Greg Lukianoff is the president of FIRE—the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that supports free expression, academic freedom, and due process at U.S. colleges and universities. His book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, was published in October 2012, and has been enthusiastically praised by luminaries such as Nat Hentoff, Nadine Strossen, Steven Pinker, and Daphne Patai. A graduate of American University and Stanford Law School, Lukianoff previously worked for the ACLU of Northern California, the Organization for Aid to Refugees, and the EnvironMentors Project. He’s published articles in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Chronicle of Higher Education, and numerous other venues, and he regularly blogs at the Huffington Post.
Very interesting interview, I especially found the following exchange ponderable.
The Humanist: FIRE periodically defends students’ religious beliefs that some humanists—or non-humanists—would find hateful. Why?
Lukianoff: Personally, I’ve been an atheist since seventh grade. And FIRE was founded by two non-religious civil libertarians. All of us believe in the entire First Amendment, and that includes the establishment clause and free exercise clause. So we’ve defended Muslim student groups and evangelical Christian student groups, some of whom are being kicked off campus because they believe that homosexuality is sinful. I don’t agree with that point of view, and I both hope and believe that such views will eventually be abandoned. But I challenge my friends who support expelling such groups: Do we really want to live in a society that can try to coerce somebody into changing their theological point of view just because it’s unpopular? Our founders learned from Europe’s religious wars that the government should stay out of establishing a theocracy, deciding matters of theology, or interfering with people’s faith. I understand the frustration on campus—some people want evangelicals to change their minds on issues like sexual morality. But you’re not doing that cause any favors if your solution is to kick those students off the campus. It probably hardens their point of view, and turns the narrative from “We have an idea that many people find objectionable” into “We’re being exiled for our points of view.” So, in addition to the strategy being wrong, I think it can backfire.
The Humanist: Intolerance—say of another’s code of sexual morality—is assumed to be a bad thing on campus because supposedly it creates an environment that makes other people uncomfortable.
Lukianoff: Yes. The question of making people uncomfortable versus discriminating against them is a distinction that I draw all the time. There’s a big difference between discriminating on the basis of an immutable characteristic, and opposing on the basis of a belief. Discriminating on the basis of an immutable characteristic like skin color or sexual orientation is something that should be challenged, as this discrimination prevents others from exercising their rights. But belief is intertwined with expression and civic integrity. Democratic societies need to nurture and protect people’s right to believe anything they want, no matter how distasteful it may be to others, even if those others are in the majority.