative and liberal—I’m 54 and born in 1966—when I grew up, we knew exactly what those things meant. We knew exactly what conservatives stood for, specifically with regard to social policies or the Soviet Union. We knew exactly what liberals stood for. I don’t think that those terms are useful anymore. I don’t think that a lot of the problems that we face today are Right-Left issues. Certainly, they can be construed as Right-Left issues.
I think they’re forward-backward issues, and thinking about it through the lens of cognitive liberty is very important. That’s the other part of the problem. It’s not just liberals, there are illiberals. There are people on the Right and the Left who are illiberal, and there are people on the Right and the Left who are liberal in the sense of cognitive liberty.
What I mean by cognitive liberty is the freedom for you to believe anything you want to believe. Now, I’m not a religious person, to say the least, but I don’t want to take away anybody’s cognitive liberty to worship as they choose. I have disagreements with folks, and I’m happy to hash those out. I have for years [and I’m] happy to hash those disagreements out.
But at the end of the day, I need to be free to not practice any religion, and everybody else needs to be free to practice any religion they want. That’s what secularism is. So I think conceptualizing this problem in terms of cognitive liberty—those who want you to be free to think the way you want and those that do not—is far more helpful than Right-Left dichotomies.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s really fascinating. You put much more eloquently something that I, and certainly a number of other people that I’ve been speaking with, have been thinking lately—that these traditional categories of conservative-liberal, Left-Right, don’t really quite apply. What is it that unites the liberals versus the illiberals in your mind?
Mr. Boghossian: It’s a few things. One, it’s rules of engagement. With those rules of engagement are the willingness and the ability to speak clearly and bluntly about facts and evidence, to engage people with whom you want to have a conversation without fear of being tarnished or being canceled—which is the new phenomenon. It’s the ability to not just engage, but to have the freedom to debate, to discuss, and to converse without any negative implication for those truth-seeking activities.
So if you’re a sincere inquirer and you want to figure out why someone believes what they believe, there should be no reputational cost for that. There should also be no reputational cost for defending somebody who’s been canceled or maligned, or defending somebody who’s defending somebody else. That’s just how bad it’s gotten. Paul Graham tweeted about this, [because he’s] done that. So the first thing is rules of engagement.
One of the things I think that many people on the mainstream Right and the mainstream Left can agree on, it’s the fringes where we start to see these elements and these problems. The second thing is a basic correspondence theory of truth and philosophy. It’s that the world is objective, we can know it, there are better or worse ways to solve problems, there are facts. That doesn’t mean that the ecosystem isn’t populated through social media with false information or fake news, but there are better and worse ways of coming to truth, there are better and worse ways [inaudible], philosophies, or epistemologies.
If we can agree upon that, we can move forward when we try to figure out social issues, moral issues, ecological issues, you name it. So those are two ways to conceptualize the problem.
Mr. Jekielek: You’ve described this situation as “Culture War 2.0,” and I thought that was a very, very, very interesting perspective. What is Culture War 2.0 exactly?
Mr. Boghossian: To answer 2.0, we have to take a look at what 1.0 is. So in Culture War 1.0, people were concerned with evolution. You can’t mandate what anybody believes, but teaching evolution in schools was a battlefront for that. Metaphysics was a battlefront, like the alleged miracles of Christianity. You had atheist secularists on one side, and more or less Christian and more broadly, religious folks, on the other side. To what degree of influence should that have over institutions and society and shape certain cultural artifacts?
Culture War 2.0 doesn’t give a flying hoot about any of those things. Culture War 2.0 is more engaged with the rules of engagement: issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, and dominance in that. How we solve issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation is key. What role should the scientific method play? How do we adjudicate disputes? If you and I have a disagreement, whatever the disagreement is, a political disagreement, how do we solve that?
In “The Great Realignment,” the title of a piece in “The American Mind,” [A publication of the Claremont Institute] we see religious conservatives and pretty hardcore atheists realigning themselves because they both, for example, want to preserve Western civilization. They might think that what that means, to a certain extent disagrees, but they’re not out destroying our institutions, they’re not toppling statues.
Just to be clear, I personally have no dog in the fight about any statues. If people want to take down statues, great. You go through a democratic process, whatever the process in your municipality and your state is. You decide through the rule of law that you want to take down the statues and you want another one. You don’t like Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, that’s fine. But it’s how we approach those problems—as opposed to mob violence with people going in the streets. Like in Portland [Oregon], destroying businesses, they ripped down a deer statue.
Part of the problem is what does that say about our institutions. In “The Great Realignment,” we have many traditional hardcore religious types and many atheists agreeing upon that. Then we have the other side of the spectrum where we have schisms, for example, among the Southern Baptists or religious folks. The fault line in that schism is on the role intersectionality ought to play in the experiences of the faithful and shaping their faith.
So you have woke Christians and woke atheists now, more or less, in alignment against non-woke or anti-woke Christians and anti-woke atheists. It’s a particularly bizarre phenomenon. If you had told me that 10 years ago, even 7 years ago, I would not have thought that’s possible.
Mr. Jekielek: I want to touch on what intersectionality actually means. You have a very, very good way of explaining it that’s the best that I’ve come across. I’m going to get you to do that in a moment. Something that you mentioned earlier is that the fringes are really where you need to look out. But in this case it’s one fringe, i.e. the fringe Left, has basically taken over the vast majority of institutions, as far as I can tell, and you make this argument. So tell me about that.
