On September 13th, the Buckley Program hosted a conversation with Guy Benson and Mary Katharine Ham on their book End of Discussion: How the Left’s Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun). Ham is a CNN contributor and moderated a 2016 Republican Primary debate. Benson is a frequent Fox News contributor and has also been published on many conservative sites. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
By: Rachel Williams
Rachel: Thank you so much for being here. How did the original idea for the book come about, and what was your primary motivation? I expect for each of you, your time in media and journalism has shaped your views on free speech and its preservation significantly.
Mary Katharine Ham: As public figures, we’ve noticed that we especially have to watch what we say, and we understand that comes with the job. We started thinking about writing a couple years ago when we saw that effect trickling down to college students, or just an average person writing on Facebook. They would have to watch their language so closely so as not to get fired or shunned by all of their friends, and that seems like a very unhealthy progression. Public figures get an extra amount of scrutiny, but regular folks on their Facebook and Twitter accounts should be given leniency to actually have a conversation, because that’s where we have conversations these days. On college campuses, it’s not just political correctness. When you weaponize it to such a degree that it becomes something used to silence other people with whom you just disagree, that’s when we feel like this has begun to devolve. It’s something that emerged into public life, and into people’s private lives in a more real way over the past couple years, almost mimicking college life, unfortunately.
Rachel: The “End of Discussion” culture you talk about in the book seems to have direct application to Yale. It seems like identity politics have become so integral here that people sometimes make you feel as though it’s morally obligatory to hold one particular stance on an issue. Even with something like healthcare, for example, facts and economics have started to come secondary to emotional and moral factors.
Mary Katharine Ham: Something like that is so frustrating because if you don’t even hold a particular view on healthcare, and you would like to make a devil’s advocate argument it’s very difficult. That’s what thinking is all about: trying to figure out what the other side is, trying to argue against some else’s best points, trying to figure out how to defend your points in the best way. I think to a really frightening extent colleges are being robbed of that, and that’s exactly what they are supposed to be fostering.
Guy Benson: We are worried about the survival of critical thinking in the face of emotional tribalism, and that applies to both sides of the political spectrum. If you get a room full of hard-core Republican Trump supporters, you’re going to have emotional tribalism trumping critical thinking as well. The irony is, what institutions of higher learning like Yale fancy themselves to be is the opposite of that, when in many cases they are actually worse.
Mary Katharine Ham: Trying to understand something without using any words to do so is not a way to convince people about your side of the argument. We talk about this a lot in the book: convincing people to shut up is not the same as convincing people. I think the 2016 election was a pretty good example of the effects of that. A lot of people had been convinced to just zip it, and so everyone thought the election was going one way, when in reality it went a very different way.
Rachel: On the topic of the 2016 presidential election, you mention in the preface of End of Discussion that Trump demonstrates a misunderstanding of free speech by suggesting, for example, that people shouldn’t be allowed to burn the American flag. What do instances like that indicate about this happening on both sides of the spectrum?
Guy Benson: This is actually a core issue for us. Just today, the White House called for the firing of an ESPN host who said on Twitter that Trump is a white supremacist. I strongly object to what she said, but I don’t think it’s a fireable offense. We argue that getting into an arms race of outrage is not going to end well for the conservative movement, or for the country. This is also part of our point to the left when we say, if you guys are all about viewpoint enforcement and punishing words and thoughts that you don’t like, what does that look like when the people running the show are Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions? Your authoritarian impulse might get your desired outcome at Yale, but it might not get your desired outcome somewhere else, where the mob is on the other side. [Trump] is just channeling exactly what the left does: “I don’t like that, lets ban it and punish it!” That’s what we’re concerned about. As part of our outreach to the left, we’re saying we need to link arms and unite on these questions or else it’s just going to lead to silencing all the way down.
Mary Katharine Ham: It is deeply toxic it is for the president of the United States to say that you should be jailed for burning the flag or that she should lose her job. I think that is truly a deep misunderstanding of how this is supposed to work and shows how the president’s words alone can chill speech.
Rachel: I think it’s so interesting that the book only becomes more relevant overtime, and your point just continues to be proven by those you write about. This is increasingly relevant at Yale as well, when students on the left try to shut down efforts of students on the right, and by doing so they are literally proving the point that this problem exists.
Mary Katharine Ham: Right, and I would rather be proven wrong. We always joke that it’s really good for book sales and really bad for America that they keep proving us right. At the end of the day, it’s just enriching to know people who think differently than you. It’s fun to have conversations with other smart people with whom you disagree, and many of whom are available to you at Yale. It’s a fun and exciting thing you should be doing in your 20s, and we’ve decided that this is a toxic thing to do now, and that’s not healthy.
Rachel: What has been the most rewarding experience about writing this book? Positive or negative, how has it been to receive responses and feedback?
Guy Benson: The two most rewarding things for me have been the positive reception we’ve gotten from a number of liberals who have been willing to actually read and consider the work. Good feedback, grudging respect, and agreement from people who are not necessarily with us on every issue. That’s the reason we wrote the book and the reason we wrote it the way we did.
On a personal note, one small element that got some attention was that I came out in the book as gay. I was worried about how that might impact our book tour, since we spoke to mostly older and mostly conservative audiences. But, overwhelmingly, people have been so kind. I was buying into a stereotype about them, worrying about them stereotyping me, and for the most part, with a few exceptions, that hasn’t materialized, which is great.
Mary Katharine Ham: As a woman who is conservative and as a gay man who is conservative, we hear from people who are outnumbered on a campus, in their workplace, community, or family, and feel like they can’t talk about this stuff. For them to read the book and realize there are people like them, for it to give them a little spark in their step, and for it to give them some tools for rational and loving argument in their own lives with people that they interact with makes me very happy.
Rachel: It’s a huge question, but where do you think America is headed on the free speech front? Are you optimistic?
Guy Benson: There are signs in both directions. There are very worrisome signs all over the place. We build a case in End of Discussion that the left is primarily at fault for this sort of tornado of silencing but as we are seeing, the impulse exists very much sides as part of human nature. We would not have written the book if we thought things were going in the right direction. And we would not have updated the book if things were still trending better. In terms of public opinion polling, there is clearly a sense that there are a lot of people, and not just conservatives, who are really fed up with the whole silencing culture, which is encouraging.
Mary Katharine Ham: I think what concerns me the most is that often it seems we’ve lost just the basic understanding that we all used to have culturally of what free speech is and why it is important. I say it all the time, but we’re supposed to defend reprehensible speech. That’s part of the deal. Because once you lay the groundwork for not defending certain kinds of speech, then guess whose is next? But this is a controversial idea now. No matter which way the wind is blowing, perhaps the root of all this has been lost, and that’s the part that’s really important. The tribalism will rule the day if we don’t understand these basic truths.
Rachel: Thank you so much for your time!
Rachel Williams is a sophomore in Silliman College and serves as the Outreach Director for the Buckley Program.