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tv   After Words Ursula Burns Where You Are Is Not Who You Are - A Memoir  CSPAN  July 4, 2021 9:00pm-10:01pm EDT

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the world changed in an instant but mediacom was ready. internet traffic soared and we never slowed down. schools and businesses went to virtual and we powered a new reality. because at mediacom, we are built to keep you ahead. >> former xerox ceo ursula burns shares her insights into american business and the corporate world. interviewed by amazon senior vice president alicia boulder davis. >> i'm so excited to have the opportunity to talk about where
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you are. i followed you for many years and am incredibly inspired by your journey. >> i am happy to be here and happy to help. >> let's go ahead and get started. you state it was hard to find anything truly remarkable or book worthy. what suggests you were a reluctant author. what finally convinced you to write your story? >> it was at the urging of so many people and at the end of the day my husband and vernon jordan, my kids and my nieces you live your life a day at a time, you get up in the morning and do something.
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sometimes it is spectacular, most of the times it is pretty ordinary. you don't think about these individual days chucked together is in amazing experiences. for me for sure i lived my life looking forward for them backwards. when i was thinking about the book and people said write the book, i could say what what i write about exactly flex how would you write about these million days in your life? i read these books and fiction generally, but amazingly great imagination and all the stuff that i have and i'm like i lived my life and it wasn't like the
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books i was reading. the reluctance i do know how to write some business papers and i definitely read a lot. the one thing that you would never consider me or i would never consider myself was an author. who would read this stuff, i don't know if i write well enough to do that. memoirs are actually about your life. when i started writing the book, i had gone through or was going through some really tough times.
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i had moved to london because i just couldn't bear being in the united states. i couldn't bear listening daily, every day to this crazy discord that we knew would be bad but it had gotten so bad by 2018 and 2019 -- 2017 even i couldn't take it and i was happy i moved. i felt guilty about doing it but i had to move. my husband was sick and that was another one. transitioning jobs that was another one. it was all kinds of not the best time. but it turned out in hindsight it was the perfect time because it was to reflect. >> i'm so happy you decided to write your book. you mentioned you said your memoir is about your life. you tell your life story in a
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comprehensive way from your childhood to early education. i found the book to be deeply personal and vulnerable and unapologetic. when you are studying how to write the book, was that your objective as you begin writing it? >> it wasn't -- it was my objective but it wasn't. one of the things that i am known for and who i am is pretty much no bs and direct and people
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say authentic but i have been trained to. there's a whole bunch -- or to be graceful to soften the blow. i try and you can see in the book i avoid things that are too personal but i think generally i was really not good at looking at the questions -- my nature is about -- this whole idea of
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dancing around it and long words and explanations the reason it is authentic or personal that's all i know. there's not another way to do it. this is not necessarily always a good thing. you have to figure out a way to get the heck out of there and make a -- for the door. but definitely in this book it wasn't a place i felt i needed to, so i didn't even try. what i said is what i thought. >> you mentioned there were a lot of things going on in your life personally then you talk about the things happening
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virtually so how much did this influence your writing and experience? i think that the racial reckoning is the foundation for fundamental restructuring of our society. whenever you think about people in need or bad things happening, one of the things that's funny about this is that it appears on the face of a black person. people that don't have access to good food or for an education. it's not necessary to find the black guy even though generally
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it happens to the black guy. i think the racial reckoning is more than just a racial reckoning. it's a societal reckoning of the structure of society which is one that has created a massive defiance between the small number of people who have a ton and a fairly large number of people who have less and a large number of people at the end who ask less than a sustainable lifestyle. and the reason why it is so personal to me in the pandemic it made this clear and i wrote in the book it was essentially finished by the time the pandemic came up we thought we would be out of this if you
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remember. it took a year and a half and kept getting darker and darker so we have to kind of go back and look at the point. my mother would have been a fundamental casualty. our family would have not made it because my mother's income she got food stamps, welfare. and even with that, she had supplements. my mom had to find the work. this is pretty standard. my mother was the one who was singled out and my whole neighborhood was living this way. she did childcare work, state
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sanctioned programs where she had the children come into her house i would say lower middle-class people who were working and brought their kids to take care during the day and we had four or five and that and the welfare and whatever we could do took care of us. but imagine if she were alive and we were living our lives now. it would have been zero. >> exactly. >> and we wouldn't have been able to survive. i remember this and 16 or 17-years-old my mother was struggling because up until that
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point i was just a clueless kid. we ate good tasting food every single night. we had a stark extremely clean and very well organized kind of like decorated apartment. we went to school every single day and she had clothing all the time, nothing new or fancy but it was fine. we were just kind of popping along and did whatever we did and my mother was literally struggling and panic stricken. i can just imagine and when i was 16 or 17 like she was struggling because she was always worried about us and struggled financially and she just couldn't keep up so she
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ended up dying when i was 25 and she was 49 and it took me so long to realize that maybe that's what she was trying to do is not make it about our problem but her problem. it should be no one's problem, that shouldn't be the basis of your day every day. to feed them, keep them safe, i have to spend every penny i make. we had to get them education that was the disastrous if we would have been to public schools. and so, it should not be this hard to get the basic needs.
