“It’s a tremendous danger when we have people who run institutions and who have jobs for life in the academies, they're completely convinced they found the truth, they publish in their own journals, they teach those 'truths' to their students, and then they've indoctrinated generations of students.”
Peter Boghossian is a former professor of philosophy and co-author of the Sokal Squared hoax papers. These were intentionally false and absurd intellectual papers that were accepted as legitimate in ostensibly prestigious academic journals. In 2021, Boghossian resigned from Portland State University.
“In DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] bureaucracies, we have extraordinarily intolerant people. We have ideologues. They have a set, or a suite of propositions that they forward to the expense of all else,” says Boghossian. “You can either have free speech at a university or you can have DEI bureaucracies. It is literally impossible to have both.”
Today, Boghossian, a champion of the Socratic method, goes around the world, teaching people how to speak across divides and to harness their humility and ability to ask the right questions.
“We know where this problem comes from. It's the academic institutions,” says Boghossian. “The places from which you graduated are not the same places today.”
We speak about what he calls a “large-scale ideological capture” of institutions, and debate what the best path is moving forward toward genuine diversity of thought and expression.
“To what extent should society tolerate illiberal, radical, intolerant people in the orthodoxies in which they bring to that society? That's the paradox of tolerance in a nutshell,” says Boghossian.
FULL TRANSCRIPTJan Jekielek: Peter Boghossian, such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.
Peter Boghossian: Thank you. It's good to finally see you in real life.
Mr. Jekielek: Absolutely. It's almost two years to the day since we last spoke, and so much has happened in the last two years since April 2021. You told me that the educational system has been entirely captured and needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. There's people out there looking to rebuild, and trying to facilitate change. There's some significant action in Florida, for example.
Mr. Boghossian: With Chris Rufo and DeSantis.
Mr. Jekielek: Absolutely. I'm curious if you have rethought your position on this at all.
Mr. Boghossian: We have more evidence for those two years than we did before. We know that there was large-scale, ideological capture of the institutions. There is one thing that Chris Rufo is doing, and I sincerely hope he's successful, but I'm not going to sit around and wait for Chris Rufo to succeed. One of the things that he wants to do is he wants to extirpate the DEI bureaucracy from our academic institutions.
The way to think about this is a paradox of tolerance. Have you heard that from Karl Popper who introduced it in 1945? How tolerant should we tolerant people be of intolerant people? In DEI bureaucracies, we have extraordinarily intolerant people. We have ideologues. They have a set or a suite of propositions that they forward at the expense of all else. It's like they're trying to rig the game. It would be like trying to go to a boxing match with a chainsaw.
When you try to put the brakes on that so that you can have a more classical liberalism where ideas flourish, they accuse you of trying to halt free speech. Two years on, we now have more evidence for wide scale organizational institutional capture, but we also have people like Chris Rufo and Ron DeSantis trying to fight that from the inside.
Mr. Jekielek: Popper's paradox, just for the benefit of our audience, is this idea that you can't tolerate intolerance too much or you will create an intolerant society. As I look back, it reminded me of Marcuse's principle of repressive tolerance.
Mr. Boghossian: Correct. James Lindsay has spoken about that. One way we can look at this, if the educational example is too abstract, or somebody isn't in academia, you can look at this as radical Islam in Western Europe or the Jyllands post of pictures of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. To what extent should society tolerate illiberal, radical, intolerant people and the orthodoxies which they bring to the society?
That's the paradox of tolerance in a nutshell. It's not only in an academic context. Marcuse writes about this in The One-Dimensional Man. My writing partner James Lindsay has written about this in, The Marxification of Education, on his podcast, and in other places.
The criticism of people like Rufo is that you're just replacing one intolerant orthodoxy for another intolerant orthodoxy. I don't think that's true. I certainly think it's something to be mindful of. We don't want to remove DEI bureaucrats and then place conservatives or liberals or libertarians or Marxists or anybody else in that situation. We want a kind of intellectual and ideological diversity to flourish.
Getting back to your original question, we talked about the legitimacy crisis. There's a crisis of legitimacy in our institutions. It's spread far beyond academia at this point. We have choices about whether or not we're going to build, which is what I'm doing, or whether they're not going to be complacent or fight.
Mr. Jekielek: I want to add that the legitimacy crisis is earned.
Mr. Boghossian: One hundred percent earned. Let's talk about that.
Mr. Jekielek: Yes.
Mr. Boghossian: The legitimacy crisis is that people do not trust institutions. They do not trust the CDC medicine. They will trust their own doctors interestingly. Self surveys report that people trust their own doctors, but they don't trust the system. They don't trust the HMOs. They don't trust the CDC. They don't trust any legacy media institutions. They don't trust the ACLU. They don't trust the SPLC, the Southern Poverty Law Center. They don't trust the New York Times, and they don't trust NPR.
The reason they don't trust those institutions is because those institutions have betrayed their trust. They're no longer trustworthy. They have an ideological agenda that they forward above what's true, and that compromises everybody as Americans. That's the one commonality we should all share.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned NPR. Let's talk about this because this has been in the news recently. NPR got flagged on Twitter as state-funded media.
Mr. Boghossian: I love that.
Mr. Jekielek: What is your reaction to that?
Mr. Boghossian: NPR is the paradigmatic example of a news venue that is not a news venue. It's a propaganda outlet that has been ideologically captured. Let's talk about that. Fox has a very specific ideology that they promote. Not only do they not hide that ideology, Sean Hannity and others are screaming about it from the rooftops.
