Simple Ways We Can Fight Cancel Culture and Defend Freedom of Speech in an Interview with Peter Boghossian

October 11, 2020

Cancel culture is threatening our freedoms. To help us better understand what we can do to combat this dangerous ideology, we spoke to a renowned philosophy professor and author Peter Boghossian.


For more than a decade, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, founder of AHA Foundation, has been promoting freedom of speech. Recently, she’s been on the front line defending that right against proponents of cancel culture. This work’s importance skyrocketed this year, amidst the rise of cancel culture. 

Why has cancel culture swarmed through the media in 2020? What role does critical thinking play in the fight against this ideology? What can each one of us do to stop it? We reached out to Peter Boghossian, a renowned philosophy professor at Portland State University and co-author of the book How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide to find answers to these questions. 

AHA Foundation: People have varying definitions of cancel culture. How would you define and explain cancel culture to someone who is unfamiliar with it? 

Peter Boghossian: The best definition of cancel culture is from New Discourses’ Social Justice Encyclopedia: 

“Cancellation” or “cancel culture” is largely understood as an aspect and, indeed, an escalation of “call-out culture,” in which a public figure is found to have said or done something problematic and is then called out for it, most commonly on social media. This leads to mass outrage and demands for a boycott of the individual’s work, their firing from their job or work opportunities, or the retraction of invitations to events, or outright cancellation of their event. One would be immediately forgiven for identifying it with what it is: a modern, social-media-driven instantiation of Maoist-style struggle sessions in which problematic individuals are subjected to mass public shame, forced to apologize, and then shamed further.

One would be immediately forgiven for identifying it (cancel culture) with what it is: a modern, social-media-driven instantiation of Maoist-style struggle sessions…

AHA Foundation: Cancel culture is something you and our founder have pointed to as a threat to our freedoms. Its proponents use shaming and threats to silence opposing views in public debate. What, in your opinion, are drivers behind the rise of cancel culture from a fringe issue to a wide-spread phenomenon? Why should we all be concerned about it?

Peter Boghossian: The rise of Critical Social Justice is directly responsible for the rise of cancel culture. And Critical Social Justice arose as a direct result of certain academic disciplines in the humanities. Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay and I refer to these fields of academic study as “Grievance Studies,” where the goal is to manufacture grievances about literally everything, but identity in particular. (For more on this, see Helen and James’ book, Cynical Theories.)

Cancel culture, however, is just one manifestation of this insidious grievance-based worldview, and I think it’s one we’ve focused on too much. Cancel culture is only one expression of a nasty suite of ideologies that functions like a religion, others are antiracism, cultural appropriation, (academic) decolonization, intellectual violence, identity politics, inclusion, etc.  

How Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Founder of AHA Foundation, Became a Staunch Defender of Freedom of Speech

AHA Foundation: In your lectures on critical thinking, you say that learning “techniques” required for critical thinking is the easy part. Having the right attitude—being open to hearing opposing ideas and willing to reconsider your own thought process—is much more important and harder to achieve. 

What do we, as a society now, seem to be lacking—the knowledge about the critical thinking techniques, the right attitude, or both? What factors have contributed to this deficiency in the U.S.? 

Peter Boghossian: There are two components to critical thinking (CT): a skill set and an attitude. The basic skill set can be taught in around 25 hours. It includes methods of reasoning and ways of thinking through problems like analysis, inference, explanation, interpretation, evaluation, etc. (For more here, see Peter Facione’s “Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction.”)

The attitudinal component, however, is entirely distinct. It’s best summed up as a willingness to revise one’s beliefs. If one is really good at analyzing and making reliable inferences, for example, but unwilling to change one’s mind as a result of one’s inquiry, then what’s the point of developing the skill set?

Having a CT skill without developing and nurturing relevant attitudinal dispositions is even worse than not having the skill set! Developing CT skills absent the disposition to revise one’s beliefs will make one better at rationalizing bad conclusions. In other words, if you are good at coming up with reasons to justify your beliefs, this will be true independent of whether or not those beliefs are true or false. 

Consequently, you’ll be more likely to convince yourself that a false conclusion is true because you’ll have good reasons to lend your belief to the conclusion. Michael Shermer, the founder of Skeptic magazine, has written about this extensively, and it is one of the most important things to realize about CT.

Finally, while some individuals lack a CT skill set, what we are collectively lacking is understanding how to value the right things. We need to understand that values are rationally derivable and that they enable us to use the fruits of our inquiry to improve our lives.

One way to begin this vast and ambitious moral journey is to start talking to each other again. We need to communicate across moral and political divides and really listen to and understand how people who have different views came to their conclusions. Engaging in this process is both a skill and an attitude, and it’s something we need to reclaim if we want to constructively move forward and improve the world we share. 

  We need to communicate across moral and political divides and really listen to and understand how people who have different views came to their conclusions.

AHA Foundation: You also argue that we need to be humble about our own gaps in knowledge, meaning we must be comfortable saying “I don’t know.” In the era of ideologically-driven opinions and self-affirming echo chambers, there seems to be no room for doubt and humility. How do we change this? Where do we start?

Peter Boghossian: Great question. We’ve created a culture in which saying “I don’t know” is met with ridicule. One consequence of this is because individuals don’t want to endure ridicule, social stigma, and perhaps even name calling, people pretend to know things they don’t know. This is particularly disturbing in the political realm, when politicians are excoriated for admitting they don’t know something, so they offer a response that they think people want to hear but whose outcome is based, if it’s based in anything, on intuition or what they think people want to hear as opposed to evidence.  

Rather than a sea change, we need to think in increments. How do we move the needle just a little bit? When we conceptualize the problem of how to make people comfortable enough to say “I don’t know” in tiny steps, the solution becomes less daunting.