Mr. Boghossian: I think we need to clarify terminology. Just as I said before, conservatives and liberals weren’t the right way to look at it, and we also mentioned religious folks. I don’t think that this is a Right-Left issue in terms of who’s taken over our institutions. Certainly, it would be accurate, but not precise to say that. The far more precise word to pull from the lexicon is the “woke.” It’s the ideology that I wrote about in my first book. Gad Saad has written about it. It has prosthetized the liberal mind. Wesley Yang calls it the “successor ideology.”
Instead of thinking in terms of Right-Left, it’s best to think about it in terms of woke. They’ve taken over our cultural institutions and they’ve taken over our academic institutions. It started with the academic institution and from there they took over colleges of education. With all my experience and doctorate, I can’t just walk into a classroom and start teaching. You have to get a teaching certificate. But every single teaching program in the country—as far as I know, there are no exceptions to this— participate in some variant of critical race theory, or the woke ideology, or Henry Giroux—the list goes on.
From there it’s a pipeline, it’s a factory. They pump out teachers who become accredited and certified and who then go into the schools. I want to linger on this because this is so important. This is the way the ideology perpetuates itself. Any solution to this problem that ignores colleges of education and specifically pre-service teacher education programs is destined to fail.
Think about it like this. If I gave you a magic wand, and you can wave the wand, and all of the derangement is removed from the K-12 system. So they now formulate their beliefs on the basis of evidence, they are willing to revise the beliefs, they participate in some semblance of rationality, they look at other sides of issues, they foster open expression and free debate, they don’t silence someone solely because of their belief, people can feel free to ask questions. I give you a wand, you wave it, and all of these things come into place. The existing ideological infrastructure would reinvigorate itself. It would rise again, if you will, because the people who are teaching in K-12 education systems, even though they’re gone, new folks would go in to repopulate those systems and then the ideology would reemerge again. This is an absolutely indispensable point.
We cannot solve this problem until we solve the problem of pre-service teacher education, [inaudible] education, and colleges and universities. They’re beholden to the dominant moral orthodoxy. Not only do they do not accept criticism, but any criticism of that is viewed as harassment.
Mr. Jekielek: You have an article out fairly recently specifically addressing that, where you offered some intellectual critique which was viewed as harassment, and you’re offering a critique of that critique now. Briefly, tell me about this.
Mr. Boghossian: Let’s say that you and I are hanging out. You come to my house and you hang out. We get up in the morning and we have breakfast. I make myself eggs, and you pull out a carton of motor oil from the refrigerator and begin drinking it. I say to you, “What the hell are you doing? You’re drinking motor oil. That’s horrible for you.” The correct response to that is not, “You’re harassing me.” If somebody is clearly engaging in an activity, not only for which there’s no evidence, but the evidence is actually against the behavior leading to any kind of human flourishing and it’s shown to be harmful to people, if I ask you, “Why are you drinking motor oil?”—that is not harassing you. It’s asking you, ‘Why are you doing something that’s so dangerous?”
So what we see is, when the ideology wants to keep itself in place, it buttresses itself by creating various defense mechanisms. Now, in some places those mechanisms are blasphemy laws—”You can’t say this, you’re blaspheming”—and we have a version of that with political correctness. In other places like the academy and universities, we have the characterizations of that as harassment. So any critique of an idea or making the idea public—”You can’t make that idea public,”—is a form of harassing the scholar who has the idea.” Shouldn’t the scholar who has the idea be able to defend the idea? Isn’t that what the whole thing is about?
If it’s wrong, you don’t have to publicly admit it or change your mind, but shouldn’t they revise their beliefs? That’s what it means to be a rational person. When evidence comes in, the only way you would know what that evidence is, is if you were attentive to it, is if you were open to it. But now we have a situation in which the golden rule is—Socrates talks about this—if people think they have the truth, they don’t seek it out. We have a system in the academy that’s very much like a kind of evangelical religion. They think they have found the truth. The people who don’t have the truth are not mere sinners, because even sinners are redeemable. For these folks, there is no redemption. There’s no redemption from privilege—I published an article about that a while ago—there’s no redemption from any of this stuff.
What you need to do is systematically call out those voices in the academy, so that you don’t hear them anymore. You know the whole famous in Germany, “First they came for?” [poem by pastor Martin Niemöller after WWII]. First they came for the conservatives. There aren’t many conservatives, if you look at The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and many other people have done studies on this. So there aren’t many conservatives. What do you do once you get rid of the conservatives or you just push them underground into hiding? Then you go to the classical liberals. What do you do once you get rid of them? Then you keep weeding the system down.
But what happens is you create an ecosystem in which people calibrate the competence for their beliefs up. Cass Sunstein and others have interesting data. If you get a group of people who are moderate liberals together, or moderate conservatives, if they have to form some kind of a consensus, you would think that it would be a moderate position, but they end up at the extremes. So they come up with an even more extreme version.
Our academic systems right now have become ideological echo chambers and people look at those as replication mills. They want students to replicate the dominant orthodoxy that they are teaching. Anybody who doesn’t do that is not merely wrong, but they’re a horrible person. They have some kind of moral shortcomings like bigots and homophobes. We don’t want those people in the university, so you get rid of them. You don’t promote them, you make their lives miserable, you place restrictions on what they can and cannot say in the classroom, you pass faculty resolution saying that any criticism is a form of harassment—it’s a monstrous problem. But yet, if you don’t address where this madness, the cultural madness, is coming from, you’ll never solve the problem.
