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Robby Soave joins us to discuss his new book, Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump.

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor
Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies

Robby Soave is an associate editor at Rea​son​.com.

Soave is best known for his early skepticism of Rolling Stone’s investigative reporting on sexual assault at the University of Virginia. He won a 2015 Southern California Journalism Award for his commentary on the subject.

Since the 2016 election, college campuses have erupted in violent protests, demands for safe spaces, and the silencing of views that activist groups find disagreeable. Robby Soave has gone in to the trenches to catalog these young radicals in order to better understand the climate at universities across America.

When did college campuses become sites of harsh public discourse? How has the culture around safety changed on college campuses? Is there a crisis on college campuses? Are we chilling our professors in order to not hurt students’ feelings? What is intersectionality? Why are students claiming that their professors are triggering their PTSD?

Further Reading:



00:07 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.

00:09 Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.

00:11 Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Robby Soave, an associate editor of Reason magazine and author of the new book, Panic Attack, Young Radicals in the Age of Trump. Welcome to Free Thoughts.

00:19 Robby Soave: Thank you for having me.

00:20 Trevor Burrus: We’ve had you on before to talk about these kids today, which is Aaron’s favorite subject. Other word, we’re past millennials now and we’re at zillennials.

00:29 Aaron Ross Powell: Gen Z.

00:29 Robby Soave: Gen Z.

00:30 Aaron Ross Powell: I don’t know anything about that.

00:31 Trevor Burrus: Okay, alright. So are we really seeing something new? Actually, more specifically, even with zillennials, I think last time you were on, we hadn’t even coined that term.

[overlapping conversation]

00:40 Aaron Ross Powell: It’s not a real term.

00:42 Trevor Burrus: He made it. It’s in the book.


00:46 Robby Soave: To explain all of that… So yeah, millennials were the previous young generation, people born between ’80 and 2000, roughly. Some people draw that more narrowly or… No one goes more broadly than that, but ’80 to 2000. Next, is Gen Z. To get the combination of the two groups, I call them zillennials, when we’re talking about both. Xennials would technically be Gen X and millennials. So, that’s the terminology clarification. And I try to be careful about drawing broad characterizations about entire generations. Generational trend stuff is always a little suspect, in my view.

01:31 Trevor Burrus: Except for Baby Boomers. We can throw them under the bus as much as possible. Yeah.

01:35 Robby Soave: They’re horrible. Right. All. Every single one of them. So what I have noticed and what I write about in the book is the most militant and activist wing of the young generation who are active, particularly on college campuses, but also on social media, are going to go on to occupy interesting places in media companies, private businesses, and who have developed very hostile ideas to the concept of free expression. To things that progressives, and even progressive activists, used to hold in high regard. Their views towards these things have changed. Again, not the entire generation, not all young people are a problem, but in places where very politically, ideologically active young people have some degree of power, you’ve seen kind of frightening… In some cases, entertaining and frightening, challenges to liberal norms or classically liberal norms.

02:33 Aaron Ross Powell: You said these are the kids who are militant and activists, right? But are we talking specifically the left or is this… Is this a phenomenon limited to kids on the progressive left or are there the militant activists among the right too?

02:48 Robby Soave: Certainly on the right as well. And in my book, I spent a whole chapter talking about the development of what I see as the kind of identity politics coalition on the young right, which are the alt‐​right, who are more horrifying even and hold horrible views on race and nationalism, etcetera, who are responsible for a small, but not a negligible, a small amount of violence, but also tons of harassment online, is what I think has been their main evil contribution. So I… There… That’s… And they didn’t exist 15 years ago or they didn’t know to find each other, they didn’t know how to join up because you didn’t have social media. Social media has allowed small contingents of like‐​minded people to find each other and make life miserable for a lot of people.

03:39 Robby Soave: It’s always has also done a lot of good. It’s allowed people to find people who share their interests and communicate across vast geographical distances, which is good. So I talk about… I talk about the problem on the right as well. And also not… It’s not even just the alt‐​right is a really awful fringe group, but also you have seen just normal conservative activism on campus tend toward a self‐​victimization sort of a language of, “We’re the victims and we’re gonna do whatever.” They want to annoy liberal people. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “Own the libs.” Like it’s this joking thing that all conservative activism, the purpose of it on campuses is to trigger the left and make them really mad and get them really upset. And this happens time and time again, it’s… The epilogue of my book is called: When Extremes Meet, because it truly is this feeding off each other, this sort of… They need each other in some of these most most polarized environments like campuses, social media, etcetera.

04:42 Trevor Burrus: Like Peter Pan and Captain Hook. They need each other in some way.

04:46 Aaron Ross Powell: Very much. And they won’t grow up.

