The war over free expression isn’t over, but the cancel consensus is starting to flop as the facade of viewpoint diversity in elite institutions begins to fade.
Steven Pinker, the mild-mannered Harvard linguist, is the latest target of the online leftist mob. Known for advancing evolutionary psychology, the computational theory of mind, and more recently, principles of the Enlightenment, he has remained a thorn in the side of those who want the university to become increasingly ideologically insular.
Pinker’s work at Heterodox Academy, public lectures on the importance of open campus dialogue, assistance to Jeffrey Epstein’s criminal defense in 2007, and talk about Jewish genetics have created an appearance of impropriety, especially among certain circles of the intersectional left. Especially undesirable to other elites is his claim that the progressive left is the progenitor of the alt-right, for its unsavory implications for those who rally for speech codes and minimizing the Overton window.
Pinker has stood in the way of groups who wish to further dominate the university, especially as a well-respected and thoughtful example of someone who does not buy into identity politics. By focusing on the values of Enlightenment thought, Pinker inadvertently critiques the unspoken premise of social justice, that if one doesn’t agree with the woke narrative by not consistently showing solidarity, they’re a bad person. Instead, Pinker has a habit of playing resident iconoclast and challenging movements to be independently worthwhile instead of making vague appeals to intersectionality.
Recently, some linguistics professors penned an open letter to the Linguistic Society of America with the goal of removing Pinker as one of the society’s “distinguished fellows.” It claimed, “Dr. Pinker has a history of 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.”
“Reached at his home on Cape Cod,” The New York Times reported on July 15, “Pinker, 65, noted that as a tenured faculty member and established author, he could weather the campaign against him. But he said it could chill junior faculty who hold views counter to prevailing intellectual currents.”
If the Left Can Cancel Pinker, It Can Cancel Anyone
The seemingly damning charges fall apart under scrutiny. As an example of Pinker’s misogyny, the letter described how he had responded to an incident wherein a student murdered “six women.” In fact, Pinker had merely pointed out that two of these women were actually men.
This character assassination is so blatant, it may have been the straw that broke the cancel camel’s back. Instead of this petition meeting enthusiasm and bloodthirst, it fizzled out almost immediately, as a range of people and organizations, many of them prominent, excoriated it. Especially notable were other academics who’ve upset the status quo before, such as Noam Chomsky, Nicholas Christakis, John McWhorter, who defended Pinker’s right to speak.
Many academics realized that if someone as pleasant and Democratic as Pinker is being targeted for insufficient leftism, anyone is vulnerable to cancellation. Although Pinker survived because of his connections and goodwill, it’s becoming impossible to ignore the elephant in the room. Tactics such as false signatures, half-quotes, and playing fast and loose with facts have infiltrated media institutions, and are being used to target dissidents. There are only so many dissenters you can quell, however.
This is made clear by a letter appearing in Harper’s Magazine, signed by 150 high-profile liberals, who saw it fit to declare that free institutions are under attack from both the right and left. The letter goes on to describe how in the spirit of the times, “editors are fired for running controversial pieces, books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics.” While the letter received some backlash, causing a few of the original signers to condemn the letter, most signatories continued promoting its message.
Viewpoint Diversity Is a Facade
Over the last few days, one author associated with the letter, Bari Weiss, according to some the seventh-most influential Jew worldwide, resigned from The New York Times, saying her workplace colleagues have called her “a Nazi and a racist” for her Zionism and other beliefs.
After recent news of James Bennett being ousted from the Times, one should not be surprised to see the paper bleed subscribers from all but the most committed leftists. Moderates will search for news sources that don’t chastise them for white fragility. At some point, organizations like the Times will be forced to reckon with Michael Jordan’s insight: “Republicans buy shoes too.”
This insight has not been learned at Princeton University. Joshua Katz, a renowned classics professor, recently wrote an article in Quillette arguing that the recent faculty petition was tantamount to a new declaration of independence proclaiming that “Anti-Blackness is foundational to America” and that some of the proposals in question would likely lead to “civil war” on campus by eroding public confidence in elite institutions. Proposals such as guaranteeing nonwhite faculty course relief and summer salary seem like poor ideas.
Instead of his warning being addressed and assuaged, Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber condemned the professor’s op-ed because Katz called the Black Justice League a “terrorist organization,” despite that the claim was in the context of how the group harassed non-activists. By not engaging with the article’s substance, Princeton fails to change anyone’s mind about the problems on its campus.
The war over free expression is far from over, but this past week demonstrates that the cancel consensus is starting to flop as the mirage of viewpoint diversity at top media outlets fades away. Meanwhile, it is important to stay vigilant in defending friends and family against mobs that do not care about the harms they inflict upon other people.