My guest today is Richard Reeves. He’s a social and political commentator and he has written for the several newspapers and magazines in the US and the UK including the Guardian and The Atlantic. He has also written a biography of John Stuart Mill, John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand. Between 2010 and 2012, Richard was director of strategy to the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. He has also served as director of Demos, the London-based political think-tank. He is currently a senior fellow in Economic Studies at the Brooking Institution in Washington DC. You can find out more about him at his website www.richardvreeves.com. We discuss All Minus One: John Stuart Mill’s Ideas on Free Speech Illustrated, edited by Richard Reeves and Jonathan Haidt, with illustrations by Dave Cicirelli.
“The way that media and communications and societies have developed have not been in the direction that Mill hoped, which was bringing more and more heterodox opinions together in sort of daily productive dialogue, but actually more of a kind of fragmentation where people are able to choose their own media, choose their own messages and create echo chambers, within which we are not actually engaging with other people’s ideas. We’re not subjecting our own ideas to critical scrutiny and having that useful, productive exchange. What we’re doing instead is we’re retreating into mini tribes where we try to only engage people who already think what we think and just confirm what we think. Actually Dave [Cicirelli] said in one of our earlier conversations, he said everybody is looking for the website www.IToldYouIWasRight.com.”
“The other bit of Mill’s argument has to be held in the same thought process as the argument for free speech which is that it’s a demand on us as citizens not to just sit passively and wait for someone to come along and argue with us, but it’s a duty of citizenship and a liberal democracy to seek disagreements, to seek those who disagree with us, to be testing our own ideas against others.”
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Chris Martin: My guest today is Richard Reeves. He’s a social and political commentator and he has written for several newspapers and magazines in both the US and the UK, including The Guardian and The Atlantic. He has also written a biography of John Stuart Mill and between 2010 and 2012, Richard was Director of Strategy to the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister.
He has also served as Director of Demos, the London-based political think tank and he’s currently a senior fellow in economics studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. You can find out more about him at his website www.RichardvReeves.com. So here is Richard Reeves.
Welcome to the show.
Richard Reeves: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Chris Martin: It’s good to have you on. So you and Jonathan Haidt are about to release an edition of chapter two of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. It’s an edition called All Minus One and it’s illustrated. Tell me a bit about how this came about.
Richard Reeves: Well, Jon, through his work at Heterodox Academy, his office had been doing a lot to try and kind of encourage this idea of free speech and positive descent on campuses and more generally in society. I had actually come – I knew John from the previous work [the AEI/Brookings Working Group on Poverty and Opportunity]. But then I came across some lectures he had done where he uses John Stuart Mill as a kind of example of how universities should be working. He calls them the kind of “truth universities”.
I actually watched that with my son, my 16-year-old son. We watched it together and really enjoyed it and I pinged an email to Jon saying how much I enjoyed his work, what he was doing and I obviously said, “I particularly appreciate what you are saying about Mill because I’m Mill’s biographer and let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”
One of the things I’ve learned about Jonathan is that one of the most dangerous things you can say to him is, “What can I do to help?” because he immediately came back and said, “Ah, I had forgotten you were Mill’s biographer. We had this idea about reproducing some if not all of On Liberty and you would be great to work with on that, work with me on that.” So I said yes.
I think it was about a week later when Dave, who’s the awesome illustrator that we’ve worked with this on this, got in touch and said the same fateful sentence to Jonathan. What can I do to help? Jon said, “Well, how do you feel about illustrating chapter two of Mill’s On Liberty?” and Dave said yes.
So the three of us met in New York and started kicking ideas and images around and editing down the text to hopefully make it more accessible to a modern audience whilst remaining faithful to it. As a Mill scholar, I was very conscious of the attention and writing an introduction with John and then adding the illustrations hopefully to make it more accessible and attractive to a modern audience and try and get across the idea that I’m not sure if what Mill had to say in 1859 remains relevant in 2018. So it has been a really exciting and unusual project to be involved in.
