Claire Lehmann on Speaking Freely (Ep. 48)
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Claire Lehmann is the founding editor of Quillette, an online magazine dedicated to free thought and open inquiry. Founded in 2015, the magazine has already developed a large and growing readership that values Quillette’s promise to treat all ideas with respect, even those that may be politically incorrect.
As an Australian, Claire tells Tyler she doesn’t think she could have started the magazine in America. Even in risk-loving San Fransisco, where this conversation took place, people are too afraid to speak their minds. “You celebrate entrepreneurs and courage in making money and that kind of thing, but there is a general timidity when it comes to expressing one’s honest views about things,” she tells Tyler. “I find that surprising, and particularly among people who are risk-taking in all sorts of other domains.”
She and Tyler explore her ideas about the stifling effect of political correctness and more, including why its dominant form may come from the political right, how higher education got screwed up, strands of thought favored by the Internet and Youtube, overrated and underrated Australian cities, Aussie blokes, and more.
Listen to the full conversation
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: I’m here today with Claire Lehmann, who is the founder and editor of Quillette, an online magazine. Claire is coming to us from Sydney, Australia. But today, we’re right here in San Francisco. Thank you for coming, Claire.
CLAIRE LEHMANN: Thanks for having me, Tyler.
COWEN: Let me start with my first question, a very difficult one. Quillette has published a lot of articles criticizing what you might call the side of political correctness. What would be an example where you would actually side with the people trying to make things more politically correct?
On political correctness
LEHMANN: I agree with civility. If people define political correctness as being civil and being polite, then I’m on that side. I’m on the side of not being aggressively provocative and overly polemical with one’s perceived political opponents. But I don’t really think that’s what political correctness is. I think political correctness is the restraint on inquiry.
However, a lot of people define it as just being nice and being civil and respectful. If we were to just go on that definition, I’m in perfect agreement with being nice and being respectful.
COWEN: We both agree, in the past and still the present, racism has been a problem. Gay individuals have not been treated well.
If someone wants to make the norms tougher, but they honestly told us, “You can never fine-tune a norm. A norm will either be too tough or not tough enough.” And they say, “I’d rather the norms against racists, in a sense, be too tough and maybe catch some cases that don’t deserve to be caught because that’s the only choice we have. In the past, injustices have been so great.”
What would you say? You think we can fine-tune the norm in accord with reason?
LEHMANN: The social norms?
COWEN: Right. If someone says, “I agree. It’s too tough. There are unfair cases of people being punished. But the norm has to be too tough,” why is that wrong?
LEHMANN: I think having social norms that frown upon racism and sexism are very important and useful. But when we talk about political correctness, we’re not really talking about social norms. We’re talking about people being punished for asking questions and expressing doubt and expressing uncertainty. The norms are just overactive. They’re hyperactive.
The norms where expressing a racial epithet and using race to insult someone—there should be a taboo against that.
But I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about political correctness. We’re talking about the tool that’s used to stop people from having independent thought and asking questions about social phenomena and questioning some of the more simplistic narratives that get presented around issues of gender and race.
The norms that prevent people from using race or gender as an insult, I don’t think they’re too tough. I think that they’re perfectly reasonable.
COWEN: There’s a recent example: Scarlett Johansson was slated to play a transgender character in a movie. She is not herself transgender. Many people complained. Now, she has declined the role. What’s your take on that episode? Should the complaints have come? Should she have stepped out of the role?
LEHMANN: That’s a particularly ridiculous episode. I would say that’s a good example of political correctness. You’ve got a tiny, tiny minority population that is transgender individuals. Among transgender individuals, only a small percentage of those are activist. So it’s the tiniest minority you can think of, but they have all of this political power because they’re very noisy.
The idea that an actress cannot play someone who she isn’t is ludicrous on its face. That’s the job of an actor, to play someone that they are not. Scarlett Johansson will be playing some kind of Russian spy in her next film. Can she not play a Russian spy because she’s not Russian? [laughs]
The example of her being pressured to step out of that role is a good example of how political correctness has metastasized into seeking offense where offense should probably not be taken, inflating perceived slights, overexaggerating the potential harm that might be caused. I think there’s a lot of that going on in that particular instance.
