Steven Pinker won’t be cancelled – but you could be

The point of denouncing him is to dissuade the next generation of academics from dissent.

Shaun Cammack

Topics Free Speech USA

An open letter to the Linguistic Society of America has called for the removal of Steven Pinker from its list of distinguished fellows. It accuses the Harvard professor of using racist dog-whistles, scientific racism and broadly opposing the goals of racial justice. The accusations in the letter have been thoroughly contested and rejected by the likes of Nicholas Christakis, Michael Shermer, John McWhorter and Noam Chomsky, among others. The attempt to cancel Steven Pinker has failed in spectacular fireworks – fitting indeed for the week after Independence Day.

But don’t be distracted by the explosions – this letter wasn’t really about Pinker at all. In fact, it has a very specific function – to dissuade lesser-known academics and students from questioning the ideological consensus. The letter says, in not so few words: ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re Steven f***ing Pinker. If you don’t agree with our ideological prescriptions, you don’t belong here.’

The letter is really directed towards you – the unknown academic, the young linguist, the graduate student. And in this particular goal of dissuading dissent, it will undoubtedly be successful. Although the letter has been widely criticised, you are not Steven Pinker, and Noam Chomksy and others probably aren’t going to come to your defence when you get sanctioned for expressing the wrong opinion. Not because they don’t believe in free speech, but because they won’t even be aware of your case. There will be no articles lambasting and criticising the cancellers. Your cancellation will be a blip on the radar and the academic world will chug along without you.

Maybe the authors of the letter know this consciously, but maybe not. It’s clear, however, that they don’t really care about Pinker – he is a lost cause, after all. They just want to make sure that the new generations of linguists don’t follow suit.

Acts of public denunciation like this are only effective when the denouncers are a significant contingent of the larger group. One person telling you they won’t work with you isn’t the end of the world. Ten people doing so is a big problem. Everyone denouncing you is the end of your life as you know it. That’s why this letter and its signatories are public. There are 575 people opposing Pinker for his views, and in the small world of academia that signals an extraordinarily high cost to dissent.

Fortunately for Pinker, with his huge base of supporters, he is uncancellable. Every academic in North America could denounce him and his career would only marginally suffer. But what about the rest of us? What are we supposed to do?

First, we need to stop mindlessly signing petitions. People sign petitions because it has a negligible cost with a moderate reward – 30 seconds of reading and typing for the psychological satisfaction of doing something. It gives you the opportunity to signal to others your moral virtue and the chance to direct the mob away from yourself. Don’t be a pawn for someone else’s ideological move.

Second, academics and students must openly support the values of academic freedom and viewpoint diversity. This doesn’t mean people must take on views that deviate from the status quo, but we should acknowledge that disagreement is fundamentally good. Viewpoint diversity doesn’t only makes everyone a better scholar through institutionalised disconfirmation of prevailing biases — it also, by its very nature, undermines the ability of ideologues to sanction dissent.

The mob is terrifying. A group of nearly 600 peers certainly has a lot of sway in how a young student thinks and acts. But the next generations of academics cannot stand idly by. Perhaps by speaking up and thinking independently, through loving disagreement, we may very well restore the integrity and intellectual honesty of American universities.

Shaun Cammack is a graduate student at the University of Chicago and a contributor with Young Voices. Follow him on Twitter: @shaunjcammack.

Picture by: Getty.

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Gary Mull

13th July 2020 at 3:00 am

Who is this article aimed at?

The vast majority of people in Britain will never be “cancelled”, of course.

Statistically speaking you’re more likely to be homeless in ten years time than “cancelled” so rather than debate this niche topic maybe plan for a future in which you have no home.

Tony Benn

15th July 2020 at 11:45 am

Oh look the same “fact” on two consecutive comments.

The Germans and Soviets didn’t shoot everyone who didn’t agree with their policies on day one, they shot a few and then took a look at who was still dissenting. They were then put in camps (or shot) and by the end of six months no one showed any dissent.

They don’t need to cancel everyone, or the majority. They need a major player “pour encourager les autres”

Owen Morgan

11th July 2020 at 3:11 am

Anglophone universities are done for and may as well be allowed to wither. When it is impossible to respect Harvard, Cambridge, or UCL, we shouldn’t be protecting them.

Neil John

10th July 2020 at 5:29 pm

Academic Freedom is an interesting concept, and now even those with tenure are being fired for venturing anything not ideologically pure, doesn’t stop the ideologs claiming it to attack others though. I apparently have academic freedom, yet my employers I.T. director has given himself the power to fire me from my role that is nothing to do with his fiefdom, if I transgress in any way on-line, not just at work… There are many power grabbers who welcome the loss of academic freedom, as it stifles those that may question and test received wisdom, the very heart of the academic mission,

