Human Rights, Liberalism, & Ordinary Virtues, with Michael Ignatieff

Apr 22, 2019

Central European University's President Michael Ignatieff is a human rights scholar, an educator, a former politician, and, as he tells us, the son of a refugee. He discusses what he calls "the ordinary virtues," such as patience and tolerance; the status of human rights today and the dilemmas of migration; the essential critera for true democracy; and the ideal curriculum. His advice to students: Learn to think for yourself.

STEPHANIE SY: Michael Ignatieff is a human rights scholar, a former Member of Parliament in Canada where he led for many years the Liberal Party there. He is the current president of Central European University, which promotes the idea of open societies.

Michael, welcome.

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: Nice to be here.

STEPHANIE SY: Over the course of your career, you have been a television and radio broadcaster, a historian, an author, a human rights scholar, a politician, and now a university president, but before all of that you were of course a student.

Looking back, what were some of the lessons you learned in high school or college that allowed you to have such a varied and clearly successful career?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: Stephanie, sometimes I look at my own career and think I ought to settle down someday. That's the first thing.

But I think when I think back to high school, and if you ask me what was the place where I learned most, it was on the sports field. It's team sports. As a high school student I played soccer. I learned how to lose. I learned how to win. I learned how to put the team first. I learned some of the virtues, and the virtues are resilience—when it's cold out there and you're freezing and you want to give up, you've got to keep going. I learned forgiveness—when you lose and you blame somebody for losing, you've got to get over that. I think everybody knows the sports field is the place where you learn the virtues, and I certainly learned them on the soccer field as a kid.

STEPHANIE SY: You studied history in college and in graduate school. Why did you choose that path?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: Well, my dad was a Russian refugee. He was born in Russia and then they lost everything in the Russian Revolution and they had to start again. My mother's people were Canadian teachers. So I had two stories behind me: I had a Russian story of being a refugee and I had a Canadian story of being teachers and stuff.

As a kid, you're trying to put the two stories together: Where do I come from? How did I get made? What am I to make of these two inheritances? So, I think it becomes natural for you to think: Well, I'm going to do some history because that will allow me to put the stories together. So, when I was an undergraduate, I studied Russian history and began to understand my own family story.

I think that's a reason why a lot of people do history, because it connects them. It sorts out the mystery of where they come from. That's why I became a historian.

STEPHANIE SY: You have spent much of your career focused on human rights. Lay the groundwork for us. In general terms, what do we mean when we talk about human rights?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: Hmm, boy, you don't ask easy questions here, Stephanie.

Let's start right with the basics. You're a woman, I'm a man; we come from different pasts, different races, different origins. When we encounter another person, we start with difference—you're different from me; I'm different from you—and that's a thing to be celebrated.

But there's also the other reality, which is you're a human being and I'm a human being. And what do we owe each other? What duties do we have to each other? If you were drowning in a river, am I obliged to pull you out and save you?

Human rights is trying to capture this: What is it that we have in common and what is unequivocally wrong in every circumstance?

STEPHANIE SY: You wrote this book called Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World. It was based on a project you did with the Carnegie Council. In fact, you traveled to five different continents with the intent of engaging ordinary people about ethics and values. You came up with this term "ordinary virtues." Michael, what is ordinary virtue?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: Well, let's contrast it with extraordinary virtues first of all—courage, sacrifice. Sometimes people die for their country. Sometimes people will jump into a river to save someone at risk of their life. Those are extraordinary virtues.

The ordinary virtues are the kind of day-to-day good behaviors—when we forgive someone, when we show patience, when we display tolerance. The ordinary virtue that I like most is when you take people one at a time, you don't judge people. You don't judge people on the basis of their race or their religion or their gender, you just take them one at a time. That's an ordinary virtue. It doesn't require you to make some big-deal idea that all human beings are owed X or Y or Z. You just take people as they come. These are the virtues that sustain ordinary life.

One of the points I'm trying to make is that ordinary life, our daily life, is a moral exercise. At every moment we have to take for granted the behavior of others, and we work on the assumption that they will treat us decently, they'll behave well to us, and we will behave well.

Ordinary virtues depends on a kind of empathy in which you think, Now, Stephanie is going to treat me right, I'm going to try to treat Stephanie right, and we'll move this conversation along.

Ordinary life is dependent on this kind of micro-ethics, second by second, moment by moment. That's what I'm trying to capture when I talk about the ordinary virtues.

