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Lessons of the Pinker Affair: The Problem with the Academy is False Beliefs, Not Intolerance

Earlier this summer, over 600 signatories signed an open letter to the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), denouncing Steven Pinker for “speaking over genuine grievances and downplaying injustices, frequently by misrepresenting facts, and at the exact moments when Black and Brown people are mobilizing against systemic racism and for crucial changes.” I tweeted a link to the letter, and was glad to see my tweet gain traction as people were able to see the absurdity of the charges for themselves.

I had largely forgotten this episode, when in early September I received a Google Scholar alert saying that my name had appeared in an academic article. Instead of being a reference to an academic paper I had written, as I expected, it was a citation to my tweet making fun of the LSA letter. Written by 10 authors, three of them anonymous, the article (hereinafter referred to as Kastner et al.) seeks to address the controversy and set the record straight.

Much of the paper is devoted to correcting what they call Pinker’s misrepresentations and complaining about people being mean to them on social media. The title is “Who Speaks for Us?,” and the tone and content of the article show that the letter writers feel bullied by the responses from me, Pinker, editors at Quillette, and others in the press. They complain that Wikipedia and the media have taken Pinker’s side in the debate, that nobody will publish their op-ed responses, and that the psychologist is represented by a public relations agency while they mostly are not. They attack Pinker for both complaining about cancellation, while seeming to contradict himself when noting that the signers of the letter were so unimportant that he only recognized one person on the list.

The authors also supply a statistical analysis showing that 42 percent of the signers were students, and 20 percent were tenured or retired. The online appendix is a collection of screenshots of tweets and e-mails of of negative responses to the letter.

Among the self-pity and neurosis, I did discern one argument that was actually interesting, and addressing it can tell us something about what has gone wrong with the academy.

As Kastner et al. point out, Steven Pinker is more prominent than anyone on the list. He proved in the aftermath of the affair that he was more than capable of defending himself. How, then, could he complain about a witch hunt carried out by a group that is mostly made up of graduate students and junior scholars? I received my PhD in 2018, and know that most graduate students do not feel particularly powerful. They have finished a four-year degree and are still making $20,000 a year, with years of additional study and postdocs ahead of them before they can have any hope of finding a job. If and when they do, they will have little control over where they live and make less money than a manager at Walmart. When they attack Steve Pinker, one of the most prominent public intellectuals of our time, grad students and junior scholars can understandably feel like they are actually speaking truth to power.

Of course, such an argument would imply that a low-ranking member of the Cheka with uncertain career prospects would be justified in complaining about a kulak who used his wealth to hire a security guard. The typical young academic—not all of them, but the type that sign letters like this—does not see it this way. To Kastner et al., the LSA is a self-governing organization of the field, meant to create standards for diversity and inclusion. Pinker’s comments are out of step with the mission of the organization, and serve to alienate women and minorities.

In this telling, the signers of the letter are not the cancellers. It is Steve Pinker and those outside the academy who have power in this case.

As far as I can tell, this argument is correct. The letter signers point out in Kastner et al. that they did not call for Pinker to be fired, only for the LSA to distance itself from him. It seems reasonable to accept that a professional organization can, in the abstract, create standards it expects its members to live up to.

So what, then, was the real problem with the original letter? Fundamentally, it is what they were denouncing Pinker for, not their attitudes towards speech.

In their indictment against Pinker, the 600-plus linguists pointed out that he believes in natural differences between men and women, and the importance of genetics in influencing human behaviour more generally. He doubts that one mass shooting is evidence of patriarchy in the United States, points to statistical evidence showing racism against African-Americans is decreasing, and argues that the attention given to police shootings of black men is disproportionate. Pinker is accused of “dog whistling” by talking about “urban crime/violence,” and “co-opting” the work of a black scholar by giving his own interpretation of the latter’s data.

Reading the letter, what I am struck by is not its dismissiveness towards free speech. All they asked was for the LSA to stop listing Pinker as a fellow and media expert. In principle, practically no one disagrees that academics who promote particular positions in public should face consequences for them. Few would argue that a homeopath is entitled to a position in a medical school, or that the work of an astrologist should be promoted by a professional organization of astronomers. While we may draw a bright line against government restrictions on speech, once you recognize flat-Earthers should face professional consequences in academia based on their views, there is no principled position against deplatforming people for other opinions.

To the cancellers, racism and sexism are the most fundamental aspects of American society, and humans are all born with equal capabilities. A person who refuses to recognize things so clearly obvious and true can only do so as a result of bad motives. (If you find this strange, consider how you would respond to knowing that someone who believes that vaccines cause autism was working as a professor in medicine.)

What is it that distinguishes, then, cancellation campaigns that cause outrage (talking about sex differences, IQ, genetics) and those that do not (flat-Earthers, creationists)? As far as I can tell, the targets in the former cases are saying things that are scientifically valid, while those in the latter are saying things that are not. For many thoughtful people this is the hill to die on, not the abstract commitment to platforming all voices, a standard that virtually no one will ever live up to. As Tyler Cowen wrote in response to the Harper’s letter of earlier this year, in deciding who to invite to sign the document, “the organizers had to ‘restrict free speech’ in a manner not altogether different than what they are objecting to.” They were therefore not objecting to restrictions on speech when they complained about “cancel culture,” but something else.

The correct response to the cancellers is not simply to say that they should respect free speech. Rather, one must say to them that you are attacking people for stating things which are true, while you are stating things which are false. It does not matter which side of the debate is more prominent, or which side has more minorities and women. The identity politics view of the world fundamentally misunderstands reality, and people who respect truth should be on the side of whoever stands against it, whether a grad student is attacking a famous intellectual, or vice versa.

This is not for their benefit, but for that of everyone else. We’ll likely never reach the signers of the LSA letter. Someone who does not believe that there are any innate differences between boys and girls is too disconnected from reality to ever give a fair hearing to an argument in favor of the free marketplace of ideas. A few set out on the long path towards an academic career do so because they have a passion for understanding how the world works. In many fields, the vast majority do not, and are enthusiastic participants in and shapers of the culture that has been created in the universities, as it is their compensation for years of low pay and uncertain career prospects.

While certain fields and disciplines continue to seek truth, it is simply time we accepted that many do not, and are committed first and foremost to a false view of the world. Instead of engaging with such people, what those in the press and outside the academy should do is focus on marginalizing the unhealthy parts of the academy that have been conquered by what Wesley Yang calls the “successor ideology.” Kastner et al.’s self-pitying paper reads as if it was written by an isolated community that could never have imagined that the outside world might intrude on their internal discussions, and ultimately laugh at and set aside their most cherished beliefs. They feel overmatched by the response, and realize they have been discredited outside their narrow circle.

Maybe this affair will lead some signers of the letter to form doubts, prompting them to inject new ideas into their fields, or leave graduate school altogether for the private sector. But for those who do not, these insular academic cultures will need to be discredited, rather than reasoned with. Large swaths of the academy may deserve to be ignored or even mocked, but in other fields, in think tanks and newspapers, and on blogs, social media, and websites like Quillette, real debate and the search for truth continue.

Richard Hanania, PhD, is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter @RichardHanania