04:48 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, exactly. Is there a first mover in this? So you point out that, obviously, Trump’s election caused a bunch of things to happen and maybe move this long further. Can we say the left moved first and then the right reacted, or is it just… Or the right is a manifestation… No. Trump is a manifestation of these bad tendencies on the right. And the left came in, or…

05:10 Aaron Ross Powell: And just to add to that question, what’s the timeline look like? Is this something that it wasn’t there? The kind of behavior and the kind that actually drew them out, didn’t exist, and then the millennials hit college and suddenly, boom, there it all was, or has it been emerging slowly over time even into prior generations?

05:30 Robby Soave: It’s hard to say who struck first. It’s a feud between families or something, where each has their own narrative for how they did nothing wrong and it was the neighbors who made off with the flock or…


[overlapping conversation]

05:42 Robby Soave: Exactly.

05:46 Aaron Ross Powell: It’s a flock, it’s a sheep. It’s something.

05:48 Robby Soave: It is true, however, that… So many of the kind of incidents I’m writing about in the book, things we’ve seen on campuses with invited speakers being shut down or even greeted with violence, there are professors being investigated at the behest of their students, the liberal professors. This is something happening to very far left professors who have said something in class that is somehow out of step with what young people think about maybe race or gender. And you’ll… You could snap your fingers and someone will complain. And the professor, even if they have tenure, academic freedom, etcetera, can be in trouble. This is a phenomenon we definitely started seeing happening more often in, I would say, 2013‐​ish, 2013–2014.

06:32 Robby Soave: I graduated from the University of Michigan in 2010, and part of the reason I wanted to write this book is because in reporting on campus issues for Reason for the last few years, what I saw was just night and day from what I had seen during my own experience on campus, working for the student paper, where I was working with very, very, very liberal, very progressive people who would not have questioned at all their commitment to ACLU‐​type liberal principles: Free speech, due process, etcetera. The most outrageous or offensive person, it would be without question their right to speak on campus would be supported. And that just started, that started changing or being challenged a little bit. The more elite campuses are more susceptible, even, to this.

07:24 Robby Soave: Harvard has recently just fallen down, just unconditionally surrendered to a group of activist students who wanted a famous and well‐​known liberal law professor… They wanted him gotten rid of because he had agreed to represent Harvey Weinstein, who’s accused of sexual harassment. They said, “You doing that has made this campus an unsafe place for women.” Harvard agreed, and they removed him not as a law professor, but as a dean of the Faculty College. So that kind of thing, we started seeing more often in 2013.

07:54 Aaron Ross Powell: When I’ve seen these stories, one of the things that I wonder about in terms of the emergence of this is, often what you see are kids acting the way that kids sometimes do and college students are still are pretty young. And so, I have children of my own. The kids are always pushing boundaries, they’re always acting out, they’re always making demands. It’s just like what we do, until… I guess adults still do the same thing too, [chuckle] but part of the maturing process… And so whether this is a change in the way that college students are acting or the attitudes they have versus a way that the administration is responding to them, that if you… You criticize a professor, you got upset some professor said something you don’t like and that happens all the time, right? And so maybe in the past, you sent a complaint and it just gets ignored, but now if the administration is like, “Oh right, we’re gonna investigate that,” then you’ve got a taste for it and other people do it. And so, has there been a change in the way that administration treats this behavior such that it’s either encouraging or not clamping down on it?

09:08 Robby Soave: Yes, perhaps predominantly because the number of administrators that there are has grown so tremendously over the last 20 years. If you look at faculty salaries, they haven’t really gone anywhere, they haven’t hired tons new faculty members, that proportion of faculty members to students is, I think, roughly the same in most colleges. The number of administrators towards students has sky‐​rocketed. These people are paid very well, often. Often they’re the top however many public employees in any State, are University administrators. There can be like 100 people making more than 100K sometimes in administrative positions. There’s a lot more people whose job, ostensibly, is to give students what they want. And so, the more of those people there are, I think the more likely their, the demands the students are making are going to be taken seriously.

10:01 Robby Soave: But I do think there has also been a qualitative change, to some degree, in the things students are demanding. Student demands in sort of previous generations, activist movements, were often anti‐​authoritarian in character. I write about this in the book, going back to Berkeley and the free speech movement which loved the concept of free speech, the thought the admins… That wanted to cast off the shackles the administration at Berkeley had imposed on who could speak on campus, which were really… Which there were really ridiculous rules for who could speak on campus. And they, the liberal progressive student group, went so far in 1963 as to invite a literal Nazi to campus and they all dressed in Nazi regalia to promote the event, this is the liberal students doing this. Can you imagine if anyone did this on campus today, it would be… You would have a National Day of Mourning. It would be like you’d close the campus down.