STEPHANIE SY: When you traveled to the five continents and you met people, did you find that there were sort of universal ordinary virtues that all societies had?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: Yes, I think you do see. If you go to Japan and you see someone behaving compassionately to an old person, helping them cross the street, I don't speak Japanese, but I know what's going on: compassion and respect is being shown to an older person. I think there is a tremendous amount of human universality shown in that.

When you get a sense of tolerance, live and let live, in a big city—I was in Los Angeles. You see people from every race, creed, and color getting on the bus, driving around, living together. You get a sense of kind of everyday toleration. Anybody coming from another culture would look at that and say, "Those folks are getting along." They would recognize what's happening. So we have no difficulty recognizing the universality of human conduct.

But it doesn't mean—I think this is the kicker here—that everybody is operating on the basis of the same ethical standard. It's not as if everybody out there in Myanmar, Japan, Los Angeles is operating on a human rights creed that we all share. No. Something else is happening, which is that we're living our ordinary life, and we can't live ordinary life without some kind of moral transaction behavior that ties us together as people, and we reproduce that as we go every day.

STEPHANIE SY: In your book, in fact you point to human rights, Michael, as a kind of language that people in academia or places like the United Nations employ, these sort of global moral standards. And of course we had the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I believe that was 1948.


STEPHANIE SY: Based on this idea of whether or not there is universal human rights, how relevant do you think that piece of paper is today?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: That's a great question and a difficult one.

I think that the Universal Declaration has spawned or created and made possible what—let me get fancy for a moment—the constitutionalization of rights around the world. Thanks to the Declaration of Human Rights, if you go to the constitution of South Africa, every South African has rights. You go to Brazil; they've got rights. Some of the reason for that is that we have a thing called the Universal Declaration, and every constitution in the world took something from that Declaration. So that's the good news.

The bad news is that we live in a world of nation-states that defend their power, defend their territory, build walls and borders, and these states are very resistant to criticism from the outside. A lot of states beat people up, torture people, imprison people, and they don't want to be told from the outside "you're doing something wrong." They're saying, "What's right for us inside this government is our business, not your business."

Human rights is the story that tells us that what happens to people in other countries is always our business and we should be concerned if someone is tortured or disappeared or murdered or abused. But states, the governments in power, are very resistant to that. So in 1948 we had this vision that we'd have a world tied together by a common set of standards. Eighty years on, we are still struggling to get there. There is still huge resistance to the human rights ideal.

Another way to look at it is that the history here is young. We've got a long way still to go.

I feel optimistic about one thing, that there's nothing relative about human abuse. So the idea that the problem with human rights is that we have relative standards across the world—that's not the problem. The problem is state power, governments and people in power in authoritarian regimes resisting the truth of human rights.

I think the world now accepts that there are some things that are just right for everybody and some things that are just wrong. But governments and states are still resisting that truth, and that's where the battle is now.

STEPHANIE SY: Democratic countries, including the United States and Canada, where you're from, have historically placed some prominence at least on human rights in their policies in the ways they deal and relate to other countries. Whether that has always been the top issue or not, it has played in to foreign policy.

In The Ordinary Virtues you write: "Democratic sovereignty and the moral universalism of human rights are on a collision course everywhere."

Can you explain what you mean by that, and where are we seeing that happen, that collision course between the democratic sovereign states and this idea of universalism of human rights?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: Well, the uncomfortable truth is that resistance to human rights doesn't just come from the bad guys, from authoritarian states. There is an equal amount of resistance from democratic states. Let me give you two examples.

One that's uncomfortable, because it's from Canada, my own country. We don't have a good story about how we have treated aboriginal Canadians. They have suffered a lot of abuse, a lot of poverty. Their health indicators are terrible. And we're one of the richest countries in the world. It's not a good story, and we all know it in Canada.

But when an international human rights group comes from outside the country and tells us something we already know, we hate it, right? We resist the idea that someone outside our country should tell us how we should behave. And we're a democracy.

Similarly, the United States. The United States has a great tradition, a Bill of Rights, a Constitution. But if some outside human rights agency comes in and says, "You're not treating refugees right, you're not treating migrants right, you're building a wall with Mexico and that's unjust and unfair and wrong," a lot of Americans, whether they're Democrats or Republicans, object to the idea that some human rights advocate from outside the country is telling the United States what to do.

So the idea that the only problem with human rights is the resistance of authoritarian states is wrong. There are a lot of liberal democracies that don't like human rights anymore. That's what I was trying to focus on when I say there's a collision course between human rights and democratic sovereignty.