Chris Martin: It’s quite remarkable how Jon is able to balance so many projects and start new ones all at the same time. So I agree with your assessment of that aspect of Jon, working with Jon.
Richard Reeves: Well, I think because if someone says, “What can I do to help?” he always has a good answer.
Chris Martin: He does.
Richard Reeves: We’re all volunteers in the Jonathan Haidt –
Chris Martin: Got it. Yeah. We have him to thank in part for Heterodox Academy.
Richard Reeves: Indeed.
Chris Martin: Speaking of Mill’s argument, do you feel like there are any serious philosophical objections to Mill’s argument at the moment, among political philosophers or general philosophers?
Richard Reeves: I do. Obviously there are many aspects to Mill’s thought and he had opinions on a whole range of issues from political economy through to forms of political representation, the future of democracy, foreign affairs, free trade and free speech of course. But his most famous work has been around free speech and On Liberty. I think the person who would most strongly want to claim that there are good arguments against Mill or at least arguments against Mill would be Mill himself. The whole point of his argument is that we should keep arguing and that there aren’t really any timeless truths.
So anybody who writes about Mill and says the timeless Millian truth about free speech hasn’t really understood Mill because according to Mill, there’s no such thing. So yeah, we should be constantly interrogating his arguments about free speech.
I think that the main arguments that are made though against Mill that I think have the most purchase are less about the theory, the theory that by bringing different opinions together and listening to each other, bringing them into kind of productive collision, that that’s actually the process by which we learn more both about ourselves, each other and the world.
It’s relatively well-accepted I think that there’s a kind of general consensus. That’s a good way to think about the role of speech and engagement. I think the best arguments that are made are actually less substantive issues, like more so tactical and more about the reality of the world as it is today.
The way that media and communications and societies have developed have not been in the direction that Mill hoped, which was bringing more and more heterodox opinions together in sort of daily productive dialogue, but actually more of a kind of fragmentation where people are able to kind of choose their own media, choose their own messages and create sort of echo chambers, within which we are not actually engaging with other people’s ideas. We’re not subjecting our own ideas to sort of critical scrutiny and having that useful, productive exchange.
What we’re doing instead is we’re retreating into sort of mini tribes where we try to only engage people who already think what we think and just confirm what we think. Actually Dave [Cicirelli] said in one of our earlier conversations. He said everybody is looking for the website www.IToldYouIWasRight.com.
There’s some real truth in that in the way that the landscape of knowledge-sharing and information-sharing has developed. So I think the kind of question is, “Does Mill still work in an age of social media and Twitter, Facebook, et cetera?” and I think that’s a big challenge in what – that we do take on because I think that Mill couldn’t have possibly anticipated the plethora of this kind of mass communication in such a way that it allowed us to fragment, sort of the fragmentation. I think it could be the problem.
So what that means for me is that the other bit of Mill’s argument has to be held in the same thought process as the argument for free speech which is that it’s a demand on us as citizens. Not to just sit passively and wait for someone to come along and argue with us or to screw this, but it’s a duty of citizenship and a liberal democracy to seek disagreements, to seek those who disagree with us, to be testing our own ideas against others.
So it’s actually – it’s kind of a demanding sort of political philosophy and it’s not going to happen just by magic. So I think that actually what’s coming, I think the point that we have to stress now is that free speech done well is an obligation of citizenship rather than just sort of magical ingredient that will emerge out of thin air.
Chris Martin: On the use of social media, I think one bit of encouraging news coming out of political science is that social media – well, it’s unclear if social media is really isolating people. One finding is that people who don’t use social media much seem to be more isolated from contrary opinions than people who do. Another finding is that people who use social media often do occasionally find people, particularly if they have friends or acquaintances who are loose acquaintances, find people on social media who have different political opinions. But perhaps – I tweeted about this yesterday. It was in a report that came out.