10:58 Trevor Burrus: But they wanted people to come and then refute his ideas.

11:02 Robby Soave: Right, right and nobody heckled him, nobody talked over him. They politely laughed when he was done making his remarks and he went on his way. And so, no one felt their safety was impacted by this at all. That’s the difference now. The culture around safety has changed. And now, so to do that would be in the view of many activists, many young people, to just to invite this person would be causing violence, that’s how they would say it. And what they mean by that is emotional harm. If you disrupt someone’s emotional well‐​being, it’s like you’ve comprised their physical well‐​being, so that… So, an expansion of mental health or comfort, mental comfort being part… A fundamental part of your safety that the administration is responsible for preventing any harm to that is a huge trend that has occurred.

11:55 Aaron Ross Powell: Curious about the scope of this. Sometimes you see these stories that something that happened in the news and there’ll be a story about how there’s all these racists on Twitter saying racist things in response to it, but then when you go look at it, it’s someone has aggregated like three dozen tweets out of the hundreds of millions that are being sent and so it’s just a hand… You can always find a handful of people saying god awful things. And so, we have stories of the kind of stuff the you’re describing happening, but there’s also, there’s a shockingly large number of four‐​year colleges and universities in the US. Like I looked it up.

12:28 Trevor Burrus: I’d say over 500, I think.

12:30 Aaron Ross Powell: Oh, it’s over, it’s like in the 2000 plus range. Very, very large number. I don’t actually know how they physically where they all are. [chuckle] But… So is this something that we’re seeing across that extraordinarily large number of universities or is it a handful of stories that, I don’t wanna say it’s just like the finding the 12 Racists on Twitter thing, but is it like concentrated? So it’s just a thing of liberal arts universities which are very small number of them, or just a thing among the elite Ivy’s which are again a very small number? If you’re… Is the average college student… What’s likely the average college student across the country is experiencing this sort of thing?

13:13 Robby Soave: Right. Probably low. The type of institution matters tremendously. If we’re talking about just community colleges, places like that, the more likely the college is to be providing a vital job training service, I think the less likely these things are to be taking place. So the kinds of colleges that are cheaper, that you’re getting some degree that you actually need to better your economic station, you have more focused students who don’t have the time or the patience, and some of them, many of them, are older students as well or people going back to college. So you don’t… You aren’t as likely to have a kind of activist climate of young people engaged in the kind of antics I’m describing. I’m careful always to not describe this as a generational problem or even other people said, “Well, is there a free speech crisis on college campus?” No, that’s ridiculous. Sure, it depends how you’re defining crisis. This is certainly not a crisis, if we were defining it such that this is always happening on every campus and free speech is dead.

14:15 Robby Soave: No, of course, there are plenty of times people are invited on to campus, even offensive people, and they speak, and the event goes off without a hitch. So there is some analogy to the six racists on Twitter thing, I’ve read about that sometimes… The Little Mermaid one was my favorite, where people are ostensibly, everyone is mad that you cast a black actress to play a white character, The Little Mermaid, which questionable even that but… And then it’s trending on Twitter, and you’re like, “Oh, it’s trending on Twitter. There’s that many racists,” but then when you looked at it, no it was, literally, five or six people on a planet of seven billion who were racist and were upset about this. But it was trending because they were hundreds of thousands more criticizing that perspective. So we do have to be careful about that, but also if it was just, “College student says stupid thing,” you’re right, we have… Can over cover that and it is being over covered…

15:11 Aaron Ross Powell: There’s a long tradition of that.

15:12 Robby Soave: It is a long tradition, but it’s being covered more regularly now by national news media, in part because these things live on social media. Like a dumb newspaper column 20 years ago would not have survived, it wouldn’t have stuck around, it would have been gone the next day. Now, ’cause it’s online, you could have cable news making fun of that for days to come. So there is a little bit of that. That said, there has been some violence, too. [chuckle] It’s note worthy when students are literally attacking people because they don’t wanna hear them speak, which has happened a couple of times. Or the chilling effect on the faculty. Faculty who should have the most norms of free speech, they should be able to broach any controversial subject without fear of reprisal, that’s the environment I want them to operate in, they tell me privately, very few of them make public stands ’cause they’re that afraid, but they are… They say they’re terrified of their students. Not all their students, just the one. There’s gonna be one in a class who’s going to make their life a living hell if they say the wrong thing. And that is, again, I won’t say crisis, but that is a problem and it’s more of a problem now.