I have no problem with a news outlet that clearly states their bias right from the get go. Bill O'Reilly doesn't work there anymore, but they have commentators and they say, "We're conservatives." This is why liberals are incorrect.
The problem with NPR and other media organizations is that they fly their banner of neutrality, but they are clearly not neutral. I did a series on NPR with my friend Matt Thornton who wrote the book, The Gift of Violence. We did a series about conservatives and people that have said there's a problem with NPR.
But nobody has actually taken the time to look episode by episode exactly at the timestamps. What's the problem? What are the fallacies? How is this reflective of ideological capture? That's what we did, and this is what really contributes to the legitimacy crisis.
Mr. Jekielek: What was the most profound thing you found in your analysis?
Mr. Boghossian: Let's say that I want to figure out why conservatives—and I want to be clear, I'm not a conservative, and I do not self-identify as a conservative— why conservatives want to build a wall on the Mexican border? NPR reporters will ask a liberal or somebody who's not a conservative, as opposed to just asking somebody, and this is John Stuart Mill's point, who actually believes that a wall should be built on the border, asking them for what their reasons are, and then, analyzing those reasons. They ask somebody who doesn't believe it should be built, and they analyze those reasons, which are already shown to be fallacious, because they're not good faith actors.
Mr. Jekielek: The answer is probably because they're racist.
Mr. Boghossian: That's embedded into the structure. If that's the lens through which you see, critical race theory is embedded in the structure. If the lens through which you view the problem will always be the same—systemic racism, oppression, misogyny, bigotry, it's baked into the system. It can be, as Helen Pluckrose says, "a conspiracy without any conspirators." If that's the starting assumption, then the natural manifestation of that assumption in terms of one's belief is that, “We don't want to build a wall because conservatives are racist.”
Mr. Jekielek: You just said there has been an ideological capture of all these institutions. We're talking about the media. That's the term I tend to use, but you said, "No, this is corruption."
Mr. Boghossian: It is corruption.
Mr. Jekielek: Okay. How is it corruption?
Mr. Boghossian: It's corruption because once truth stops being the North Star of the institution, something else has to take over. You can either have free speech at a university, or you can have DEI bureaucracies. It is literally impossible to have both. Harvard just put a free speech committee together. People like Robbie George from Princeton have been advocating for this. You cannot have both simultaneously.
Ideological capture is by definition corruption because they forward an ideology. We're forwarding equity. We're forwarding inclusion as opposed to figuring out what's true and we're going to try to falsify or make false the claims that we're looking at.
The ideologues start the conversation with the assumption that they have the truth, and then, they look in their landscape to support the propositions they already have. They have mechanisms within the institution to weaponize the starting beliefs against people who oppose the orthodoxy. It's truly sinister.
The Overton window is now shifting. If I had said that two years ago it would sound conspiratorial. But now there's just so much evidence. I just did a series with Charles Negy in Florida about professors this has happened to over and over again. It's now irrefutable.
Mr. Jekielek: Our regular viewers of American Thought Leaders will recognize that the scenario you just described isn't restricted to the academy or to the media. Public health today can be described very much in a similar way. I'll just give an example. The headline is, “CDC Partners with Social and Behavioral Change Initiative to Silence Vaccine Hesitancy.”
What is happening here is that you have armies of people on social media harnessed through government-funded nonprofits stopping the proliferation of views of people who are sometimes highly credentialed and highly expert, and in fact, who later prove to be correct, in order to achieve a very particular view of seeing public health or knowing what you should be doing as a person in society.
Mr. Boghossian: I would make one addition if I may, not just what you should be doing, but believing.
Mr. Jekielek: Correct.
Mr. Boghossian: That's a key distinction.
Mr. Jekielek: Correct. Typically when you're looking at the whole public health sphere, we talk about the institutional capture of agencies by big pharma. Now, we're seeing there's a lot of evidence of that. What you just described is this kind of phenomenon of ideological capture. How does that connect with this? Because what you described earlier seems to be highly analogous.
Mr. Boghossian: One of the things that's really important is that we understand what expertise is. Tom Nichols has a book, The Death of Expertise. Nobody should listen to me in anything I have to say outside my area of expertise. I know I have no medical knowledge whatsoever. With that said, I think I can comment on the mechanisms of belief formation as they go through the system. We know on Twitter that there has been shadow banning. When Jack Dorsey went to Congress, they called it deboosting. You can call it whatever you want, but we know that there has been an orchestrated campaign.
I would say the campaign is less around governments and more around an ideology, more around the suite of propositions or ideals that cohere within this broad woke ideology or critical social justice. That itself helps to form or helps to calcify public opinion around certain events.
So again, the true seeking mission of the institution is gone, which gets back to what you asked me before of the legitimacy crisis. That's what creates a crisis in confidence. People's ideas on Twitter or YouTube are being promoted on the basis of the algorithm, as opposed to the marketplace of free ideas.
Mr. Jekielek: The algorithm decides what you're promoting, and what you're supposed to believe.
Mr. Boghossian: In the considerable debate about this, I'm very confident that the only reason those particular algorithms are in place at all is because of academia. It's because that is the nucleation point. That is where the wellspring is, and that's how it manifests itself in various platforms and channels and social media and organizations, and public institutions.
Mr. Jekielek: The thing that I've observed watching public health messaging over the last three years, and understanding what the scientific realities were relative to that messaging, is that there was a huge distance between what the messaging was demanding and what the actual, reasonable understanding of the available scientific evidence was. Policy wasn't being shaped by that. There was an interest in eliciting a particular behavioral outcome.
