Meghan Daum on the New Culture Wars – #32

Corey and Steve talk to Meghan Daum about her new book “The Problem With Everything: My Journey Through The New Culture Wars”.

Steve: Thanks for joining us. I’m Steve Hsu.

Corey: And I’m Corey Washington and we’re your hosts for Manifold.

Steve: Corey, today our guest is Meghan Daum. She’s the author of five books including the brand new one entitled The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars, and we’ll discuss that book in some detail. Meghan writes a biweekly column for Medium. From 2005 to 2016 she was an oped columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Her work has been included in the best American essays. She has written for numerous magazines over the years, including the New Yorker, the New York Times magazine, the New York Times Book Review, the Atlantic, and Vogue. She was the recipient of a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship, a 2016 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and is on the adjunct faculty in the MFA writing program at Columbia university’s School of the Arts. Welcome, Meghan.

Meghan: Thanks for having me. Great to be here.

Steve: So we’re really looking forward to this conversation. As I was just saying to you a moment ago, Corey and I are both Gen Xers, a little bit older than you though, and we’re both people who in the eighties and nineties would have described ourselves as progressives. But I have a feeling that we are both possibly a little bit out of sorts with where things have gone at least recently. Like I think yourself judging from your book, and so I think we’re going to have a very interesting conversation. And so, let me start by just asking you by what you mean when you say the new culture wars.

Meghan: Well, I thought it was important to discern them from… distinguish them from the old culture wars. I was reluctant to even use the term culture wars in the title because I feel like it just gets bandied about a lot, and it usually comes up in the context of Tucker Carlson trying to talk about what’s going on in the left, and then he’ll start using words like triggered and terms like SJW. So, that was not my initial idea for a subtitle. But at the end of the day I felt like it was necessary to just signal pretty quickly to people what I was talking about. And these are very much new culture wars as you stated. They don’t look quite like the ones we were going through 15, 20, 25 years ago. They really are very much animated and determined by social media. And this just the kind of… This iteration of them is very specific. So I guess when I say new culture wars, I’m talking about battles that are largely played out on social media.

Corey: Meghan, the medium by which they’re fought is different. Do you think that the topics over which they’re fought are different?

Meghan: The topics seem to be at once more precise and more diffuse. I mean, we have this idea of intersectionality, which was coined back in the late eighties, and I think we were always sort of talking about intersectionality when we talked about these things, but now the word has just expanded and been diluted to become this umbrella term for what we’re now calling wokeness or what we were calling wokeness. I think that term is going out the door. So I feel it’s a more fraught, and pointed conversation about the same old things. But the stakes are much different in a lot of ways, much higher because it’s taking place in such a public arena. And every single person who’s talking about it is talking about it in a public way. And that’s really what’s different. We’re not talking about these sitting around on the floor of our dorm rooms anymore. Those conversations are being had in front of a whole world and at great peril.

Steve: So, in some earlier discussion, an earlier podcast, we spoke to a professor who’s actually written an intellectual history of the culture wars in the past. The current culture we’re seeing to have a different flavor where there are very strong positions taken where, and if you deviate slightly from that sensibility, you’re immediately called a racist or a sexist or a Nazi. And so, to us it seems like the battlefield has shifted really quite a bit since when we were young.

Meghan: Yeah. And it was the right that was leading the culture wars. When we were talking about Robert Mapplethorpe, it was Jesse Helms leading that crusade. Now everything is coming from the left. Until recently we thought of purity policing, sort of that kind of thing, we associated that with right wingers. We associated that with Bill Bennett and Tipper Gore wanting to put labels on heavy metal records even though she was a Democrat. And so, now what’s really peculiar about this is it’s like the left policing itself. Obviously, I’m sure you’re familiar with the horseshoe theory where the extreme ends of both ideologies meet. But what’s remarkable is that this is really something that’s going on within the left, and the right is just sort of sitting back and and cackling at us.

Steve: I would say that all those old timey people that you mentioned, Tipper Gore, Jesse Helms, they were the losers, right? They lost.

Meghan: Yeah. Also, we didn’t care what they thought. We were just laughing at them.

Steve: And so, now the progressives won, but somehow, in some sense extreme wing of the progressive alliance is imposing very, very strong thought and speech rules on everybody else, and that I think that’s at least for myself. I don’t know if Corey can say whether he agrees with me. That’s what has me somewhat uncomfortable now.

Corey: Well, I guess I want to partly agree with Meghan’s analysis, the culture war, but also partly disagree. I think you’re right that the channels are very different, and the channels are of course online, international, and they’re in some sense literally louder and broader. But I would question whether this idea purity is something new. I was pretty far left in college. I wasn’t a communist, but I probably called myself a socialist. At times I’d call myself a kind of an anarcho-socialist following Noam Chomsky [fuse 00:06:35]. But I remember myself in my extreme days, an enchanted kind of purity. And if I distinctly remember a guy I knew in college who graduated, and then started working with the Democratic Party in Baltimore, and I just scoffed at him, how could you sell out like that?

Meghan: The Democrats [crosstalk].

Corey: The Democrats sell out. How could you sell to electoral politics? We were fighting the entire system. So, my analysis is I think that kind of purity policing was always there. But the problem is it was just much more marginal because you had no internet megaphone which to announce your views and to denounce other people. I was denouncing him in public at my school among my lefty friends in “public.” Nobody heard it. And I think the chorus money person who holds that position now has a soapbox basically for going after people like that. There were splits constantly. I think if you look at the history of the left, they’re just constant splits among people who are communists, people who are sort of you’re quite a com, you become a socialist as a split there. I remember at Berkeley those a difference between the left and the hard left. So, there are all these kind of interesting conflicts, but now I think they’re out in public and people now have a lot more.

Steve: So you would mock your friend who was willing to participate in the mainstream Democratic Party, but you wouldn’t try to silence his speech, right? You would argue with him.

Corey: That’s right. No, absolutely. I was really fundamentally committed in a very, very deep sense towards free speech. This was kind of a core assumption, I think for many people, the left back then.

Steve: Okay, but having free speech as a sacred value, that has shifted a lot, right?

Corey: That has shifted. Absolutely.

Steve: People younger than us, Gen Zers don’t have it anymore as a sacred value. Would you agree with that, Meghan?

Meghan: Yeah, and I mean, what’s interesting to me about what you’re describing about your friend is you didn’t like it that he had gone to work for the Democrats, but you actually presumably sat down and had a conversation about it. It was an exchange. You were engaged in it. You weren’t saying that you felt personally harmed by his decision.

Corey: No, absolutely not. I thought he was a sellout, but I was willing to talk to him.

Meghan: Okay. But the sellout… Okay. That’s also so Gen X, right? Accusing someone of being a sellout because now sellout is what you strive for-

Corey: That’s right.

Meghan: I mean, that’s the [inaudible] conversation, but everyone wants to be an Instagram influencer, which is by definition a sellout. I think a lot of this is, it’s really coming down to people taking the political so personally that they’re then using their personal experience as a cudgel, and also a way of stopping all conversation in its tracks. The cultural conversation is in a choke hold. There are so many things we’re not allowed to talk about, and we need to talk about those things in order to solve the very problems that they’re describing. So, I think what’s more dangerous about this is that we’re not even able to do the necessary work to fix the things that we’re complaining about. And that’s what troubles me.