16:25 Trevor Burrus: It hurts education. I think in law schools, we’ve seen a trend of not teaching rape in criminal law anymore, which is a very valuable teaching tool and something that has traditionally been taught. We both went to law school and it helps you learn the ins and outs of criminal law, but a lot of people aren’t gonna touch it. So now, we’re hurting their educations because you’re chilling the professors, and most of them are probably liberal. They probably pass many of the tests are being woke enough, but of course, you bring up another thing that comes into play here which you have really almost your first chapter on, which is intersectionality. So there’s actually, for the left, and we’ll talk about the right in a second, but there’s actually an ideological framework around what they’re saying. It’s not just, “Oh, you really hurt my feelings, and therefore, I’m gonna shut you down.” It actually has a little bit more behind it in terms of the claims that they’re making. So what is intersectionality first to begin with?

17:20 Robby Soave: Sure. Intersectionality is a concept that was coined in the late 1980s by a sociologist, Kimberlé Crenshaw, who needed a term to describe her realization that you can be oppressed for different reasons. If you’re a black person, historically, black people have suffered racism, so that’s a source of oppression for the marginalized category of people of color. If you’re a woman, sexism is the source of marginalization that has worked against your group and so on and so forth, LGBT status, age, disability status, economic status. So these are all distinct, but they can stack. If you’re a transgender, gay, black person, then you have many sources of historical oppression that have impacted your group. That was just her observation that these things are different but they related and they stack.

18:16 Trevor Burrus: That seems like fairly banal.

18:17 Robby Soave: Yes, it’s right, it’s sort of true, trivially true. It’s like, “Yes, that makes sense.” So there’s nothing wrong with the theory. The activist community has really taken up the word over the last few years and seen it not just as a true philosophy, but also as prescribing, and Kimberlé Crenshaw never talked about any of this, but also that it must prescribe a certain set of activist tactics that the most marginalized person has the most authority to address issues of marginalization. That we should defer to the marginalized on issues relating to their marginalization, but also we should not expect them to put themselves in harm’s way because they’re gonna be the people most affected by being harmed by virtue of being marginalized. So we also can’t expect them to lead the charge, but only they can lead the charge, and we can’t ask them because it’s not their job to educate us, it’s our job to be educated. But if you’re not already educated, there’s no way to gain this knowledge because only they have.

19:19 Trevor Burrus: But, you have to talk to them, yes. Yeah.

19:21 Robby Soave: And, the… And also, we… You know, it’s not just race, and gender, and sex, and sexual orientation, but everything you can think of. And, in fact, there are administrative bureaucracies on campus that are adjudicating that have a whole list of things that, obviously, you can be oppressed or you can suffer slight for numerous reasons, but all of a sudden, it’s like, unless you agree with the sort of leftist activist people on all of these issues, including what new pronouns should be used…

19:51 Trevor Burrus: And global warming too, right? I mean, like climate change is in the list thing.

19:56 Robby Soave: Right, and everything. So unless you agree on everything, they’re, “You’re dead to us.” They don’t wanna work with you. And also the most… So what do you do if you’re a progressive white dude who wants to be involved in the activist community, but you’re not marginalized at all? So the category that is easiest to exaggerate or to claim to be some member of is mental health because it has no, not like race or gender or something where you can…

20:23 Trevor Burrus: Objective component or a less objective.

20:25 Robby Soave: Right. Which is so I strongly suspect that is part of the reason we’ve seen so many more young people, young activists, progressive people talking openly about their mental health and that they have PTSD, and that they’re triggered and that you can’t say anything in class to offend them because you will compromise their safety. That is a… It’s like a power move, that’s saying, “Yes, I am so committed and I am so progressive that it is killing me to hold these ideas and that’s how I should have power in this group.”

20:55 Aaron Ross Powell: What you’ve described, it’s how we deal with that because the underlying motivation, so the intersectionality as you, the initial way the term was used makes perfect sense, and it seems totally reasonable. And then a lot of these concerns, like it does seem to be the case that, if you’ve had personal experience with something that I have not, then you have something, you have access to certain kinds of knowledge that I don’t and your experience is meaningful in certain ways. And so it would make sense, especially if I’m making decisions that are going to impact you, that your perspectives are present. And that if you’re part of a marginalized group, then traditionally, your perspectives have been kept out of the situation, out of the conversations. And so, we ought to make an effort to include them. All of these things seem perfectly reasonable and even like the mental health, like it might be that the mental health, yes, there can be people exaggerating, but also mental health has been something that is traditionally, it’s not okay to talk about, it’s not okay to admit, especially like among men that men are supposed to be strong and stoic and not have these emotions and whatever.