COWEN: In the past, as you know, there’s a long history of white actors playing black characters and putting on something like blackface. We just don’t do that anymore. It doesn’t seem many people are wishing for that to come back.
In the history of transgender characters in movies, they’re usually not played by transgender individuals. It’s not that Scarlett Johansson is coming after a string of 20 transgender actors/actresses who played transgender characters.
Is it not like white actors putting on blackface to play blacks, and we ought to do much less of it, or maybe none of it? What’s the difference between those cases?
LEHMANN: That’s an interesting comparison. I would just imagine that there’s fewer trans actors to choose from, and the whole idea of being transgender is that you can experiment with your gender. You can be gender fluid or nonbinary.
Being transgender is in itself a performance. It’s a theatrical act. However, being black is not a performance. It’s not theatrical. I think the performative nature of transgenderism itself should allow a woman like Scarlett Johansson to play a transgender person.
I have to say, the messaging around transgender activism is very confusing and contradictory. On the one hand, we’ve got this discourse around gender fluidity and being nonbinary. On the other hand, a woman can’t play a transgender person. It doesn’t make any logical sense to me.
COWEN: Let me try another example on you. I was reading the New York Times. There was an article by David Bowden, talking about superhero movies and how they’ve revised past myths. This was just from about a week ago.
He wrote a sentence: “They [the superheroes] rival Mormonism for chutzpah.” Is that an offensive sentence? Should we be bothered? Should have editors insisted that he take it out? Because you might say, “Well, all religions involve strong claims. To single out Mormonism is unusual. It’s treating it as somehow especially weird.”
There might even be a slight objection to the juxtaposition of Mormonism with chutzpah, a word associated with Judaism in some ways, and Yiddish—almost like a slap in the face that maybe the person writing this is probably himself not a Mormon. Offensive or not?
LEHMANN: No, it’s not offensive. I can understand why a Mormon person might find it a little bit offensive, but what we have to remember with these new rules around identity and social justice culture is that they’re not evenly applied, and there’s an asymmetry.
Whether or not you can be offended by something depends on what identity group you belong to, and being a Mormon would not qualify as being part of an identity group that is entitled to feel offended by slights.
Jonathan Haidt has identified about seven victims’ groups who are entitled to feel offended and slighted over sort of microaggressions: women, blacks, Muslims, I think indigenous or native peoples, LGBT, and perhaps immigrants would be another one.
If you don’t belong to one of those identity groups, these rules don’t apply.
COWEN: When did political correctness become a major issue, or become a major issue again? And why do you think it happened exactly then?
LEHMANN: That’s a good question, and I don’t know if I have the answer. I know that there were lots of debates around political correctness in the early ’90s, for example.
COWEN: Yes, and it seems to fade away and then come back.
I’ve noticed in my own life that I started noticing political correctness around 2007. At the time, I thought it had something to do with the business model of Internet publishing.
That was when Gawker and the blog Jezebel was really popular. It was established in 2007, and then it got very popular over the next couple of years. I thought that there were a lot of clickbait kind of articles promoting these really simplistic black-and-white narratives of oppression.
Unless one had reasonable critical thinking skills, I could see how young people could be influenced by that kind of content coming out. I think there’s something to do with the Internet and the way the media has had to adapt to this new business model where you have to drive . . . You have to get lots of views, lots of hits, millions more than you would with the newspapers.
I think it’s something to do with that, but that’s probably just one variable in many other factors.
COWEN: What do you think of the hypothesis that political correctness is a kind of virus that’s hijacked the left? It’s figured out some kind of weak entry point, and it’s come in and taken over parts of it, and it will bring down many victims with it, but actually, it’s crippling the left.
LEHMANN: Yep, yeah.
COWEN: True or false?
LEHMANN: Probably true.
COWEN: If one objects to that argument, we should in a sense encourage more of it, at least if we’re being pure utilitarians, or not?
LEHMANN: I think the sensible left is necessary and important, and people advocating for marginalized groups, and particularly lower socioeconomic groups, is very important. So I think having anything that destroys the left altogether is a bad thing.
The way I think about it is, imagine that being progressive or being interested in social justice or being left-wing is a form of belief system. The stuff we’re talking about is the fundamentalist version.
You can have a faith that is moderate and on the whole functions well for the people who believe in it, but then when you get into the extremes and it becomes fundamentalist, that’s when you get the trouble. I think what we call social justice warriors are like the fundamentalists of the progressive faith.