Meghan: Frankly, I’m sure you’ve noticed this. This is not an original observation, but the people de-platforming speakers, and pulling fire alarms, and getting upset about cultural appropriate of food in the dining hall, et cetera, it’s a very small percentage of the students. I think before social media, they would have just been treated as a annoying fringe element that you waved off as you were walking by. And now they have such outsize influence, not just because of social media, but because of institution’s unwillingness to stand up to them. Whether it’s the university itself or corporations or whatever it is. And that’s really where the danger lies, I think.

Corey: My sense is that there’s an analogy to essentially single voting groups in the past. A relatively small percentage of people vote exclusively on the basis of guns or exclusively in the basis of abortion. These people had a disproportionate effect on politics because it would go off for anybody who deviated from their line. Do you think there’s any difference between people who take these hard lines, extreme positions, a small minority on campus and these we think of primarily right wing groups and people who drove culture wars and culture just by being so focused on one view and not deviating? A minority can really control the debate and politics if they always vote. Liberals I thought were kind of open minded and they cared about abortion somewhat. They weren’t single issue voters. They thought about a lot of things, and they basically lost in many states because they weren’t voting exclusively on these issues. So, what do you think of that analogy?

Meghan: That’s interesting. I talk about it in the book, there have been studies. They look at what makes somebody identify as a Democrat or a Republican, and it has less to do with embracing the values of your own party than opposing those of the other party. So, I feel like it’s just we’ve become sort of, we are identifying ourselves in opposition to the other thing. I don’t actually… There’s a resistance to even having a heterodox view. You’ve seen those people say like, “Oh, well, where are you on these issues?” And if somebody says, “Well, I think one thing about this and something else about something else.” They just say, “Well, then you’re just inconsistent and you’re incoherent and you’re part of the problem.” So, I mean, yeah, I haven’t actually really thought about this question precisely that you’re asking.

Steve: Corey, my reaction is that the difference is that in the eighties or nineties if say I were for gun control, and someone really strongly came at me because that was their single issue. It would hurt me if I were a politician, and I were in a tight race. But here today, what’s happening is that if I come out against a particular position like Me Too, or a particular issue like affirmative action, I’m going to be thrown to the wolves, and no one is going to come out to support me. Not my employer, which could be Nike or Apple or the University of Michigan. Nobody’s going to come out and support me. I’m on my own, and I’m going to take all those attacks. So, it seems very different. In the 90s you and I would have laughed if some guy came up to us on the street and said like, on an issue, a single issue like abortion or gun control. We would have been like, “Yeah, I just disagree with you,” and nobody cares that I disagree with you. I’m not going to take any heat over disagreeing with you. But now it’s quite different.

Corey: I think you’re right. And I think it may come back to just the power of the technology, right? The fact that people can come at you from 100 different angles, right?

Steve: I feel it’s not just the technology, although I acknowledge that point. It’s that the institutions are not that strong in defending my freedom of speech or freedom of having that different opinion. That the institutions have been marched through. That’s what I feel.

Corey: It’s quite possible. Although I think there are some institutions that are standing up for free speech, and there has been a reaction to what’s happened on campus with a number of speakers. Again, I don’t know exactly how many universities have taken… I think something like the heterodox pledge. I don’t think they called it that, but they basically said, “We’re going to require the people listen to views that oppose them.”

Corey: I have to say, I’m troubled by this because I look back at my own development, and I was incredibly influenced by arguments that I lost. I remember having a really distinct argument with a guy, he was a Russian émigré about Vietnam. And I knew nothing about Vietnam, but I was absolutely convinced that the war was wrong and that the Vietnam… current Vietnamese government was completely fine, and we had no business being there, et cetera, et cetera. I started talking to this guy and this guy’s like, “Corey, what kind of government is in Vietnam right now?” I didn’t know. And I’m like, “Oh, democratic.” I made up something about it. And the guy starts…

Steve: Socialist.

Corey: He’s laid into me. And over the course of an hour and a half, I was eviscerated, just revealing… I was like a freshman in college, eviscerated by this guy’s argument. I just knew nothing about the topic. I recoiled, and my response was, “Okay, I will never put myself in that position again.” After that, I decided, okay, I’m going to adopt the strongest view for whichever position I can find on balance. I just don’t want to lose arguments, and I want to do this in a rational way. So, if I find compelling arguments for one thing that are unbalanced, stronger than the opposite side, I’ll go where the arguments go, and it just transformed me.

Meghan: But you’re an exceptional person. I mean, the fact that we’re even here having this conversation, I don’t think we’re in the norm. I think that people are so lonely. I mean this really comes down to it for me in a lot of ways. I think there’s such a hunger for affiliation and sense of community. We’re not getting it from the outside in organic sources that we used to. And so, it’s much easier to just say, oh, Vietnam War bad or any immigration policy means you want babies in cages. It’s just so much easier to say that than to have a nuanced view.

Meghan: Getting back to what you were asking a second ago, I think something like being a single issue voter in terms of something like abortion. I mean, abortion and reproductive rights are in far greater peril today than they were 20 years ago. So, I think it’s important to keep that in mind. I mean there are States where Roe v. Wade may very well go down and there are States where it’s going to be probably impossible to get an abortion. Now, the thing about that is there’s a reluctance to actually have a conversation about what Americans really feel about abortion. The majority of Americans want it to be available with certain restriction.

Steve: That’s right.

Meghan: And that’s a really hard conversation for pro choice people to have.

Steve: So Meghan, in your book you write about how you discovered, I think what you call “free speech YouTube”.

Meghan: Yes.

Steve: I want to get into that a little bit about what you mean by free speech YouTube. But one question I had was why did it feel like such a great discovery to you at the time? Was it because the range of discourse had been so constricted in your life that when you discovered, hey, people are on YouTube talking this way, suddenly you realize there’s this whole new world?

Meghan: No, quite the opposite. I felt the range of discourse had always been very broad in my life, and a couple things sort of collided. First of all, I got divorced and my husband for all of our problems, like I say in the book had really been my intellectual ally. We really saw the world in a similar way. We were both perfectly liberal. Had never voted for Republicans as far as the other knew. But we were able to think critically about things. We were not in lock step necessarily with all of our liberal friends. And so, we just spent a lot of time talking. We just talked and talked and talked all the time about what I even call in the book, the problem with everything. So, the problem with everything is like among other ideas, it is this, the thing, the subject that you kind of chew on in your brain. This kind of ongoing set of ideas that you’re always trying to work out.

Meghan: When I lost my marriage and I wasn’t able to talk about the problem with everything with my husband, it happened to coincide with the time when my other liberal friends were not really wanting to engage in with ideas in a critical way so much as they used to. There was a real sense of tribalism. There was a refusal to actually go beyond the obvious positions that you saw on social media. I’m speaking very broadly, but I was seeing this in people. I was really surprised. They were just kind of taking ideas that were not necessarily accurate and they…

Meghan: They were articles of faith and soon they were memes and everyone was liking everybody’s really hamfisted, [inaudible] statistic on Twitter. And then that just became what we all assumed was true. Like, “Oh, one in five women will be raped during college.” Okay. Like, like, we’re all going to sign up for that. I was finding that if I said to a close friend, is that really true? Let’s actually think about what that means, and what are you actually saying here? I was shut down as somebody who was like being an internalized misogynist or something like that.