Perhaps because some people are very vocal, we feel like we’re constantly seeing political news that is aligned with our interests. But it’s really just a small number of people on our feed who are generating a lot of that news.
Richard Reeves: Well, that’s a very hopeful comment. I mean I think that that’s a – I’m not aware of the research that you immediately kind of referred to. But you’re certainly right, so it’s kind a nuance and you can imagine just actually being in a literal village cut off. Some are very different from the sort of global communications. It might make you more isolated and then you’re just doing it through local institutions.
So then you’ve got the geographical and racial and economic segregation, doing a lot of the work for you. So I think it’s really interesting to think about the fact that these tools, like all tools, both – can be used for both good and ill in the Millian sense of free speech.
I’ve actually got an app that I’ve downloaded which looks at my current – the people I currently follow on Twitter and suggest people I might also follow to just get balanced. I think I try to do that anyway. You may well be right that for many people actually, it’s a way to find alternative opinions. The question is, “How many people do that?” as opposed to “How many people simply seek to follow those who kind of confirm their existing prejudices?”
So it’s hopeful to sort of thing that actually we’re going through a learning process of learning how to use these new tools in the way that will kind of bring the broader engagement and productive disagreement that Mill wanted.
My fear is that it does something that’s going to be a bit of a duel. So even if you encounter opinions at different – in the dueling way, you know, there’s a lot of people that are on the social media platforms, those sort of – you know, sometimes they’re call trolls or whatever. But clearly, they’re there simply to attack and not really to engage.
I think that the missing bit about the free speech argument is the need for listening. I mean just both on – you know, physically listening as we are to each other now, but also through social media because it does require us to open ourselves up to the arguments of those we disagree with rather than simply seeing them as a competent, someone who just would go instinctively into a fight mode with.
We can disagree. That’s part of the point. But the purpose of the disagreement is not to prove them wrong, you right. But it’s just to try and make everyone a little bit more right over the course of the conversation.
Chris Martin: That’s true. Social media does tend to encourage shorter replies and I think that’s one of the limitations too. Well, moving on to your research, your other research, your primary focus is social mobility and family structure. How did you get involved in John Stuart Mill in the first place?
Richard Reeves: Well, that’s a long story and actually it overlaps into some of your interests Chris around happiness and well-being. I actually started studying some of the connections between the new literature, which was coming around, new measures of hedonic well-being, big data sets that were being used to measure subjective well-being or happiness and thinking about what that meant for utilitarianism of the kind of Benthamite variety and that led me to Mill.
In Mill, I think we see the personification of the tension between utilitarianism and liberalism and my own view is – for what it’s worth, Mill is a pretty poor utilitarian because he is such a good liberal and that his life was spent kind of in that tension.
I think – so that obviously relates to free speech, which we just talked about. But it does I think kind of depends on my other work too on ideas of social mobility because the idea of birth as destiny is something that’s kind of deeply illiberal in the Millian sense and something that Mill himself has very strongly opposed to.
I think the essence of Mill’s liberalism is this idea of being a self-governing and self-propelled – not in an atomized, individualistic way, but in a sense that captures our own individuality, in a sense that captures the fact that we’re all going to have different versions of the good, different versions of a good life and that a good society is one that kind of promotes and allows for a kind of plurality of different versions of good life. You’re respecting each other’s rights to kind of live in different ways, ways that we might find very different to the way we think is the right way to live.
But nonetheless, which we respect that sort of difference. So actually, there’s a connection there between that idea of a kind of plural society and a mobile society and a diverse society and the idea of social mobility, which is really about not being so trapped by the circumstances of your birth, whether by class or race or geography, into a particular way of life and instead being able to sort of make your own way through life actually as a new American.
