Before we start, make sure to catch the last installment of Ten Minutes over at Glibertarians.
I found this interesting: Lessons of the Pinker Affair. Excerpts, with my comments:
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.
They’re coming for Steven Pinker for his “public support for David Brooks,” not condemning Bernie Goetz enough, denying an incel shooting as evidence of the patriarchy, and “co-opting” the work of a black scholar, which I think means citing him. https://t.co/7wb3JqJkb1 pic.twitter.com/9mYpkyM2DG
— Richard Hanania (@RichardHanania) July 3, 2020
You can sum up the grievances of the 600 signatories as follows: “RHHEEEEEE!” None of these people should be taken seriously, as you’ll see.
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.
Note the careful wording of that last sentence: “feel like they are actually speaking truth to power.” In reality they aren’t speaking truth at all; it’s doubtful whether they have even a nodding acquaintance with truth. As President Reagan said, “It isn’t so much that liberals are ignorant. It’s just that they know so many things that aren’t so.”
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.
In other words, as the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, people are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.
The Pinker Affair, as the linked article demonstrates, has keenly illustrated higher education’s increasing disconnect from reality. While the purpose of education should be to produce young adults with marketable skills, instead many of our major universities have essentially become bullshit factories.
Defund them. Disconnect government from education. Make financing of college a private-sector affair, where said financing will be dependent on the odds of the education obtained producing a return on investment. That one step alone will remove most, if not all, of the bullshit from academia.