COWEN: What do you think is the closest equivalent to political correctness on the right, the political right?
LEHMANN: It’s different in Australia than it is here, but I would . . .
COWEN: Sure. Start with either place.
LEHMANN: Yeah, OK. Of course, there are dogmas on the right, as well. Questioning patriotism, questioning certain dogmas around economics or the free market.
In Australia, we’re quite secular, and we don’t really have a very strong Christian conservative contingent, but I imagine here in the US, it’s completely different, and to question certain religious orthodoxies would just be unthinkable in certain communities.
COWEN: We would agree, I think, that left-wing political correctness is much stronger in academia?
COWEN: Probably in the media? In general, intellectual life, but if you take, say, the United States as a whole, do you think it’s left-wing or right-wing political correctness that’s stronger and more destructive?
LEHMANN: Yeah, it’s probably right-wing political correctness.
COWEN: That’s worse?
LEHMANN: Yeah, but what I know and what I come up against in my life is left-wing political correctness because I live in an urban center, and I mix with people who are doing their PhDs. I have friends who are academics, and I’m interested in open inquiry.
If you restrict open inquiry on universities, then I’m going to stop paying attention. If you’re talking about on a national scale, it’s probably right-wing political correctness that is a bigger problem.
COWEN: Can you imagine a Quillette of the future that has more articles criticizing right-wing political correctness, albeit outside of academia, than left-wing political correctness?
LEHMANN: Probably not.
LEHMANN: Because our audience is the highly educated urban audience, and our audience is not mainland America, where people go to church. That’s really not who I know, the people that I know, and it’s not who we’re aiming for.
COWEN: Do you think the Internet gives what one might broadly call the political right a new relative cultural advantage? Before the Internet, the left was already pretty well organized through urban elites who live near each other, and now, the Internet has enabled people who are not so urban or not so coastal to suddenly coordinate, and it’s shifted the balance of intellectual influence. Do you agree with that?
LEHMANN: Yeah, definitely. I noticed it with myself. I live in Sydney, but I know that plenty of people in New York and San Francisco are reading our platform.
Because there’s no barrier to entry, you don’t have to have a PhD. You can just have some talent, be a good writer with some insights, and you can be viewed or read just as much as a New York Times columnist. I definitely think it’s flattened out the hierarchy.
The interesting thing is how the Internet has made the right, particularly among younger people, the new counterculture in a way.
COWEN: I’ve been speaking about the right in aggregate terms, but if you think of the effect of the Internet, which strands of the right do you think are favored, and which do you think are falling away because of Internet discourse? Because it shouldn’t favor it all equally, correct?
LEHMANN: That’s right. There’s many different types of right-wing ideology that are coming through via the Internet. There’s lots of people now self-identifying as classical liberals, and they’re identifying with the English tradition of individualism, free market trade, and civil liberties.
When you go further out, there are young people who identify as reactionary or Catholic traditionalists—that’s having a resurgence through the Internet, strangely enough.
COWEN: But are they favored more than the classical liberals and the free traders? Are the nationalists favored more? Are the populists? What’s your relative assessment of who’s gaining within the right?
LEHMANN: I’d have to look at the data and the numbers to make an accurate judgment, but I think that classical liberalism is very strong at the moment through the Internet, and then the nationalists, people who identify as right-wing, but are opposed to free trade dogmas and who want to question immigration, basically.
COWEN: And you think that particular question has been boosted by the Internet as a means of discourse?
COWEN: Also in Australia?
LEHMANN: Less so in Australia because our immigration is different. Our immigration policies are different to the US in that we have very high immigration. However, we have closed borders, and we have a very tough policy on asylum seekers. So our policy is quite different.
Immigration is always a topic, and it always comes up before any election, but it’s not an Internet thing. It’s out in the open, and people talk about it on TV and in the newspapers quite openly.
COWEN: Whether deserved or not, Australia has a history of being somewhat racist or xenophobic. In the 1960s, immigration from places other than, say, Great Britain, is quite low. Now, Australians are extremely welcoming of immigration. What is it about how Australia did immigration that accounts for this?
LEHMANN: People will debate this question, but I’m quite persuaded by our former prime minister, John Howard’s perspective when he says that the people of Australia will accept very high immigration if they feel that their border is controlled.
