Defending Steven Pinker

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I’m on Steven Pinker’s side regarding this current controversy. He is a superb scholar who has written great books advancing our knowledge tremendously and his critics find six tweets and a couple of two-word phrases objectionable in all his work. Even if a few phrases uttered were objectionable I can attest as a university instructor and writer for over 30 years that if you say and write enough someone will find something you say objectionable no matter how innocuous your intent.

I hate to somewhat agree with the American political right about political correctness but this is what some of them have in mind when they talk about cancel culture. And I did experience this in my own classes, ironically enough when I discussed E. O. Wilson or Pinker about a topic like sex differences. I don’t know if it is true that, for example, women have some innate advantage when it comes to child-rearing or men are generally better suited to be firefighters. But whatever the truth is about these and other matters I want to know what it is. We just need to follow the evidence wherever it leads. (What I do know is that the world would be an infinitely better place if at least half of all politically powerful positions were occupied by women.)

Issues like these arose at my first academic job because my college had made national news for revamping its core curriculum based on the book, Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. (It was an all women’s college.)

I was somewhat skeptical of some of the book’s claims because I doubted that the cognitive differences between men and women were great enough to justify different curriculums. Instead, it seemed to me that men and women were relatively equal in this regard, both relying on their sensory and cognitive apparatuses in order to understand the world. I also worried that young women might negatively interpret this supposed unique way of learning. I don’t know if I was correct about any of this and I didn’t investigate the issue in detail, but I found that expressing doubts about these issues among my colleagues was taboo. The ideas in the book were sacrosanct at my institution.

On the other hand, there are so many people who want to do and say whatever they feel like doing and saying, no matter how rude or noxious or ignorant they are. So the emphasis on being correct highlights that people should just stop being assholes. Moreover, as a reader pointed out,

“The cancel culture works both ways. We have a president who fires and then ruins anyone who disagrees with him. A football player takes a knee to demonstrate his disappointment in a broken system and gets blackballed from the NFL We have a religious movement that would cancel the entire LGBTQ community if they could get away with it. Not to mention white supremacists and their plan to cancel a whole race of people.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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6 thoughts on “Defending Steven Pinker

  1. The world is infinitely complex; no finite statement can ever be completely true. A person’s thoughts are themselves a simulacrum of that person’s existence, and a person’s expressions are a simulacrum of that person’s thoughts. In a sense, a person’s thoughts are a living creature in all its complexity. A book is like one organ of that creature. A paragraph is a molecule, and a tweet is a mere atom of that person’s thought. To crucify a person for such an atom is idiotic.

  2. The cancel culture works both ways. We have a president who fires and then ruins any one who disagrees with him. A football player takes a knee to demonstrate his disappointment in a broken system and gets black balled from the NFL We have a religious movement that would cancel the entire LGBTQ community if they could get away with it. Not to mention white supremacists and their plan to cancel a whole race of people. Liberals are hypocrites who destroy their own and divide their political party. When liberals learn to accept the diversity they preach life will be better for Pinker and America. Disinterested Americans with integrity need to get involved and take America back from the lunatic fringe.

  3. As a member of the LSA and someone who knows and speaks with many of the letter’s signatories, I believe that this article is disingenuous. The letter’s signatories are not trying to censor or cancel Dr. Pinker. They merely don’t want him to be a public face of their/our organization. Removing Dr. Pinker from this honorary and public-facing position in no way silences his voices. It hardly affects him at all. And, the reason this was done through a letter is because they had no other recourse, which to me reflects the undemocratic nature of many academic institutions. If a majority of members of a professional organization no longer want a particular person representing them, they are free to do so. Calling this “censorship” or “cancellation” is laughable at best, ominous at worst: equating loss of a ceremonial position with loss of actual right to free speech I may well make the latter seem less of a big deal.

    It’s also disingenuous that one of the three other linguists that the article quotes, in fact the one who is quoted most prominently, is John McWhorter, who is the same sort of person as Pinker: a very much public intellectual who has much greater reach than most other linguists (due, like Pinker, to popular writing, not to superior scholarship), and sometimes uses this reach to defend the status quo and blame or patronize those who are oppressed or struggling. There are aspects of both Pinker’s and McWhorter’s ideas (scholarly and public) that I endorse, but other that I vehemently disagree with. And, if a majority of other linguists agree with me, why does Pinker need an additional role at the LSA? He has plenty of other audiences.

    To be clear, I am wholeheartedly against actual censorship. But, I don’t think censorship by leftists against prominent public intellectualS is an actual danger in the USA in 2020.

  4. “To be clear, I am wholeheartedly against actual censorship. But, I don’t think censorship by leftists against prominent public intellectualS is an actual danger in the USA in 2020.”
    Did I just read that “Censorship by x” = NOT “actual censorship”
    when x = leftists
    I like the following modification much better:
    when x = moi.
    (Actually I don’t. Not even in jest. Similarly problematic morally and epistemically.)

  5. I follow Schopenhauer’s advice: “Say nothing, believe nothing.”. In my experience, you just cannot win arguments with stupid and ignorant people. It seems to me that today it is impossible to write about gender, religion, or even politics, without being anonymous.

    Through the course of history people have personally paid a very high cost for having expressed different ideas in good faith to the ‘crowd’. From Jesus Christ to Giordano Bruno to Spinoza and countless other examples, it is clear that the crowd can turn into a dangerous mob at any point.

    I think that it is a mistake for a thinker or writer to be on Twitter, etc. They associate with the crowd, and soon or later the crowd turns into a mob.

    In my opinion, “free speech” is but a delusion. At most, is an ideal. It would not be if everyone were like Aristotle, Plato or Bertrand Russell, but the reality is that most people are just too stupid and lazy to learn to argue effectively about something they disagree with.

    Trump, of course, is a very good example of that: whenever he gets criticized, his answer is the same lazily worded sentence: “political witchunt!”.
    But what is interesting is that, as far as I see, most of his “critics” aren’t much better than him.

    In my opinion, it is wise to pick your battles. One might accuse me of thinking pavidly, but fear is a survival instinct as well. I am not saying “don’t say what you think”, but just “do not expose yourself while you do it”. Be safe, it’s not worth ending a whole career because of a bunch of fools on the internet.

    Even the earliest philosophers have said it: “Never argue with stupid people.”. Frankly, I have done it myself. Never again. I now don’t speak to anyone on the internet, or at least not to stupid people.

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