For example, Dr. Fauci talked about changing his position on masks. Later he said, "I did that because I wanted to. I didn't want people to make a run on the masks. So initially, I said that masks aren't important." That example illuminates this idea that we're not necessarily being told the truth. We're being told the thing which the authorities at large believe will get us to behave a particular way.
Mr. Boghossian: Yes, it's an interesting question. What if the lethality of the virus, instead of being 0.1 or 1 percent depending on death from Covid or death by Covid, what if the lethality of the virus was 50 percent. or bubonic plague level one and three? It's more of a philosophical question, but would that justify lying to people for the greater good? There's always a tension between the truth and what the policy line should be.
I personally err on the side of truth. People are entitled to the truth, particularly in a democracy. We should know the truth, and hiding people from the truth doesn't protect them. It just makes it so that they don't develop the facility or the tools to figure out what's true.
Mr. Jekielek: There's a kind of authoritarian impulse there.
Mr. Boghossian: That's the new axis. It's not conservative-liberal, or Republican-Democrat. It's authoritarian and non-authoritarian. It's those people who believe in cognitive liberty and those people who believe that you ought not to believe whatever it is that you believe. There's a party line. By sheer coincidence, of course, they happen to know what it is. We have a tension in this society, and I term it culture war 2.0, the axes have switched.
Mr. Jekielek: Watching the response of different groups of people to these very authoritarian pandemic policies, I found a commonality in the people, and it certainly wasn't Left-wing or Right-wing, although it tended to be more toward Right-wing. But it had to do with people who have some sense of the transcendent and some relationship with a higher power, versus people who are purely transactional in their behavior. This is the axis that I've come to. I'm very curious what you have to say about that.
Mr. Boghossian: I don't see that as a helpful heuristic. If someone has a sense of the transcendent and they have a profound commitment to that in their religious lives, they were more likely to go to church, especially during the beginning of the pandemic when there were lockdowns. But I don't think that's the axis upon which the discussion turns.
Because you have wokism in every feature of society, and you have wokism in churches. It's like a universal solvent that corrodes everything it touches. You have woke atheists, which are most atheists, and then, non-woke atheists or anti-woke atheists like me. You have woke Christians and anti-woke Christians. There's more commonality between the woke Christians and woke atheists. There's more commonality there, than between the woke atheists and the non-woke atheists.
I have far more in common with an anti-woke Christian. It's a new axis, but that doesn't mean it's because I have a sense of the transcendent. That means, among other reasons, I think there are fundamental goods worth preserving in our civilization. I believe in democracy. I believe in the enlightenment. I believe in free speech. I believe in freedom of the press. I believe in freedom of assembly.
Those are the values that I share with many of my Christian friends, although I don't share their metaphysics. I don't believe Jesus was divine. I don't believe he walked on water. I don't believe any of it. The question to me is not about being transcendent. The question revolves around one's attitude towards Western civilization and enlightenment values.
Mr. Jekielek: I'm reminded of one of your Street Epistemology activities, which are actually really fascinating gamifications of what you believe. They really speak to me, because in the past, as an educator, I liked using gamification.
Mr. Boghossian: Thank you.
Mr. Jekielek: You've been doing this a lot with all sorts of topics. The one that jumped to mind was, “The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination,” which is Ibram Kendi's assertion. We'll show people what Street Epistemology looks like. How does it work? Then, we'll get to this specific instance.
Mr. Boghossian: In 2013, I developed Street Epistemology. Epistemology is how you know what you think you know. I originally did a proto-version of this in the prisons when I wrote my dissertation. It's taking epistemology out of the academy as an academic discipline and giving it to people in the streets—taking the tools of professional philosophers and giving them to ordinary people.
My friend, Reid Nicewonder and I go around the world. I have a nonprofit National Progress Alliance and donors fund me to do this. We go around the world. We were just in Australia and Puerto Rico and Florida, and we're about to go to London. We put tape on sidewalks that says strongly agree, agree, slightly agree, and neutral. On the other side it’s the disagree. We'll ask people what they want to talk about if they have a strong belief in something, and then we'll make a claim out of it.
For example, the only remedy to pass discrimination is present discrimination. We'll put them on the neutral line. There are only two rules of the game. The first rule is don't move until I say move. Because if there are multiple people on the line, we want to make sure that the person at the end of the line isn't influenced by those persons. So we want everyone to make up their own minds.
The other rule is you can move lines or change lines anytime you want, but you have to commit to a full line, one foot on the left, one foot on the right. And the reason for that is viewers or people who see it still not nudged, they're actually moving from, for example, from the strongly agree to the agree. That's how the game is played.
I ask targeted Socratic questions to help people align or calibrate their confidence to what line they're on. If they have X evidence, then they should have X confidence. But often people extend the warrant of the confidence beyond the evidence. We help them align that.
And what's fascinating to see is when people change their minds as a result of questions or other points that people bring up. It's a way to teach people how to have impossible conversations. It’s the same in my book—so they can speak across divides, not to persuade, but to understand why would someone thoughtful believe this.
Mr. Jekielek: What happened here in this particular instance?
Mr. Boghossian: We did five or six Kendi videos. We asked that question, which has percolated throughout the entire society, and certainly in academic institutions. Kendi is a bestselling author. He says, “The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.”
Mr. Jekielek: You have to be anti-racist to deal with racism.
Mr. Boghossian: Right. If somebody had historical oppression variables, for example if they were black, the only way to fix those problems of the past is to discriminate against people who do not have salient identity characteristics, like if you're white, cis, or hetero-male, for example.
