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Caylan Ford — Good and Evil, Human Nature, Education Reform, and Cancel Culture

Caylan Ford is a documentary filmmaker, writer, researcher, charter school founder, and a former political candidate. She is interested in the problem of political and philosophical evil, and most of her work is animated by a desire to help people recover their roots in reality and their orientation toward the divine. She was born in Calgary, Canada, and earned a Bachelor’s degree (Hons.) in Chinese history at the University of Calgary. From there she obtained a Master’s degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University, and worked on and off as a senior policy advisor for Canada’s foreign ministry for about ten years. Between the birth of her two children she earned another Master’s in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford. She hopes one day to do a degree in comparative eschatology.

A very large part of her life has been spent working, volunteering and consulting in the international human rights field, including by increasing access to anti-surveillance and censorship tools in Iran, China, Myanmar, and elsewhere; working with civil rights lawyers representing political dissidents; supporting refugee and asylum claimants; and conducting and publishing original research on the repression of religious minorities in China. She has written and co-produced two feature documentary films on the themes of religious and political persecution, censorship, forced labor, scapegoating, and mass persuasion under totalitarian regimes.

Her new documentary film, When the Mob Came, focuses on her experience of cancel culture following a catastrophic bid for political office in 2019. (Read her account of events.) Relatedly, she is the plaintiff in an ongoing $7 million defamation claim against several Canadian media and political institutions, and her case has so far resulted in the recognition of a new tort of civil harassment in Alberta. (Read about her litigation efforts.)

In 2022 she founded Canada’s first tuition-free classical charter school, Calgary Classical Academy, and she hopes to open a new campus in Edmonton. Watch a short video introduction to the Academy’s work and how it aims to promote knowledge of things that are true, good, and enduring.

Shermer and Ford discuss:

  • education reform
  • Can education be value free?
  • public vs. private vs. charter schools
  • human nature and the blank slate
  • Thomas Sowell’s Constrained Vision vs. Unconstrained Vision
  • conservatism vs. liberalism
  • French Revolution vs. American Revolution
  • in defense of truth, justice, and reality
  • what promotes humanity and what degrades it
  • sex, gender, trans
  • transhumanism
  • political correctness and identity politics
  • cancel culture, witch crazes, and virtue signaling
  • totalitarianism and preference falsification
  • free speech, hate speech and slippery slopes
  • how to stand up to cancel culture.

Show Notes

Cancel Culture Defined

Cancel culture operates on a similar principle to the Inferno. It delivers perpetual punishment, without any possibility of redemption, for heretics (or perceived heretics) against an emerging ideological orthodoxy: people who used the wrong word, defended inherited wisdom, or attempted to critically examine a topic that had been declared off-limits to philosophical inquiry. But cancel culture reflects and heightens the inverted priorities of the world. It incentivizes cruelty and performative outrage, and so suffocates humility, generosity, and openness. It asks us to go in search of grievances, and to look for the bad in others, but never to reproach ourselves. It inflames tribal hatreds and artificial divisions. It demands that people lie, that they confess to crimes they did not commit, and that they conceal their true beliefs to preserve themselves. Envy, hubris, and wrath are rewarded, while prudence and a slowness to judgement are treated with suspicion, as though they are evidence of an insufficient commitment to the cause. In the name of love and tolerance and solidarity, it asks us to hate our enemies, inform on our neighbors, and desert our friends.

Alberta Classical Academy

Inside the classrooms expert teachers guide students through a knowledge-rich curriculum using proven teaching methods of explicit instruction and the Socratic method beginning in grade 5 our students study Latin and all wear uniforms but don’t let that throw you we’re not a private school as a public charter school The Classical Academy is tuition free and open to all Learners who seek moral and intellectual Excellence without regard to their background, financial means, or postal code. We focus on the cultivation of virtues like courage, integrity, benevolence, fortitude, temperance, and magnanimity. We use an enhanced classical curriculum at the heart of which is a great books program. Our students read whole texts, books with depth and enduring value that illuminate those unchanging aspects of the human condition. They’re exposed to the best that has been thought and said in east or west, and are ennobled through the study of classical fine and performing arts like poetry, drama, music, dance, painting, and sculpting. They have an opportunity to directly study and observe the natural world and to contemplate the majesty and wonder of creation. Notably absent from our classrooms are the ubiquitous screens and the distraction of smartphones because we value deep learning and concentration. We use screen-based technologies in a minimal deliberate way and smartphones are prohibited at The Classical Academy. Our goal is not just to help students achieve academically, it is to prepare their minds and souls for liberty. We understand that our students are not just future workers. They are future friends, neighbors, spouses, parents, and citizens. They are bearers of divine Souls which thirst after knowledge of what is true, good and enduring. Our mission is to help them grow in virtue and in wisdom so that they may live well and with purpose.