He brought in this policy whereby anyone arriving by boat was turned away, and boats were basically stopped by the navy before they could arrive. His general thesis is that you can have high immigration, and the voting public will accept it if they feel that it’s done in a controlled manner. I think that’s one aspect of it.
Another aspect is that we also have very high-skilled immigration. It’s very noticeable that our immigrant communities are filling up professions and are very hardworking, and have immediately gone into the highest income brackets because we poach a lot of very talented people from all over the world to come out to Australia.
I think that helps when it comes to things like assimilation and acceptance, that’s for sure.
COWEN: If I think of the comparative histories of Australia and New Zealand with regard to political correctness, I have the sense New Zealand gets there first. They have a very mild version of political correctness.
Maori are rhetorically granted higher status much earlier than, say, Aboriginals and Torres Strait Island peoples are granted higher status in Australia. What do you think accounts for that difference? But yet, now, New Zealand has probably less immigration than Australia in percentage terms.
LEHMANN: I think the difference is how New Zealand was founded. The colonial settlers signed a treaty with the Maoris straight away, so that set the stage for better relations from their inception.
I don’t know the history very well, but I do know that there was a fierce fight against the colonial settlers, and then they came to some kind of truce, and the colonial settlers signed an official treaty with the Maori.
That didn’t happen in Australia. It was more of a case of stealing the land and committing atrocious crimes against the indigenous people, and taking a very long time to coming around to accepting that that needed to be dealt with and acknowledged.
We still don’t have a treaty with the indigenous people in Australia. So there’s a huge contrast. There’s a huge gap with the way that it was done in New Zealand and the way it was done in Australia.
COWEN: We mentioned before the Internet favoring some particular ideas over others, or kinds of ideas. YouTube, in particular. What kinds of ideas do you think are favored by YouTube, and why?
LEHMANN: YouTube is fascinating. It’s the second most visited website in the world, behind Google. It’s much more popular than Twitter. I think it’s more popular than Facebook.
COWEN: Much more.
LEHMANN: If you look at just what is viewed the most often, you’ll get kids watching other kids play video games, you’ll get makeup tutorials. [laughs] In terms of political discourse, I think you’re getting the same ideas that you will see on Twitter, but reduced to a more simplified . . . reduced into sound bites.
You’ll get classical liberal ideas, but you’ll also get the right-wing nationalist ideas, but reduced down to slogans. To present a good YouTube video, it has to be sort of theatrical and entertaining.
On the other hand, we’ve got this situation where someone like Jordan Peterson can present hour-long lectures on complicated topics. And Joe Rogan and Dave Rubin have very long interviews with a range of people. It’s hard to summarize. It’s hard to summarize, yeah.
COWEN: You have a background in psychology. Why is it you think there are relatively so few female libertarians in the world?
LEHMANN: That’s pretty straightforward, I think. If you look at the personality data on libertarians, they tend towards being more systematizing in their cognitive profile. Women, on average, tend to be more empathizing and agreeable, and so arguments around political issues that are based on quantitative reasoning and facts and logic without an emotional layer to it are going to be less appealing to women.
I’ve said to libertarian friends that if you want to be more appealing, get your message across in a more appealing way, you need to wrap up the ideas into a story that has an emotional component.
COWEN: Why hasn’t this evolved more? There’s a potential audience. If indeed it’s true women, on average, are more empathetic, you could make an argument, libertarianism is the true empathy. Women on the whole don’t seem to buy that argument. What exactly is stuck in the middle? Empathetic people can favor markets, right?
LEHMANN: Yeah. I think it comes back to communication. Any message can be communicated effectively if you take a narrative that perhaps has some kind of . . .
There’s something like six narrative structures that are known to elicit emotional reactions in people, like the hero overcoming obstacles. That’s like the most basic narrative framework.
If you want to present a political argument, you have to be able to put your argument into some kind of narrative structure that elicits an emotional reaction. I think libertarians have been because they’re very rationalist and systematizing, they’re skeptical of the utility of narratives and manipulating people’s emotions.
On higher education
COWEN: How did at least some parts of American higher education get so screwed up in the first place? Structurally, what went wrong? Is it that campus life is somehow toxic? Is it the intersection of the university and some new technologies? What’s your take?