Most people don’t care if it’s coming from the universities. They understand there’s a problem with their knitting club. I just read that someone wanted to change their mascot to the evergreen but now evergreens are racist. Trees are racist, everything is racist. Buildings, everything—a boulder is racist. So how do you navigate that successfully? How do you retether those ideas to reality? That’s one of the things I’m interested in.
Mr. Jekielek: I read something, I believe it’s in one of your articles, you’ll have to correct me. The purpose of education has changed. It has changed to become a way of remediating oppression, as opposed to a search for knowledge.
Mr. Boghossian: Correct. The search for truth. So the north star of the institution has changed. Now it’s to remediate oppression and that’s an ideology. The moment that the purpose of education is anything other than what’s true, it becomes ideological—it doesn’t matter if I agree with it or not, it doesn’t matter if it comports with my values or not, it doesn’t matter if it’s to solve cancer.
The president of Portland State University recently put out an email. I think he said that his primary mission or his primary purpose or something like that, is to address racism or systemic racism. It’s not to address budget deficits, it’s not for knowledge, it’s not for truth, it’s not for public education of the first rate, [but] it’s racism—that’s an ideology. If he said the primary purpose of Portland State University is to take plastics out of the ocean or remediate anthropogenic global warming—that’s an ideology. That’s a deviation from the primary mission of the institution, and anytime you deviate from that, it’s ideological.
Mr. Jekielek: Something that struck me as I’ve been looking at your writings and in other interviews that you’ve done, is that your commitment, as far as I can tell, is to the truth and basically nothing is going to shake you from that. You’ve said that in no uncertain terms. Some people would say, “Peter, that seems like a really extreme position.”
Mr. Boghossian: Anybody who would say that is beholden to an ideology. I’m not a Ted Cruz fan. I’ve said this repeatedly, I’ve never voted for a Republican in my life. But if the Republicans are on the right side of an issue, I will stand by them. It doesn’t matter. If a Democrat, a Green, or a Libertarian has a policy position that’s rooted in facts and evidence, then that’s what we have to do.
There’s such insane tribalism right now. If I’m not willing to step across the aisle when I went on Glenn Beck, Tucker Carlson, if I’m not willing to do that, then I question my own commitment to the truth. The problem is—Eric Weinstein and others have said this repeatedly and I’ve been screaming about this for years—they’ve jerry-rigged the game. So the game is, the Left won’t have you on if it’s anything even remotely critical of the Left; if it’s critical of the Right, they’ll have you on.
The Left won’t have you on, so you go to the Right, like Brett went to Tucker Carlson. Then the Left says look at this, he’s gone on Tucker Carlson, or he’s gone on John Stossel, therefore, he’s a Nazi. Therefore, he’s some kind of alt-right maniac. Actually, no. We mentioned before the rules of engagement. But what we see happening on the Left and what we see happening on the Right, there’s no symmetry there.
I was just on a great podcast the other day with Brian Keating. He’s had people on the Right and people on the Left. But because he had, I think it was Ben Shapiro, I can’t remember who he had on the Right, people on the Left won’t go on his show. No one from the Right has ever said, “Because you’ve had Noam Chomsky on the show, I’m not going to go on your show.” There is a particular problem on the Left of guilt by association—you’re not allowed to talk to some people.
I know I’m going to get massive grief for going on this show. I don’t really care at this point. I couldn’t possibly care less. I would say something but you told me not to swear, so I won’t swear, but it’s an identifiable two words and the first one begins with “F”. If you don’t like it, you’re more than welcome to have me on your show and I’m more than welcome to talk to you about it, but I will not be held hostage to your delusions. I will not be told whose show I can go on and whose show I can’t go on by people who won’t even have me on their show. So it’s not only that they’re attempting to rig the game. I’m not buying it anymore, I’m not playing. I’m not playing at all.
I will say one more thing. There are two losers in that, or actually three if you look at the system. I am one of the losers in that because I’m not special. One of the things I need is alternative voices and pushback. I need a representation of the best available arguments so I can test my ideas. But if I can’t get that from the Left, then I become my own—in philosophy it’s called—doxastic enemy. I become my own problem because I don’t have a mechanism of belief correction. These folks have denied me that right. The other thing they have denied, by painting association with him as an association with some right wing maniac—which I’m obviously not, I’m clearly not—but the other problem with that is it prevents other people who would listen to this stuff from the outside from the best available arguments to forming their own opinions about what the subject is.
My speculation is, in part, that’s why people like Joe Rogan are so popular. That’s why people have gone to podcasts, because they don’t see that in any other aspect of their lives and they certainly don’t see that at all in the university. In fact, they see exactly the opposite in the university.
Mr. Jekielek: This guilt by association that you’re describing, isn’t that a direct product of this intersectionality and this whole approach?
Mr. Boghossian: It’s complicated. There are lines of literature about platforming, putting people on a platform. There are lines of literature about non-consensual co-platforming, Judith Butler says. They don’t even want their articles alongside other articles. They don’t want debates. My friend Michael Shermer—who would be a great guest for your show—wanted to debate Frank Turek, but they shut that down.
I’ve been on tour with—again, utterly, utterly inconceivable, five, six years ago—the head of Ratio Christi, which is the Christian organization. We did a four-college tour in Utah. We were going to do more but the pandemic hit. The title was: “A Christian and an Atheist Unite Against the Death of Intellectual Diversity at the University.” I teach an atheism class, and I have for years. I always make sure that I have some representative, the best representative. I’ve had Phil Vischer from VeggieTales; I’ve had local Christian apologists. I teach science and pseudoscience. I had Mark Sargent, one of the leaders in the Flat Earth Society come in; I’ve had Nick Pope come in to talk about alien abductions.