Don’t try and change other people, change yourself. Change begins with you. Start by publicly stating, “I don’t know” when you don’t know something, lauding others for doing the same, and teaching your children that people who treat them negatively for saying they don’t know something are likely insecure or have fallen prey to a dilapidated moral system.

Finally, it’s most important for those in positions of power or authority to say “I don’t know” when they don’t know. This acts as a modelling behavior, makes it acceptable and good to state you don’t know, and nudges the culture to view admission of one’s ignorance as a virtue.

 Change begins with you. Start by publicly stating, “I don’t know” when you don’t know something…

AHA Foundation: Research for your thesis focused on teaching critical thinking and moral reasoning to prison inmates in Oregon, with the intention to decrease ongoing criminal behavior. Was there anything in your findings that you think can be applied in society today?

Peter Boghossian: Yes. A lesson from Plato’s Theaetetus: people don’t knowingly do bad things. They act the way they do based on the information they have. If they had different information they’d likely act differently.

The problem, however, isn’t merely getting accurate information to people; it’s changing the mindset that they think exposure to certain pieces of information or to listening to certain views is unimportant. Think about this in terms of an unwillingness to entertain different views with regard to people valuing belief revision. If you think your moral intuitions are correct, why seek out alternatives or challenges? 

We can apply this to society today by thinking about how we can help people value belief revision. Specifically, how can we help people embrace the following proposition: “I will be a better person not if I believe some particular conclusion, but if I do the best job I can to think honestly and sincerely about an issue and change my mind if my view is in error.”

Video: Peter Boghossian speaks at CTF event: “Are Western Values Worth Defending?

AHA Foundation: In hopes to protect and promote free speech and constructive debate, many writers, artists, and academics have stepped forward and signed The Harper’s letter and more recently, The Philadelphia Statement, two open letters standing up for free speech. Is this enough? What other actions need to be taken to defend open society from this dangerous phenomenon?

Peter Boghossian: I signed the Philadelphia Statement because I think it’s important to take a public stance on issues essential to the functioning of civil society. Statements like these, however, are not enough to defend civilization from the dangerous, illiberal forces that are sweeping over it. We need far, far more than just signatories on a letter.

To quote Ronald Reagan, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” And to maintain our freedoms—press, assembly, speech—we need perpetual vigilance. This vigilance begins in pre-service teacher education programs (college and university programs that confer teaching certificates), and extends to K-12 and then university classes. Currently, we’re not just failing to educate teachers and students in civics, we’re teaching them to obsessively and exclusively focus on our country’s negatives and shortcomings, particularly with regard to race and gender. Yes, much work lies ahead of us, but liberal democracy provides us with the tools and mechanisms to continue to bend the moral arc toward justice.

Currently, we’re not just failing to educate teachers and students in civics, we’re teaching them to obsessively and exclusively focus on our country’s negatives and shortcomings…

AHA Foundation: Recently, you wrote about the importance of not only critical thinking but of public debate as well. How can we use debates to help break echo chambers and limit polarization in society?

Peter Boghossian: I don’t think debates are the best way to break echo chambers and limit polarization per se, but I do think conversation is. Specifically, teaching people how to have conversations across seemingly incommensurable moral divides.

One reason conversation is important is because it allows the possibility of understanding people who hold views different from ours as people, and not as existential threats. When we see people as people, and not moral monsters, compromise becomes far more likely than if we wall up in our moral ecosystems and view those with different opinions as existential threats.

Another reason conversation is so important is because we could be wrong about our beliefs, and if we’re wrong then conversation coupled with honest self-reflection affords us an opportunity to correct a mistaken view. This is yet another problem with the censorious wave sweeping our country in general and our universities in particular—it robs us all of the opportunity to engage beliefs contrary to our own, and thus to reflect on the truth or falsity of our belief-life and bring our views into alignment with reality. 

When we see people as people, and not moral monsters, compromise becomes far more likely than if we wall up in our moral ecosystems and view those with different opinions as existential threats.

AHA Foundation: In a book you wrote with James Lindsay, How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide, published in September last year, you offer practical techniques for constructive conversations, including those on issues many of us find too difficult to initiate or carry on— issues such as race, poverty, immigration, or gun control. Were there personal experiences that led you to decide that this book is urgently needed?

Peter Boghossian: No. It wasn’t personal experience. I was alarmed by the creeping collapse of civilization. I also know that the root manifestation of the problem was a breakdown in discourse. How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide is the culmination of a lifetime of cross-disciplinary scholarship, from hostage negotiations to applied epistemology to cult exiting. It is a way out of the problems plaguing us. 

AHA Foundation: Peter, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to speak with us.

Peter Boghossian: It was my pleasure. Take care.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s devotion to defending freedom of speech is what led to the creation of AHA Foundation’s Critical Thinking Fellowship (CTF). CTF fellows work to strengthen liberties for students by nurturing critical thinking on college campuses throughout North America. You can find information about CTF events and on how to become a CTF fellow here.

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  7. You might hope that decisionmakers outside the university would shake off this simplistic, corrosive form of thinking. They should be pointing out that America is about a lot more than race, domination, and oppression. But in all too many cases their own educations scanted the other parts of America’s evolution: the hard-fought creation of the rule of law; the complicated balance between fairness and achievement; the search for justice in an inherently unjust world.

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  9. I say not-quite-indoctrination because immersion in American higher education is different from a sojourn in a North Korean re-education camp. The food is a lot better, for one thing. Not-quite-indoctrination is a subtler form of persuasion. It involves pleasant surroundings, much moral congratulation, and lots of self-approval. Not-quite-indoctrination begins in persuading students that they are chosen, because they see things more deeply than others, including their parents. To think of this as a form of snobbery is not wrong. Successful appeals to the young and naive always involve some flattery.

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