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>> they shouldn't even be able to be mean about it. in the discourse of what is happening today. he was voted in, i didn't vote for him but that's fine. like others i didn't agree with something changed here in the tone. it was you deserve it. it was just a different thing. i remember thinking my mother is in this environment and president trump would say she deserves to be there and so does your family. so, anyway i guess i get really emotional about that not because
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it is i was suffering back then. i just realized that there are a lot of people out there today who are making it just getting by and the entire world pulls them under and now out of their houses it is just a disaster. anyway, i'm sorry. >> i'm glad to talk about that because i was so amazed at how strong your mother was and how she sacrificed and how resilient she was and how she just kept going. your mother, a single mother she did everything she could for you and your siblings and sacrificed and i found it very remarkable that you didn't even realize how poor you were until you were
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much older so she is obviously amazing and played this huge role in your life. many of your life lessons from the book came from the lessons that she shared with you. what is the best advice that she gave you and how do you apply that today? >> the best advice that she gave me was god doesn't like ugly. [laughter] just think about this statement. she didn't mean ugly people. she amend an ugly soul and spirit, a mean person. i am a pretty introverted person and i would get silent and a little bit snappy or whatever, sometimes just outright rude. when that happened, she would say to me god doesn't like ugly
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and it is a good check. this statement was a good check. i got more and more powerful and wealthier. the other thing she said a lot was in the title of the book. the way she said it was where you are is not who you are and don't forget this when you are rich and famous. you have to understand how bizarre. we didn't know who ceos of companies were. we didn't have this thing to look up who people were.
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i had no clue. my mother had less of a clue than i had and she said this thing to me. how in the world did she even think about it because that isn't we never spoke about this in my household. she spoke about being a good person and carrying your own weight and taking care of my brother and sister and them taking care of me. she spoke about leaving behind more than you take away. she never talked about earning a lot of money and the ascension of being rich or famous. but there was something in her that she tacked onto this thing at the end that is exactly where i was. i am rich and famous. you can be an asshole when you
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are rich and famous. small curse word. and get away with it. my mother made it very clear that that would be as bad maybe worse. that environment wasn't who we were. it isn't with this thing. you don't pull out your wallet
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and say here's where i am even though we have some of that happening now. your mother saw that and the potential where you wanted to make sure you were a good human being and you didn't forget where you came from. another thing i was fascinated in this story although she wasn't uneducated and she sacrificed tremendously to provide the best education possible. a very strict environment and corporal punishment was the norm. they couldn't tolerate the environment. what impact do you think that decision had on your life? >> one of the things that in my family was pretty clear
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[inaudible] i was kind of right there, typical middle children. she didn't treat me any differently. i was always when i grew up described myself as being self-contained. i live a lot in between my ears. don't need a lot of things around me to keep me engaged. i can get a pen and pencil, self-contained. and i was very compliant. my idea was to fly below the radar screen so nobody noticed
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me. it wasn't an active decision every day but in hindsight that was it. i created very little particularly before i went to high school it was they give you a whole bunch of homework to do, you keep your mouth shut and this is how i did it. my ability to do that allowed me to stay in school. my brother and sisters in many ways were braver and definitely more rebels. my sister at that time my mother was pretty basic on everything. we had a structure in society that was nothing like it is today so that was definitely an oddity, not something people
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actually wore on their sleeves and in the school that i went to, my brother noticed this, i didn't and my sister noticed through the school as well and i was probably the most in my family. until i reached high school, which i went to a phenomenal high school at the time for educational standards even though it was unbelievably educational it didn't have computer classes or calculators that had just come out. we didn't have advanced math classes like precalculus or something like that but there was nothing to advanced.