Steve: In reading your writing over the years I’ve always felt you’re a very, very insightful observer of US culture, interpersonal relationships, et cetera. And so, I think someone like you is likely not to accept at face value a lot of these things that your friends sort of just fell into line in accepting. So, just to summarize what you said. Okay, you had an outlet because you and your husband could basically be open and you are both thoughtful people so you could discuss anything. When your marriage ended, you realized your friends, the zeitgeist around you was becoming-

Meghan: Who are other journalists by the way.

Steve: Yes, journalists in particular were becoming very sort of, shall we say, uniform in their views on all these things. And so, in that way, the discovery of free speech YouTube for you was liberating for that reason. Is that a fair summary?

Meghan: Yes. So I got divorced. I moved from Los Angeles to New York. I was living alone, and I found myself sort of poking around on YouTube. And it really started with John McWhorter and Glen Loury on Bloggingheads having their dialogues. Often about race, not always, but I was just mesmerized by them. I thought they talked about issues with such honesty and such intellectual integrity and nuance. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. And so, I got really addicted to them. And then of course the YouTube algorithm took me down the rabbit hole to various other conversants.

Steve: So, if Corey will allow me, I want to ask you how far down the rabbit hole did you actually get? In the book, you name a several figures from this world that you like and maybe you can summarize that for us.

Meghan: I probably stopped at Ben Shapiro. I’ve never watched more than 45 seconds of Ben Shapiro. I don’t find him very interesting.

Steve: Jordan Peterson?

Meghan: Jordan Peterson, I am fascinated by the media response to him. I think he as a person, there are limits to how captivating I find him. But I think that like honestly the willful misrepresentation of what he says, not even his views, what he literally says is shocking. In fact, I just the other night saw this documentary about him, the rise of Jordan Peterson, which is excellent. It was made by two very left wing Canadian filmmakers. They started the film before he even got on a soapbox about the gender neutral pronouns, and it’s just incredibly even handed. So, I don’t need to go off on a tangent on him, but yes, I became very interested in Jordan Peterson particularly in terms of the way he was discussed. So yes, there was him. Who else? Bret Weinstein, the Evergreen fiasco. I was very interested in that. Followed that closely.

Steve: So, these are the people that I think Bari Weiss called the Intellectual Dark Web. Is that correct?

Meghan: Yes. And actually she did not coin that phrase. The IDW, Intellectual Dark Web term came from Eric Weinstein-

Steve: I see.

Meghan: … who’s Bret Weinstein’s brother. Yes. So, she’s not [inaudible].

Steve: Eric is actually an old friend of mine, so that was a bad mistake for me to make.But beyond that group, so is there an edgier group on YouTube that you won’t entertain, that you won’t listen to?

Meghan: Yeah, I mean, edgier? I mean, I guess there are those people like… I mean, depending on what you’re watching, they’ll take you to like PewDiePie and these young troll like figures, which-

Corey: Who are these people? [crosstalk].

Steve: My kids [crosstalk]. Oh, the earlier ones are PewDiePie.

Corey: PewDiePie, never heard of him.

Steve: PewDiePie has 103 million subscribers. I know this because my son watches PewDiePie, and PewDiePie was in some competition with some Indian company to have the most subscribers on YouTube, and he won a getting to 100 million first or something. So, he’s a Swedish guy who is kind of entertaining. He’s very big in memes and trolling and I don’t really quite get the appeal myself, but he’s incredibly popular.

Corey: So, is PewDiePie right-wing?

Steve: PewDiePie is largely covering all kinds of stuff like video games and things that would be of interest to young kids. But he’ll occasionally say something which reveals that he’s somewhat red pilled. I think maybe that’s the best description.

Meghan: Oh, he’s definitely red pilled, yes. [crosstalk].

Steve: But he’s not 100% all the time-

Corey: Remind listeners what red pilled means.

Steve: Yes. Maybe Meghan can explain what red pill means.

Meghan: Okay, well, let me see if I can do this concisely. So it’s a reference to the film, The Matrix when Neo, is that the character Keanu Reeves is [crosstalk].

Steve: He offers Keanu’s character either the red pill or the… I think the other one was the blue pill.

Meghan: The blue pill or the red pill. And so, is it… Go ahead, [crosstalk].

Steve: If you take the blue pill, you’re going to wake up and forget that you’re in The Matrix, you’re just going to accept.

Meghan: Or your life is going to remain as it was, right? You just keep going living your life as you lived it.

Steve: If you take the red pill, you’re going to realize the world ain’t how it was originally presented to you.

Corey: So, red pilled is kind of conservative label for-

Steve: Woke.

Corey: Woke.

Steve: Conservative woke.

Corey: Conservative woke. Okay.

Steve: Yeah.

Meghan: Yes. I mean, in The Matrix it was just sort of, this was like a kind of generic principle for having your world, your mind blown. And so, it’s been adopted by people on the right as a way of talking about how liberals need to get wise. They get red pilled and understand that liberalism is all rock. So, I mean, again, these are really, really reductive ways of talking about this stuff, which is why I ultimately find a lot of these figures so frustrating. I think people get frustrated when they say, “Oh, well who do you watch on YouTube?” It’s actually not that many people and there aren’t people that I follow religiously. If there’s a conversation between Jordan Peterson and Camille Paglia, I will watch that. That to me is fascinating, but it’s not like I am going to watch every single thing Jordan Peterson does and I’m not going to watch every single thing Christina Hoff Sommers does, but if she talks to Camille I will watch it.

Steve: I might watch a lot of these people and agree with some subset of what they’re saying and disagree maybe with actually a lot of stuff they’re saying, but the fact that people are actively trying to repress them bothers me a lot. So, back to the free speech issue.

Corey: But not successfully, right? Because these people have hundreds of thousands if not-

Meghan: They have huge platforms. They’re not being repressed.

Corey: People are opposed to them, but there’s no way to repress them on YouTube [crosstalk].

Steve: You have to… I guess I know a little bit about this. So, you have to tow a certain line. If you go a little bit beyond that line on YouTube you will be demonetized and then eventually actually censored off of YouTube. So, there is a level of censorship, which can be quite strong, but these guys are skirting. And PewDiePie because he generates so much revenue. He’s got 100 million subscribers, so he generates a ton of revenue for YouTube. So, he himself is constantly skirting this boundary. He knows he can say certain things, and they’ll give him a little more slack because he’s one of their biggest revenue generators.

Meghan: Yeah. I just want to be really clear, the people who are on the brink of getting censored from YouTube, I have no interest in that. I mean, the stuff… I was watching legitimate scholars, and scientists having about legitimate issues. And if it happened to be taking place on YouTube, partly that was because they were having conversations that went on for three hours and you can’t get that on NPR, so here we are.

Corey: So, Meghan, if we could, I’d like to segue a little bit back to your book because your book talked about a lot of topics that I honestly knew a little bit about in the past, but know less about now since I’m a dad guy who doesn’t get out much. You talk about different waves of feminism. I thought this was really interesting. You identify actually four waves, and I’d just like to hear you explain it. What they are and how they’ve changed, your attitude towards the third and fourth wave are.