So, we need to discriminate against those people, because the ancestors of other people have been discriminated against. Most people, when you ask them that question, particularly between the ages of 15 and 30 will agree with that, because they've never really thought about it.
They haven't drilled down on it. Again, my goal when I do this isn't to get people to align with what I believe. In fact, this will only work if you're a neutral facilitator. One of the things you see in that particular video is that through some pretty basic targeted questions, people will move once they understand what it means to actually discriminate against somebody, and what kind of a moral horror that is, independent of historical oppression variables that people have had because of their ancestors and their past.
Mr. Jekielek: Our educational institutions are not teaching us to think.
Mr. Boghossian: They're corrupt.
Mr. Jekielek: Yes, you're using the word again.
Mr. Boghossian: They are corrupt, right? There is a pervasive corruption in society. There is no other way we can function as a democracy. There's no other way we can make better decisions for our community and institutionalize those than getting rid of the corruption. It's the only way.
Mr. Jekielek: I really like this method. Of course, you can't replicate it.
Mr. Boghossian: What do you mean by that? Because you can totally replicate it.
Mr. Jekielek: Okay.
Mr. Boghossian: Anybody can do it. That's the other thing, it's free. Anybody can do it. Ideally, you'd have a dollar or two for tape, but if you don't have tape, you can use chalk. If you don't have chalk, you can use sticks. It's free.
Anybody can do it. People have kids, and if they have a dispute between their kids, they can just set it up in their living room. Anybody can do it. It's a way to help to not only make your own ideas clear, but to understand somebody else's view.
Mr. Jekielek: You have to be able to ask good questions to facilitate this, correct?
Mr. Boghossian: Yes. We have videos about how to do that. One of the questions that I ask at the end, almost every time now, and we're constantly changing and improving the method is, “What line do you think I'd be on?” My goal for that is for them to say, “I don't know,” or “Put me on another line.”
For example, the only remedy to pass discrimination is present discrimination. I strongly disagree with that, but it is ideal when I ask the participants, “What line do you think I'd be on?” They would either say that I don't know or that I would strongly agree. Then, I know that I've been successful.
Mr. Jekielek: There's all these different fact checking organizations, but also media rating systems. It's a media Left or Right that has proliferated. There's one called NewsGuard, which recently has been exposed by Michael Shellenberger, who we mentioned earlier and others as not being very objective. I've had very serious issues with many of these. There's one that struck me as very interesting because I felt it's somewhat accurate. Actually, it's called AllSides. And the way AllSides works, and this is very interesting, they remove all evidence of what media is actually presenting the information when they present the information itself.
And they just give the text to people and people have to decide where they feel this lands on the spectrum. They replicate this over time. And in that situation, we're defined as leaning right, which I think is fair. But the key is that the identity is removed, right? This is what you're talking about.
If the identity is removed, then people just have somewhat more of an objective view. People saw your picture and it said, I think the term you use is you're not a right wing maniac, but if someone had seen your picture and it said right wing maniac, watch out for this guy. And when they saw you, they would treat you very differently than if you just came in and showed that you're just trying to facilitate an intelligent discussion.
Mr. Boghossian: Two things about that. I just had Winston Marshall on last night from Mumford and Sons, a former band member. He was telling me something and I said, "Are you Right-wing? He's like, "No, I'm Left-wing". So I think there is an attempt to actively smear people. Steven Pinker calls it the Left pole. Anybody who's not far-Left is automatically on the Right.
I haven't seen AllSides, but the only thing is that you'd have to have some way of assuring there's an equal distribution of people or to weigh their votes differently. Because if you have people coming in who are conservatives or liberals, that will skew the distribution or that will skew the results. But there are certainly ways to move more toward objectivity and analysis, and it's not particularly difficult. These are not insurmountable problems.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, no, the point is in most cases, the desire isn't to actually assess how the media is doing. It's more to label, right?
Mr. Boghossian: Correct. I think the deeper point is, there is why. The reason that I would propose to you for why are not political or epistemic reasons. They're moral reasons. Here's the syllogism. Good people believe these things. I'm a good person. I believe this. Good people believe that whatever policy on abortion, whatever economic policy, whatever rate, the discrimination present—good people believe this. I am a good person. I believe this.
Good people believe this. Epoch Times doesn't assert this. I'm a good person. I don't want to believe this. Epoch Times is the opposite of whatever my political leaning is. Right, left. So those are all ultimately moral claims that someone is making. One is a moral evaluation as a result of that. Those aren't political. I mean, they're political in a superficial way.
Mr. Jekielek: Basically what you're saying is that everything has been kind of pulled into this moral sphere.
Mr. Boghossian: Correct.
Mr. Jekielek: This is actually kind of what you're fighting against in a way.
Mr. Boghossian: Correct. It's a tremendous danger when we have people who run institutions and who have jobs for life in the academies. They're completely convinced they found the truth. They publish in their own journals. They teach those quote, unquote "truths" to their students, and then they've indoctrinated generations of students now. It's a tremendous problem. And what do you do about it, is the question?
Well, you either take Chris Rufo’s idea, which is there's nothing wrong with that, or you build new things or you let it fester and get worse, which furthers the legitimacy crisis. But I can tell you, in no uncertain terms, China is not beholden to this. China is not beholden to equity mandates. China does not have diversity, equity, and inclusion, and they will limit speech to be sure, criticism of the government and have you, but they're ultimately a meritocratic system. They have the gaokao for example.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, so maybe I'll push back a little bit on this with some obvious examples. They're meritocratic unless you're part of the wrong group.