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but they taught us in my high school how to study and how to write sentences for good penmanship and how to write english, how to study and work hard and persevere and that prepared me. my brother and sister couldn't deal with it. the punishment for both of them because they were not traditional was above and beyond. i got punished a lot it was nothing like my brother and sister so they basically left the school. my sister got kicked out of school. my brother did, too. they didn't leave, they were not allowed to come back. they both my sister in
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particular is just an amazing person but kind of the foundation there's always like the soul of the family, i'm the organizer. like tomorrow is her birthday you should give her a call. all the stuff like that. >> i'm the organizer in our family and have a sister like you just always thinking of other people. it's good to have those people. i was thinking in your book you talk about being in college with limited resources and you struggled a little bit.
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you persevered and were later inducted. can you tell me about the moment or when did you realize you had what it took that you knew you could do it and you could persevere in spite of all these challenges. >> it's gradual so i knew in kind of this urban new york city school and out in long island most went to the school of brookland it was reasonably diverse. it was definitely diverse from a wealth standpoint because there was a lot more diversity than going up to visit yale on the
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train. but it was -- i got into school on a program that was developed for a student just like me. and you have some lunch money they had tutoring and a counselor to prepare you for the fact that this was going to be difficult and different. i had this training from my mother that didn't allow me in
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the first instance of stress one way so i went to school and we had to go to school in the summer before hand to be prepared to know which is important. we have a system around me. i remember a woman who was my advisor. she was a pretty cool hispanic lady i remember going to her and
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saying i just hate chemistry. i passed it but i didn't like it. i signed up to be a chemical engineer. you have to get it exactly right. like i hated it. she said dropout? you are just a freshman. change your major. i said i didn't know i could do that. basically, change your major. what do you like? i said i love my physics class and calculus class. she said that sounds like a mechanical engineer. i said okay. i will be a mechanical engineer. the reason i tell the story as casual as that is it was and number two, because most kids never get that story. so i learned about engineering when i was a junior in high school. i never heard of it before.
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i knew i liked math. i had no idea that i was so far behind, and i went to a catholic school. even in high school i had nuns who taught me. you can be a nurse or a nun or a teacher. then we got into the question nursing and teaching wasn't that bad. i can't rescue my family or my mother on that amount of money so i went to a bookstore, to the library, sorry and looked at this book. you couldn't take it out of the library because it was a reference book. i looked up the most competitive
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colleges. what colleges were you going to apply to. >> i had no clue what i was doing. and fortunately, it turned out okay. my mother gave me access to curiosity and i went to a really good high school that was not educationally expert. the fundamentals. work hard.
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[inaudible] how to diagram a sentence and how the english structure should be. get good study partners, do them over and over again fight your way through. that served me well. >> let's fast-forward in college you ended up joining xerox and over the years you took on many different roles and during these times experienced. can you do an example of this and how it prepared you to be a ceo? >> let me answer the second part first. >> to run a company well you have to kind of know the place
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or at least know a lot about a place that's similar. they have no idea the work. i was fortunate enough it had a long history of diversity and i want to make sure i say this like we were far from perfect but we were further ahead. we had black male scientists. there were no black professionals in the companies. i went to a place that was
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absolutely perfect. it was a little bit scrappy. i had a new york city accent and they were concerned about those things. it was set up with this belief education came from the same place i had a consulting program and this thing called prism that was working with inner-city of rochester to get the students interested in science so it was a perfect place. when i went there they kept
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asking me to do things. i need you to work on this problem. why did the same it was on both sides i think less than the plan there was matching. we kind of fit. i was open, they were needy. i was needy, they were open. so it kind of fit together and it was the perfect company for me to go to. it was a good place for me. i fit in and i was disruptive and they allowed some of that. they corrected me when i was out
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of control. they had directors who were black and women. this was 1970, 1980. there were very few blacks and very few women. look outside of the company it was the perfect place for me to go and i fortunately stayed.
