The man who refused to be cancelled
FREE EXPRESSION AT STAKE, SAYS HARVARD PSYCHOLOGIST
Steven Pinker, the celebrated social psychologist and linguist, believes we are threatened by “a regime of intimidation that constricts the theatre of ideas” — otherwise known as “cancel culture.” He should know. It came for him.
Several hundred academics, mostly graduate students and lecturers, recently signed a letter asking for Pinker to be removed from the list of distinguished fellows at the Linguistic Society of America — an assault on his reputation that could have had a chilling effect on his field of study. Pinker, a 65-year-old Canadian-american and best-selling author, was accused of “drowning out the voices of people suffering from racist and sexist violence,” “misrepresenting facts” and even “moving in the proximity” of “scientific racism.”
The accusations sound terrible; the evidence was thin. The letter quoted just six tweets dating back to 2014 and two words from a book he wrote in 2011 — a classic example of “offence archeology,” digging through someone’s past to find something, no matter how small, to use against them. Often the aim isn’t just to prove a person wrong but to get them sacked — to take their career as a scalp. On July 7, more than 150 prominent thinkers — including Pinker, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie and JK Rowling — wrote an open letter against cancelling, warning that it has become “all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.” This “stifling atmosphere” will “ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time.”
Increasingly, cancelling has taken on the appearance of an internecine conflict on the Left, what Pinker describes as “the People’s Front for the Liberation of Judea” vs. “the Judean Popular Front of Liberationists,” to borrow from Monty Python.
A turning point in this civil war was the resignation of a senior editor at The New York Times for having published a piece calling for a military response to urban riots. One of his former colleagues, Bari Weiss, quit the paper last week after submitting her own resignation letter for the ages, accusing the “paper of record” of being edited not by staff but by Twitter: “As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space.” Intellectual curiosity has become a liability; ideas that could be articulated a few years ago could now get someone “in serious trouble, if not fired.”
Most of Pinker’s tweets that upset fellow linguists were links to pieces in the Times and The Washington Post, “two of America’s most liberal papers,” he told me over Skype from the East Coast. As always, his mood was boyishly optimistic. His work is famous for arguing that the world is getting better, not worse, and that we need to look beyond headlines — which push drama for clicks — to the data beneath if we want to know what’s really going on in society. In some of the tweets identified by the letter, he questioned if acts of violence were solely the products of racism or sexism, but also motivated by other complicated factors — an argument for nuance that, he suspects, conflicts with the current “obsession” with “racial injustice,” adding: “It’s a theme of the moment.”
He has his own “social justice bona fides” — Pinker has championed Black and female academics and is disliked by many religious conservatives — but review his past statements through a contemporary filter, and Pinker could appear out of step with the priorities of Black Lives Matter. In one 2015 Tweet, for instance, with a link to a Times article, he wrote: “Data: Police don’t shoot Blacks disproportionately. Problem: Not race, but too many police shootings.” (The article, it must be admitted, makes a very different point).
To understand who is getting shot by cops and why, says Pinker, “you have to count all the whites as well as the Blacks”: a focus upon the race of one set of victims might lead to a distorted reading of the data, inaccurate conclusions and bad policy. He assumes this tweet was interpreted in the light of 2020 as a repudiation of the “Black lives matter principle.”
Pinker says he “felt some distress” when he read the letter, “but I was gratified when other people quickly leapt to my defence” — a very different experience to, say, Baroness Nicholson who was recently dropped from the Booker Prize Foundation for her views on sexuality. The Society of Linguists might even offer a model of how an institution should act when a valued and trusted member comes under attack: “A number of linguists threatened to resign from the society if they accepted the letter” and the president of the society “didn’t express any sympathy for the letter and the society itself repudiated it.”
Of course what was at stake was just an honorific title; Pinker’s job was never threatened. Further down the academic food chain, things can be different: “My concern is ... for less powerful scholars who are intimidated from expressing opinions that depart from the hard-left orthodoxy.” Pinker says that one academic friend has received “a hundred letters from junior scholars saying they are intimidated from expressing their opinions. There are many cases of scholars who have been fired, often as the result of petition mobs calling for their dismissal on the basis of having attended a conference or appearing on a podcast” — or for having defended the right to articulate an opinion they might not share themselves.
Some say that cancelling is a storm in an intellectual’s tea cup. Clever, rich people trying to censor each other — a social media war with few consequences for real people, its victims just as likely to cancel others as to be cancelled themselves. Until a recent Supreme Court ruling, it was legal in the United States to sack someone because they are gay — so isn’t cancel culture part and parcel of politics, as common to the Right or Centre as it is to the Left?
Yes, says Pinker. It’s human nature. “People feel they are infallible, especially when it comes to moral convictions ... we are apt to treat dissenting opinions as heresies, that certain thoughts are immoral to think.” Twitter contributes to this sense of certainty, he concludes; it is not pushed, like Wikipedia, toward accuracy, but in the opposite direction, and therefore away from truth.
Pinker takes a long view. At the root of the Enlightenment, he says, the intellectual basis for our free society, was “humility ... skepticism, the fact that we cannot trust orthodoxy, dogma, scripture or received wisdom ... We are not omniscient, therefore the only real route to knowledge is approaching hypotheses and evaluating them for their logic and consistency of data.” In other words, free speech is not only a metric of liberty, but the path to the right answers.
Cancel culture expresses the “same psychology of religion” found in “other episodes of intellectual oppression, such as the Stalinist terror ... or Mccarthyite repression in the United States,” Pinker concludes. “It’s a vulnerability in the human mind. That’s why the principles of open debate and free expression have to be defended with each generation.”