STEPHANIE SY: How does the language we've come to use, "human rights"—"this is my right to seek asylum in your country"—help or hurt the cause of human rights? And is there an argument that you're making that using "ordinary virtues"—compassion, generosity—are better words to maybe use when talking about why a society decides to grant asylum to a refugee?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: Let me say right off the bat, as I'm the son and grandson of refugees, I think it's very important for refugees to have rights in international law because otherwise my grandparents wouldn't have gotten into Canada. So I'm in favor of rights for refugees.

But let's face the political reality. A lot of people inside a country resent the idea that someone outside their country has a right to come in, and there is always going to be resistance to the idea of strangers having rights to enter a country. This is the fact. It's a political fact.

What works better is the language of "ordinary virtues." If you say to the Canadian people—an example I know well—"We are a rich, generous, compassionate country and we ought to take some people in. We ought to give the gift of our citizenship to needy and deserving people who are in danger in another country," it's much easier to sell politically than if you say to them, "These people have a right to come in."

So the language of generosity, which is the language of ordinary virtue, is often more effective at persuading citizens to accept refugees than the language of rights. That makes rights-talk people, human rights people, anxious when I say that. But we have to sell the idea of good, decent, compassionate, and human refugee policy. I sometimes think the language of the gift, the language of compassion, the language of generosity, is going to work better than the language of rights.

STEPHANIE SY: The other way that language has been used is the sort of rhetoric of "the other," "the illegal." We've heard that in political discourse here in the United States and in other countries as nationalistic movements have arisen.

Why has that sort of rhetoric been so effective? Again, we've had the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for a long time. It has been sort of accepted at least in a lot of countries that there is a set of norms. So why is it so easily switched around into "the other"?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: Stephanie, people are scared. It's fear. I think since 9/11, since the global terrorist spectacular, there is a sense that "the other" is a dangerous person—not just "other," but dangerous. So terrorism has changed a lot of things, fairly or unfairly.

The sheer volume of migrants in the world—the 21st century will be a century of big population movements—20–30 million people every year will be on the move, trying to get from poor countries to richer countries, whether it's El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela, to the United States; or Niger or Mali coming cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Citizens who often have precarious standards of living in their own country look at this and think, Whoa! They're all coming here. What do we do?

So I'm not surprised by that, and I'm not surprised that countries everywhere are building walls. But you can build all the walls you want, it's not going to stop people trying to better their lives and trying to get to safety.

So we're going to have to create a balance in which we have walls, we have barriers, illegals get sent back, all the immigration control we have to have we have to have, but we also have to have compassion, generosity, mercy. My grandparents fled Russia for a better life because they were fleeing terror, they were fleeing fear, they were fleeing desperation, and that is the case with millions of people in the 21st century.

What worries me about the language that has taken over this debate about "the other," the stranger, the foreigner, is we've somehow confiscated compassion and generosity. We have a political discourse—and this is not just in the United States, it's also in Britain, it's also in Europe, it's also in Canada—where "taking one more person is just too many. We can't do it." And these are the richest countries the world has ever seen, and they're all sitting there terrified about the idea of a managed, legal, legitimate refugee flow, and it's being exploited politically to turn races against races, religions against religions. There are a lot of bottom feeders in our political system trying to exploit fear and create hatred and, as I say, confiscate generosity and compassion. And it's terrible, and it's got to stop.

STEPHANIE SY: You have lived and worked in places that we would consider liberal democracies, places like the United States or Canada. You've also lived and worked in places we would consider to be illiberal democracies. In your view, what are the biggest differences between these systems? And what is an illiberal democracy?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: There are people who think an illiberal democracy is a contradiction in terms, that you can't have a democracy unless it's liberal. And by "liberal" I don't mean capital-L liberal, permissive, relativist; I don't mean people like me. "Liberal" means something technical: it means you've got courts, you've got a right of appeal, you've got constitutional rights, you've got a free press—that's what "liberal democracy" means.

A lot of people nowadays in the 21st century think democracy simply means majority rule, it simply means elections. I think the right way to think about democracy is it is majority rule certainly, it's free elections certainly, but it's also independent judiciary, a free press, regulatory agencies that are not captured by big corporations—it means a lot of things to keep us free.

In my case, because I run a university, it means free universities, universities that are free to teach and learn whatever they want.

