Jun 17 • 1HR 16M

Amna Khalid and Jeff Snyder on Fighting Illiberalism, Right and Left

Yascha Mounk, Amna Khalid and Jeff Snyder discuss the need to normalize productive disagreement in both our universities and the broader culture.

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Yascha Mounk
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Amna Khalid and Jeff Snyder are writers and professors of history at Carleton College.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk, Amna Khalid and Jeff Snyder discuss the predominance of certain progressive orthodoxies on college campuses; why opponents of left wing censoriousness should also resist illiberalism in education from the right; and how we can stand up for philosophically liberal, humanistic values without becoming bitter, reactionary, or uncivil.

The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: I think we share the basic sensibility of being quite worried about some of the things that are happening on parts of the American left while also being very concerned about the reactionary response from the right. You have been very vocal in criticizing, for example, some of the kinds of anti-CRT bills that Ron DeSantis has passed in Florida. 

Before we get into the political dynamics of this, what's the reason to be concerned about some of the things that are happening on the left, and why is it that you nevertheless oppose the response to that from big parts of the American right?

Amna Khalid: Well, it's important to do self-critique. As two people who associate themselves as being on the left of the political spectrum, we've been really disturbed by how little self-critique there's been. And every time there's been an attempt to critique, there is the counter attempt to cancel, reject or dismiss, and that kind of environment is just not conducive to deep thinking. Now, what's worrying about this is that if this was happening elsewhere, one could tolerate it. But when this starts happening on college campuses, which are the designated spaces for deep thinking, I think we need to be terribly alarmed. For me, it's also personal. I come from Pakistan, I grew up there under a series of repressive military dictatorships, and I've seen an education system being dismantled, and the impact of that on democracy.

Jeff Snyder: I think if you're trying to get a perspective on your own culture and society, there are two basic things that you can do: read history and travel. So after I graduated from college, I lived abroad for four years, including in the Czech Republic and then in China. And it was through those experiences, talking to people in the Czech Republic who had lived through being an Eastern Bloc country, and in China, talking to political dissidents, both inside and outside of China—not having experienced it, but getting that sense from them of the the visceral sense of being censored, and censored with real consequences attached, like prison, for example, if you’re a Chinese, Uighur, or Tibetan dissident. It was through that experience traveling and getting to meet people that I kind of started to develop, by proxy, an understanding for why free expression, especially political expression, matters so much.

Mounk: When we're talking about certain lines you cannot cross or certain things you cannot talk about on campuses, where do you think those lines are?

Khalid: I would say that the lines are much more narrow than people would like to think, and it's not about these things that we would consider egregious and any reasonable person would say should not be said. There is a culture of censorious nests on college campuses. Now, I'll speak from my experience of having taught at Carleton College, which is an elite liberal arts college. It's not quite like evergreen or Oberlin in terms of the, for the lack of a better word (I don't like using it) “woke” culture. But nonetheless, it's a college where we draw from a very similar pool of students, and even here, it's interesting to see that there is a culture of censoriousness. In fact, I've been teaching a class on the global history of free speech for the first time this term, and one of the questions I asked my students is how often they feel they can't express their political views on things that count, and 100% of them on the survey said “often,” so that, to me, is quite telling. And I've also found it interesting that students in my class have reported that this is one of the few places where they feel that they can actually speak their minds, and there are ways in which I've facilitated that. But that speaks to me about the wider culture on campus. There really are new pieties that one does not violate, and they're not just egregious ones. They're more ideological and more defined than that.

Snyder: There were many awful, terrible, apocalyptic elements of the Trump presidency. But just to take the perspective of free expression and free speech, one of the tragedies, at least in my view, was the ways in which free speech became associated with the right wing, and a very conservative, extreme faction of the right wing. When our students hear “viewpoint diversity,” they think of Milo Yiannopoulos. They think of these extreme conservative speakers who basically were trolls, who cloaked themselves in the mantle of free expression. I've had this conversation with my students many times. They ask “Why do we need Milo Yiannopoulos on the campus?” I'm like, “No, we don't need Milo Yiannopoulos on the campus.” Let's just take the example of affirmative action. With my students, I say, “Look, if you want to talk about affirmative action from a viewpoint diversity angle, you're not going to bring in Ben Shapiro or Ann Coulter. Let's bring in Michelle Alexander, who wrote The New Jim Crow, who clearly is liberal and socially progressive on many issues, but is vehemently opposed to affirmative action because she thinks it distracts us from the larger inequities in the K-12 educational system. Or, let's bring in Glenn Loury, who will talk about affirmative action as an assault on black excellence. 

