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Peter Boghossian: Hiding People From Truth Does Not Protect Them

“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.


Interview trailer:

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Jan 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