Now, I currently work in what is called an illiberal democracy, in Hungary. Hungary is a wonderful country. I married a Hungarian, so I'm pretty fond of Hungary, right? But they do not have a free press, or it has almost been crushed. They don't have an independent judiciary, not really; they say they do, it looks like one, but believe me it does what the government tells you. As a consequence, they don't have free universities. I'm trying to keep a free university in Budapest, a university in which we can choose our curriculum, we can teach what we want to teach, we can admit who we want to admit. Not a lot of people associate democracy with universities, but believe me a university is part of what makes for a free society.

So I'd say there's no such thing as an illiberal democracy. It's a contradiction in terms. You either have a democracy with those institutions or you start not to have any democracy at all.

STEPHANIE SY: What is the distinction between an illiberal democracy and an authoritarian government?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: Well, Stephanie, what Mr. Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, would say is, "I'm not an authoritarian. I was democratically elected"—and that's true—"so I'm not an authoritarian leader, I'm a democratically elected leader."

There are a lot of countries like this. Poland is like that. There are some people who say other countries —

STEPHANIE SY: Turkey, some would say.


These are countries where you have a single leader who says, "I'm a democrat because I was elected by the people." But—here's the point—he uses democracy to crush democracy. He gets power and then he neutralizes the media, he neutralizes the courts, he locks up dissenters, he shuts off the universities. He says he's a democrat, but he has been using democratic means to shut off democracy. That may be the most single dangerous thing that's happening in the 21st century right now.

STEPHANIE SY: A lot of political scientists, Michael, used to say that a well-established democracy was not at this risk, that once firmly established it was very unlikely to slide into authoritarian systems, if you'd call it that. So are there early warning signs for citizens of a democracy to look at as far as whether their government may be backsliding into the conditions we're seeing in a place like Hungary?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: Yes, there are a lot of warning signs.

One of them is if they start passing legislation that makes it impossible for universities to operate freely. Universities are kind of canaries in the mine. When you start cutting back on academic freedom, you start there and you end up cutting back everybody's freedom.

The press being another example. If the press starts shutting down or the press is unable to function freely, that's a bad sign that pretty soon democracy itself will be endangered.

Declining turnout is another sign.

STEPHANIE SY: Voter turnout?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: Yes. If you have elections where nobody shows up, that's not a good sign. We get turnouts in some elections in the United States and Canada which are below 50 percent. How are those elections legitimate if a majority of people don't turn out? That's a sign of problems.

Another sign is gerrymandering to get to it, where you construct electoral districts in such a way that it favors one party and builds in a party political advantage that can't be shaken by elections. That's a bad thing.

Let me go further. Money and politics, where you have just—Bob Dylan says, "Money doesn't talk, it screams." You know, there are times when money screams in politics, and that's a problem right across the world. Any democracy has to control money, because money is not speech in my humble opinion, money is power, and you've got to control money power in politics or you don't have free elections. So all of this stuff.

And I guess what I would say is that we get complacent that democracy is something that's just there, the institutions will just always work, no matter how venal, no matter how corrupt, no matter how terrible our politicians are.

I have a different view of this, having worked in countries where democracy is more fragile. I've seen democracy fall apart, and if it can fall apart in small countries it can fall apart in big ones too.

STEPHANIE SY: What is happening? What force is there—is it globalization, for example—that is creating this threat to even well-established liberal democracies?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: I think there's something to the globalization story. It takes me aback, for example, that free trade—everybody used to think free trade went kind of hand-in-hand with democracies, you want an open world, you want open markets. And then a lot of American workers for 25–30 years—this didn't start with President Trump, it started way back—said: "You guys, you rich guys, may like free trade, but it's killing my job. This company I used to work for for 25 years has gone to Mexico because they can build the same air conditioner $5 an hour cheaper than I can do it." And so a lot of Americans are looking at globalization and it frightens them because they think, I'm losing control of the capacity to give my family a good standard of living.

I understand that. But the problem is if you start building trade barriers everywhere, pretty soon nobody has a job. That's the problem. The solution is worse than the problem you've got.

I think the other thing is that globalization seems to favor big corporations. When I was a kid, unions were much stronger in the United States and Canada than they are now. That meant that workers could bargain for good wages. That power has been crushed. So basically corporations can move their plants around as they wish. Governments can't seem to stop it, and here we get the problem with democracy. People go into the voting booth and they think, When I press this button nothing is going to change for the better for me. Government is not going to be able to keep this factory in my hometown. It's going to go whatever I vote. That breeds cynicism, detachment from politics, and we're in the middle of this and we don't quite know how to solve the problem.