This is one of the things that I see as being so damaging to campus discourse and to classroom discussions, that if you voice a single opinion that is heterodox, people will write off not just everything else you have to think, but your moral character, and you can be socially ostracized. I wanted to come back to this point about guilt by association, because I do think that in spite of the difference, if I see a headline that says, “College campuses are like Mao's China,” I instantly go to a new tab. I'm not going to bother reading something that's that absurd and hyperbolic. But I do think that the idea of “Thou shalt not have any kind of affiliation, draw any lines of solidarity, give any hint of respect to people who hold views on the other team,” is extremely damaging in higher education.

Mounk: One thing I'm trying to understand is why the power on campus plays out as it does. So I teach some of these controversies in some of my classes, and I'm always struck that a clear majority of students wants to think about many of the urgent cultural issues of the day, and most of them are very open to doing so. They're actually very glad to have a space where they can do this in a meaningful way. But then sometimes it's hard to get them to talk. And when you speak with them during office hours, it's because of the presence of a few people within the group who are sort of known to be moral enforcers.

Broadly speaking, I would say the kids are all right. The students are inquisitive, and they might have assumptions that are more progressive than mine, but most of them are good people who want to think about the world and are open to discussion. But why is it that the few who don't hold this outsized power to shut down debate and to intimidate and to punish?

Khalid: There is that social pressure that you mentioned, and I think, as of recent surveys, you know, that they also proved that students are more scared of each other than they are of the professor in the classroom. So it has social implications. But I think there are two other pieces. One is that things get amplified on social media. Even for a real campus, the virtual world is constantly interacting. So there is a way in which what you say in the classroom isn't just going to be talked about by your peers on campus, but might even make the Twittersphere. The other piece, I think, is how administrators have responded to student complaints. Like you said, students can be progressive, but they're mostly fine. This is their age, they can have difficult, problematic views. I have a lot of patience for them. But where it kind of wears thin is when we're talking about administrators and how quick they are to respond to student needs, demands and complaints. And that, of course, is connected to what's happened to higher education and the neoliberalization of higher education where we don't think about the public good anymore. It's very much a “customer's always right” kind of approach and the growth of administrators on campus far outstrips the renewal of faculty lines—if anything, faculty lines are being cut. This influence that a small minority can have is because of a whole whole bunch of factors that have made it possible for them to exercise way more power on campus or in the public sphere than then before.

Snyder: We shouldn't underestimate the significance of what Amna and I call it “DEI Inc.,” this sort of the standard DEI model that is prevalent on campuses. I think that administrators have fueled all of this—the discourse of harm, the standpoint epistemology, the “allyship.” If you're a student, and you're young, and you're just kind of figuring out how the world works, and here's an avenue by which you can be validated, to use the the terminology, and score political points when when my peers hear that I've made some sort of complaint about problematic content—again, I have infinite patience for our students. It's our colleagues and other adults in the higher education system who—again, and this is one of those things where it becomes binary. Am I saying I don't care? No, I care deeply about my students. But there's a difference between care and unwavering validation and affirmation of whatever they're saying. 

If you look at the way that so-called “bias response teams” work, they're amazing in that the outcomes are almost predetermined, because they only ask for information about “the victim” and “the perpetrator.” It doesn't even have those basic principles of jurisprudence, like “innocent until proven guilty,” right? But I wanted to come back to the micro aggression thing and try to draw some connections here to what accounts for the fear that some students have on campuses, and how that is genuinely inhibiting a potentially rich discussion. So I had a student who was from Morocco. And we were talking about microaggressions, and I asked students whether a talk given on microaggressions had any impact, positive or negative, on the campus climate. And this Moroccan student said, “Well, you know, what I can say is that I am a sophomore, and I am so eager to talk about where I'm from, to tell people about Moroccan culture, about Marrakech. I want to talk to them about my upbringing, the similarities and differences between Morocco and the US, but people don't ask me where I'm from, because they're afraid it'll be perceived as a microaggression.” And that's a real genuine and profound loss. Here's this wonderful environment with people from all over the world. And you can't even engage to reap the benefits of this diversity.

The left has retreated into this much more schematic, blocked out sense of identity. It’s one of the things that enrages me the most because I think it's empirically incorrect, but it also just makes intellectual life much less fun.

Mounk: For me, the reason I’m on the left, and the reason why I value the left, is its commitment to free speech, to cultural hybridity, and its rejection of that kind of idea that cultures need to be pure, and that we have to be afraid of the ways in which we might influence each other. And, to me, is really one of the most profound reasons why I don’t recognize myself in that new version of the tradition.

