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Posie Parker being mobbed at a "Let Women Speak" event in New Zealand. (via Twitter)

Weekend Listening: Mobs, Scapegoats, and Courage

Plus: music producer Rick Rubin on trusting your gut—not the audience.

By The Free Press

April 1, 2023

If you’ve been listening to our show, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, you know that this show is about much more than just J.K. Rowling and the blowback to her position on transgender issues.

It’s about social polarization in the age of the internet. It’s about the chasm between what people say they believe and how they’re understood by others. It’s about what it means to be human—to be a social animal who feels compelled to be part of a tribe. It’s about how hard it can be to discern if you are standing up for what’s right or joining a mob.

Those are questions that run through so much of our work at The Free Press. Today, we’re releasing a conversation that aims to answer the question “Why Do We Hunt Witches?” with host Megan Phelps-Roper; Yale sociologist, author, and mensch Nicholas Christakis; author and entrepreneur Luke Burgis (you’ll remember his recent piece for us about why everyone wants the same things); and the brilliant mind behind Wait But Why, Tim Urban. 

This was a remarkable conversation, and we urge you to pour a nice cup of coffee and watch the whole thing. But a few highlights from the conversation follow just below:

Nicholas Christakis:

It is no small thing to deprive an adult of a livelihood. To take someone’s job away. If you’re a writer or a reporter and you’ve been run out of the profession, for example, that’s devastating. Your whole life has been devoted to this profession. And so not only do you lose your income, but you lose a lot of your identity. This is not a trivial sanction. Yes, we didn’t burn you at the stake. That’s true. But we did something very bad to you. We put a scarlet letter on you and we took away your job, and your friends were afraid to associate with you. These are devastating social sanctions, not to be trifled with.

I have spoken, over the last ten years, to many people who have been the objects of these types of inquisitions, for lack of a better word. And I know of at least eight cases of people who seriously considered suicide because of the social ostracism. . . . It is a very disorienting thing to have your livelihood taken away, to have people shun you, to be the object of public scorn, especially if you’re innocent and you haven’t actually done anything wrong. It’s bewildering. So I don’t think it’s such a trivial matter as to say, well, you know, okay, we’re not Pol Pot. That’s like a pretty low bar.

Tim Urban:

There are these basic Trojan horse terms like inclusion. You say, “We want to be inclusive, therefore we can’t allow any of these viewpoints on campus,” which, of course, is the opposite of inclusive. “We want to have diversity, so therefore we have to all have the same core beliefs,” which is the opposite of diversity. There’s a lot of these. When you look at them, you’re like, this makes no sense. But a lot of people are not thinking that hard about it. And they hear things like diversity, inclusion, safe space. Well, we want that. And they’re kind of falling for the kind of cheap Trojan horse that I think is being used in a lot of these cases.

Luke Burgis:

This spiral of silence is real. You know, when you’re sitting around a dinner table and you’re the only one who’s like, “Yeah, I’m not quite sure if I really agree with what everybody else is saying, but I better not speak up because I really don’t want to. I don’t have the energy to have the conversation right now.”

And then everybody else assumes, you know, it reinforces their idea that you agree with them and it’s a spiral. And the word that Tim used that I think is so important is culture, culture of free speech. If you don’t like what’s going on on Twitter and some of the tribalism, I personally don’t believe that there’s anything that Elon or anybody at the top of Twitter can do.

There’s no feature that they can introduce, nothing that they can do to solve the problem because they can’t create culture. And there’s no technological solution that can create that culture. So if we believe that the fabric of a pluralistic society is somehow breaking down, that is a cultural problem just as much as it is a technological problem.

And I’m skeptical that I don’t believe, in fact, that there’s any kind of top-down solution for that. We have to kind of dig deep and see what we’re doing as people.

Jay Z & Rick Rubin in New York City in 2001. (KMazur via Getty Images)

Meantime, this week on Honestly we hosted Rick Rubin. If you haven’t heard of Rubin, perhaps you’ve heard of Adele. Or Johnny Cash. Or the Beastie Boys. Or Jay Z. Or Justin Bieber, Neil Young, Slayer, or the Red Hot Chili Peppers. What all of these iconic artists have in common is a single person: Rick Rubin.

Ever since he created Def Jam Recordings from his college dorm room 40 years ago and helped launch hip hop as a global phenomenon, Rubin has produced some of the world’s most popular records. Rubin works on up to ten records a year, and has become something of a high priest of popular music. (His discography is almost unbelievable.)

I spoke to Rubin about his new book, The Creative Act: A Way of Being. We also talked about what it means to be creative; how to trust your own gut; art and culture; separating the art from the artist; what he thinks of growing self-censorship in our music; why the Beatles are proof of the existence of God; and what it means to listen in an era of ceaseless distraction.

The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling is proudly sponsored by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

Right now, too many believe that the right response to speech they dislike is to censor it, to cancel the speaker, or to bully them into silence. 

The Free Press vehemently disagrees. So does FIRE.

We both believe in protecting a culture of free expression. And that the way to defeat bad ideas is with better ones.

You can learn more about FIRE’s incredible work at thefire.org.

Free speech makes free people. And free people need a free press.

The Free Press earns a commission from any purchases made through Bookshop.org links in this article.

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