I was in elective politics, and there is nothing worse, let me tell you as an elective politician, than to go into a town where the factory is just about to close and all you can say is, "Well, guys, I can give you a really great re-training package." And they think, Thanks a lot.

STEPHANIE SY: Yes, so there are these structural issues that have arisen that may threaten liberal democracies.

But is there a connection between illiberalism and the idea of universal human rights? In other words, as we see the emergence of illiberalism in some even Western democracies—do we see a threat to universal human rights?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: I think there's no question that as the single-party authoritarian regimes or populist regimes that stir up hatred of "the other," run by—there are certain kinds of democracies where the party in power keeps power by basically creating enemies and running against enemies all the time, 24/7. I think those things are dangerous for democracy.

But they're also dangerous for human rights because basically you put the country first, you build walls around it, you try to keep "the other," the stranger, out. Pretty soon you're saying, "We the United States have no duties to anybody outside our borders. It's America first. It's Americans first." That stuff is poison for the idea of human rights and the idea that we have duties to others. No question about it.

STEPHANIE SY: That there's this common humanity.

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: Yes, there is a common humanity. There is no problem with the idea that we have duties and loyalties and affections to our countrymen and women first. There's no problem with that. That's natural and human and it's the right thing.

But it doesn't then mean we have no duties, obligations, or relations to other strangers. I come back again to being the son and grandson of refugees. You know, if we lived in a world where those refugees, those strangers, those foreigners, had no rights at all, it would be a terrifying world because one day you're a citizen in a secure, stable country and the next day you're on the road, on the high seas, desperate to find a place of safety. It doesn't take much to imagine how desperately you need the chance to find a home.

So our political systems have to give that capacity. They have to express the compassion and generosity and human solidarity that's implied in the idea of human rights.

STEPHANIE SY: And some countries have almost branded themselves the opposite. I'm thinking of Sweden and Germany and maybe Canada as well when it comes to the migrant issue, that "our brand as a country is that we have open arms for refugees in need."


STEPHANIE SY: So it can work both ways.

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: It can. Canada—that's the country I know—is trying to say, "Our doors are open and our hearts are open." There are limits to that. Let's get real here. No country can have open borders. No country can allow everybody in. You have to have a triage system that says "You get in, but you don't. You get the paper, you don't."

The other thing every country has to do is every country has to say, "We're not a hotel. We're a country with traditions and loyalties. You come to our country, we give you the gift of citizenship; you've got to become a Canadian or an American or a Swede. So that's the deal: we give you the gift of coming into our country and you've got to play by our rules."

I'm an old liberal on this, but I don't have a problem with that. When my Russian ancestors came to my country, they became Canadians as soon as possible. My old Russian grandmother learned English that wasn't terribly good and she was proud to be a Canadian. I think that's what we have to keep reproducing every time.

STEPHANIE SY: As a historian, as a longtime politician, an observer of politics, and as a university president, Michael, do you have any advice for students learning and trying to navigate the world today?


Don't believe all the bad news. I really do think—it's not just happy talk—I really do think we're all lucky to be alive right now.

This is a perilous world. It's a dangerous world. We talk about some of the things that are scary out there.

Life expectancy is longer than ever. The chance that you will grow up and have a healthy child and the chance that you will get education, the chance that you'll get all the basic life chances that a student's future depends on, are better now than ever. So don't believe the negative talk. Don't believe the scary talk. Don't believe we're more polarized than ever. Don't believe all this stuff.

The thing that's the hardest thing in life is to think for yourself. I'm an old guy now, and I'll tell you the hardest thing in the world is to think for yourself. I've been trying all my life to think for myself and not buy the story, not buy the discourse, not buy the rhetoric, not buy the ideology, but just think for myself, by which I mean see the world as it is for me.

I think that's the advice I would give to kids: try to see the world for yourself. You're not living this life for your mom or your dad, you're not living it for your teacher; you're living it for yourself. So you have to see it for yourself. You have to see what's true, and it's very hard to see what's true in this world.

I feel sometimes I'm part of an industry that spreads negative views about the world and despairing views about the world, but I just don't want that to infect young people. I want them to believe in their own future, I want them to believe in their own reason, and I want them to believe in their own willpower. "Go for it" is what I think I would say.

STEPHANIE SY: That's great.