22:07 Aaron Ross Powell: And so there’s a level of truth to that and it’s good if we can be more open about this sort of stuff. And so how do you… ’cause the tendency especially is, is the way that conservatives in America when they see this stuff reported on Fox news, talk about it, is that all of this is just junk and that anyone who is doing this is just trying to in their own way like oppress the white male, or undermine western values, or past socialism. But this seems to fit, too, with when people, when something’s been, when a certain… We embraced a new set of values, we’re often… Like the recent convert, even if they’re converted to a good set of ideas, is usually the most zealous, right? And then they, after time of wrestling with it, tone it down. So, how do you walk that line? How do you discuss this and identify the problems with it, without at the same time falling into the trap of saying it’s all junk and everything about it is bad?

23:03 Robby Soave: Yeah, I mean it’s a very difficult line to walk in that there’s… I think I’m one of very few people walking it, right? Because a lot of critics of the things I’m also criticizing, you’re exactly right, take it in that… Go way too far and are just trying to… They’re objecting to these things because… But they have their own sort of conservative social views that they wanna force on everyone, so it’s not that they don’t object to the forcing of views, [chuckle] they just don’t like the views. And you can whip people up to be afraid that there’s more of these young people than there actually are. But I do think some of it… Right, some of the things that are true, yes, we should listen to groups that have historically been oppressed, that we’ve not listened to. But the intersectional activist is saying that the reason this person has value is because they belong to this group, not because they might have been oppressed or something, it’s not an individualist ethos, which is what concerns me. And also, and yes, we should… It’s great that we’ve de‐​stigmatized mental health, and that people who need treatment are able to get it and are asking for it and being proactive about it.

24:21 Robby Soave: But there is a level of openness to talking about mental health on campus that seems unhealthy to me. I visited Arizona State University for some research for this book. It’s the most beautiful campus on earth. It’s a very happy place. And every couple feet, there’s a sign saying, “Have you remembered to breathe today? You should visit the mental health facility.” Like there’s a level of like, there must be something wrong with you, yet it’s… Life is so hard and are you sure… Something must be going on that’s like you’re going to convince or maybe incentivize people to think there’s something wrong with them, when there’s not, that I actually do think is going on a little bit. I interviewed a professor, it’s one of the probably most entertaining anecdotes in the book, who talks about… She’s a professor of Theater, of acting, at a liberal arts college, and she’s very left of center and she said every single student in her class, her very privileged, mostly white students, claimed at some point to be suffering from PTSD, and it was derailing the entire class. That any feedback she gave them, they said, “No, you’re triggering my PTSD.”

25:30 Trevor Burrus: This is acting class.

25:31 Robby Soave: This is acting class. So she was saying, and then… So there was no way to do it. Like if you were having men play women roles that was triggering, but if you were having men play men roles, that was triggering for playing into the… There was no way to satisfy 18 conflicting, competing desire… They all thought that it was totally their prerogative to contact her at any time and talk to her about their mental health problems, any grade, any feedback she gave them like… This is not the first time I’ve heard this from a professor of acting specifically, so there is something going on. Yes, does that make easy outrage bait for right of center media and people, yes. So it is hard to… I also try to… The way I try to distance myself from them is to then also criticize the conservative groups and the conservative students who they’ll write in our… Or they’ll take a video of their professor saying something un‐​American, how dare they. And then there’s a couple of media sites that will run it and say, “Oh, Professor says, Flag is bad, how dare they?” And so, I try to make fun of that too which is equally absurd.

26:39 Trevor Burrus: I don’t like the term, but, I guess, that means snowflakes all around. But it’s interesting ’cause we don’t wanna diminish mental health, but as you point out earlier, there’s some incentive to claim it. And the Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff point at this often in “The Coddling of the American Mind” that trauma used to mean related to physical via… So soldiers who had their legs blown off had PTSD. And it’s been continually defined broader and down, so no physical harm needed, and then broader things that can give you trauma. And that gives them a lot of weapons in this situation, but even in that, it also seems like they’re claiming this strange status.

27:19 Trevor Burrus: And Andrew Sullivan wrote a thing a couple of years ago ’cause it was his intersectionality and religion, and he made some interesting points there, where it doesn’t have to be, maybe the line that Aaron asked about. It doesn’t have to be a religion, it could be an interesting critical point that you should be considering, but in some of the things, in terms of being pure, having original sin, having heresies, having the kind of witches, that are in the area, you have a chapter called “Burn the Witch” but witches, witches are bad because people can hear them and then they can change thoughts in their mind and they can turn them away from the true faith, and that’s the problem with Charles Murray, is that people might hear him and then turn away from this. So there are aspects of this maybe in an increasingly non‐​religious or irreligious society, that these are saving them in some sense or they’re saving the world through these kind of things, extreme versions of these theories.