I think it’s John Stuart Mill’s dictum, you need to hear things from people who believe it. Now, we’ve lost that. Now, everybody is an ideological enemy, they can’t merely be wrong about something, they have to be some great existential threat to reality, and so what do we do? We don’t talk to them, we bunker them away, which is why we wrote the book, “How to Have Impossible Conversations,” to re-teach people how to do that.
One more thing since I’m on a roll now. So I’ve done events at Portland State with Bret Weinstein, Heather Heying, and Christina Hoff Sommers. I had a tenured faculty member, and you can find this on YouTube, stand up and start screaming at us in the middle of the event. This is the behavior that’s being modeled for people right now. The behavior is not, “Let’s listen to the other side, let’s hear what they have to say, and let’s try to rebut those arguments. If we can’t, let’s go back to the drawing board and maybe I have to change my beliefs.”
The thing is, we have to disrupt speaking—that’s the rule of engagement. We can’t let people have a conversation because that might sway some young people, because we already have the truth. What is the truth? The truth is the dominant moral orthodoxy. The truth is anything related in the orbit of critical race theory.
Mr. Jekielek: This is hecklers’ veto. This is basically mob rule. This is really going back, right?
Mr. Boghossian: Correct. That’s why the current systems must fail. The current systems have to fall.
Mr. Jekielek: That is a very big thing to say and it certainly is going to make a lot of people watching right now feel—well, some people will probably be very happy about that—others will feel very uncomfortable. Peter, isn’t this precisely what the woke, as you describe, are aiming for?
Mr. Boghossian: That is correct and they’re right. They believe the right book for the wrong reasons. I will say that there are people with whom I’m in ideological agreement, who have profound disagreements with me. Let’s talk about this because this is important. We need to figure out who is purveying this madness.
Think about it like this. We’re going to play the make-believe game. I’m going to want you to pretend something. Let’s say that we have a bunch of people at a university. You know what phrenology is? When you look at the bumps on a skull, the protuberances and you say, “This person is more intelligent.”
Let’s say we had the university system gearing itself up, presidents releasing statements, and instead of equity, diversity, and inclusion, it was the phrenology section. Anybody who said anything against phrenology is immediately brought up on charges. Federal mandates the phrenology. They assigned scholarships based upon the bumps on one’s head. The whole system is gearing up to phrenology.
Let’s speak honestly now. If I say to you, “There is insufficient evidence to warrant phrenology. Where’s the evidence that phrenology is accurate?” First of all, you’d say, “That’s harassment” Let’s just bracket this for a second. If I criticized phrenology—this is where you really need to stretch your imagination for a second—let’s say that almost everybody purveying phrenology views himself on the Right, and I criticize phrenology and ask for evidence on it, does that mean I’m on the Left?
No. That means I think there’s insufficient evidence to warrant belief in phrenology. It has nothing to do with me being on the Left, it has nothing to do with me being on the Right.
Flip it around. The far Left is in charge, they’re pushing phrenology all over the place. I say, “Where’s the evidence for phrenology?” They say, “You’re a Right-wing maniac.”
No. It’s about evidence. Where’s the evidence?
Now let’s take another step back. What happens in the university doesn’t stay in the university. So all the people are now learning phrenology, and five to seven years later, it leaks out. They go to corporations and boardrooms. They’re going everywhere teaching phrenology. They’re interviewing people for jobs. People are coming in with shaved heads. They’re occupying positions of power. They take institutions. They sit on juries.
Wouldn’t a sane person say, “This is way out of control. Not only is there no evidence, the evidence is against it. We beg these people to stop this nonsense. We’ve asked them, pleaded with them. Now it’s time to take the next step. If you want to promote phrenology, you can do so all you want, but you’re going to do so without federal funding. You’re not going to get any money anymore.”
In a make-believe land, you pretend that the bumps on people’s heads correspond to people’s reality. You do that all you want. No one’s infringing upon your academic freedom. You’re not going to get a dime because this madness is ripping apart society and that is not harassment to say that. If you want to make a claim about the world and you think it’s true, then you present your evidence for that. If your evidence is sufficient for an independent person with no dog in the fight to look at that evidence and say, “There’s something there, I think I will see to it.”
But the problem is, they have even said that evidence is a tool of the white man and of the patriarchy. So even the traditional ways that we go about solving problems—to look at reason and evidence for things, or being on time—that’s a product of white people. That is not a product of white people.
In every conceivable way that we have of either advancing the human condition or solving problems, in every one of these discussions, it is essential to recognize and acknowledge something. Yes, there is economic imbalance. That’s why I supported Andrew Yang, the presidential candidate who wanted universal basic income. Yes, there are inequalities. Yes, it’s a disgrace that our systems have, Jonathan Kozol says, savage inequalities. Yes, that’s true. The response to that is not to throw out reason and evidence, start ripping down statues, assaulting police officers, and defecating in the middle of the street, which I actually saw for the first time in Portland. That is not the response to that.
The response to that is, let’s use reason and evidence to make people’s lives better, get better schooling for people, and help the homeless people by the side of the road. We know that science works. We know that it works when you make objective claims about reality. That does not magically disappear when those were about race, gender, or sexual orientation. We know the problem for this.