I’ve written a little bit about what I think Americanism is and one of the things that strikes me about America is that people will say things like, “She has really made something of herself.” People will boast of being a self-made man or a woman but it’s deeper than that. It’s a sense of made something of herself and it’s – that’s very important. It’s this sense of kind of self-creation and self-propulsion, which I think lies at the heart of the idea of the American dream rather than your status or your role or your lifestyle being dictated to you by others.
It is instead – to use Will Kymlicka’s phrase, “The life lived from the inside,” and so it does connect. It does connect to this idea of sort of my quintile transition at my charts, on my birth. They are actually in some sense is a – a kind of modern empirical expression of the Millian idea of being able to chart our own course through life.
Chris Martin: That’s interesting. I’m a new American myself or a newish American. I became American in 2013. I’m originally from India which is also the place Amartya Sen is from and you’ve mentioned in one of your talks that he is the closest thing we have to John Stuart Mill right now. What makes you say that about him?
Richard Reeves: Well, I’m just a huge fan of Amartya Sen’s work. Anyway, the joke about Sen is that when he won the Nobel Prize, everyone was like, “Oh, that’s amazing!” But then started arguing about what he had won it for because he could have won it for so many different areas of his work. I think the thing that draws me to make the parallel between Amartya Sen and John Stuart Mill is really Amartya’s role as a public intellectual and that’s very much in the kind of Millian mold.
In fact there was an event where Amartya Sen was speaking and he was asked why he hadn’t stayed in kind of more analytical philosophy like his good friend Jerry Cohen for example. I will never forget his answers to that packed theater in Oxford years ago. His answer was he kind of – he thumped on the kind of podium and he said, “Because there is too much work to be done.”
That seemed to me to kind of capture some of the essence of Sen’s intellect, which is that it’s restless to make change happen and influenced his work at the UN where of course as you will know, he had a huge influence in kind of creating the whole idea of human development out of the UN. His work now in India and trying to kind of improve the sort of political – the body politic if you like of India, his work around women and women’s rights.
Many of his disciples, intellectual disciples are those around the field, helping Mexico create a new poverty measure – in developing countries, in trying to improve human rights and so on.
So whilst I think he’s intellectually just right out there with the greats, what makes him stand out I think from many other philosophers or economists of his generation is this public intent and the public spirit behind it.
To quote him again, “There’s just too much work to be done.” He’s not an ivory tower. I mean in just the same way that Mill wasn’t. He’s trying to use the intellectual gifts he has been given and the tools at his disposal to bring about change and I think that that sort of public intellectual work is something that we kind of – you can see through the lineage from Mill to Sen. There aren’t very many others like him in the world today.
Chris Martin: I think his concern with well-being and the measurement of well-being in a – to balance utilitarianism and liberty is also an interesting connection there. Certainly found that the way he changed the focus from measuring purely satisfaction to measuring whether people have liberties and are aware that they can exercise liberties through education, through a good primary and secondary education really changed the way I viewed the measurement of overall well-being, social well-being.
Richard Reeves: Yeah, I think he’s very submitted to Mill in that sense. I think he’s not – clearly Sen is not a utilitarian. But I think for similar reasons to – why Mill isn’t utilitarian because of precisely this sort of sense of having the capabilities. To use one of his best-known phrases is to kind of charter and course and so it captures I think. What I think that Sen captures that echoes Mill very strongly is a respect for individuality without descending into individualism.
I think that’s a kind of critical distinction that Sen and Mill both get. They respect individuality. In fact Sen described himself as a methodological individualist in the end. What that means as you know is that kind of sense of the ultimate source of authority over my good is me. I can draw on the wisdom of others and of the ages. But I in the end am the expert on my own well-being.
That differentiates Sen from many of the contemporary communitarians just as Mill’s liberalism in the end separated him from the narrow utilitarianism of both his father and his godfather Jeremy Bentham.
Chris Martin: Now you and Caroline Mehl have a piece coming up about the link between John Stuart Mill and the “Me Too” movement. Talk about that a little.