LEHMANN: I think the setting up of women’s studies departments in the 1970s was a big mistake because, if you look at other humanities disciplines, they’ve been developed over hundreds of years, and they developed scholarly foundations.
History has its scholarly foundations in things like the dialectic, and then you’ve got philosophy, and even English literature had a solid grounding in a very long history.
If you create departments virtually overnight, as they did with women’s studies, when theories become popularized by the departments, and the departments don’t have a very strong, solid grounding in scholarly principles, then these faddish theories such as poststructuralism and deconstruction are going to be able to take root much more quickly and easily than they would in some of the older disciplines such as history or philosophy.
History has its scholarly foundations in things like the dialectic and even English literature had a solid grounding in a very long history. If you create departments virtually overnight, as they did with women’s studies, when theories become popularized by the departments, and the departments don’t have a very strong, solid grounding in scholarly principles, then these faddish theories such as poststructuralism and deconstruction are going to be able to take root much more quickly.
COWEN: But do those actually influence anyone? On your list of worries about the United States or the world, how high should they be? “Well, too many people believe in poststructuralism or postmodernism.”
Young people vote at pretty low rates in the US, as you probably know, and maybe they’ll vote Democratic to a disproportionate degree, but that possibly would be the case anyway. Why does it matter so much?
LEHMANN: It matters because people who go through elite colleges and go into the professions, particularly in journalism and law, are often trained and inculcated with these theories.
So if you are thinking of the next generation of professionals, particularly in the media—and law is not far off—if you’re thinking about the next generation of professionals who have been trained to be skeptical of objective methods and have been trained to view social phenomena through simplistic narratives of impression, without looking at the complications in the data and that kind of thing, then it’s going to have a toxic effect.
I think we can already see the results of that, particularly in some of the biggest media institutions. And I think being complacent about the effect that poststructuralism has had, particularly in the humanities, has backfired. Part of the problems with polarization is because generations of scholars have been complacent about its impact.
COWEN: With respect to political correctness, how is it that Australian universities are different?
LEHMANN: I think the fact that they’re public makes a big difference because students are not paying vast sums to go to university in the first place, so students have less power.
If you’re a student, and you make a complaint against a professor in an Australian university, the university’s just going to shrug its shoulders, and you’ll be sort of walked out of the room. Students have much less power to make complaints and have their grievances heard. That’s one factor.
Another factor is, we don’t have this hothouse environment where students go and live on campus and have their social life collapsed into their university life.
Most students in Australia live at home with their parents or move into a share house and then travel to university, but they don’t live on campus. So there isn’t this compression where your entire life is the campus environment. That’s another factor.
We don’t have a history of policies such as affirmative action. To get into university in Australia, it’s based on a tertiary entrance rank, which is a score out of 100, and that’s just based on your final-year academic results. No extracurricular activities are considered.
COWEN: If I think about Australian intellectuals, from my great distance in Fairfax, Virginia, they seem to me more left-wing than American intellectuals. Your media is probably more left-wing than American.
COWEN: You don’t have political correctness, and the intellectual power center has turned out to be further to the left. Does that mean political correctness isn’t that important after all?
LEHMANN: I think there’s a difference between political correctness and being left-wing. I think one can be left-wing and not be politically correct. In Australia, to be left-wing simply means to favor more redistributive policies, and to favor egalitarianism, basically.
We have a strong history of egalitarianism in our culture, and there are lots of left-wing people in Australia who are not politically correct in our characters in films and TV shows. If you think of someone like Crocodile Dundee, he’s not politically correct, but he’s not right-wing. He’s just an Aussie bloke who goes out into the bush and fights with crocodiles.
There’s not this dichotomy where, if you’re anti-PC, you must be right-wing. We don’t really have that black-and-white kind of setup.
On Australian traditions
COWEN: There’s a cliché about Australia, or maybe an earlier Australia if not today, that it is in some ways more sexually chauvinist than some of the other Anglo countries. You mentioned Crocodile Dundee. Mel Gibson—not entirely Australian. Robert Hughes.
There seems to be this tradition of gruff, very manly type figures. Is that part of Australian culture? And is it still there?
LEHMANN: Yeah, and I hope that it remains a part of our culture. Australia is a dangerous country. The people who colonized and settled Australia had to be tough. The outback is right there. It doesn’t take long to drive out of the city and you’re in the outback, and it’s a harsh environment.