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>> your husband, lloyd, who you met as a successful scientist and he was successful and then at some point to focus on the home and he's been an instrumental partner. how important do you think that decision was for your continued role and ascension and what advice do you have? >> it was like every question that you've asked. my mother going to this company, the career i chose or the one chosen for me.
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my husband. my husband was a very, very peculiar man. he's 20 years older than i am, well, he was, he died in 2019. i'm not going to cry. he was one of the first african-american professionals in the research and science area. he was very different. he wore the sheik east to work while he had a massive afro. he sometimes drank too much, he smoked, he ran the streets.
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i loved him, he loved me. he was perfect for me. if you were just a fly on the wall you would wonder what the heck is going on here. how does this work because we argue, we fight, we stomp out of the room. there was one thing that was not in doubt ever and that was that i loved him enough to keep trying. he loved me enough to keep trying. it was an effort for us to sit together. my kids now are both in the process of getting married and they are both engaged. write down on a list the things
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you love about the person and the things you don't. write them down. cut the things you love in half, take the things you hate and intensify them. if you can live with that and still say okay that's the right person, that was my husband and that was me. the things he loved about me, you get older and tired and i don't know what it was, the things he didn't like about me, i was controlling, a little bit of a nag, perfectionist, disorganized and it didn't get much better. he was dyslexic so planning was not his strong suit and that got
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worse. he was still worth keeping and i was lucky there. and he was 20 years older than i was, so by the time my life got crazy at work. by the time i traveled let's say 20 weeks a year. by the time it got to the point it was unmanageable for me to be able to get home in any kind of a reasonable time or consistency to prepare meals and do whatever he'd been at the company for 42 years and his thing was i like this thing i'm doing but this is getting hard to keep it all
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going. if you can survive not getting up and going to work every day, part of your discipline, this is great. i can absolutely survive with that. he took care of my kids, our kids. he was always busy. cooked great meals for us, dressed the kids when i was traveling, even though not the way that i would have but that is not here nor there. but it all got done. i would come home and he would say you don't like it, you can stay home and do it. he was perfect for me.
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>> in the book you say there were things happening with the financial crisis and there were things that needed to happen and you were also working on this affiliated computer service and this was major almost every waking hour. i know this is a very, very challenging time how are you able to sit some boundaries in your personal time. talk about how you felt and how you were able to do that and i think it's important for people to hear that. >> in this area i think i make it clear in the book i failed more than i succeeded in this solution to the problem. a couple of things that were
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important both of my kids were teenagers and both of them needed their mother as well as their father. imagine being a black boy or black girl in america at any time. my husband and i were very aware of this particularly for my son who was taller and brilliant, well mannered beyond belief with all the stuff what would you do if you were raised by my mother. you knew if you walked out the door, this is well before george floyd, if you walked out the door he was viewed differently, as a risk. we talked a lot about this and about relationships with women
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and girls and relationships with white people and relationships with authority. my daughter was not under as much physical pressure. but in 2010 it was a disaster. kids have more choices than they even know what to do with. i had to make sure i didn't let things fall by the wayside and i had to really discipline myself and do that because i failed a lot. but i tried. the number one thing i knew my husband and i when he made a
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decision to stop working we could have had a babysitter. we made enough money as i'm sure to have a live in babysitter and my husband and i had this discussion i'm not sure who said it exactly that we are not going to outsource our children. we wanted to have something to do with them. particularly and as you meet with my daughter and my son you will see maybe too much. the things that we believe, how we define right and how much effort they have to put into things and how i want them to take advantage of opportunities and take risks. particularly at the point we can cover some of their risks. when i was growing up i was in a
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great career but if i hated i would have to stay in it. i got my masters degree and remember thinking about getting my phd which i wasn't qualified for. my mother needed money. we couldn't do it. my kids don't have that. i want to make sure the same values they go as far as they can and it's interesting. my daughter wants to be a writer. a phd in english literature. writing another masters degree in english literature or english whatever. i remember her telling me her brother is going to have to
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support her [inaudible] [laughter] it's not about that only. we wanted our kids to have some narrow lanes about when it comes to discipline and expectation that was for us to do and nobody else. that's why i wanted to stay close to home and why we decided we couldn't do it anymore. we had to get a cell phone. we didn't want to do the cell phone thing but we had to because they were in volleyball and it was a mess. but fortunately we were very
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practical kids, no staying out late and we were lucky enough to have -- we managed our kids close to home. in the chapter you leave behind more than you take away including leaving the [inaudible] and then obviously you want to serve as the chair. working on the conversation doing a lot of amazing work you talk about why it's important to do this and then what do you think about the progress and what we need to focus on.
