Coleman Hughes is a writer, podcaster, and opinion columnist who focuses on issues of race, public policy, and applied ethics. In June 2019, Hughes testified before the U.S. Congress on the subject of reparations. He received a B.A. in philosophy from Columbia University in 2020. In December 2020, Hughes was named one of Forbes’ 30 under 30. Hughes has been featured on numerous podcasts and television shows and has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Quillette, City Journal, The National Review, and The Spectator. He has hosted many influential guests on his podcast, Conversations with Coleman, among them Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, and Noam Chomsky.
Elijah Dahunsi: In recent years, there’s been an intensification of political debates around free speech, particularly as it relates to race and gender. How would you define free speech?
Coleman Hughes: I guess there’s two separate facets of it. One is the strictly legal aspect of the conversation relating to the First Amendment and what the government can and can’t do. Strictly speaking, this is what separates America from places like China and Russia, and even, to a lesser extent, from places like Britain, where different libel and slander laws make it easier to take someone to court over lying about you. There’s also the more abstract cultural aspect of free speech. Specifically, it’s about having a culture where people understand and agree that individuals are allowed to think and say things that others may not like, and that we can dispute these ideas and statements with words instead of violence, intimidation, the threat of getting fired, and so forth.
ED: Why do you think free speech is important in a democratic society?
CH: Firstly, while you can pressure people to not say things out loud, you can never stop people from thinking things in the privacy of their minds. The only thing such pressure does is drive taboo ideas—both good and bad—underground and send people down rabbit holes. This is especially true in the age of the internet, when ideas are not being refuted in the mainstream. A person who is exposed to white supremacist content, for example, can get radicalized on YouTube and still access dangerous content on 4chan when YouTube bans the content. Because such ideas are never talked about in the mainstream, that ease of access can actually make dangerous ideas seem more compelling to people who find themselves in these rabbit holes. When good ideas go underground, this makes it difficult to solve complex problems in society; solving them requires many minds to engage in conversation. There may be some examples where suppressing speech was good for society, but, overall, when considering what happens when ideas go underground, the harm caused by stifling speech is large.
ED: Should society’s definition of free speech take into account intangible harms?
CH: I don’t think it is wise to broaden the definition of speech to suggest speech can directly cause harm. That’s not a recipe for raising healthy adults in a fairly unforgiving world. Part of what it means to be a well-adjusted adult is to be able to hear another adult say something you don’t like and not break into a million pieces. I worry for the mental health of kids that are raised to believe that ‘if anyone says something you don’t like, you can cry, and they will have to shut up because you’re hurt.’
There’s this Buddhist parable which states, and I’m paraphrasing here, that the only way to make the entire Earth smooth to walk on is to wear shoes. The essence of the parable is that you have to develop the tools within yourself to deal with a reality that does not always cater to your specific emotions. You can’t expect the earth to be paved over and child-proofed; that just has never been true and never will be true in a world where people disagree about stuff. So inculcating university students or children with the expectation that they can limit offensive speech is doing a disservice to them. People who are sheltered in this way are going to be shocked when they try to do anything significant in life, in any career, and realize that they have to talk to people with whom they disagree.
ED: Do you think this expectation of coddling is only among younger generations, or do you think it’s present among all participants in American political discourse?
CH: That’s a good question. I don’t really know what’s going on with Gen Z. I can only use my experience as a reference. I was in high school between 2010 and 2014, and in college between 2015 and 2020, and for most of that decade, definitely the second half of it, there were large subcultures at Ivy League schools and elite high schools which very much encouraged this kind of coddling. The coddling was not done so much at bigger state schools and other places. I don’t exactly know what the current trendline is like at places like Brown and Columbia, which I attended. So I can’t really say, but I know this sort of coddling was not present to the extent that it is today for anyone probably born before 1990. There was the notion of ‘political correctness’ and debates over ‘political correctness’ in the ’90s, but there was no robust, widespread culture of censorship and cancellation like we see now.
ED: Do you think there’s a division between elite spaces and general society as a whole when it comes to this coddling?
CH: Yes, this coddling does not exist at all in working class America. It doesn’t exist at all in first-generation immigrant America. It is exclusively a phenomenon of privileged, elite, progressive spaces. The people who operate in these spaces make up a very small proportion of the population, but they have outsized influence in the media, in politics, and in the culture at large.
ED: Why do you think this ‘cancel culture’ is particular to elite spaces?
CH: I think ‘cancel culture’ is not really scalable to the rest of America because there are too many aspects of it that violate what most human beings would see as common sense. So for example, irrespective of whether they’re right or wrong, most people in America think it’s common sense that there are two genders and that boys are different from girls on the whole. That is not a controversial statement anywhere in America, except in elite spaces. Most Americans would disagree with the position that there’s no such thing as gender differences and gender is a function of cultural indoctrination and parenting. Most Americans would argue that “they can see these differences with their own eyes” or that “gender differences are common sense.” There are many more issues like this, where positions held by the elite seem to violate common sense and are therefore not scalable to the population at large.
ED: Would you say cancellations occur based on a discernable pattern?
CH: I guess they’re not random. They follow a pattern of who gets cancelled and for what. There’s definitely a pattern, but it’s not a logical or consistent pattern, meaning there are lots of internal contradictions in who gets cancelled. And this is one of the reasons societies create laws and dole out punishment through a bureaucratic system, which also has its flaws. The reason we do this is partly because mob justice is always hypocritical and extremely inconsistent. It’s as hypocritical as you could say the criminal justice system is for incarcerating people for marijuana, but not for alcohol. There are all kinds of inconsistencies you could find, but none would be as inconsistent and hypocritical as mob justice. ‘Cancel culture’ punishes someone who says something and doesn’t punish another person who says the exact same thing because that other person has some distinctive attribute: a different gender, a different color, or another inconsistent reason they may be admired by the general public.
ED: Lastly, what advice would you give to college students who want to combat illiberalism, share new ideas, and broaden their political understanding?
CH: One tip is always to prioritize your own mental health and well-being. If you are in a good place as a person, it becomes easier to have constructive disagreements with people and have a minority viewpoint.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.