We have a very strong sporting culture because we have fabulous beaches. The masculinity is very much tied up with being physically competent.
COWEN: Do you view yourself and Quillette—you’re not speaking for every author, but broadly—as, to some extent, in this tradition of Australian traditional thought? The sexes are different. Tough guys are good.
LEHMANN: [laughs] I have not actually considered that, but if someone proposed that, I wouldn’t disagree with it.
COWEN: Could you have done Quillette here in San Francisco?
LEHMANN: I don’t think so. I really don’t think so, mostly because what I sense from being here is that there’s a lot of fear of rocking the boat and offending one’s friends. Then if you have coworkers who have certain political inclinations, you don’t want to upset them by expressing one’s honest opinion.
I sense there’s a lot of social politeness and social etiquette that prevents one from being just unashamed of having a view.
COWEN: You’re from Adelaide, not Sydney, is that correct?
LEHMANN: Yeah, that’s correct.
COWEN: How has that influenced your work in Quillette, being from Adelaide, in particular?
LEHMANN: Adelaide’s a smaller city, and it was founded by some pioneers who had experimental ideas about social… South Australia was the first state to give women the vote, and there was a visionary architect, a city planner who designed the city.
I think just the fact that it was smaller. Sydney and Melbourne—they’re very competitive cities. Unless you go to a private school, unless you have the right family network, it can be difficult to really be socially mobile.
Adelaide—because it was smaller—all you really had to do was do well in school, get into university, and you could quite easily be socially mobile. It didn’t really matter who your family was and where you came from. I think being a smaller city, it allowed me to be ambitious and to not feel constrained, basically.
COWEN: What is it you find most puzzling about the United States as an outsider?
LEHMANN: I have been surprised by how there is this culture of risk-taking, particularly in business. You celebrate entrepreneurs and courage in making money and that kind of thing, but there is a general timidity when it comes to expressing one’s honest views about things.
I have been surprised by how there is this culture of risk-taking [in the US], particularly in business . You celebrate entrepreneurs and courage in making money and that kind of thing, but there is a general timidity when it comes to expressing one’s honest views about things. I find that surprising, and particularly among people who are risk-taking in all sorts of other domains.
They might not be risk-taking when it comes to just expressing their feelings about a particular topic in public. I found that surprising.
COWEN: San Francisco—in particular, what has surprised you?
LEHMANN: Basically, what I’ve just described: how someone can be a visionary entrepreneur and take all sorts of risks in their career, but then be very timid when it comes to anything political, and sort of rocking the boat when it comes to social issues or just expressing a dissenting viewpoint.
On things under- and overrated
COWEN: In many of these conversations, we have a segment in the middle called underrated versus overrated. I’ll choose some partly from Australia. Are you game?
COWEN: The city of Canberra, overrated or underrated?
LEHMANN: Badly designed. Badly designed, hard to get around. You need a car to get around. Very poorly designed, and it’s cold.
LEHMANN: [laughs] You mean Vegemite?
COWEN: Take your pick. Either one.
LEHMANN: Probably overrated.
COWEN: Within Australia, but it’s not overrated out there in the big broad world, or is it?
LEHMANN: No, so underrated globally, overrated locally.
COWEN: What do you think is the best or most interesting Australian movie?
LEHMANN: A movie called Lantana. It had Geoffrey Rush, and it has interweaving narratives of different couples. It explores themes like trust and openness in marriage. It’s a very well-crafted film. It was made recently, probably about 10 years ago or 15 years ago.
COWEN: I would strongly second that recommendation.
Rugby, overrated or underrated?
LEHMANN: I think probably overrated.
LEHMANN: Head injuries. [laughs]
COWEN: What is most interesting to you in Australian music?
LEHMANN: There were some interesting groups back in the ’80s that I’ve been listening to recently. A band called the Go-Betweens and the Church. We had a really cool underground music scene a couple of decades ago. I’m not sure what’s going on at the moment, though.
COWEN: Australian fashion, what is most interesting in that area?
LEHMANN: We have some great designers who do swimwear and resort wear and that kind of thing. Zimmermann is a great brand, which is known all over the world, but I don’t know what it is about them that’s particularly Australian. Yeah, I’m not sure how I could characterize it as Australian.