Mr. Boghossian: Like a Uyghur Muslim.
Mr. Jekielek: Like a Uyghur Muslim or a Falun Gong practitioner or a Tibetan.
Mr. Boghossian: That is also correct. They're not hiding that.
Mr. Jekielek: No, they're not. In fact, the state propaganda explains to people why the correct moral position is to hate these people.
Mr. Boghossian: That is correct.
Mr. Jekielek: One of the untold stories, given everything we've talked about, is what Falun Gong practitioners have been doing in China, going one by one to people and giving them pamphlets and saying, "You should rethink what you've been told. Here's some evidence that suggests otherwise." In a Freedom House report from some years back, they list that this is being one of the most persecuted groups in the world and China. But they say that in some states in China, it's actually been reduced. They believe that it's because of this activity.
Mr. Boghossian: What's this in that sense? The handing out of the pamphlets?
Mr. Jekielek: Yes, the one on one activity of handing out the material, talking to people, realizing everything the propaganda has told you.
Mr. Boghossian: I can't speak to that. But if I were to make a guess, it wouldn't be any of the material they handed out. It would be the personal relationships made with the person who is handing out the material.
Mr. Jekielek: You might be right.
Mr. Boghossian: I don't know. I'm not an expert. That's my guess. People change their minds based upon, well, an atmosphere and environment of psychological safety and getting to know people, getting to know gay people, getting to know black people, getting to know white people, getting to know people who are different from them. That's how they changed their mind. That's the humanizing process. Data and evidence rarely changed people's minds about the things that have a moral valence. Almost never.
Mr. Jekielek: Two years ago, you told me institutions were captured. We have to rebuild from scratch. I think you mentioned Ralston College back in the day. That's still being developed like-
Mr. Boghossian: Correct, they're in Savannah.
Mr. Jekielek: ... Stephen Blackwood in Savannah. Now, we've got the University of Austin where you've actually come on-
Mr. Boghossian: Here in Austin.
Mr. Jekielek: Right.
Mr. Boghossian: They're going gangbusters on a founding faculty member, and they have well over a hundred million dollars at this point. They use a facility in Dallas. And so they've constructed it. They have forbidden courses in the summer in which they bring in world-class public intellectuals to talk about things like sticky issues—like trans-ish sticky would be the most polite way to say it.
They had Kathleen Stock and Deirdre McCloskey. Deirdre McCloskey is trans, having one of the first, if you want to frame it, debates or conversations. They're bringing people together and the university has a truth seeking mission. So it's scheduled to go online in 2024. Extremely excited about that.
And again, I want to stress something so important. We've talked a lot in this interview about institutional capture. As the President Pano Kanelos says the remedy, this is an anti-Kendi quote in a sense, "The remedy to left wing ideological capture of our academic institutions is not to build right wing institutions." That only polarizes and makes the situation worse.
The solution to Left-wing organizational capture of the academy is to have a truth seeking institution where truth is the North Star, free inquirers are encouraged to speak their mind. That's one of my jobs. I give people tools when they go in the forbidden classes program so they can have more productive conversations.
How do we evaluate evidence? How do we have these conversations? And once that's done, we have a framework in which students can engage ideas. Keep in mind that's almost exactly the opposite of what the academy is now. We have people modeling the exact opposite behavior that they should be shouting people down, screaming, and freaking out. It happened at Stanford Law with judges. And again, if you notice, just to bring it back to something I said before, if you watch that video, it's fascinating because they have a DEI bureaucrat who is basically fueling that. The University of Austin does not have a DEI bureaucracy. Oh, and admissions are merit based, purely merit based.
Mr. Jekielek: One of the big issues that many institutions had over the last three years is severe restrictions on student life—would be one way to put it. So Hillsdale College comes to my mind as a clearly conservative institution, but also-
Mr. Boghossian: Explicitly conservative.
Mr. Jekielek: Explicitly conservative, but at the same time fostering, explicitly fostering free thinking, I think as being one that was able to navigate that somehow.
Mr. Boghossian: Yes, I can't speak to that. The way to figure out if that's true, if they want to foster free thinking, then they should have a Marxist in their economics department.
Mr. Jekielek: I would doubt they have one.
Mr. Boghossian: Okay. Then, I would claim a kind of skepticism about that. I know Victor Davis Hanson is there who's a major public intellectual. But what the University of Austin is building is different; is people from whom have different commitments or ideological commitments if they have any commitments at all. So students are given the tools. They're shown people who actually believe, which is a key. It's another emerging theme in our interview from John Stuart Mill and they are... So just take a step back.
I taught atheism at Portland State University. I am an atheist, but when I taught the arguments for the existence of God, almost universally, I brought people in who believed those arguments. I would say, "Okay, what's the best argument for the existence of God? You have 50 minutes, with a 10 minute break," and then the students are going to ask you questions.
I gave the students tools. They asked the questions. I'm not going to be effective in giving students, because I just don't believe the arguments. So I think for Hillsdale or for Liberty or for other traditionally conservative institutions, that's fine. You're explicit. You're honest about your mission.
But I would question if they're truly free thinking, unless they have people on the faculty who actually believe certain propositions within their domain of expertise, and then teach those to students and then give students a tool set to figure out what's true. The only way it could be free thinking, right?
Mr. Jekielek: You're saying you think you should have someone on your faculty who teaches woke ideology.
Mr. Boghossian: Correct. It is absolutely essential. That's a prophylactic to falling into delusion.