From Michael Shermer’s 2011 book The Believing Brain, from the chapter on political beliefs

In his book A Conflict of Visions, the economist Thomas Sowell argues that these two clusters of moral values are intimately linked to the vision one holds about human nature, either as constrained (conservative) or unconstrained (liberal), and so he calls these the Constrained Vision and the Unconstrained Vision. Sowell shows that controversies over a number of seemingly unrelated social issues such as taxes, welfare, social security, health care, criminal justice, and war repeatedly reveal a consistent ideological dividing line along these two conflicting visions. “If human options are not inherently constrained, then the presence of such repugnant and disastrous phenomena virtually cries out for explanation—and for solutions. But if the limitations and passions of man himself are at the heart of these painful phenomena, then what requires explanation are the ways in which they have been avoided or minimized.”

Which of these natures you believe is true will largely shape which solutions to social ills will be most effective. “In the unconstrained vision, there are no intractable reasons for social evils and therefore no reason why they cannot be solved, with sufficient moral commitment. But in the constrained vision, whatever artifices or strategies restrain or ameliorate inherent human evils will themselves have costs, some in the form of other social ills created by these civilizing institutions, so that all that is possible is a prudent trade-off.” It’s not that conservatives think that we’re evil and liberals believe we’re good. “Implicit in the unconstrained vision is the notion that the potential is very different from the actual, and that means exist to improve human nature toward its potential, or that such means can be evolved or discovered, so that man will do the right thing for the right reason, rather than for ulterior psychic or economic rewards,” Sowell elaborates. “Man is, in short, ‘perfectible’—meaning continually improvable rather than capable of actually reaching absolute perfection.”1

In his masterpiece analysis of human nature, The Blank Slate, the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker re-labels these two visions the Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision, and reconfigures them slightly: “The Utopian Vision seeks to articulate social goals and devise policies that target them directly: economic inequality is attacked in a war on poverty, pollution by environmental regulations, racial imbalances by preferences, carcinogens by bans on food additives. The Tragic Vision points to the self-interested motives of the people who would implement these policies—namely, the expansion of their bureaucratic fiefdoms—and to their ineptitude at anticipating the myriad consequences, especially when the social goals are pitted against millions of people pursuing their own interests.” The distinct Left-Right divide consistently cleaves the (respectively) Utopian Vision and Tragic Vision along numerous specific contests, such as the size of the government (big versus small), the amount of taxation (high versus low), trade (fair versus free), healthcare (universal versus individual), environment (protect it versus leave it alone), crime (caused by social injustice versus caused by criminal minds), the constitution (judicial activism for social justice versus strict constructionism for original intent), and many others.2

Personally I agree with Sowell and Pinker that the unconstrained vision is utopian, which in its original Greek means “no place.” An unconstrained utopian vision of human nature largely accepts the blank slate model and believes that custom, law, and traditional institutions are sources of inequality and injustice and should therefore be heavily regulated and constantly modified from the top down; it holds that society can be engineered through government programs to release the natural unselfishness and altruism within people; it deems physical and intellectual differences largely to be the result of unjust and unfair social systems that can be re-engineered through social planning, and therefore people can be shuffled across socioeconomic classes that were artificially created through unfair and unjust political, economic, and social systems inherited from history. I believe that this vision of human nature exists in literally No Place.

Although some liberals embrace just such a vision of human nature, I strongly suspect that when pushed on specific issues most liberals realize that human behavior is constrained to a certain degree—especially those educated in the biological and evolutionary sciences who are aware of the research in behavior genetics—so the debate turns on degrees of constraint. Rather than there being two distinct and unambiguous categories of constrained and unconstrained (or tragic and utopian) visions of human nature, I think there is just one vision with a sliding scale. Let’s call this the Realistic Vision. If you believe that human nature is partly constrained in all respects—morally, physically, and intellectually—then you hold a Realistic Vision of human nature. In keeping with the research from behavioral genetics and evolutionary psychology, let’s put a number on that constraint at 40 to 50 percent. In the Realistic Vision, human nature is relatively constrained by our biology and evolutionary history, and therefore social and political systems must be structured around these realities, accentuating the positive and attenuating the negative aspects of our natures.

A Realistic Vision rejects the blank slate model that people are so malleable and responsive to social programs that governments can engineer their lives into a great society of its design, and instead believes that family, custom, law, and traditional institutions are the best sources for social harmony. The Realistic Vision recognizes the need for strict moral education through parents, family, friends, and community because people have a dual nature of being selfish and selfless, competitive and cooperative, greedy and generous, and so we need rules and guidelines and encouragement to do the right thing. The Realistic Vision acknowledges that people vary widely both physically and intellectually—in large part because of natural inherited differences—and therefore will rise (or fall) to their natural levels. Therefore governmental redistribution programs are not only unfair to those from whom the wealth is confiscated and redistributed, but the allocation of the wealth to those who did not earn it cannot and will not work to equalize these natural inequalities.