In Hungary, for example, Viktor Orban successfully defunded a lot of these departments. He should have done that. Here’s the problem. We need to study race, we need to study gender, we need to study sexual orientation traits, we need to study all these things, but we need to not make stuff up because it comports with our agenda, our ideological predispositions. We need to study these with the best available tools and the best available evidence.
The tools we have—reason, rationale. We need to do peer-reviewed studies. We need to do double-blinds. This is not happening now. Because it’s not happening now, and I see no chance of it happening because people have a vested interest in their tenure, I see no other alternative than to defund the system. But if you can think of one, let me know. I’ll change my mind on the spot right here.
Mr. Jekielek: I want to dig into that. Two quick thoughts. First, the fact that you mentioned Viktor Orban might have a positive policy will immediately hit you with guilt by association.
Mr. Boghossian: Correct.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s fascinating, because you can’t just say that any figure, however controversial, is simply unacceptable to consider.
Mr. Boghossian: Correct, and I’m not particularly about Orban, and someone might have policies I don’t like, but on this he’s correct. Think about it like this—not even the policies, but the proclamations and the claims coming out of certain departments, almost always ending in studies—we cannot trust them. They cannot be relied upon. So it’s better, and we’ve asked repeatedly, that they stopped this. And not only do they not stop it, they’ve doubled down. So what alternative is there? I see no other alternative because—this is what we tried to show in the grievance studies stuff—the stuff coming out of the academies is actually skewing institutions in bad ways.
Deborah Soh’s and Abigail Shrier’s book on gender and transition is fantastic for that. The correct response is, “Let’s take a look at that evidence.” Instead, how convenient, “I don’t value evidence in the formation of my beliefs.” What do you value? “Personal testimony. Lived experience.” So how do we adjudicate between the lived experiences of two people? You go with the one with the most oppression variables. So how do we adjudicate between those two people, if two people have different oppression variables? How do you adjudicate between that? You’re using reason again; you’ve micro-aggressed me. So there’s a whole system in place that’s been completely fabricated to prevent any honest self-reflection and self-examination of beliefs. It’s specifically designed to keep beliefs in place without being challenged.
Mr. Jekielek: This is the perfect point to go back to talking about what intersectionality actually means. It’s fascinating, because the whole concept of your ability to access reality is, in this woke worldview, basically dependent on your identity characteristics, as I understand it.
Mr. Boghossian: That’s correct. There are many ways to explain it. I’d like to refer people if they want a more in-detailed look to James Lindsay’s New Discourses website. He has something called the Social Justice Encyclopedia, I think it’s called the wokepedia. He looks at their own literature and he takes their literature in their own words, and just copies it— basically, cuts and pastes it, and then gives an analysis of that.
So intersectionality was Kimberlé Crenshaw’s piece that talked about it mapping the margins. I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but the basic overall idea is that we have overlapping identities, intersections, if you will. All of these things have a kernel of truth, all of these stuff, and this is certainly true. Those identity characteristics, those identities of Americans—black, white, male, cis, immigrant, whatever the identity characteristic is, heterosexual, gay, bisexual—all of those intersect to form one’s identity.
Think about it in terms of seeing in grayscale. Cis, white, heterosexual men can only see in grayscale. Every time you add one oppression variable, cis, black, heterosexual male, they get to see in one more color. So they see in grayscale plus blue. You add another variable, woman. They see in yellow. Every time you add one variable. So the more oppressed you’ve been, and the more oppressed you’ve been historically, the greater access to truth you have. Those people who are privileged can’t have access to that truth. They don’t have the right intersectional variables. That’s the other pernicious form of this ideology. We’ve switched from propositions to people.
We’ve switched from examining the claims about the world that somebody makes in a sentence format or linguistic format, to the utterer of the sentence. From the person who utters the sentence, we can figure out if the sentence is true based upon the immutable characteristics of the person who utters the sentence. Once you do that, you descend into madness. The whole society will collapse. It would be literally impossible to function as a society in any sustainable way if that is your North Star.
Mr. Jekielek: Personal accountability for anything goes out the window and basically, you’re only accountable based on your immutable characteristics. That’s a mind warp.
Mr. Boghossian: That’s correct.
Mr. Jekielek: This is the reason why a lot of people can’t believe that this ideology is actually guiding real decision making.
Mr. Boghossian: I’m really glad you said that because it’s so insane and so crazy that people can’t believe that other people actually believe it. We published a piece in The Wall Street Journal about that. When social justice warriors say something, believe them. The whole defund the police thing that was all the rage a while ago—defund the police—it’s such an idiotic idea that nobody could possibly believe it. We’ve seen murder rates, particularly murder rates of young black men, skyrocket in cities. Then there’s gaslighting on top of that. We see radical dramatic rises in virtually every city. I don’t think it’s in Baltimore, but it’s in Portland, it’s in New York, it’s in Detroit, as a direct consequence of defunding the police.
On top of that, people say, and The New York Times in particular, “We don’t really know why this is happening. Must be summer.” You really don’t know why this is happening? We have a lot of people who want to defund the police, but say they don’t really want to defund the police. But they’re telling you that they want to defund the police. There’s an article in The New York Times, “Yes, we really do mean abolish the police—abolish—and prisons as well.
What would it take you to take these folks at their word? It’s like, “Believe All Women.” Really, you’re going to believe half the population? Believe All Women. Believe All Women? Give me a single other example where you believe half the population about something. So it’s the same thing for everything: what’s the evidence? You show me the evidence. It’s like Ronald Reagan said, “Trust, but verify”. Trust, but verify.