COWEN: Who is an intellectual or public intellectual in Australia that you would draw our attention to as especially worthy or possibly underrated?
LEHMANN: One of our deputy prime ministers, John Anderson, has been having conversations with people from around the world like Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Haidt, and I think he’s really trying to move discourse in a more intellectual, open . . . He’s trying to bring back these long-form discussions and grapple with the big ideas.
COWEN: If you had to draw our attention to something in Australian fiction, what might it be?
LEHMANN: Australian fiction . . . I haven’t read any Australian fiction in some years, but if international listeners aren’t aware of Patrick White, he’s probably our best novelist that we’ve ever produced.
On the Claire Lehmann production function
COWEN: I’d like to ask you a few questions, just Claire Lehmann as manager. If you’re looking for heuristics to figure out who is a good writer, and also a good writer for Quillette, what do you look for, other than just reading their work? How do you think about figuring out who will be a writer worth investing time and networking with, helping them become better?
LEHMANN: Courage. Courage to express ideas without qualifying them in all sorts of disclaimers and weasel words, clarity in prose, being able to structure an article. Structuring an article is extremely important.
A lot of people have a good prose style and have interesting ideas, but their articles just go on and on, and they don’t really have much of a narrative structure. So if anyone has the ability to have a story arc in their article, that’s an instant indicator that that person, that writer, is a winner.
COWEN: If I think of the Claire Lehmann production function, so to speak—you were not obviously trained to do what you do—but which of your own talents did you invest in to get in a position to be able to run, start, finance, do everything with Quillette, do the editing?
LEHMANN: Building up social capital is a big part of it. I have developed friendships with people, sort of loose affiliations with people over the years, being able to draw on those affiliations when a certain news story come up.
For example, when the James Damore controversy broke, I was able to draw on some friendships that I had built up over the years, and so we were able to publish a piece straightaway on that topic.
Things that I’ve had to invest in is . . . I now outsource a lot of the editing work to professional editors. You have to be aware of the limits of your own competence. My competence stops at proofreading. I’m a hopeless proofreader. [laughs]
Leadership and managing is somewhat common sense. You either have it or you don’t, I think, but you can fine-tune certain techniques, and articulate your vision more clearly, and that kind of thing.
COWEN: What is the most significant constraint for making Quillette bigger and better? Of course, you might wish for more money, but if you had, in some way, more resources, how would you invest them? Is it that you want bigger staffs, more editors? What’s your wish list? What’s number one?
LEHMANN: The biggest constraint is time.
COWEN: You mean your time.
LEHMANN: My time, but also the time of my two co-editors because they have judgment that cannot be replaced or substituted. I can’t just ramp up by hiring a whole bunch of people to replicate the work that they do because it can’t be replicated.
The real constraint is the talent and the time of the individuals that I have at the moment. That being said, it would be very beneficial for us if we had more proofreaders, more subeditors, and more administrative support.
But when it comes to making decisions about the submissions that we get, and then helping authors refine their work, that skill level can’t really be replicated easily.
COWEN: Do you think it could be scalable? Say, you had 20 editors as good as the few you have now. Let’s just say you found them. Could that work? Or is there something about the number 20 where you’re overloaded, they don’t know each other, something breaks down?
LEHMANN: Yeah, I think that would be too many, and the other constraint would be that we wouldn’t receive enough pieces. We wouldn’t receive enough articles, and there probably wouldn’t be enough writers for us to commission to produce the kind of work that we’re after.
But we could scale up a little bit more and commission more writers, but I don’t think to the level of having a staff of 20 editors. I think that would be too many, and then the internal communication would break down. Then there would be power plays amongst people.
COWEN: Let’s say you were in charge of the Anglo-American world, and you could make one change in education, broadly defined so that we would produce more good writers. What would that be?
LEHMANN: I would defund departments that encouraged students to use too much postmodernist jargon. I would clear out a lot of the studies courses—cultural studies, gender studies, critical race studies.
Not that the content shouldn’t be taught, but a lot of these schools really train students in poor writing techniques, using opaque jargon to express ideas, and not putting emphasis on clear thought, logical thought. I would clear them out, just stop funding altogether.
COWEN: When you see writing under a pseudonym or Anonymous, do you think, on average, it’s better writing or worse writing than writing with real names on it?