At Central European University you have sponsored a series of lectures on Rethinking Open Society. Based on that work, Michael, what do you think a curriculum should look like for high school students as well as college and university students in this regard?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: I think a good curriculum has to have some basics, some kind of granite under your feet. What makes for an open society, meaning what makes for a free society?

First of all, a student has to understand the institutions. You've got to understand the constitution. You've got to understand how it works. All this stuff is pipework, and some of it's a little boring, but you've got to understand how your country works. You've got to understand who does what, how the power is held and distributed.

I think then you need a curriculum that's emphasizing what it is to be open to someone else. It's very hard to be open to someone else. It's very hard to listen to someone else. You want classes in ethics that say life is a dialogue, life is a constant struggle to take your helmet off and put someone else's helmet on, see the world through their eyes—a man seeing what it's like to be a woman, a woman seeing what it's like to be a man; a white man understanding what a black man feels and thinks. This constant effort to understand each other is the basic dilemma and demand of life.

And then understand power. So institutions first, ethics second, and power. I think I've taken a long time to understand how much power matters. Who holds the power? Why are they holding the power? Why are they using power? What interests are they trying to achieve with power? And particularly, the ways in which people use power to divide human beings: those in power are constantly using the language of fear to divide us, to put race against race, gender against gender, class against class. A student has to understand how that is done, who's doing it, for what purposes. And never assume that there's somebody who's innocent here. Everybody is using power, and sometimes in terrible ways.

And a student has to then understand the fourth level, which is: How do I get involved to change this? Now that I understand the institutions, now that I understand the values, now that I understand power, how do I get in there and make a difference—and it may be a small difference, but how do I do that?

You put that together and I think you've got a heck of a curriculum.

STEPHANIE SY: In the early years of the Internet and social media, there was a sense that these platforms would be democratizing. And yet, we have seen cases in the United States, in parts of Europe, and even in places like Myanmar, where social media has influenced people's positions on contested political and moral issues, sometimes with false information.

Michael, in your view, is the open Internet helping or harming democracy?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: Let me tell you a story about this, Stephanie, because it's interesting.

I was in politics for five years. In politics you shake hands all day long. I must have shaken 30,000 hands in five years. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times in a direct personal interaction with another Canadian someone said something insulting or abusive or bad to me in personal interaction. Contrast that with the Internet. My wife said, "When you go into politics, Michael, do not under any circumstance read the social media feed about you because you will not want to get out of bed."

That's the contrast. Direct interaction with voters, personal interaction, was fine. The Internet was a complete sewer.

That, I think, is what's disturbing about democracy, because the Internet allows anonymous denunciation, anonymous venting of feeling.

It disinhibits. Most of us are inhibited in personal conversation in a good way. I'm not going to say something abusive to you face to face—I hope I never would—but the interaction, the face to face, means we discipline ourselves to behave like moral actors.

In the Internet it's a complete jungle. That, I think, is enormously dangerous for politics because it's encouraging everybody to be mean, vicious, lying, untruthful, vengeful, and outright dangerous to democracy.

STEPHANIE SY: Does that mean for students that they should just be aware of that fact, or does that mean they should limit their diet of social media?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: Look, I've got a machine in my pocket. I use it. It's the Library of Alexandria. It opens up incredible perspectives. I don't want to ignore the positive sides.

But I think what I would put an emphasis on is stop encountering the world on a screen. Get out there and meet some real human beings, live with real human beings.

Politics happens in the real world, not just in the virtual world. In the real world politics is actually still a pretty noble, wonderful thing. So I would focus students towards the real world. Go out to a political meeting. Go out and help a candidate to run for office. Get involved in the real world. Stop sitting in a darkened room looking at a screen and thinking that's reality, because it isn't.

STEPHANIE SY: Thank you, Michael.


You may also like

U.S. Army M1A2 Abrams tanks

FEB 6, 2023 Article

Ethics, Escalation, and Engagement in Ukraine and Beyond

Now that HIMAR and Patriot missiles as well as Leopard and Abrams tanks are on the way to Ukraine, NATO unity is at a high ...

MAR 18, 2022 Podcast

Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy, with Erich Schwartzel

Hollywood has long been part of the United States' soft power arsenal. Now, that soft power is threatened by the larger geostrategic competition between the ...

JUN 2, 2021 Article

Narrowing Hearts and Minds: Diagnosing the Global Rise of Illiberal Democracy

From Hungary to India to Brazil to the United States, there is no doubt that illiberalism is on the rise, writes Joel Rosenthal, president of ...