28:06 Robby Soave: Yes, they talk about the importance of belief. You have to believe people when they say they’re victims of something, you must believe them in a quasi‐​religious way. The kind of activists I’m criticizing are very consciously sort of against facts and reason and there’s a subjectivity of it. Well, your idea of what is as proving truth is a western enlightenment, kind of thing, that is… That was flawed and racist and it’s… And again, there are parts of this that ring true. People who have said, we’re gonna just base everything on science and reason, have done… Have committed horrible atrocities. So it’s not wrong to question, I’m totally for questioning, but it does have this quasi‐​religious category. And also the confession… What’s wrong, you have to confess what’s wrong with you, and that that’s what gives you power and some right to be part of our circle, like an initiation. If you were truly one of us, you would be suffering from PTSD is sort of…

29:21 Trevor Burrus: ‘Cause you would see how bad the world is and it would make you very upset to the point of trauma.

29:26 Robby Soave: And one of their most common demands that has gotten a lot of publicity, for instance, is trigger warnings, were mandatory trigger warnings. They wanted their professors to have to warn them before they were going to encounter material in class that would trigger their PTSD. Of course, that doesn’t really make much sense because what triggers… For actual PTSD, what triggers it is not always like talking about the exact thing.

29:50 Trevor Burrus: Exact same thing. Yeah.

29:51 Robby Soave: It’s a smell or a sound or something that calls to… That you couldn’t warn someone, ’cause you wouldn’t know exactly what it is. But also, I’ve been glad now to see, finally, another study, I think there’s a third or fourth study has come out just a few weeks ago, finding that trigger warnings do no good. And if anything, may do harm even for people who suffer from some form of trauma because you’re preparing them to be… You’re telling them, this is gonna scare you and then it heightens their anxiety and then the thing is not actually so scary. So there now have been so many studies showing that this concept has really no value. I actually think it might be fading or starting to fade. There was a writer at Slate had a headline, it was something saying, “Okay, I’m finally changing my mind about trigger warnings.” I’m like, great good, we need more people to do this.

30:40 Aaron Ross Powell: You said that you saw this really taking off in 2014, thereabouts. So we’re half a decade in, which is not long, and we had the PC bubble in the ‘90s, then there were books like politically incorrect bedtime stories. It was a best seller, making fun of this. And it blew… Like that PC bubble blew over, right? So is this a bubble or a fad? Everyone, every kid goes trough a goth stage but that doesn’t mean that they went through the goth stage and now as a 40‐​year‐​old middle manager somewhere they’re still goth‐​ing it up, right? Is this a phase that is going to blow over or these kids are gonna outgrow it or do you see this as something that they will take with them and continue throughout their life. And as they get into positions of authority themselves or into places where they have more influence, this stuff is going to have pernicious effects that reach outside of just some speakers yelled at on campus?

31:40 Robby Soave: I think it will continue to have very pernicious effects, even if it is a bit of a fad and even if the numbers of young people engaged in these kinds of things is not increasing or even is decreasing, because it only takes a few. And it has truly only been a few at these colleges, even at Oberlin or Reed or your most insane University, it’s still gonna be a handful of young people who are majoring in sociology or a critical studies kind of class or activist studies kind of class who have been filing complaints or staging protests, or in some cases, engaged in violence. Very few people. And they have had a substantial effect on campus culture with the changing with Title 9, for instance, which is the statute relating to sex and gender discrimination that has been used by them to suppress all sorts of speech by other students and by professors that it has something to do with sex or gender.

32:48 Robby Soave: So, my concern is, you just hire a couple of those people, and some of them will get jobs, and they will weaponize the laws or policies against harassment in the exact same way. And even if it’s 1% of these kinds of people, there will still be compliance, there will still be a fear of them. There has been a fear of them even though, again, they’re the super minority. There will be… You will see things like… I’m very concerned about things like James Demore, the guy who was fired by Google for an internal note criticizing some of their policies and…

33:31 Trevor Burrus: But he was trying to rock the boat. I mean, it’d be hard to work with him for some people after that. And they could fire whoever they want.

33:37 Robby Soave: That’s true, but the issue is they feel they have to fire him because he’s made the place an unsafe workplace environment. That’s the concern.

33:43 Trevor Burrus: Oh, that is…

33:45 Robby Soave: That’s why Kevin Williamson cannot work at The Atlantic. It was not even that… It was not… They hired him in the first place, so it was not that he holds views we don’t want him to publish, which would be fine. They can fire him again for any reason. He was fired because there was someone at The Atlantic who felt it was going to be a hostile workplace environment to employ someone who had this view.

34:07 Trevor Burrus: Which is, Supreme Court employment law, the language, yes.

34:09 Robby Soave: Right. That is the concerning aspect of this to me. Those people are gonna work at places like Facebook and Twitter and are going to be setting policies for what kind of speech is permitted. And again, I completely support the company’s rights to ban whoever they want, but they’re going to be setting these policies because of administrative compliance or fear of getting themselves in legal trouble or bad publicity or something for the super woke minority. And I think that is concerning.