Mr. Jekielek: You told me, and I thought this was very interesting a couple of years ago, that you're always seeking mechanisms of your own belief correction.
Mr. Boghossian: Correct. Disconfirmation.
Mr. Jekielek: Right. Please explain that.
Mr. Boghossian: The lead physicist Feynman said, "The easiest person to fool is yourself." Michael Shermer and others have written about this. Steven Pinker and Dan Dennet have written about this. So we have a moral impulse about something, and then we look to an epistemic landscape. So we feel something strongly, and then we look to facts and evidence.
We pull the facts and evidence as it accords with our own moral impulse, and then we raise our confidence and say, I am sure of this. I'm very confident that this is true, because this piece of evidence, this piece of evidence, this piece of evidence, this piece of evidence. But what you should be doing is you should be engaging ideas that you find unpalatable or that you don't like, or that maybe you're offended by. In fact, probably that you're offended by.
That's the other danger of the proponents of woke ideology. They discourage discourse and dialectic in conversation because they believe inherently rooted in those things is an oppressive power structure to keep minorities down. So they won't even consider ideas or have conversations with people with whom they disagree. That's a cognitive toxin that will almost guarantee you to lead into an epistemic sinkhole—almost guaranteed.
Mr. Jekielek: There's something that I call the megaphone. I see that the megaphone is the mechanism of manufacturing perceived consensus in society. The thing that struck me as bizarre, and I just didn't fully grasp it as possible, there's some portion of our population that is incredibly susceptible to being affected by this. In fact, they may change their minds 180 degrees overnight when that thing changes, when the information that megaphone is projecting changes.
Mr. Boghossian: Correct.
Mr. Jekielek: There's some portion of the population who seems to be not susceptible. And I suspect that there's a whole bunch of people that just kind of follow along. Hence the power of this machine, even though they don't necessarily believe one way or the other, but they're going to run with it because it's the perceived consensus.
Mr. Boghossian: Right. Let's situate everything you said in the current context. So one of the belief changes that we're currently seeing, the Overton window is shifting on. The trans issue is the testimonies of detransitioners are changing people's minds. The Tavistock Clinic has been exposed. People are coming out and saying, almost universally, people with autism, young gay men, young gay women who are told you're not really gay, you're born in the wrong body.
They're giving what Abigail Shrier talks about irreversible damage: hormones, Lupron, breast binding, things that have literally irreversible damage. What should the response be to those situations? The response should be, "Well, I believe this. I thought it was the right thing based upon the evidence that I had. I realized maybe there's something else there and maybe I was wrong." That should be what a sane, reasonable, rational person says.
Aristotle writes that a person shouldn't do a bad thing to feel shame, but if you do a bad thing, you should feel shame. So bracketing the shame, the idea is that if you made a mistake, own up to it. Say that you made a mistake, don't just do what's morally fashionable. And my prediction, very explicit prediction to you, Jan, is that the people who have advocated for the sheer madness that has engulfed society in the last few years will not say, "You know what? I'm sorry, I was wrong.
At the time, the same people, by the way, were screaming that they're on the right side of history. At the time, I believed that, “I'm sorry, I made a mistake." My prediction to you is that we will have epic gaslighting. In other words, these people say, I never believe that. I was never a proponent of it. The moment you do that, you compromise your integrity, not your intellectual integrity, although you compromise that as well, but you compromise your moral integrity.
Mr. Jekielek: The people that come out and say they were wrong are very rare. I know. I look for them.
Mr. Boghossian: And they should be respected independent of what they said they were wrong about. So we need to create a culture where we reward a few things. One of those things is saying, "I believe this. I was wrong. I've changed my mind." The other thing is, when you ask someone a question and they say, "I don't know."
Whenever I do the Spectrum Street Epistemology games, and people say, "I really don't know." When I ask them, I always say, "That's a great answer." And if I may just share a story with you briefly. I was asked once by my past employer if race was a valid biological category or a construct, and I said, "I don't know. I'm not a biologist. Ask a biologist." And for saying, I don't know, I was reported to the office of Global Diversity.
Think about that for a second, which is the other reason for the emerging theme in the interview that you cannot have both DEI offices and free speech. There cannot be a party line that you have to tow. And if you don't tow it, you get into trouble. The fact that that's always looming, that you think you should give certain answers to racial questions or trans questions or what have you. That is antithetical to having free speech in an institution. You can't have both.
Mr. Jekielek: There's something incredibly attractive. There must be about Marxist or Marxian, or Marx related, maybe even Hegelian ideology, because despite the horrible realities it's created repeatedly throughout history, people seem to keep gravitating back to it and swearing by it and believing it deeply.
Mr. Boghossian: It's like a cockroach. You stamp it out and it pops up again.
Mr. Jekielek: Yes. I don't want to be promoting that. I don't want to be funding people who believe that.
Mr. Boghossian: If you really don't want to do that, I have a simple solution for you and for all your viewers here, stop donating to your alma mater. It should be the simplest ask in the world. My nonprofit National Progress Alliance has a whole campaign. Don't donate to institutions that... Because we know where this problem comes from. It's the academic institutions.
This should be literally the easiest ask in the world. Not asking for money, asking you to not give money to your alma mater because the places from which you graduated are not the same places today. So if you want to make a dent, a small contribution, don't give to your alma mater.
Mr. Jekielek: That makes a ton of sense to me. What I'm referring to here is if I'm setting up my faculty, I'm not keen on hiring the Marxist ideologue who will then convince the next generation, right?