Meghan: So, the first wave of feminism were this suffragettes. The women back in early 20th century fighting for women to get to vote, very simple. Second wave feminism is what we associate with Gloria Steinem, started happening in late sixties, early seventies. A lot of that was around reproductive rights, the equal rights amendment, which never passed. And then we started getting into these kind of ambiguous iterations. Third wave feminism was something that people talked about in the early nineties. It was actually Rebecca Walker, Alice Walker’s daughter who coined the term third wave feminism. Ironically, she had this huge feud with her mother over their interpretations of feminism. She thought that her mother was too harsh, and denounced motherhood. And so, the third wave feminism was reacting to second wave feminism, although in not a terribly consistent way.

Corey: Well, her mother was too radical for her. Is that the idea?

Meghan: Right. I don’t want to mischaracterize this. Yeah. Her mother was too radical for her, and sort of too unmotherly is what I recall this feud being about, and I know they were estranged for years. I don’t know if that’s ongoing. But so fourth wave feminism is something that came along really in the wake of social media. And that has manifested in concepts being turned into means and expressions of female empowerment, and in a lot of cases feelings of oppression, and resisting the patriarchy being expressed online. So, first through something like Tumbler, and now it’s often called Twitter feminism. And that for me as a Gen Xer was really where I started feeling very alienated. I really grew up never thinking of myself as under the thumb of the patriarchy in any way. And so, it was a little odd to find ourselves in 2015, and there were just generations of women who saw things quite the opposite.

Steve: Did you write in the book, I think about, when you were younger and living in New York, maybe in your 20s and the construction workers were a whistling at you and you gave them the finger. You sort of felt very alive and you didn’t feel oppressed. You felt like this is just part of gender relations. This is how the world is, and you’ve got to deal with it.

Meghan: It was life in the big city.

Steve: Yeah. Life in the big city.

Meghan: It was life in the big city. You kind of came for that. I can do my disclaimer that I had a certain amount of privilege. I was walking down the street in relatively safe neighborhoods. Nobody was going to… construction worker was not going to attack me and rape me in the alleyway most likely. Possibly, because it was a lot more dangerous than it is now. But yeah, I did not ever have a sense that it was particularly difficult to be a woman. If anything women were doing better than man. When I was a kid the girls did better in school. By the time I was in college, there were way more women in college getting advanced degrees than men. So, it really had just never crossed my mind that there were… It was some sort of overwhelming burden to be a woman.

Meghan: Obviously there are difficulties, and there are still things we have to fight for. And I’m not naive to this, it’s only been very recently that this has been the case. But I was really not understanding where a lot of this grievance was coming from. But I have to say that over the course of writing the book, I have become more generous about it, and I’ve thought really hard about these generational differences. And I do think we grew up very differently, and so people my age need to be mindful of that.

Corey: So, reading your book, I have this parallel thought process going through my head. Actually a couple parallel thought processes, but one is take a kind of bird’s eye view is every generation complains about the next generation is having some kind of behavioral failing. Some kind of character failing, some sort of cultural love affair or something that’s sort of messed up. The greatest generation thought that the boomers were sexually promiscuous, druggies, not focused. The boomers thought-

Meghan: Well, that was true. They were correct about that.

Corey: You’re right. Boomers thought that we were slackers who just kind of wine, green day like. We complain about this next generation the same way. So part of me is thinking, okay, how much of this is simply one generation having its preferences fixed at a certain point in time, having culture change, and then thereby thinking that there’s something objectively wrong with the next generation. Although it’s just they misinterpret their own preferences as objective reality.

Meghan: Right. So, it’s interesting because one of the criticisms I’ve gotten about the book is that I’m not really concluding with there is something objectively wrong with this generation. I kind of come out the other side… Not even kind of, I very much, I end the book by talking about how we just have to pass the torch to the next generation. The things that seemed radical and ridiculous to us 20 years ago when I was a student in college are just completely banal. This stuff people are talking about now, maybe gender neutral pronouns. In 25 years, that’s going to just seem completely a matter of course. How could you ever have thought that was weird? They thought Ms. was weird, Ms., and now we just think nothing of it.

Corey: The next thing is, yeah, I think this actually referenced in an old cuneiform tablet, which says something like, “Yeah, the younger generation, they don’t respect their elders anymore.” So, it’s really universal sentiment. But what do you say to people like us who are kind of misinterpreting their own preferences as a sense that we’re right and they’re wrong.

Meghan: Well, one of the theories that I float in the book is this notion that Gen X people like us grew up almost fetishizing toughness. We really wanted to be separate from our parents. We wanted to prove that we could take care of ourselves. Being aloof and cool was very much what you aspire to. You think about it, there was a lot of bullying back then.

Corey: It was huge.

Meghan: I mean, you watch Stranger Things? One of the things that I noticed about it, it takes place in the eighties teenagers, and they’re so mean to each other in a way that you never really see anymore. The bullying, obviously it’s not totally gone, it takes place online, but that certain kind of playground bullying has kind of been socially engineered out of a lot of communities.

Corey: It’s not just playground bullying. The college that I went to, and I think this was probably true of many intellectual places on the East Coast, there was kind of aggressive intellectual bullying that went on, and it was [crosstalk] effectively nasty. It was kind of snide and you just had to take it and fight back. A friend of mine once said, “The indication of how cool you are is how much shit you can take without showing it.”

Meghan: Very well said. Yes.

Corey: You can say what you want about that, but it wasn’t very pleasant to live through that. And although we never showed it, I have to say I didn’t enjoy the constant attacks that went on at dinner time.

Steve: So, Corey and I were recently talking to some undergraduates at MSU on a different episode of the podcast. One, a group of sort of left leaning kids, and another a group of right-leaning kids. It’s kind of amazing to me that it’s possible to have actually engineered bullying out of the culture because when we grew up it was so strong. It was such a huge part of it. I can’t really imagine how my kids and their peers interact at school. Did they really not bully each other? Is that really true?

Meghan: The bullying is taking place on social media, and it is exponentially worse, and it’s happening around the clock. You don’t get away from it when you get off the school bus. It’s profoundly different, and I think worse. But one of the things I was… getting back to your question, I think that we were really into being tough, and I think there might be an analogous thing going on with millennials in terms of how they think about fairness and justice. And again, I’m speaking in generalizations, but I see this in my own students, they really want things to be fair and equal, and this is something that they’re constantly striving for. And if there’s a situation where there’s… even talking about hierarchies is very upsetting. One of the reasons Jordan Peterson… One of the bazillion reasons he sets people off is because he likes to talk about dominance hierarchies in any number of contexts.

Meghan: I think that we have a tendency to overvalue toughness, and there may be a tendency in these younger generations to overvalue fairness. But I think really that comes out of the particular conditions that we grew up in. I do think millennials and Gen Zers, whatever we’re calling them, they have to deal with a set of conditions that we just did not, especially when it comes to issues that go into things like sexual consent. I think that the ubiquity of online pornography really, really has affected that cohort, and we just did not have that in our midst.

Steve: Okay. You mentioned online pornography in that, so I can’t help but jump in and ask you about this because I think this has been stated a lot, obviously. I accept that kids probably have radically more access to pornography than we ever had. And so, therefore on their phone my kid could be looking at unbelievable stuff on Pornhub or something like that. But the next step is the part I don’t quite understand. I’d like to have articulated more for me. So what is the impact of all that exposure to pornography, which I accept that kids are probably getting, but then what is actually the impact?