Richard Reeves: You know, Caroline and I got talking about this. So she actually asked the question at an event that Heterodox Academy was running, talking about this Mill movement.
She was beginning – she asked the question about the “Me Too” movement and we got to talking about it. As a result of her question and the engagement between us, it struck me that the main shift that has occurred as a result of the “Me Too” movement is the things that were previously not said are now being said.
That women who were previously silent about the situation that they were suffering, because of the power dynamics and because of the impact it could have on them was silent, and suddenly they’re not. Suddenly they’re speaking and you will see the court case where they judged for every single woman to speak and it’s really the voices that are making a difference here. The big change agent and “Me Too” movement is speech and freedom of speech.
It reminds us that people’s speech is not only restricted by the laws and rules and regulations, which is Mill’s main subject but by social customs and by fear, by fear of speaking out.
Now it’s a particular case of course but it speaks very strongly to the fact that free speech can be a hugely important de-constructor of power structures simply by using the voices and speaking freely. These women have changed the landscape of many institutions. At the same time of course, you’re now sort of seeing some backlash because you’re seeing some people who are kind of overstating kind of what has happened or there will be exceptions to the rule or some of the distinctions are lost.
So you’re also seeing it as a cost too. As soon as people start speaking freely about something, then there will be errors as well as truths. There will be mistakes as well as accuracies. That’s always true. But in the grand scheme of things, what you’re seeing is the power of free speech to liberate. In other words, the “Me Too” movement being almost – not only because Mill was such a great feminist himself, but also kind of almost an exemplary way of showing the power of free speech, to change the world in a progressive direction. So in that sense, the “Me Too” movement is really very Millian.
Chris Martin: In some ways, it resembles the Arab Spring movement if you think about how social media was used during that movement. Of course that was actually used to coordinate real concrete protests. But in a different way, it was an example of media becoming so affordable that it became a way for people who had very little power in the society to express themselves.
Richard Reeves: I think that’s right. But as you say, that was used to kind of organize other kinds of protests whereas I think with the “Me Too” movement, it has really been the main instrument of change has been the voice. It has been speech. You know, the difference between a Monday and a Tuesday in this case was a woman was silent on Monday and spoke on Tuesday and the consequences of that were very often quite profound.
So if we wanted to find a contemporary example of how removing the gags, removing the fear of speaking and just speaking freely can alter power dynamics. I think the “Me Too” movement is perhaps the best example we have at our disposal. So it has been incredibly powerful and inspiring to see voices change societies.
Chris Martin: So what kind of future projects do you have in the pipeline right now?
Richard Reeves: Well, with my Brookings hat on, which is of course my daily hat, I’m actually launching a new project on the future of the middle class. I’ve previously done work on the top 20 percent in a book called “Dream Hoarders,” which you’ve given me the chance to plug right here at the end.
But I’m kind of interested in what’s happening in the middle. I think the fate of the middle class, particularly in kind of advanced economies, has implications for the political economy of the whole world and we’re seeing that play out both in my old country through the Brexit referendum and my new country through the election of Donald Trump, which is in the hands of skillful populists. The genuine discontent and sense of disengagement that’s felt by many of those in the middle of the income distribution can be turned into quite destructive forces in terms of many of the institutions both domestically and internationally that we need in order to thrive.
So that’s going to be one of the things I’m working on over the next few months and years. I’m also increasingly interested in – and this comes back to #MeToo. I’m interested in what’s happening to men and to modern masculinity. So the kind of necessary but slow reforms in the sense of what it means to be a man today. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time and as a son and as a brother and as a father of three sons, the kind of shifts in the nature of masculinity is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. So it may now be time to put some pen to paper and say a bit more about that.
Chris Martin: When I was doing some work on my dissertation, I was talking to psychotherapists about whether they feel like there’s any particular population of college students who is most prone to anxiety and whether men in some ways are more prone to it. A few of them did say that there does seem to be, among young men particularly, this hunger for a psychologically healthy father figure rather than a dysfunctional father figure.
