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.