Mr. Boghossian: I see. I misunderstood where you were going. Okay. The problem is that the only way people develop responses and an immune system to ideas is not to be separated from those ideas. Every new generation isn't born with knowledge. We need to understand things.
So let me give you a quick, very practical example, which I got crazy grief for. I taught a science and pseudoscience class, and I used to have people come into the class over Zoom at the time. This is before and during the pandemic, and I had Mark Sargent come into the class. Mark Sargent is a true believer, like an actual bona fide, true believer, has written a book about it, goes, saw conferences that the Earth is flat. The only way that my students could have understood Mark Sargent's arguments is by asking him questions, listening to the response, and then responding to those responses.
If not, what's going to happen when my students get out and they encounter a guy like Mark Sargent, who's incredibly versed in whatever it is he's versed in? I don't even know what it would be called. So that's one aspect of it. But the other aspect of it is, what if these people are right? And I'm not necessarily saying about the flat Earth, but what if the beliefs that don't comport with the dominant moral orthodoxy, what if those people who promulgate those beliefs happen to be correct? You want to know that.
Now, in the case of Marxism, I would want to know that my students, I have a son and daughter, I would want to know that my students were exposed to Milton Friedman, Karl Marx, whoever they were exposed to. They were exposed to the widest range of ideas possible, given the tools to interact with those, understand the arguments pro and con. That's how we make an educated citizenry.
We don't make an educated citizenry by removing entire domains of thought from a discipline. And that's just parenthetically the problem with removing gender studies. We need people to study these ideas of race, class, well, less so class, but race, sexual orientation, "cis status" but we need them to do that in the most rigorous and robust ways.
And when they aren't done, we're instead forwarding the narrative. That's a problem. But even in that case, I would argue that we need to have a true believer of somebody who teaches our children or at least presents the material to our kids. And when I say kids, I'm not talking about K-12. That's a different thing I'm talking about specifically in the universities.
Mr. Jekielek: In principle, I'm fully in agreement with everything you're saying. It's just something specious about this particular ideology.
Mr. Boghossian: Marxism.
Mr. Jekielek: Yes. It somehow captures whole societies, again and again.
Mr. Boghossian: So you are concerned about, and we'll bracket for the moment, whether the concern is legitimate or not. You're concerned about Marxism festering and growing in the United States?
Mr. Jekielek: Deeply.
Mr. Boghossian: The moment that you make an exception for an ideology, and we can talk about some horrific racial things, does that mean we have a lunatic in there who wants to throw people in ovens? Which is a totally reasonable question to be brought into the conversation.
Mr. Jekielek: Or the flat-Earther...
Mr. Boghossian: Or the flat Earth.
Mr. Jekielek: But of course, those are very fringe.
Mr. Boghossian: They're very different because one is in the empirical realm, whether or not the Earth is flat. The other one is in the moral domain. It's a kind of antibody. We're exposing people to ideas. Marxism isn't going to go away. It's not going to go away if you don't talk about it. But what's going to happen is that people won't be able to take what they learn in their class, go to the other professor, engage those ideas.
So the price of an educated citizenry, you're talking about exposing people to dangerous ideas. That's what it means to live in a, not only necessarily to live in democracy, though it does, but that's what it means to be an educated citizen.
And if you want to propel the democracy, you have to have people who have engaged in a wide range of subjects and issues and developed counters and counters to those. That's what being educated means. It's Plato's Book 7 of the Republic. It's being led out of the cave, a state of ignorance and darkness and toward the light.
Mr. Jekielek: Is there some age in the progression of development of a human being where ideas become appropriate or the human being is able to discern between good ideas and bad ideas, and make judgements? One of my observations is I feel like we live in a more infantilized society actually, right?
And I think that might be deliberate. I think that people might be more susceptible to some of these really terrible ideas that sound good at a younger age. This strikes me as a very important dimension in the discussion.
Mr. Boghossian: Let me throw something out too. This is the one of the most, if not the most important questions anybody could ever ask themselves in their whole lives. Here you go. Under what conditions would you be willing to change your mind? What facts would you have to hear? What evidence would you have to hear?
If you institutionalize that process at a very, very young age, then the threshold for what is deemed appropriate will drop dramatically, because people will have the tools to engage those ideas. Now, what that threshold is, that's still an open question, but if you give people a process or a way that they can think more clearly and develop a kind of skepticism about ideas, then that age range will lower significantly.
Mr. Jekielek: That makes a lot of sense. But we have a society where this is not how children have been taught. And this is the argument that you're making. In fact, kids have been kind of indoctrinated ideologically largely, right?
Mr. Boghossian: Correct. That's why we cannot have your example, Hamilton, or I think I brought up Liberty. That's why you can't have conservative or liberal institutions. You have to have a mix of ideas for people, a true intellectual diversity in which people can come and engage and try to falsify and use the tools that we have had since Socrates. We know that these tools are the best way.
Philosopher Jurgen Habermas says, "You don't have a conversation with someone to persuade. The goal should be to understand communication as understanding." So we can understand your question. Marxism is a particularly pernicious thing. Why have people fallen? Well, that's a simple question. You ask someone who believes it.
Well, why do you believe this? And then that's the kind of way that we cultivate an understanding. And once we do that, then there are downstream social effects. It's socially salubrious. People are much less likely to rip down statues. People are much less likely to engage in acts of physical violence. People are much less likely to be uncivil towards each other because they understand why the other person believes what they believe because they've been exposed to those ideas.