Corey: Seems like less sex as far as I can tell from the surveys. At least among adolescents and young people.

Steve: Right. So, one possibility is they just need… They’re getting their sexual satisfaction in a different way, not through actually coupling and hooking up. Okay. I can accept that.

Corey: Just as in their social satisfaction by interacting with people virtually.

Steve: Yes.

Corey: You’ve commented your son actually doesn’t tend to leave the house much.

Steve: Yeah. He doesn’t actually need to hang out with his friends. He can just text with them while he’s doing something else.

Meghan: Well, and that gets into an issue of discourse that I want to touch on later. But yeah, I mean, but with the pornography thing, okay, keep going.

Steve: Okay. Yeah. So I accept that one. I accept that one. Maybe they need less… They’re less likely to actually take the effort to go out and get negged by some girl or go through all that just to hook up the usual way. What about preferences? I’ve heard it claimed now that when these younger people hook up, the expectations are very different about the way the sex should be, how extreme it should be. And is that just something we old people are speculating about or do we actually know something about this? Are there psychological studies or how do you actually know that the way two 19 year olds have sex now is different than the way that we did it because of online pornography? Do we know the answer to that?

Meghan: Well, I don’t personally know the answer, but I know enough, excuse me, middle-aged people who’ve gone back in the dating arena. And for instance, women who talk about, excuse me, getting involved with younger guys. I think that there are certain sexual expectations that have been baked in, and that have come out of pornography. It’s just acts themselves that never even occurred to us that are now the perfunctory.

Corey: Meghan, I’d like to come back to intersectionality because I think this is a really fundamental insight that I think has, I think been blurred by politics a little bit. And here’s my understanding of intersectionality, at least the core of the truth behind it. It’s that human experience has a lot of different dimensions to it. I’m not just a black male. I’m a black male with an advanced degree. I’m a black male who makes a fair amount of money, presents himself in a certain way, and all those factors go into how someone treats me and into my experience. And you can’t reduce my experience simply to being upper-middle-class, being male, being black. All that strikes me as incredibly correct. And I think it’s a sign of a nuanced interpretation of social reality that we see people in complex ways.

Corey: Now, my sense of the intersectionality has taken on a kind of more political term beyond that simple objective description, that social reality is complex and multidimensional. So can you explain to me what you take intersectionality to be and whether you think there’s something more there beyond the core truth, that social reality is multifactorial?

Meghan: Well, so intersectionality started off as a framework for looking at legal case. So Kimberle Crenshaw, who coined the term and wrote the original paper in 1989 was a UCLA law professor at the time. She’s now at Columbia. And it was in the context of a workplace discrimination suit at General Motors. It was a group of workers, I think mostly African American women who were making the case that they were being discriminated against, not getting promotions, not just based on being female, but based on race. And this was a fairly novel way of looking at this at the time. And so, intersectionality really just had to do with being aware of overlapping layers of oppression or privilege. Like you say, it’s incredibly useful. It’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. If you’re going to apply it in a specific way, that’s great.

Meghan: But what’s happened over time is that the term itself has just been elasticized into meaninglessness. So, it’s just become this kind of umbrella term for what we’re now calling wokeness. You can wear a shirt that says my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit. It’s like, well, that in and of itself is bullshit. So, I guess why you should just eliminate the middleman. Again, it’s really a symptom of the way that social media and the memefication of the culture has just taken useful, interesting, specific ideas, and diluted them into just tropes, and really made them into vehicles of style. From there, they’re just sort of used by corporations to sell things, and by activists who don’t really want to do activism beyond the computer screen, to hashtag their way to some kind of political position. And so, that’s what’s happened with intersectionality. Kimberle Crenshaw herself said back in the day, it was meant as a provisional concept, but here she is actually dining out on it. I know she’s been cashing in on the fact that she coined this.

Corey: It’s a valuable intellectual production. She should be renumerated.

Meghan: That’s right.

Corey: I was thinking about this term, especially as reading a scene that you wrote in the book where you describe yourself on a subway train. Can you describe out the subway scene you experienced and then talk about how it would have been different 25 years ago?

Meghan: Yeah. So, this was probably, I don’t know, 2018 I was riding the subway fairly late at night back home to Harlem, Washington Heights where I live. And I was sitting there, there were these two guys across from me, two white guys probably in their twenties kind of artsy hipster guys. There was this gaggle of teenage girls, late teens, early twenties a little further down the car. White girls, they looked like they were from the suburbs. They didn’t seem like they were from the city. They were kind of drunk, and dressed as if they’d gone to somebody’s birthday party or baby shower or something. And so, we’re riding along and eventually this guy gets on the subway car. He’s like a homeless guy. He seems mentally ill. He is panhandling. He’s asking for money. He’s very unsteady on his feet. He is a black guy and he comes over to and he says… He starts trying to talk to me, and I kind of wave him off and whatever.

Meghan: And then the girls across the car, the girls from the suburbs kind of invite him over and they’re talking with them and kind of flirting with him and he sits down with them and they’re having this grand old time. A couple of stops go by and finally he gets up and they’re like, “Bye, goodbye.” And he’s sort of like making this big production, and they go, “You have a great night.” And he goes, “You have a great night.” And he stops at me since I had blown him up earlier, and he goes… I don’t know if we can say this on the podcast. He goes, “You have a fucked up night.” And I thought it was kind of funny because it was just like a funny thing to say. And he gets off the car.

Meghan: The two young white guys sitting across from me say, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry you had to go through that. We’re so sorry. Are you okay?” It’s fine. Whatever, no big deal. And they’re like, “No, no, no. It’s just so unacceptable.” And I realized that they were feeling that they had to apologize on behalf of the patriarchy for something that this completely disenfranchised person with no power whatsoever has done in a completely passive nonthreatening way. And it seemed to me just so emblematic of where we are as a culture. 20 years ago I would have been on that subway and that kind of thing would have been happening in every single subway car at every single stop, and no one would’ve thought to think about it. That was an intersectional experience of the kind that is not often discussed in college classrooms.

Corey: What I found really fascinating about that scene was how you effectively honestly portrayed yourself as sort of the jerk in some way. These girls who you might expect to be afraid of this guy, and to have them blow him off, but they really treated him with a kind of, I think remarkable humanity for women who probably weren’t used to seeing a man like that and a remarkable comfort. And you kind of describe yourself as effectively not treating him all that well. Maybe get an exaggerated reaction and response but I found that to be remarkably honest portrayal. And it was interesting because I think all the characters reacted in little slightly, in a kind of surprising manner.

Corey: The guys overreacted to your perceived pain. The women seemed comfortable in a scene you might not expect them to be comfortable given their basic demographics. And maybe you’re just being a New Yorker and you probably expected a normal New York reaction, which is he’d just walked past you. But it did test a lot of assumptions people had about these particular roles, especially I guess regard the girls and the guys. I don’t expect those guys would’ve reacted that way 20 years ago, 25 years ago. Do you think that’s representative of the kind of people you have as students?

Meghan: Oh, the guys. Yeah. It’s funny that you interpreted that scene that way because, and again, maybe this is actually to your point, I thought that the girls were exoticizing this guy. I saw them as being racist.

Steve: Were they condescending? Were they condescending to him or were they honestly just treating him as another human?