Richard Reeves: Well, as a father of a 21-year-old, a 17-year-old and a 16-year-old, those are words to keep me up at night. But yes, I think there’s really something to do that. But I also think that what we’re seeing is that many of the assumptions about the role of men and to some extent, the assumed kind of superior role of men in certain institutions was actually – made life quite easy for men. There weren’t too many questions to be asked about what kind of man you needed to be. There’s a pretty clear script to follow, one that Mill would of course want us to challenge and did in his own work on gender.
But I now think that some of those assumptions about what it means to be a successful man are kind of dropping away. It’s a real test for men and to some extent, I think we focus very strongly on the economic dependence of women on men quite rightly as part of the feminist movement. But we’ve probably missed the emotional dependence of men, both on the women in their lives but also as you say on fathers. So in some sense is the fragility of men is being exposed now as we’re seeing some of the more obvious forms of patriarchy fall away. I think that’s creating a really interesting and difficult moment for young men in particular.
Chris Martin: Do you have a particular opinion on Hanna Rosin’s book? I know it has been three or four years now.
Richard Reeves: I’m a big of Hanna’s book, but I don’t think we need any more books about the end of – decline of men. I think it’s really about what kind of men we want now. I think – essentially, I think she’s right to sort of say that this is a question of adaptation on the part of men. But I think that many of the books that are written about men and most of the best books written about men are written by women of course. Somewhat understate the differences between men and women and one of the challenges I think and one of the challenges that I have personally as well as intellectually, this is kind of recognizing difference without in any way exalting inequality.
I think that my own mistake in the past and the mistake that some others make is to sort of assume an androgynous imagery is possible. That’s not appealing to men either. So we need to find a way to resuscitate and revive masculinity and make it not less masculine but differently masculine. We shouldn’t be saying to men just be less man. You know, be less masculine. Masculinity is bad ergo be less of it. But instead to sort of think again about what forms of masculinity we want and which ones we don’t rather than simply trying to just dial down masculinity because that’s both, I think, unrealistic but also unappealing to men to just say you just need to be less like men because there are some aspects of themselves, that they don’t have much choice about.
So that’s the challenge. So you had now drawn out of me much more than I said publicly about this so far. But that’s the direction in which I want to take my work on that particular issue.
Chris Martin: Before we wrap up, do you have any closing thoughts?
Richard Reeves: I think kind of the last one is just that I really hope that the idea of free speech in the Millian sense. I know we talked about #MeToo. I think we can also talk about Civil Rights and so on. That free speech will be seen as not a conservative agenda or kind of progressive agenda, but a kind of general agenda. I think there’s a danger at the moment the way this is kind of playing out, which is that free speech is somehow being captured by certain kind of conservative voices and I can see why that would be kind of appealing to many of them.
But I think that that’s very dangerous for the way we think about it. But I hope we will get out of this. It’s the kind of sense that free speech is something that progresses or those who identify liberal on the left or whatever. It’s something that is just as important to them as it is to those on the right. It has been interesting to see how free speech has sort of become something that’s kind of being talked about much more on the right than on the left, possibly partly because of the success of many of the center-left projects and especially the socially liberal one.
But nonetheless, it worries me if it starts to get pigeonholed in that way and Mill as pretty exemplary progressive in the proper sense of the kind of term and perhaps the clearest articulator in the Western canon anyway of the idea of free speech is the perfect person to help remind us of those facts.
Chris Martin: It has been great having you on the show. Thanks for joining us and looking forward to reading All Minus One and I hope our audience is too.
Richard Reeves: Thanks for having me, Chris. Great conversation.
Chris Martin: OK, bye.
Richard Reeves: Bye-bye now.
[End of transcript]
Transcription by Prexie Magallanes as Trans-Expert at Fiverr.com