Free Speech and Cancel Culture

The Rush Rhees Library at the University of Rochester

In response to my recent post regarding Steven Pinker, I received a carefully and conscientiously crafted reply from Dr. Peter Guekguezian of the University of Rochester. (Dr. Guekguezian is also a former champion of the game show Jeopardy.) I thought his comments important enough to merit their own post.  Here are his thoughts.

As a member of the LSA and someone who knows and speaks with many of the letter’s signatories, I believe that this article (my post) 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.

Addendum – In subsequent correspondence, Dr. Guekguezian summarized his view thus:

I find myself ambivalent about both Dr. Pinker’s work and the issue of ‘cancel culture’. On the one hand, I firmly agree that our recent history is full of progress and that free speech is a bedrock of a good society. On the other hand, I am wary of attempts by those with power to dismiss very real oppression and to claim that they are being “censored” when their voices are amplified.

I thank Dr. Guekguezian for taking the time to pen such a thoughtful reply.

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6 thoughts on “Free Speech and Cancel Culture

  1. Thanks for this, as always. I must say, it wasn’t clear to me from reading the text when you transitioned from your voice and thoughts to that of Dr Guekguezian.

  2. thanks for pointing that out. I just indented his comments to make things more clear. JGM

  3. I would point to the change in the priorities of the New York Times as a prime example of the dangers of “cancel culture.” I find it hard not to conclude that much of the older, seasoned staff has been cowed into silence for fear of being fired at the insistence of the younger staff who recently graduated from elite liberal arts colleges soaked in critical race theory.

  4. Well you might be right but the true threat to the culture comes from proto-fascists, primarily on the right.

  5. PS. I think that the reply by Dr Guekguezian is frankly hypocritical. I think it is adequately proven by the fact that first he writes:

    “As a member of the LSA and someone who knows and speaks with many of the letter’s signatories”

    and then that he is “ambivalent” about Dr Pinker and the issue of “cancel culture”. Nevertheless, he sides clearly with the latter. So there’s ambivalence in his thought, but not in his actions, which seems a contradiction.

    It seems to me that there’s 3 things that can be done:

    1. being an hypocrite (which I believe are the majority of the signatories). And frankly, a sycophant too.
    2. being honest and open, but at your (very high) personal cost
    3. being honest, but not open (i.e. writing anonymously).

    To me, 3. seems the smarter choice. Of course, then the mob will accuse one of anonymity, but the reason for that can be explained quite simply.

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