Meghan: Well, they were treating him as part of their New York experience that night. That was what I [crosstalk]-

Corey: He seemed to enjoy however he was being treated. And I understand that for many homeless people, the real pain is being treated as invisible. Having people constantly blow you off, having people not make eye contact with you. So when someone invites you to sit down, you’ll really don’t know what is motivating them. But they treated him in a way that he, I’m pretty certain had not been treated before, at least on a regular basis. So whatever’s in the heart, right? That guy left with a good experience for having talked to those young women, and that I think is a phenomenally good thing.

Meghan: No, you’re right. And it’s also an example right there of the generational divide. As a Gen Xer, my instinct is just to be tough. That’s life in the big city. Too bad for him, too bad for me, move on. I didn’t get the sense that they were just at a gender studies program at Oberland, but for whatever reason, their instinct was to be more fair, and to be more vulnerable and open in that moment. And less committed to coolness and toughness. So, yeah. Yeah. Good point.

Corey: So, that’s not my instinct when I see homeless people. I try to be as empathetic and engaging as possible, which often probably isn’t that much, but I try to make eye contact with people. I don’t think about them as having lost. I don’t think of them as people I want to avoid. But I probably do. I probably don’t engage with them as much as someone else who walked up to me who say, looked like you. I might actually talk to you for a bit if you came up to me on the subway. Whereas for someone homeless, I might think of myself as an open, empathetic person, but honestly would probably give that person less time.

Steve: Well, I think it’s sort of a practical matter because if I see a homeless person my initial reaction may actually be to feel quite sorry for them and to think like, “Oh, maybe I should just give this person some money. But then you think, okay, but now it’s going to take a bunch of time. This person could latch onto me. They could be… All kinds of negative things might happen as a consequence, and then it’s like, okay, I’m just going to keep walking.

Corey: Not for giving them a dollar. People usually just say thank you and move on.

Steve: Yeah, that may be true.

Meghan: I saw a guy recently, he wanted to be Venmod. I’m not kidding.

Steve: That’s true in China. In China, you can give homeless people or poor people money using your phone. So, they’ll have their QR code on a little sign that they show you.

Meghan: Really?

Steve: It’s more high tech.

Meghan: Wow, wow.

Corey: One of the major social developments since we were younger is that there’s a movement in cities to try to eliminate homelessness. I think technology has now made it possible to have wrap around services. And so, in some of the smaller cities, they’ve pretty close to eliminated chronic homelessness. And that I think is a really interesting development driven by the fact that we have much more access to data. Institutions share their data. And so, you know when someone’s arriving in the ER. When someone’s in a homeless shelter, et cetera, et cetera. So, I think in some cases, right?

Meghan: Well, they should share that with big city mayors because homelessness has never been a bigger problem in major cities. It’s dystopian almost. New York and Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco [crosstalk].

Corey: I think these ideas are out there and I don’t know the extent they’ve been implemented. To what extent they’ve been implemented in larger cities, but it’s definitely things that are coming on the public policy radar screen.

Meghan: I hope so.

Steve: I wanted to… I think we’re running out of time. I wanted to get your reaction to something, Meghan. So to me it seems like the internet today at this instant is really about policing thought and signaling virtue. And it’s very… What you do online is very heavily regulated or policed or at least there could be very strong negative repercussions if you just do slightly the wrong thing online. But I remember a time, maybe 10 years ago or a little bit more when the internet was super new and people were very open, partially because it was anonymous interaction, but on chat forums or discussion boards, people revealing their deepest inner thoughts online. It was a very unique moment in human civilization where millions of people are interacting with each other in this way and because it was slightly anonymous and they were at a distance from each other, they could reveal all kinds of stuff. And one thing that makes me quite sad is that kind of thing is now almost gone now on the internet, it seems to me.

Meghan: Right. Well, because there’s no incentive to make a complicated point. It’s the social capital that you get from saying the obvious thing. From just pandering to your tribes, your followers is so great. And the penalty for trying to say something complicated is pretty great. You’re going to be misinterpreted if you try to walk and chew gum at the same time on Twitter. Again, I think this just gets back to people’s need for community and fear of loneliness and really people’s jobs get in jeopardy. If they make a mistake on Twitter, you can really be in some professional trouble. And I know it sounds hyperbolic, but I can’t tell you how many people come up to me at readings or write to me and they say I’m afraid to speak at work. I’m afraid of anything that I say online because the culture around discourse and just communication is so stifled. I would say to that too, do you remember when we were, in the nineties we would come home from work, and what would you do? You would either go out for drinks with your friends and talk in this really intense engaged manner.

Meghan: Or you would pick up the phone and call your friend and talk to them for an hour at least, and you wouldn’t walk around when you talk to the phone. The phone was attached to the wall. You could not be distracted. You were not driving when you were talking, you were not walking on the street, and this is how ideas got sorted out and people shoot on things. And you could say like, “Well gosh, I just read that one out of five women are raped in college. Do you think that’s true? How did you feel in college? What do you make of this?” And like this could be an actual discussion that was playing out in real time in good faith. You could hear tons of voice, you could hear nuance. That entire experience has been blunted into tiny, tiny bits of outrage, and obvious opinion. And that to me is a huge loss.

Steve: I agree with you, and I think you write movingly about how you spent a lot of time in the nineties just sitting alone in your apartment smoking and listening to music and thinking.

Meghan: Staring at the wall.

Steve: Yes. Staring at the wall, but you were actually thinking. Whereas now if I want, I can just have, I’ll listen to this podcast and listen to that podcast and I’ll watch this YouTube video, and I don’t have to endure that kind of isolation, which nevertheless made me think more deeply about things for long periods of time. I think the situation is quite different now. I watch my kids and they’re just constantly getting input from their device and I don’t see them just thinking the way that we had to.

Corey: I want to disagree a little bit, right? I think you have numerous options right now and you can choose to engage with the internet and social media 24/7, but of course you can just step back and not engage at all. I asked the question to you guys about yourself and your friends, right? I have some friends who are so old school, they don’t even talk on the phone. We don’t interact unless we’re in the same city sitting face to face. They don’t want to talk. But if I go to a city, they make time for me. We get together, and we have dinner, and it’s just the two of us.

Steve: You’re talking about old people.

Corey: I’m talking of people who are in their fifties [crosstalk].

Steve: I’m talking about the comparison between people in our generation and people who are 20 now, or 14 now.

Corey: But I’m also asking about you, right? You have the choice to spend time either constantly absorbing podcasts or to sit and think, and I find myself sitting and thinking. I don’t know what fraction of people who are younger do this, but I think there are probably some portion of pretty thoughtful young people who’ve kind of pulled out a little bit. Who probably spent some time reflecting, and they’re not in social media so you don’t hear about them.

Steve: But it’s a smaller fraction.

Corey: There’s no doubt about that.

Steve: I mean, even if you weren’t like a highfalutin philosophy professor like yourself, in our generation you spent a lot of time listening to the same track over and over again and in your room. And that doesn’t happen so much now.

Meghan: But it doesn’t even happen for us. I’m not saying that this is something young people do. I don’t do it myself. I mean, we don’t have time to get together with our friends. It’s just the whole sort of economy of time has changed.

Corey: Really? I think the evidence suggests that human beings actually have more free time now than ever, but they choose to spend their free time doing other sorts of things.

Meghan: That’s right.