Khalid: We're talking about DEI Inc. on campuses, bias response teams, microaggressions, et cetera. And what does this do? What is the net effect of this kind of emphasis on how you might have been offended? It makes you live right here. You cannot look beyond yourself. It promotes a certain kind of navel gazing. It makes you more and more self involved. And that's detrimental, I would argue, at this age especially, because teenagers tend to live right here. The whole point of college is to try and see that you are part of a bigger whole, that you can forge connections and that the world is beyond you, to create that empathy. It inhibits exploration of difference. If you can’t ask where someone is from and kind of be curious about it and delve into it, that reinforces that navel gazing. 

The kind of person we are creating is fundamentally not suited to what we believe we want to create, which is a sense of community. This person is no longer able to connect with a larger whole, we are inhibiting their ability to do that, so there is this tension in the discourse itself, right? Where it's like, “We want community, and we want harmony in this community.” And at the same time, you're facilitating the kind of individuals who cannot look beyond themselves. 

Read more: “The Futility of Trigger Warnings” by Amna Khalid

Mounk: If you think that some of these orthodoxies are a problem, if you're critical, as I believe you are, of some of the ideas of critical race theory, why shouldn't we cheer when Ron DeSantis comes in and passes an anti-CRT law? What is the basic case for why that is the wrong response to these developments?

Khalid: Let me start with state censorship, I just can never get behind it. Let's begin over there. I think it lays the wrong kind of precedent. I'm very against state interference in higher education in particular, because this is a place where we are in the business of training critical minds and citizens, so this is not a place where we should have thought police. This is thought-policing by the state. Having seen it play out in my own country and many other countries and having read history, this does not go down well. I'm not even in favor of the state intervening on my side. So let's say in New York, there's been a bill to try and mandate the teaching of certain things like CRT and social justice courses (it's ill-defined what those are) but as a kind of a response to what's happening in places like Florida. And I actually detest that too, because frankly, there is something sacred about the autonomy of higher education which should not be meddled with by external forces. 

Now, this is not to say that there are not problems in higher education. Like you said, we're critical of some of the things. But I think we have a big enough tent to work it out ourselves. There are crises with every institution, and we will self correct. Many people are upset about the fact that the academy leans so liberal and left and there's not enough conservative voices—I think that's a problem, I do. But at the same time, I don't think I genuinely do not think that the liberal professors are doing a poor job of educating their students. I do not think that we are indoctrinating them. I don't buy that narrative. I think there are occasional bad actors. I think there are bad professors. But I think, on the whole, they do a really fairly good job. So to me, this is a huge political kind of haymaking point for the right at the moment and it's legitimizing legislative control of higher education. 

State or no state, saying that there are certain things that are off the table for discussion in an academic setting is fundamentally anti-intellectual. And we cannot, cannot have that, especially in higher education.

Snyder: In addition to all the things that Amna just outlined, the essence of academic freedom in the classroom is the latitude to present your material in the most accurate, powerful, transformative way, based on the expertise that you've developed in your field. So if you look at one of the provisions of the so-called “Stop WOKE Act” in Florida, it says that courses can't include any content that advances the notion that racism is embedded in US institutions. I'm a historian, and I'm an Americanist. And to my mind, that actually means that you can't teach any US History class. Because there's no serious US historian that I'm aware of teaching at a college or university who would reject that basic proposition. So in that sense, you're not just kind of crushing these abstract principles of academic freedom, faculty governance, and faculty autonomy, to the extent that truth and knowledge exist, you're basically saying, “We don't care about that, and in fact, you can't disseminate what is the overwhelming scholarly consensus on key questions.” And I chafe against that on so, so many levels.

In Florida, when they were doing the initial hearing for the Stop WOKE Act, the judge asked the state lawyers what would happen if you had a guest speaker Zoom into your classroom to make the case for affirmative action, and would that violate the Stop WOKE act? And he said yes. And to me, as soon as you say that, it’s the end of the story. This is an intellectual dead end. 

Mounk: When I read the legislation, as well as some of the reporting about it by FIRE and other good organizations in this space, what struck me is the prohibition, for example, on public colleges in Florida to teach about things involving identity politics. I teach a few weeks on free speech and on cultural appropriation and on other topics, and part of what I see as my task in the classroom as being is to give students the tools to come to their own conclusions about these things. I don't make any secret about my opinions of them. I am a critic of many of the writings of critical race theorists like Derrick Bell and in the classroom, that can become obvious. But I obviously want to assign readings that defend those ideas or assign very interesting readings by somebody like Derrick Bell in the classroom for students to be able to make up their own minds. The idea that I wouldn't be able to teach the class that I teach in other universities in a public college in Florida seems absurd to me. 