34:37 Aaron Ross Powell: You mentioned Oberlin, and that’s where this recent case with the bakery thing.

34:40 Robby Soave: Yeah.

34:42 Aaron Ross Powell: That’s right, yeah. And so, is that a possible way that we start to see push back on it? So in this case, the student decided that a bakery was irredeemably racist and started boycotting it and the administration it looks like got involved in supporting this. And the bakery owner sued and won a very large settlement. Is that what it’s going to take? Do you think that that will change things at Oberlin, not necessarily in the way that the students act but in the way that the faculty and the administration supports or condones or at least looks the other way on this stuff?

35:17 Robby Soave: Yeah. I even actually had some reservations about that case. David French who writes about a lot of these same things. He is a conservative writer for National View. He was thrilled about this verdict and thought, yeah, this is the way forward, a civil suit when these kinds of things happen and showing real damages and having that kind of remedy rather than a legislative remedy. So, it’s good that it’s not the legislative remedy or the top‐​down kind of thing. I still didn’t quite necessarily agree, after I looked closely at the facts of it, that the administration had materially contributed to the antics of the students or had… Because the claim was that they had defamed the bakery by saying that the bakery was racist or had been racially profiling, but that was on the students. And again, they sued the university, and the university had maybe handed a flyer to someone. It was a little… It was dicier for me. I’m an ardent pro‐​free speech person. I think the things they said about the bakery were wrong and were violent, were horrible. But I’m concerned about libel being too broad and defamation being too broad, so I didn’t love that one.

36:34 Trevor Burrus: And it was such a big verdict. I expect it will be probably be cut in half by the [36:40] ____ court.

[overlapping conversation]

36:40 Robby Soave: That would be more reasonable. So, the best way to, I think, to deprive the kinds of activists I’m criticizing of some of their power is to challenge them when it occurs. The answer to bad speech is more speech, not to suppress speech. I want faculty to criticize… Leftist faculty should criticize these kids and they should feel supported for doing so, that they will not be in danger from their administrators, that they will not be investigated or suffer retaliation. Those are the changes that need to be made because when these students are challenged by professors, by administrators, by other students, often by, I’ve seen it when they’re trying to shout down Charles Murray, and someone stands up and says, “Well, I’m a minority student, but I would like to hear what Charles Murray has to say.” It robs them of their… ‘Cause their power is only situational, if they’ve lost the room, they melt away. So, more of that kind of thing is what I wanna see.

37:39 Trevor Burrus: We saw that at Reed… I think it was Reed College where there was the story about some big classics class that they had that was constantly being berated by some of the super woke. And so the students had created their own little private Facebook group to talk about these things on the side, and it was hugely popular and… Because that’s the other thing too, is there’s gotta be a bunch of students out there, as you pointed out, who are not super woke. They wanna talk about these ideas. They think maybe exactly like we are, like intersectionality is interesting. We should talk about. We shouldn’t pillory people if they don’t agree with every single thing I say, but they’re not allowed to and maybe they’re creating secret chat rooms and groups and stuff like that to go forward, and then maybe they’ll stand up and take them down.

38:21 Aaron Ross Powell: Well, similarly, have we seen or do you expect to see more sorting in the marketplace addressing this, that if your university gets the reputation for being the kind of place where this happens, then students who are into that sort of stuff, into those view points, are gonna go there. In the same way that religious, small religious schools, tend to attract people who are on board with the ideology at the core of it. And we don’t really have much of a problem with small religious schools because they can do these things in their own space, and that’s fine. The problem here is, is the universities forcing these viewpoints. Are the students using the universities to force these viewpoints?

38:58 Robby Soave: Right.

38:58 Trevor Burrus: Well, see, that’s the irony too, ’cause the small conservative groups, they’re the ones who originally pioneered regulating the sexual lives of their students, right? In some specific way like no girls in the dorm after five or relationships had to be reported or whatever. And that’s, of course, what a lot of the group wanna do too.

39:13 Aaron Ross Powell: But are we seeing applications go down at universities that have a reputation for this or students who want a different kind of education simply choosing to go somewhere else?

39:24 Robby Soave: The universities that allowed some of the, or played host, to some of the most insane outbreaks, for lack of a better word, like Mizzou and Evergreen, took massive enrollment hits, massive financial hits for doing so. So, there is that. Donors have punished universities where this has happened. So, certainly, that’s one means of combating this. Yeah, I had counseled donors to universities to be very careful how their money is being… This Hillsdale and Mizzou are right now engaged in this most fascinating… It’s a little tangential but it is fascinating.

40:08 Trevor Burrus: I know, it is fascinating.