Mr. Jekielek: Peter, I enjoy speaking with you so much. I've hadn't a chance yet to just get you to tell me, which I often do with guests, is where you come from. How is it that you ended up today being the Street Epistemologist? Give me a sense of how you're thinking has evolved and where you actually come from.
Mr. Boghossian: I was heavily influenced by Socrates. I love Socrates, without question, my favorite philosopher. I used to read the Republic, the Apology, the Laws, Meno, Crito, everything when I was a kid. It led me down a wonderful life path in a sense I'm curious about why people believe what they believe. I'm genuinely interested in what would lead someone to that belief.
There are tools, the tools that I mentioned before in the interview, that I developed in prisons and that we've used in prisons. Many of these tools, like the Socratic method I mentioned, have been around. But when you add hosted negotiations, drug and alcohol counseling, cult exiting, the Socratic method is the skeleton. But when you add to that skeleton, the best available research data and evidence for the last 2,400 years, you come up with a remarkably powerful tool.
I watched a movie when my dad was alive years ago about the gorillas, and it was just this horrific, truly ghastly slaughter of these gorillas. I was moved by this film and I said, "I've got to do something about the gorillas. This is just a terrible thing." And my dad said, "What the hell are you going to do about the gorillas? You can't do a single thing about the gorillas. Why don't you do something about what you can do something about?"
And I really started to think about that like, "Oh, wow." Think globally, act locally. And so I started thinking, what can I do about that? Well, what contribution can I make? And it has to be free. That's the other thing. I don't sell any products. There's no gimmicks. I can teach people how to ask themselves and other people better questions. I can teach people how to think more clearly about things in a non-threatening way.
I can teach people how to speak across divides. I can teach people to understand that your ideas are not you, and you need to be merciless against your ideas and unbelievably kind and generous and loving to attributes of yourself and other people that you can't change. So that's the contribution that I wanted to make. That's why I go around the world and I put tape on the sidewalk and I teach people how to do this. And then we release these videos to have a nonprofit, and now I'm pursuing my dream. That's what I want to do.
Mr. Jekielek: Somewhere along the way, you became a professor of philosophy. Of course, we discussed some of the people you brought into some of your classes. And then you resigned from Portland State University in a spectacular fashion, or at least a lot of people around the world knew about your resignation. What's the future for you?
Mr. Boghossian: Let me just go back to when I stopped doing my job, because it ties in with another theme from this interview. I would get summoned into the Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, or people would file a complaint against me. More often than not, it was because I wanted to look at the other side of the issue because I challenged what was morally fashionable. And that challenge alone was problematic enough so that people were traumatized or they needed a trigger warning or it was considered a microaggression.
So what's next is I'm going to keep working on my nonprofit National Progress Alliance. I'm going to move toward exposing other instances of corruption. Wikipedia is one. I'm going to continue to move towards exposing corruption in academic institutions. And I'm going to keep going around the world and teaching people how to have impossible conversations.
Mr. Jekielek: I want to finish with this. You mentioned something that I find very compelling and I believe to be true, but I don't know if it's necessarily obvious. You said your ideas are not you.
Mr. Boghossian: Correct.
Mr. Jekielek: Your ideas are not you. So what is you?
Mr. Boghossian: At one level, what is you is a physical attribute or characteristic. I'm 56. You can't change the things you can't change. So if you can change it, it's subject to attack. It's reasonable. If you can't change it, the color of your skin, your height, your age, it's off-bound. Because by definition, you can't change it. So what is you, what do you have at the end of the day? My mentor was in Buchenwald. And I remember reading Viktor Frankl's Man's Search For Meaning.
Mr. Jekielek: One of my favorite books.
Mr. Boghossian: It had a profound effect on me, and it actually completely changed the way that I raised my children. And the way it did that, and this answers your question, what is you? Viktor Frankl was in a line. He has a very wealthy wife, children, home, everything one could imagine. And then he's in a loincloth, basically. And somebody's deciding his fate. He goes to the gas chamber or he works himself to death. And in that moment, he didn't have his education, his degrees, he didn't have nothing.
So what is you are the things that can't be taken away from you. But what is more than that is what your integrity is. Whether or not you're a person who lives to their ideals. Now the word is based whether you're a person who's based, whether you're a person who's willing to revise their beliefs.
It's what kind of intellectual and emotional and moral life you want to lead. And the other thing is these things don't happen by accident. If you've been treating people poorly in your own life, in the relationships you build, even in that context, in Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, he has no more relationships. He's a guy. So you're not even your relationships, but you are the culmination of the way you've treated people in the past. So a kind of integrity like a string through pearls that runs through various facets of your life.
Mr. Jekielek: Right. Thankfully, there's also redemption to be found from past misdeeds.
Mr. Boghossian: Unless you subscribe to wokism, there's no redemption, there's no absolution, there's the stain of original sin, which is privilege. There's no way for you to work out of that horror that you are allegedly complicit in. That's the other reason that we need to fight the ideology, because we're creating entire swaths of people who hate themselves based upon their immutable characteristics or what their ancestors did.
We're creating a divisive society in which we stop looking at people as humans, and we look at them as oppressor or oppressed. Nobody benefits from that. Everybody is the loser. Let's switch that narrative. Let's change that. Let's repudiate the ideology and let's move forward and start talking to each other again.
Mr. Jekielek: Peter Boghossian, and it's such a pleasure to have you on.
Mr. Boghossian: Thank you, and I appreciate it.
Mr. Jekielek: Thank you all for joining Peter Boghossian and me on this episode of American Thought Leaders. I'm your host, Jan Jekielek.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.