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>> i am who i am and part of the reason is the thing i chose to study. i chose to study it by accident. i have no idea. i don't know why. i was not aware of this and this wasn't an option presented. obviously there were engineers out there but most black people and definitely black poor people at least when i was growing up were never presented the opportunity to do something like this. then i happened to be the most -- i was a girl and literally women and girls do not study engineering. don't you know that? the teachers attract you to something else. i said jokingly but it's true you can be a teacher or educator
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whatever it is you can be a life scientist, but not engineering. specifically male, white. i literally had access to working at the best companies out there by the time i graduated from college working on real stuff, really interesting. this is the career. think of what we are dealing with, the need for small sustainable solutions to everything in the world. we fly buildings as the population gets to work. we need more sustainable ways to
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get nutrition. we need to solve the water problem. we need to figure out a way to get from here to there faster and more sustainably. all these things that are described, all of them are engineering problems. that is what engineers are currently working with. the information about disease and how do we have a supply chain that makes us all. it is amazing to me that we literally still have a system that doesn't highlight this. we do not need a lot more lawyers. we need a lot more engineers. we should train and make available to young people of color and young women because the numbers are so large even if
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we got every white male to become, we need half the population in the world, more than half, people of color takes up another two thirds, 65%, 70%. look at my simple life. great job, great pay, pretty high demand. the reason i'm passionate is because of that. we had consulting companies before this was a hot thing and i went to president obama. he calls me and says can you work on this thing. i think we are beyond the idea
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that we can be a great america without scientists and we have to train some white women, black men, hispanics, whatever it is. national security for the last thing we have a great way of life here. i talk about a lot in my book. it's not perfect but i've been all over the world. every continent except for antarctica. i live right now actively in london. there isn't a better place. this isn't bad. we were on the path of really
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messing it up. under educating, under caring, not looking out for each other. we have seven and a half. we have to do it better than we have been doing it but somebody doesn't have to starve for me to eat. and if we take care of ourselves and then we take care of others. it's not i take care of myself and then all the rest of it when i see the other guys dying on the road but i'm only responsible for me. and we cannot make charity a
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business. i'm going to raise some pillars in the world and then feel really good by giving it back. that isn't charity, that is abuse. i'm preaching now. sorry. >> i really enjoy speaking with you today. this book is just another example of you giving so selflessly. it was a privilege and a joy for me to read the book. thank you. >> "after words" is available as a podcast. to listen, visit to or surge c-span "after words" on your podcast app and watch this and all previous "after words" on click the "after words" button at the top of the page.
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>> offered his thoughts on the importance of free speech. >> the debate on free speech is whether we should have kind of a lead of protection over free speech so we have the first amendment which guarantees the protection for free speech and what is much more interesting is the kind of pressure people feel and that is what i focus on in the book. so it is increasingly relevant because the recent polls show people share their opinions especially when it comes to contested issues. one other disturbing pattern as
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people are more educated, the more higher educated people are hesitant in talking about their ideas. one actually shows it is three times at its height then the scare of mccarthy and so on in the 50s. other people have said they are hesitant to speak their mind or say what they think. that number is more than triple now so one question is what does it mean for humanity going forward and what does this mean for policymaking. so that is i think what the interesting question to me is and what should individuals do we find ourselves in this kind of situation where there's a cost to expressing your opinions so people for no reason it isn't like it has rational fear.
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to use the word cancel culture, that's the kind of way people have been talking about it. so what will my colleagues think and they are real fears so what should people do as individuals. that's kind of my focus on the book. ..


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