Corey: So, you could make time to have dinner with your friends, but you choose to do…

Meghan: But they don’t see, sorry, can I just say, the reason… This actually came up really recently in an interview I was doing about this book literally three weeks ago with a 28 year old reporter for a local newspaper, and she said my friends, we literally don’t have time. We have this gig economy. We’re working all the time. If we want to get together for dinner, we have to plan it months in advance and it gets rescheduled 1000 times. And so, we communicate in texts or over screens and we don’t even talk on the phone. I think this is really profound. I mean, maybe you sound like you’re [crosstalk].

Corey: There are studies who have people kind of write down minute by minute what you’re doing with your time. And these studies are very revealing because people are not working constantly. They have a fair amount of free time. Maybe on Twitter they may be doing other things to waste their time. But objectively it’s not like they have less free time than they did before. They’re simply letting it get eaten up by things that they themselves may not think are all that valuable.

Steve: I think the situation for people our age is quite diverse. So because of the way we were brought up, there are still people who want to sit alone, and think and maybe don’t want to be on the internet all the time. Other people are totally sucked in. But what I observe in my kids is that the number one thing you and I wanted to do when we were growing up is we wanted to go to our friend’s house and sleep over. We wanted to play in the backyard with them, but I see kids who don’t need to do that at all.

Corey: Sure, sure.

Steve: And they interact by text with their friends, but they’re mostly doing other stuff. And so, that seems quite different to me now.

Corey: Maybe I want to ask you a little bit about the regional divide. You taught in Iowa for a while, now you’re in New York. What we’ve noticed being here, and Steve makes fun of me because [crosstalk].

Steve: In the Midwest.

Corey: I tell people this was a larger cultural change for me than when I was living in Paris. There’s not much difference it might be between New York and Paris, big cities, sophisticated, kind of the same thing, and it’s been a real adjustment. Now I’m curious to see how you see this kind of contrast. The things you describe about cancel culture, aggressive pushing of a certain view, siloness, is that a New York thing or do you find that also in Iowa?

Meghan: Well, my Iowa kids were a select group. I mean, I was teaching graduate students. They were from New York and big cities. So, they’re not a representative sample in that sense-

Corey: Did you get out though?

Meghan: Yeah. I lived in Lincoln, Nebraska, for four years. When I was 29 I moved from New York city to Nebraska just really for no reason whatsoever. I like to think I’m not as provincial as some. I think that the cancel culture phenomenon, it’s being driven by people who are privileged enough to have the time to sit around and decide who they’re going to punish and really think about this stuff. But the problem is that it starts to affect everyone because for whatever reason, these institutions are paying attention. When Disney can fire a director of a major franchise movie because of what a few people on Twitter found out about tweets he had made 10 years ago, we’re all working for Twitter. This is really like a much larger set of social forces. And I would really like to know what the psychology is there. Everybody is… really, I feel that the culture is being held hostage by the hyperbole of a very few people. And it’s remarkable because they shouldn’t have a lot of power, but we [crosstalk].

Steve: That’s the part I don’t understand is why they’ve been handed that power. Because, again, this is a little bit of the red pilled worldview, but a lot of people on that side of things will just say, “Look, don’t apologize. Do not ever apologize. And the moment you apologize, that’s it. They’re going to take you out. And if your institution backs you up, then you’re okay.” But why doesn’t your institution back you up? I just don’t understand that part of it.

Corey: One of the most interesting events along these lines recently was Ralph Northam, the governor of Virginia who was, there are photographs of him in blackface. And people are asking him to resign. These days I don’t communicate in Twitter. I send a little email old school to my friends, and my uncle, you know who’s in his seventies and I sent a letter, an email… Sorry, a news article attached to that, a question about what he should do. They were pointing out the black voters did not want him to resign. And my uncle wrote back saying he didn’t want him to resign either. So here’s a case where guy stuck to his guns and people saw their political interests as being aligned with his staying in power. So I think when you have a constituency that can see their interests connected to yours, you’re going to get support and he has survived. The Democrats now have taken control of the legislature there. So I think there’s some kind of self interested in some basic of power politics dynamic there. But it’s complicated when you’ve got institutions that are risk averse.

Steve: Right. Her example was Disney, right? And it wasn’t up to the director. They canned him, right?

Corey: Because they’re afraid they’re going to lose revenue from it.

Meghan: And also one of the precepts of intersectionality is that identity equals ideology. So, your race, your gender identity, your sexual orientation. We assume that that comes along with a set of values. Like, oh, all trans people must automatically be progressive because why in the world wouldn’t they be? Well, I find that really hard to believe because if you’re transgender, you are just transgender, and that is the way it is. And I would think that there are probably some transgender Trump supporters out there.

Steve: Well, I think Bret Easton Ellis is a good example for you, right? Because he’s out, he’s gay. He’s got a young millennial boyfriend. He was a bad boy writer when we were young. And this guy’s kind of like the darling of the right now. He’s a little bit of a… [Crosstalk].

Meghan: That’s a great example. You just Jordan Peterson, Bret Easton Ellis. I don’t follow him. Is he a darling of the right or he’s just [crosstalk]?

Steve: Okay. He’s willing to criticize the left, and he’s been… What was this last book called? White, I think.

Meghan: White. Yeah, that was [crosstalk].

Steve: Okay. You didn’t like that.

Meghan: That was a bold title [crosstalk].

Corey: What was it about?

Meghan: [inaudible].

Steve: It was actually a little bit like Meghan’s book. It was [crosstalk].

Meghan: It’s similar to my book, at least sort of structurally.

Steve: I admire him because I think he actually is a talented writer. He wrote Less Than Zero and American Psycho. And so, I’ve been a big fan of his for a long time and I find him to be a very acute cultural critic and also film critic, et cetera, et cetera. But he has some… He’s a little bit, well I don’t want to say like us because I don’t want to make assumptions about you, but I think he in the past would have been considered a progressive, but now things have kind of swung a little bit too far for him, and he’s not comfortable with everything that’s the standard now. And so, therefore he’s on the right.

Corey: Which I again, I think is just typical of a generational change.

Steve: Yes, it could be aging, it could be more principled as in like [crosstalk].

Meghan: Well, having enough money.

Steve: But it could be more principled as in like I like rationality and free speech, and that isn’t just a generational thing.

Meghan: Right. I mean, I’m not a policy walk. I’m not somebody who thinks in granular detail about politics, but I really, really care about being able to talk about stuff and being free to actually solve problems and really granting people and ideas their complexities. I just think there’s a resistance to complexity and to feeling conflicted. Just in the same way the book is really a self interrogation. I think that there is a real difficulty out there with people just sitting with their own conflict. I always tell my students, if you’re not conflicted, you’re either lying to yourself or you’re not very smart. It kind of blows their mind.

Corey: I think these discussions are very hard to have because they’re often extremely emotional and people get up in arms over issues. I think the point is you’ve got to lower the temperature down and the temperature can just rise so rapidly because of there are no consequences to it when you do it online. But it seems like it’s a very difficult thing to cultivate. It’s something that in small segments of society, like the Heterodox Institute where people are really trying to encourage that kind of discussion but it’s hard, right? I think the internet and social media just is the wrong way to have these deep longterm conversations, and we just have to adjust to that. You’ve got to start creating new venues if you want to have discussions with people across.