All of this together is causing a legitimacy crisis. It’s a crisis of confidence in our institutions. The biggest ones, The New York Times, the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union], the Southern Poverty Law Center and the academic institutions. Home schooling is way up—there’s a crisis of confidence in virtually every American institution.
Mr. Jekielek: I picked up this phrase and I always forget where I picked it up. But in my mind, I imagined it to be “The Death of Expertise.”
Mr. Boghossian: That’s by Tom Nichols, the same name.
Mr. Jekielek: Exactly. People, myself included, yourself included, people across the whole political spectrum, across class, across race, simply don’t know who to believe about what, and it’s a crisis.
Mr. Boghossian: Let’s pick up on that. I can tell you who to believe—nobody. You figure it out for yourself. Find the evidence for yourself. I will completely admit it takes work, it takes diligence. We only have so much time. I’m training my dogs, I’m writing stuff, I’m writing other book. So we only have so much time. If you don’t have the time to look into something, then you just say, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” Not, “I’m going to believe it because my tribe believes it.” No. I’m going to believe something because of the best evidence and because people have tried to falsify it. That’s science. All of those truths are provisional in science.
That’s exactly the opposite of what’s happening in gender studies. What’s happening is people are pushing a narrative. Nothing that goes against that narrative gets published, only those things that advance or move that forward Then they teach that in classes to people, to young kids, and they get out and they use that in the world.
I want to get back to this idea of a legitimacy crisis. The Biden administration did not say this, but let’s just say the Biden administration or [Kamala] Harris says, “This whole women on boards thing, this is a huge problem. Traditionally, there have not been enough women on board and we need to make a law mandating it. Because women are 50 percent of the population. We need to put women on 50 percent of the boards in this country. That’s just the law of the land and if you don’t like it, move to Canada.” What do you think the consequence of that is going to be?
Mr. Jekielek: I can imagine multiple consequences. I imagine that, first of all, there’d be a whole bunch of constitutional challenges launched immediately. That’s the first thing that jumps to my mind. Second thing, essentially, there would be a mad rush on corporate boardrooms to get any women into the room that they can, basically, because they’re going to have to fulfill their requirements.
Mr. Boghossian: That’s correct. I wasn’t thinking of the first thing, but that’s certainly true. What I was thinking of, people would always say in the back of their mind, “This person, are they just fulfilling the quota? Do they deserve to be there? Did they get there from their own merit?” I know someone’s going to look at this and say, “Boghossian doesn’t want any women on boards.” That’s not what I’m saying. That’s the lens that people have, to interpret things to make their worldview make sense. If anything, I’ll repeat again, we need equality of opportunity.
Yes, I think it would be great if they’re all-female boards or half-female boards. But it’s different from mandating that, because the other consequences of that, not only there’ll be a crisis of legitimacy among boards and investors, but what about those women who are actually qualified for the boards? People will think that they are there just because there’s some kind of law that they should be there.
But in aggregate, when that all happens, we have a crisis of confidence in our institutions. That’s what we’re seeing now, and that’s one of the reasons that we can correct this. It’s possible to correct this by appropriate defunding measures. Again, the phrenology thing, we can’t just keep funding people who are playing in make-believe land, cranking out information to inform public policy that’s completely divorced from reality. It’s a recipe for cultural suicide.
Mr. Jekielek: I was just reading a recent excellent article by Peter Savodnik, and he divides the woke into two categories. One is the “true believers,” and the other one is, he calls it, the “gutless enablers,” so to speak. He says that the corporate response to woke requirements is in the “gutless enablers” category. There are two questions here. One is, what portion of the population is actually woke and believe in this ideology? Second, why are the enablers, if indeed this thesis is true and I think you probably agree it is, why are they so eager to basically capitulate or just make good on these demands?
Mr. Boghossian: Let’s go to the first question, what percentage of people. That was a great article, by the way. He’s a phenomenal writer. I read a poll, actually, my writing partner gave me a poll. Approximately 7 percent of the people self-identify as far Left and 7 to 8 percent of the people identify as far Right. But that’s different from the woke ideology, again, as we talked about before. If you’re talking about people in the academy, I would argue that number is radically higher, it’s radically disproportionate to the general population.
The problem is that the Overton window has shifted. It’s shifted so radically. It’s even shifted in the last year about what is acceptable, what is normal, and what kind of society we should have. To give a more granular example, the Overton window shifted in terms of homosexuality, which I think is a wonderful shift. The Overton window is shifting in terms of trans-issues. The Overton window is shifting in terms of these myriad issues.
What percentage of the people actually buy into this stuff? It’s very difficult to say. I would say in the academy it’s far higher than people think, although it depends on the discipline. It depends on the section of the country and it depends on the university. I do think there’s backlash. But I think a significant number of people participate in this at some level. It’s like a degree of concentric circles. A significant number of people are in the orbit of the ideology, saying things even a few years ago would have been utterly unheard of, like issues around trans-bathrooms, for example, or trans-women in sports.
Mr. Jekielek: The other part of the question is, why is it that the enablers are so eager to enable, or seem to be so eager, willing, and instantly acting to enable?
Mr. Boghossian: It’s interesting. I wonder if they are. I guess it depends on what you mean by enable. For example, the president of Portland State [University], the deans, not all the deans, of course, but the provost, they’re all white. They’re pushing equity initiatives. They want more BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color], more people of color. But do they really? If they really wanted that, why don’t they resign and give their position to a person of color, if they truly believe it’s the right thing to do.