Snyder: If you think about the two basic goals of higher education, to develop critical thinking and to prepare students for lives of engaged, active citizenship, you're disempowering these students by actually rendering the world illegible to them. 

I referred to Trump's speech when he announced his presidential run—his anti-immigration rhetoric not only can, but in my view, must be understood in the history of xenophobia in the United States. And if students don't have that historical understanding, the world just becomes this morass of confusion—there's no anchor, there's no context, there's no history. And so I mean, it doesn't even matter what your politics are, to my mind. If you want a graduate from one of Florida’s many excellent public universities and colleges, you want them to be conversant in the issues. And to me, these things like the Stop WOKE Act have the potential to really degrade the quality of thoughtful citizenship. Irrespective of what your party is, you will be disempowered as a citizen if you're so grossly ignorant of some of these big historical trends that are more or less off the table with this brand of legislation.

Khalid: I think both the left and the right are doing this thing about “protecting” the students. The left is very much about protecting their feelings, their dignity, their identity—however you want to frame that. On the right, they're using the same thing about protecting, interestingly, but from divisive concepts. And to both sides, I just want to ask: are we or are we not interested in living in a world with adults? Because we are creating the perfect circumstances to further infantilize our students. And it's no mystery to me that increasingly, every year, the freshmen who come to campus seem less and less capable of behaving like adults. They do not have the simple skills of what our students call “adulting.” I'm worried that we're going to be stuck in a world where we have a lot of people who have a lot of growing up to do, but who have grown up in years, and are in positions of power. That is a scary option. We've seen a president who's behaved like a juvenile imbecile,  frankly, and that's what happens when people don't know how to actually be real, responsible, self reflective adults. Neither side is making a good case for education and training adults.

Mounk: To close the conversation, we're talking about how difficult it is to be moderate. We're talking about how difficult it is to feel on the left and to reject these liberal ideas, whether they come from progressives or whether they come from people like DeSantis or Trump. But it strikes me that you're both really good at speaking up for these ideas in a joyful way, that is self confident, and that doesn't fall into the trap of either overqualifying everything as if you’re somehow ashamed of what you're saying, or becoming sort of a jerk and barking your objections. 

For people who are listening to this and who want to emulate that, whether it's in their circle of friends, or perhaps in the workplace, or in some more public realm, how do you speak up about these ideas in a way that's true to your principles, that’s self confident, and doesn’t unnecessarily provoke?

Khalid: I don't want to come across as having figured this out. But whether they're on your political side of the spectrum, and you're disagreeing, or whether they're on the other side, really, really genuinely try and appreciate that they, too, are an individual who has as rich an internal life as you do. You can disagree, but they are complex individuals, too. I think there is a tendency, even among us, to flatten the other team, to caricature them to some degree. Remembering that they have different facets to themselves, as well, is important. 

And the other thing is—I don't know whether this is a product of upbringing and context—I've never had the need to fit in. And I think if you keep wanting to fit in, if you need that kind of approval, then you're not going to be a strong voice for things that need to be said at difficult times. So I do think that it requires it. I kind of feel stupid saying this, because I really don't believe myself to be brave or courageous in any way. And when people come up and say, “Oh, my God, that was so courageous of you,” I'm like, “No, courageous is when you stand up to the Taliban and have a bullet shot through your head for saying you want education for girls”—that is courage. This is just like—I have nothing to lose. I have tenure. So to my mind, I mean, I think it's a strange moment when this is courage. But I do think that people need to kind of do a more strict cost benefit analysis and say, “Well, you know, the cost for speaking out is way less than I actually thought,” and speak your mind.

Snyder: One of the promises of liberal arts education is that professors and the college campus community will help model what it is to be a citizen in a democratic society. And I think that if professors take that role seriously, especially those of us who are lucky enough to have tenure, then we need to enact that kind of citizenship and to model what it looks like to speak up, hopefully in a respectful and constructive way. Speak up for the views that you have. Because if we can't do that as tenured professors, how are we possibly expecting our students, whether it's while they're in college or afterwards, to be able to embrace their own civic roles? If we really believe, and I do, in the magic of the liberal arts experience, especially a residential liberal arts college (there is something wonderful about it, and it's a privilege to be on a campus in an environment like this), then let's take it seriously. Let's model that act of democratic civic participation, where we can engage with one another, sometimes on tough subjects about which we will disagree, where the community doesn't splinter, and we are still able to meet up the next Friday night and have a dinner party. 

Khalid: I think we need to normalize disagreement, and recognize that disagreement is what is absolutely essential for a pluralistic democracy. It's not going to work otherwise.

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