Meghan: And I think it’s happening. The fact that people are listening to people talking on podcasts for three hours really tells you something. I mean, Joe Rogan gets millions and millions of listeners, people watching his conversations for three, three and a half, four hours. That tells you something.

Steve: Yeah, I think it actually does. I mean I think there is a huge hunger for that kind of content. This idea that the next generation sucks or is no good or you’re just not comfortable with the way they are. That’s as old as Ecclesiastes, right?

Corey: It’s older than that.

Steve: Yeah, older than that. But for me the issue is sort of more principle things and where they actually affect how the academy is run or how the university is run or what types of science we can do. I think that’s much more substantive than-

Corey: Do you remember Steve that two generations back or three generations back in [inaudible] college, there were classes on Saturday. And you can imagine what those people in 1940 think, what the hell? They’ve cut Saturday classes. Look, learning should be 24/7. Now we just don’t think anything about the fact that class are five days a week.

Meghan: They don’t even have class on Fridays most places.

Corey: Fridays don’t matter. You’re at school, you’re learning. What’s the point of this stuff?

Steve: So, I want to ask you, and Meghan as well, are these changes, which I think all three of us are a little bit uncomfortable with or questioning a little bit, are they here to stay and we’re just old folks who are out of touch or is the pendulum going to swing back and they’re going to look at this era like the Chinese look at the cultural revolution, and say that was a huge extreme kind of overreaction that went away, which isn’t going to be?

Corey: There’ll be a partial pendulum swing back, I think. I’m sort of a student of leftism having been one, and there were just various movements on the left that have gone from Stalinist to libertarian and then back again. So, assuming that the left has been somewhat driving this cultural change, I expect what happened to left will actually happen to the mainstream culture.

Steve: So, Meghan inexorable progress of history or a pendulum that can swing back.

Meghan: I think it’s a pendulum that can swing back.

Corey: Yeah. Again, people on the extremes have an outside influence. I just don’t know really what percentage of the population they represent.

Meghan: Very small.

Steve: Yeah. It could be a small part of the population, but if everybody else is conditioned just to stay silent, then you have handed the power over to them.

Corey: I think what it forces us to do is have conversations in private and you basically talk to your friends and you don’t get on social media. And maybe I’m sounding like a troglodyte, but that’s not all that bad for me.

Steve: This is why in an earlier podcast, Corey, we were talking about our people, is there more free speech in China or the United States right now? And people who go to China will tell you, they feel like there’s more free speech in China than in the United States because you don’t feel like everything has to be a private conversation. You could get yourself canceled through it.

Meghan: But I mean the private, it’s great to have private conversations, but if we can’t take those conversations to a policy level or allow academics to have them, or researchers or scientists.

Corey: No, that’s absolutely problem. You can’t limit what people research, and you shouldn’t limit what people express in publications. I totally agree with that. I think there’s a… I’m close to being a free speech fundamentalist, but I’m just saying, I think we overemphasize our digital lives. We’d say like our entire lives are digital and they’re just not. Most of our lives are analog. I spent a good bunch of hours around this office. John and Melanie are here, they’re flesh and blood people, totally analog interactions. And I’m just saying, I think we… I’m not minimizing the importance of the digital world, but let’s not act like we’re living in The Matrix. We interact in the digital world to some extent. We go home to our lives and our friends and our family and we may write for publications that appear digitally, but a lot of that is not controlled by what’s acceptable on Twitter.

Meghan: I don’t disagree with that, but I think this is a little bit of a separate issue. If the most substantive conversations are happening in the back channels, what good is that?

Corey: It shows that Twitter’s not for serious discussion.

Meghan: But it’s not, and I’ve been talking about Twitter. If you can’t write an article in the Atlantic that reflects the complexity of what you would talk about at a dinner party with your friends-

Corey: Could you publish it in another venue? Could you publish it, say, in the National Review or The Economist?

Meghan: And then it has the stain of the National Review.

Corey: Or The Economist.

Meghan: [inaudible] You could publish in Quillette. The Economist you don’t get a byline.

Corey: Okay.

Meghan: So, maybe so. I just think that this is really a shame. The real conversations are happening on podcasts, frankly, and somebody is going to end up getting canceled over something that they say on a podcast, perhaps me in the next hour. And then I think we’re going to start see people censoring themselves in this forum. I don’t know. The job of the public thinker and the writer and the public intellectual was always to be saying the things that people couldn’t quite figure out how to articulate or make sense of. And that job has been eliminated from the society.

Steve: I think the specific job category of public intellectual and where that overlaps with university professor is severely constricted right now. More so than I can remember in my entire life.

Corey: Again, I think it’s our complicated. I’m thinking about the left largely right now-

Steve: And stand up comedian.

Corey: And stand up comedian, yeah. The left, you could easily get yourself excommunicated from the left very, very easily in the past. You had other venues you could write for, but they’re pretty hard doctrinaire lines you could not cross and still consider yourself left. One of my great informative experiences with being on this trip to El Salvador in 1994 where we are allegedly acting as election observers. And I rapidly realized this was effectively a package cruise for left wingers. We kind of went to these famous sites of very horrific massacres. We cried, had emotional experiences. I’m like, “This is a waste of time.” Why aren’t we doing anything useful here?

Corey: There was amazing split between me and everyone else in the group, I was immediately ex-communicated. It was extremely unpleasant. Nobody talked to me. It is at that point in time that I was out of that group, and I didn’t have a tribe anymore, effectively, but I could still talk to people about these topics. I couldn’t talk to that hard left anymore, but my world didn’t end. So, I think there’s always been this kind of mob quality to the left and the right, but it’s globalized now and there’s no doubt people can find your tweets from years earlier. They can use to harm your job. But that kind of tribal litmus test for your views has always been out there. And it this now someone who’s more heterodox may have a hard time being published say in the New York Times maybe. But I still think there are other publications out there, smaller maybe to the side of the ecosystem where people get their views out. It’s unfortunate there isn’t more open discussion, but you could still get your views out there.

Meghan: You can get your views out there, but you’re risking people saying, “Whoa, it’s being published in Quillette and Quillette is all right. So, end of story and suddenly why would you want to even publish your views if you can only publish them in some place that’s going to get you branded that way? There’s much greater incentive not to say anything.

Steve: I think it’s a bit worse than maybe you’re thinking Corey, because if you try to make a living as a writer-

Corey: Yes, no doubt.

Steve: … once you’re pigeonholed as a Quillette outright writer, what other places are you going to make money from?

Corey: I am speaking from a position of privilege probably. Privilege and disconnection from [crosstalk]-

Steve: It’s actually a privilege, man.

Corey: That’s right, and dad guy.

Meghan: You guys are [inaudible].

Steve: All right. Our producers are frantically signaling us that we’re out of time, but we obviously have enjoyed this discussion.

Corey: This has been a great time, Meghan. I really enjoyed this.

Steve: Yeah. And we’d love to have you back sometime. Maybe after your book tour is over and you have more free time, we’d still like to have you back for another lengthy discussion.

Meghan: I’d love that. Anytime.

Steve: Okay. Great.

Meghan: All right.

Steve: Take care.

Meghan: Bye.

Corey: Yeah.

Creators and Guests

Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu
Steve Hsu is Professor of Theoretical Physics and of Computational Mathematics, Science, and Engineering at Michigan State University.
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