If they did, I’d say, “These people are sincere people. They really believe this. Hats off to you. Whether I agree or not, you put your money where your mouth is. You had skin in the game. You are not a hypocrite. You’re an honorable person. What you say corresponds to what you do.” But when the president is white, the provost is white, the deans are white, the department chair is white, and white, and white, and white, and nobody resigns for a person of color, I’ll let you draw your own inferences about that.
Mr. Jekielek: One of the things we want to talk about today is some of the solutions. As you just said that, I’m thinking about Shelby Steele and Eli Steele who are actually both a part of FAIR, [Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism] which is this new organization that you’re on the board of, which I’m going to get you to tell me about in a moment. I think Shelby Steele has a lot of thoughts about looking at how whites have basically tried to deal with this really serious historical problem of slavery, racism, and Jim Crow. I think he believes that this plays into the current situation that we’re seeing today.
Mr. Boghossian: Correct. I’ll talk about fear in a moment. Again, the obligatory statement—redlining has been a problem. This is where it gets very, very complicated. You’ve read “Cynical Theories.” If you read the last two chapters of “Cynical Theories,” James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose give a phenomenal defense of liberalism and a phenomenal defense of equality of opportunity. We don’t need to be making stuff up for how to solve these problems. We don’t need new laws and we don’t need a new regulatory apparatus.
Just think of one simple thing in the City of Portland. People have been rioting for a year, assaulting police officers, destroying windows. The mayor of the city has no plan—as far as I know, I haven’t heard anything about it, seen anything about it—to bring back the businesses. For the most part, these are small mom-and-pop businesses that have been affected. Not that it would make a difference if they were corporation, but I’m saying that these are people who have been hurt by this.
We don’t need anything special. All we need is to enforce the existing law on the books. If you riot in the city of Portland, we don’t care about why you’re rioting. You want to peacefully protest, you peacefully protest. We love peaceful protests. The police will be there to protect your right to protest. But if you riot, independent of the reason you riot, you will be arrested. However, the DA is just letting people go. The same people, in and out, destroying city property.
I was walking by my daughter’s old school the other day. There are massive needles there. The homeless problem, who’s helping these folks? But my larger point to this—we don’t need to make stuff up. We have solutions in liberalism, solutions in equality of opportunity, and public education at the first rate. I personally believe in free health care for people. I know many of your listeners and others might take issue with that. I believe that we have solutions to these problems. I think part of the solution is a graduated income tax. Of all of the solutions, not a single one runs along racial lines. There’s simply no reason for that to be the case.
Again, if somebody can make an argument, I’m willing to hear. The problem again is that they’ve rigged the game so that even speaking to you or me or anyone, all of a sudden, it’s something horrible. We can’t platform that person, we can’t have a conversation, silence is violence. If you’re silent, you’re violent. The whole game has been rigged to prevent any solution that caused the problem in the first place.
Mr. Jekielek: Peter, tell me about FAIR, the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism.
Mr. Boghossian: Bion Bartning started that. He’s done truly phenomenal work. He comes from the startup world. He had an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal about why he did it. His kids went to an elite school and like so many people, he started hearing about the madness coming out of schools and hearing about it firsthand. I urge folks to read his article in his own words. I don’t want to do that. He’s already written about it.
So we’ve assembled a phenomenal board of thought leaders and people who want to move the conversation forward. They even want to have the conversation. They want to challenge and question orthodoxies and remediate racism because there are still messages of racism that we need to address, and these are serious problems. But the way to address those problems is not through critical race theory. The way to address those problems is not by using shoddy methods of scholarship and making stuff up. The way to address those is not through segregation.
Again, here’s one of the things where actually the term Right and Left would come in. The far Left and the far Right; the idea of segregation. So we know it’s not a Right-Left issue, it’s a backward-forward issue, and we need to move this forward. We need to start having conversations, and The Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism is phenomenal. There are volunteer opportunities, there are internship opportunities. We’re looking at critical race theory in schools, we’re trying to identify. There are a wide variety of initiatives, not only in K-12 education, but also for business folks.
What do you do if you’re from the Midwest and your kid comes home and you’ve never talked about race or anything, and all of a sudden, your son or daughter is screaming at you about the patriarchy and tells you that you’re a racist Nazi pig? This is happening to a surprising number of people.
I was on a Skype call a few months ago. I sit and listen to this stuff all the time, and even I was taken aback by this. The only reason someone knew about this at all was because of COVID. So if it weren’t for COVID, no one would ever have known about this. The guy’s daughter was in the room and he was working. They asked this 8-year-old, I think it’s an 8-year-old if memory serves me correctly, to bring in a paper bag and put her arm next to the bag. If the color of her arm is lighter than the bag, she’s a racist.
Mr. Jekielek: I don’t know what to say to that.
Mr. Boghossian: She’s part of the problem. It’s a sickness. This person should not be around children. Maybe they should write poetry. They have no business whatsoever being around children. But yet this is coming from on high—it’s what I said before—this is coming from pre-service colleges of education. There are pedagogy books out there detailing all of these stuff, and these are being institutionalized. We are dividing ourselves along racial lines, and we should be doing exactly the opposite.
Mr. Jekielek: For those interested in a bit more on this specific question, the last interview I had was with Bob Woodson talking about precisely these sorts of questions, so I encourage the viewers to look back one interview to that excellent piece on Bob Woodson. In terms of solutions, you’ve already mentioned that one of them is to defund the academy. You’ve been on record saying that we need to create a whole new academy.