40:09 Robby Soave: Fascinating lawsuit. I absolutely think Mizzou is wrong and should lose this grant. There was a grant to hire these Austrian Mises‐​style economists. It’s farcical that they absolutely did not do so. These people have no idea who von Mises is, clearly.

40:24 Trevor Burrus: And they signed a letter.

40:25 Robby Soave: And they signed a letter. They’re like, this is a huge academic integrity issue too. They signed a letter saying they were, they are not. If they say they are, they are they liars because they’re clearly not. So, anyway, that’s a tangential but very interesting…

40:38 Trevor Burrus: Yeah. The grant, if it doesn’t go to Austrian economists then it goes to Hillsdale.

40:42 Robby Soave: Right.

40:42 Trevor Burrus: In the event that Mizzou doesn’t actually do this, it goes to Hillsdale.

40:45 Aaron Ross Powell: But I guess, the broader question then is like, are we okay with an educational landscape where there simply is more sorting for ideology? So, as opposed to all of the universities, every university going back to enforcing like strict standards of free speech, we just have more universities that have…

41:04 Trevor Burrus: Public universities need to.

41:06 Aaron Ross Powell: Sure, okay. But a lot of these are private universities that we’re talking about, too, where they just have like we’ve got our own kind of ideology and this is what you’re gonna get on campus, and if you like it, you like it, and if you don’t, there’s plenty of other places for you to go. Is that an okay solution to this?

41:21 Trevor Burrus: Woke U versus unwoke U?

41:22 Robby Soave: That would not be my favorite solution, honestly. I mean, that would be fine. That would be… And again, private organizations can do what they want. You wanna start a campus? And if you wanna be explicit and say, these are our rules here, give us your money and come here. And the person says, “Okay, I will give you my money and come here,” then that’s fine. I mean, that is what religious schools do. They say there will be these restrictions, you’ll show up for mass on this day, give us your money. And it’s a contract because you’re paying them. It’s not… To me, it’s different than social media, where you’re not even paying for a service, so you really have no right to complain. Like if they just arbitrarily ban you, oh, well. You are not paying for this. You are paying for the university education, so they should honor what they, the norms and policies and procedures that they are guaranteeing you you will have in their agreement with you, which most, many of them, most of the universities I’m talking about make explicit free speech and due process guarantees to the students, so they should, they’re absolutely required to extend those.

42:19 Robby Soave: I want campuses where you can have uncomfortable conversations, where you can disagree, where you can dissent from the campus point of view, the professor’s point of view, other students, and you can hash out those things. I think that’s what makes for a more interesting university experience. I mean, as a young libertarian at the University of Michigan, I had a great experience hearing all sorts of perspectives that are at odds with mine, many of which I furiously disagreed with and continue to this day, some of which I might have seen some merit in. I remember, like the first interesting person I got to interview while working for the campus paper was Bill Ayers, the Weather Underground guy that had come to campus. It was so cool for me, a young person deciding they wanna be a journalist, and I got to interview this famous person about college activism and what he had to say was interesting. And that was a really cool formative experience for me that would have been denied under… ‘Cause he actually is… He poses no threat to anyone now. But he had been engaged in actually some explicit…

43:21 Trevor Burrus: At one time.

43:21 Robby Soave: Property destruction, that certainly conservative authorities, you could easily see saying, “No, this makes campus unsafe. He can’t be there.” Using the exact same kind of language. So that’s the kind of thing I’m very much against.

43:35 Trevor Burrus: It seems to me… I know you follow this stuff very, very closely. But it seems to me that there’s less of these crazy stories, fewer of these crazy stories than there were 2015, ’16, ’17. It’s gone down a little bit. Is that true? Or in general, is it optimism you have? Or kinda measured optimism or what do you see in the future?

43:56 Robby Soave: I think it’s true, to some extent. And many of the shutdowns that were occurring, with outside speakers specifically, were occurring because of just a handful of speakers. Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro, Christina Hoff Sommers, Charles Murray, Heather McDonald were on campus speaking tours. And now, those tours just aren’t happening or those people weren’t… Those five people weren’t interested in doing it anymore. Milo is sort of out of the public eye for the good. And so, those kinds of things are happening less frequently. I don’t know that the professors’ self‐​censoring because of fear of their students is happening any less. Those things don’t always make their way into headlines, so it’s hard to quantify that type of thing. Also, we’ve been in a political, so the election stuff is gonna start up soon. Election kind of stuff sets everyone on edge, will make campuses more radical hot beds of freak‐​out sort of political protest stuff. So, I would expect more in the coming year to kind of match what we saw in 2015–2016 perhaps.


45:25 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or in your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible and Landry Airs. To learn more, visit us on the web at www​.Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.