LEHMANN: I actually think it’s probably better writing.
LEHMANN: More fearless.
COWEN: More liberated.
COWEN: That’s how cowed and cowardly we’ve become.
LEHMANN: Yeah, I think so. You’d have to assess a piece of writing on a case-by-case basis, but I think some of the best writing that is coming out at the moment is by people under pen names.
COWEN: What would you say is an issue you’ve changed your mind on?
LEHMANN: I changed my mind on issues to do with the welfare state and inequality, and whether inequality is the right metric to be looking at, or social mobility. I change my mind on that issue quite a lot, and it’s . . .
COWEN: In which direction?
LEHMANN: Just backwards and forwards. I might think that inequality is an important topic that we need to focus on reducing, and then I might listen to another argument and think that it’s poverty that should be the central metric that we should be looking at, and inequality doesn’t really matter.
I find arguments on both sides of that debate to be compelling, and I don’t really know where I stand, but I know that I change my mind on that issue quite a bit.
COWEN: What would be an example of a doctrine in psychology, one that maybe has some credence—I don’t mean blank slate—that you either reject or are quite skeptical of, relative to the mainstream?
LEHMANN: Cognitive behavioral therapy is known to be an effective therapy. But I am aware that, because it’s much more difficult to standardize other therapies, like extended talk therapy, because we can’t standardize them, it’s hard to measure their effectiveness.
There are things in psychology in the therapy side of things that could be quite effective that we don’t know about because we can’t accurately measure.
I think that just because there isn’t evidence doesn’t mean something isn’t working. I think we should be more aware of that. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
COWEN: How would you change how psychology is taught?
LEHMANN: I think for people who want to be clinical psychologists and working with actual clients, which is not all psychologists, but for people who want to be clinical psychologists, they should start working in a mental health setting much earlier on.
At the moment, in Australia at least, it’s three or four years of course work, and a heavy course load in statistics, which is important, but you don’t get into a clinical setting until your fifth or sixth year. I think that’s too late. I think students who want to be on that track should start working in a mental health setting earlier.
COWEN: Do you think Australia should have more forms of affirmative action for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islander peoples?
LEHMANN: Possibly. We already have all of those policies. But because the Aboriginal population is so small, it’s not really a political issue because if an Aboriginal individual receives some kind of affirmative action, no is missing out. No one is going to miss out on their university place because of it because it’s such a tiny minority population anyway. It’s really a nonissue.
COWEN: When should contrarians give up and join the resistance?
LEHMANN: [laughs] The resistance against what?
COWEN: I don’t know. Simply stop trying to work within established structures such as the world of media or world of higher education and split off. Do something different.
LEHMANN: I think that creative solutions are always superior to destructive solutions. I’m encouraging people who are disenchanted with media or with universities to think about building their own institutions. It’s difficult for people to imagine setting up a university. However, people can set up book clubs and reading lists and websites where they encourage academic-type material.
I think anyone who’s cynical or disenchanted — if you can come up with creative ways to . . . If you imagine a learning environment that would be just how you wanted it to be, why not create it? Why not give it a go and build what you want to see in the world?
COWEN: When should contrarians give up and simply join the establishment?
LEHMANN: [laughs] When they want to be very strategic and they want to win.
COWEN: Let’s say a younger person comes up to you and says, “I want to be the next Claire Lehmann.” Not an exact copy of what you’ve done, but to do something creative in media, outside of the mainstream but read by many people who are in the mainstream, to have an impact, represent some definite point of view, work on one’s own to a high degree. What pieces of advice would you give that person?
LEHMANN: Well, it’s something that I landed into as an accident. So there isn’t an actual pathway to get to where I’ve become.
I would say to anyone who wants to have an impact in the media space is to probably not study journalism or media but study something where you get some scientific training. It might be economics. It might be psychology. It might be biology.
But I think people who have some kind of scientific training and can bring that training to communication definitely have an edge over those who have gone through journalism school and may have only taken English courses.
If one can understand statistics and read scientific papers and can couch arguments in a scientifically literate way, then their skills are going to be in demand, I think, because there’s just a scarcity of people who can do that at the moment.
COWEN: Claire Lehmann, thank you very much.
LEHMANN: Thank you, Tyler. Thanks.