Mr. Boghossian: Two things. Not just defund the academy, but first, we need to defund programs where the stuff comes out of. We need some kind of an index. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has an index for free speech in colleges and universities. We need some kind of an index to be developed. A couple of years ago, Portland State University was on the list of the Top 10 worst universities for freedom of speech.
So we need to develop a list for those universities who participate and push this madness. Then those are the institutions we ought to talk about defunding. But it’s not enough. We can’t maintain our economic competitiveness if our engines of knowledge production are laid in ruins. There’s already an erosion of public trust and confidence. So what do we do? We build new institutions. Stephen Blackwood is building an institution at Ralston College right now. I’d urge people to look into that as a potential.
Also, the number of students who come and enroll has decreased radically. At PSU, it’s 24 percent, 25 percent, something like that. They’re decreasing across the board. They’re even, to my surprise, decreasing in Ivy League universities. So alternative programs and universities are going to come in place.
Somebody was telling me recently, when they get job interviews, one of the things that the head of this department—I’m not going to say where it is—will go to the social media accounts and they’ll look to see if someone has pronouns in their bios. If someone has pronouns in the bios, they won’t hire them because they know it’s just going to be nothing but grievance and hassle, and they’re just going to complain. They’re going to talk about things that simply don’t exist, as opposed to doing their actual job, what they get paid for. Soon though, people are going to wise up to that and not put pronouns in their bios.
Mr. Jekielek: We’re going to finish up in a little bit. I have to ask you this question. What you’re describing, a few of the last things you described sounds a bit similar to what’s called, canceling someone or canceling an organization. Have you thought about that?
Mr. Boghossian: There’s a difference. As I explicitly stated before, you can produce all the woke material you want. You can write about it in a journal, no one’s going to care. You can do anything you want—without funding. That’s not canceling. Canceling is a boycott of someone’s career that attempts to ruin them, to prevent them from ever working again.
I’ve explicitly stated that people should be allowed to research anything they want. You can publish all the articles about fat studies you want without government funding. If people go, if you get students without government funding, great. That’s fantastic. Good for you. Keep going. Keep driving this society into a cesspool.
Mr. Jekielek: In terms of the practical solutions that people can engage in, we talked about engaging with organizations like FAIR which is relatively new, and I’m sure is super eager to bring in these volunteers and develop its programs. You have this idea of defunding the programs that are pushing this ideology. Where else can we go here?
Mr. Boghossian: Here’s what I would say to do. This is very unsexy, but it’s what you have to do—show up. Literally show up. If you watch Benjamin Boyce’s videos on his wonderful YouTube channel, it’s about the equity summit in Washington state, the equity initiatives. There’s almost nobody in the room. You have a small group of lunatics pushing an agenda that’s completely deranged, and nobody is standing up to these people. If you’re at your place of employment, if you’re at your kid’s school, no matter where you are, show up. The problem is, nobody goes. People don’t go to the meetings and you get fringe groups of maniacs trying to institutionalize, or successfully institutionalizing neo-racist programs or segregationist programs, for example. Show up.
Next order of business, speak your mind. What I mean by that is the Greek word, I did talk in London about this—”parrhesia”—speak truth in the face of danger. Speak up. Also, remember that there are two sides to the coin. When you speak up against this stuff, listen. Really listen to what these folks are saying and be willing to revise your beliefs. If you hold that as the guiding principle in your life, that you’re willing to revise your beliefs on the basis of evidence, and you’re a sincere enquirer and you want to figure out what’s true, then you should speak up.
You should speak up if you hear something, you should be forthright in your speech, and don’t be afraid that you’re going to lose friends, because they probably weren’t your friends anyway. They’re probably third-rate ideologues at best, so speak up. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be a coward. Don’t be cowed. Don’t be a bully either. As long as you have the willingness and the ability to truly listen and revise your beliefs in the basis of evidence, that’s vital.
The other thing I would say is, you have to value what’s true over your own comfort. You may even have to step across party lines. You may have to have a conversation with someone that maybe you don’t have many other points of agreement with, and maybe you do.
If you’re sincere about fighting this problem, the only analogy I can think of, it’s like being a fish and everybody’s throwing plastic in the ocean. The cultural situation is, it doesn’t matter if someone’s on the Right or the Left, we have very serious cultural pollution. The analogy is like the plastics that are coming in are the policy decisions that are drowning us all in madness. They’re making us look at each other and identifying each other on the basis of immutable characteristics like race. That’s just morally abhorrent. They’re telling our kids that this is a good thing. Segregation is a good thing. Equity is a good thing—inclusion, limiting speech, speech rights. It comes back to what we started in the beginning of the interview. This is really about cognitive liberty.
So think about those people who want to demand that you think a certain way, that want to demand that you live your life [in a certain way]. You’re free to live your life any way you want to live it. Nobody has a right to tell you [how to live your life] and you should never be held hostage to the delusions of others. People can tell you how to live all you want, that’s within their prerogative as well, and you can tell them what to do with it. That’s your prerogative as well. But that’s the heuristic, that’s the helpful way to look at this—those who want to rob you of your cognitive liberty, and those who don’t. I would argue right now that we are facing an extraordinarily intolerant, dangerous ideology perpetuated by people who want to rob us of our cognitive liberty.
Mr. Jekielek: Peter Boghossian, it’s been such a pleasure to have you on.
Mr. Boghossian: Thanks. I appreciate you having me.
These interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.