Vicki McKerrell

9th July 2020 at 10:18 pm

So ironic that a group of linguistic experts all have an inability to understand one another. The quest for meaning in language has evaded them all. Pinker claims he’s done nothing wrong, his opponents say he has. The big loser is the loss of meaning and understanding which has contributed to the ongoing culture wars. Cancel culture isn’t the main issue. Nor is identity politics. It is about how we make meaning of the past and reconcile its crimes in the present. The letter seems to be focusing on giving voice to those impacted by past injustices that continue to impact them in the present. Pinker appears to be focusing on the gains made in recent times and moving forward with a universal set of ethical principles. The combined linguistic academia need to get together, talk and find some common meaning. What a novel idea.

steve moxon

9th July 2020 at 4:55 pm

But Steven Pinker himself sucks up to ‘identity politics’ shibboleths in long having been careful not to fall foul of ‘PC’ policing. Yes, he wrote ‘The Blank Slate’, a good book demolishing ‘social construction’, but that was an open goal. And he nevertheless makes the same mistake as does Daniel Dennett (the philosopher of evolution) and Richard Dawkins in feebly imagining that somehow we can ‘transcend’ ourselves in building culture circumventing biology … “I told my genes to go jump in the lake” he famously said. I challenged him at a conference that actually it was his genes that had told HIM to go jump in the lake, in that the facility to exhibit culture cannot have evolved unless it were to serve the very biology underpinning it. Culture in fact is an ever better realisation of our biology; the very opposite of circumventing it. He had no reply and just stared into the ventral aisle until the chairman rescued him.


9th July 2020 at 10:09 pm

‘Genetic determinism’ is not to be tolerated by the politically-correct elite who now control our public space. The fact that differences in intelligence are partly hereditary is unacceptable to them.
No matter if reputable science like the Minnesota Twin Study demonstrated it. No matter if geneticists are closing in on the specific genes involved. We are in an age when orthodoxy can cancel science.

James Clark

9th July 2020 at 4:39 pm

Free speech for everyone, except those that sent the letter mentioned in the article.

michael harris

9th July 2020 at 4:46 pm

False argument, James. The article didn’t say that the letter should have been suppressed. Nobody is trying to gag the gaggers, just to point out how horrible they are.

Brandy Cluster

9th July 2020 at 4:49 pm

Don’t confuse humbug and intimidation with free speech.

James Clark

9th July 2020 at 4:58 pm

Guff and verbal intimidation are part of free speech, like it or not.

steve moxon

9th July 2020 at 5:22 pm

Systematic authoritarian cynical profound intimidation intended to destroy someone’s life, explicitly to prevent free speech, is indeed the attempt to prevent free speech, not the exercise of it.

Brandy Cluster

9th July 2020 at 11:56 pm

Quite so, but to explicitly suggest that shutting somebody down and destroying their career would have been an ideal justification in the USSR.

James Knight

9th July 2020 at 4:37 pm

The problem is not the petitions. It is the cowardice of the institutions and corporations.

In the US everyone is normally employed “at will”. This means you can be fired with or without cause. The exception is for cases of alleged discrimination, in this case the employer has significant legal exposure. So if somebody calls out X for a comment on social media and starts a campaign with his employer, the employer may well cave and just fire the employee. Especially if X said something that might be construed as offence to protected groups. There was in the US the case of a guy making the OK sign which is now supposed to be a sign of the far right. He was Mexican and an unlikely candidate for a white supremacist.

Matt Ryan

9th July 2020 at 4:46 pm

In the UK it’s normal for employment contracts to have a clause about “bringing the company into disrepute” which is used to summarily sack you if they don’t fancy some bad publicity.

The fact that you’ll either be paid off or win at employment tribunal doesn’t change the fact you no longer have your job.


9th July 2020 at 3:39 pm

“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

Try this: start a new linguistic society, or a less formal network, for free-thinkers. Without the likes of Pinker and Chomsky, see how well the Linguistic Society of America will be doing next month , and how many young linguists would be drawn to a new forum supported by Pinker and or Chomsky. I am not that sure that you need to be in a trade union to study linguistics. In days of yore, great scientist-philosophers just privately wrote to each other.

Just a thought: I wonder what the greatly missed Umberto Eco would have thought about the cynical suppression of free-speech and the propagation of fake news.


9th July 2020 at 2:42 pm

‘First, we need to stop mindlessly signing petitions. People sign petitions because it has a negligible cost with a moderate reward – 30 seconds of reading and typing for the psychological satisfaction of doing something.’

No, the first thing we should do is stop treating ‘online petitions’ as in any sense the equivalent of traditional petitions. Actually putting your cross on a real a piece of paper requires a level of commitment that – slight though it maybe – is off the scale when compared with nodding your approval of this instant’s fashionable tweet.

And give it time, academics who seek to make debate impossible are ultimately going to cancel themselves, like the delegates to a Soviet Party Congress.

Matt Ryan

9th July 2020 at 3:06 pm

No, people should stop being mindless sheep.

Educate themselves just a little (and not only in the latest fashionable Wokeology or what some ‘celebrity’ says) about the issues and keep an open mind as things are very rarely black and white (er, pretty dark grey and very light grey maybe these days?).

If after that you still feel as strongly, then I don’t see why an online petition is that much worse than a physical one.

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