I think most moderates on both the left and the right embrace a Realistic Vision of human nature. They should, as should the extremists on both ends, because the evidence from psychology, anthropology, economics, and especially evolutionary theory and its application to all three of these sciences supports the Realistic Vision of human nature. There are at least a dozen lines of evidence that converge to this conclusion:3

  1. The clear and quantitative physical differences among people in size, strength, speed, agility, coordination, and other physical attributes that translates into some being more successful than others, and that at least half of these differences are inherited.
  2. The clear and quantitative intellectual differences among people in memory, problem solving ability, cognitive speed, mathematical talent, spatial reasoning, verbal skills, emotional intelligence, and other mental attributes that translates into some being more successful than others, and that at least half of these differences are inherited.
  3. The evidence from behavior genetics and twin studies indicating that 40 to 50 percent of the variance among people in temperament, personality, and many political, economic, and social preferences are accounted for by genetics.
  4. The failed communist and socialist experiments around the world throughout the 20th century revealed that top-down draconian controls over economic and political systems do not work.
  5. The failed communes and utopian community experiments tried at various places throughout the world over the past 150 years demonstrated that people by nature do not adhere to the Marxian principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
  6. The power of family ties and the depth of connectedness between blood relatives. Communities who have tried to break up the family and have children raised by others provides counter evidence to the claim that “it takes a village” to raise a child. As well, the continued practice of nepotism further reinforces the practice that “blood is thicker than water.”
  7. The principle of reciprocal altruism—I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine”—is universal; people do not by nature give generously unless they receive something in return, even if what they receive is social status.
  8. The principle of moralistic punishment—I’ll punish you if you do not scratch my back after I have scratched yours—is universal; people do not long tolerate free riders who continually take but almost never give.
  9. The almost universal nature of hierarchical social structures—egalitarianism only works (barely) among tiny bands of hunter-gatherers in resource-poor environments where there is next to no private property, and when a precious game animal is hunted extensive rituals and religious ceremonies are required to insure equal sharing of the food.
  10. The almost universal nature of aggression, violence, and dominance, particularly on the part of young males seeking resources, women, and especially status, and how status-seeking in particular explains so many heretofore unexplained phenomena, such as high risk taking, costly gifts, excessive generosity beyond one’s means, and especially attention seeking.
  11. The almost universal nature of within-group amity and between-group enmity, wherein the rule-of-thumb heuristic is to trust in-group members until they prove otherwise to be distrustful, and to distrust out-group members until they prove otherwise to be trustful.
  12. The almost universal desire of people to trade with one another, not for the selfless benefit of others or the society, but for the selfish benefit of one’s own kin and kind; it is an unintended consequence that trade establishes trust between strangers and lowers between-group enmity, as well as produces greater wealth for both trading partners and groups.

The founders of our Republic established our system of government as they did based on this Realistic Vision of human nature, knowing full well that the tension between individual liberty and social cohesiveness could never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, and so the moral pendulum swings Left and Right and politics is played mostly between the two 40-yard lines of the political playing field. This tension between freedom and security, in fact, would explain why third parties have such a difficult time finding a toe-hold on the political rock face of America, and typically crater after an election, or cower in the shadows of two behemoths that have come to define the Left-Right system. Even in Europe, where third, fourth, and even fifth parties receive substantial support at the polls, they are, in fact, barely distinguishable from the parties on either side of them, and political scientists find that they can easily classify them as largely emphasizing either liberal or conservative values. Haidt’s data on the differing foundational values of American liberals and conservatives, in fact, generalizes to all countries that have been tested, and the chart lines from country to country are virtually indistinguishable from one another.

I believe that the Realistic Vision of human nature is what James Madison was thinking of when he penned (literally) his famous dictum in the Federalist Paper Number 51: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.4 If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Abraham Lincoln also had something like the Realistic Vision in mind when he wrote in his first inaugural address in March of 1861, on the eve of the bloodiest conflict in our nation’s history that he knew would unleash the demons within: “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”5

  1. Sowell, Thomas. 1987. A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. New York: Basic Books, 24-25.
  2. Pinker, Steven. 2002. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 290-291.
  3. I present this data in much greater detail in two of my books: Shermer, Michael. 2003. The Science of Good and Evil. New York: Henry Holt/Times Books. And: Shermer, Michael. 2008. The Mind of the Market. New York: Henry Holt/Times Books.
  4. Madison, James. 1788. “The Federalist No. 51: The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments.” Independent Journal, Wednesday, February 6.
  5. Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States. Washington, D.C.: U.S. G.P.O.: for sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. G.P.O., 1989;, 2001.

This episode was released on December 19, 2023.

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