My Enlightenment fanaticism

Update (July 17): Friend-of-the-blog Karen Morenz points me to a piece by Bonny Brooks, articulating a left-wing case against cancel culture. I read it and found much to agree with. Mostly, though, I was really happy to spend this week doing some actual research (nearly the first since the pandemic started) rather than blogging culture-war stuff! Speaking of which, please get in any last comments within the next day or so; then I’ll close down the thread.

If there were ever a time for liberals and progressives to put aside their internal squabbles, you’d think it was now. The President of the United States is a racist gangster, who might not leave if he loses the coming election—all the more reason to ensure he loses in a landslide. Due in part to that gangster’s breathtaking incompetence, 130,000 Americans are now dead, and the economy tanked, from a pandemic that the rest of the world has under much better control. The gangster’s latest “response” to the pandemic has been to disrupt the lives of thousands of foreign scientists—including several of my students—by threatening to cancel their visas. (American universities will, of course, do whatever they legally can to work around this act of pure spite.)

So how is the left responding to this historic moment?

This weekend, 536 people did so by … trying to cancel Steven Pinker, stripping him of “distinguished fellow” and “media expert” status (whatever those are) in the Linguistics Society of America for ideological reasons.

Yes, Steven Pinker: the celebrated linguist and cognitive scientist, author of The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works (which had a massive impact on me as a teenager) and many other books, and academic torch-bearer for the Enlightenment in our time. For years, I’d dreaded the day they’d finally come for Steve, even while friends assured me my fears must be inflated since, after all, they hadn’t come for him yet.

I concede that the cancelers’ logic is impeccable. If they can get Pinker, everyone will quickly realize that there’s no longer any limit to who they can get—including me, including any writer or scientist who crosses them. If you’ve ever taken, or aspire to take, any public stand riskier than “waffles are tasty,” then don’t delude yourself that you’ll be magically spared—certainly not by your own progressive credentials.

I don’t know if the “charges” against Pinker merit a considered response (Pinker writes that some people wondered if they were satire). For those who care, though, here’s a detailed and excellent takedown by the biologist and blogger Jerry Coyne, and here’s another by Barbara Partee.

So, it seems Pinker once used the term “urban crime,” which can be a racist dogwhistle—except that in this case, it literally meant “urban crime.” Pinker once referred to Bernie Goetz, whose 1984 shooting of four robbers in the NYC subway polarized the US at the time, as a “mild-mannered engineer,” in a sentence whose purpose was to contrast that description with the ferocity of Goetz’s act. Pinker “appropriated” the work of a Black scholar, Harvard Dean Lawrence Bobo, which apparently meant approvingly citing him in a tweet. Etc. Ironically, it occurred to me that the would-be Red Guards could’ve built a much stronger case against Pinker had they seriously engaged with his decades of writing—writing that really does take direct aim at their whole worldview, they aren’t wrong about that—rather than superficially collecting a few tweets.

What Coyne calls the “Purity Posse” sleazily gaslights its readers as follows:

We want to note here that we have no desire to judge Dr. Pinker’s actions in moral terms, or claim to know what his aims are. Nor do we seek to “cancel” Dr. Pinker, or to bar him from participating in the linguistics and LSA communities (though many of our signatories may well believe that doing so would be the right course of action).

In other words: many of us “may well believe” that Pinker’s scientific career should be ended entirely. But magnanimously, for now, we’ll settle for a display of our power that leaves the condemned heretic still kicking. So don’t accuse us of wanting to “cancel” anyone!

In that same generous spirit:

Though no doubt related, we set aside questions of Dr. Pinker’s tendency to move in the proximity of what The Guardian called a revival of “scientific racism”, his public support for David Brooks (who has been argued to be a proponent of “gender essentialism”), his expert testimonial in favor of Jeffrey Epstein (which Dr. Pinker now regrets), or his dubious past stances on rape and feminism.

See, even while we make these charges, we disclaim all moral responsibility for making them. (For the record, Alan Dershowitz asked Pinker for a linguist’s opinion of a statute, so Pinker provided it; Pinker didn’t know at the time that the request had anything to do with Epstein.)

Again and again, spineless institutions have responded to these sorts of ultimatums by capitulating to them. So I confess that the news about Pinker depressed me all weekend. The more time passed, though, the more it looked like the Purity Posse might have actually overplayed its hand this time. Steven Pinker is not weak prey.

Let’s start with what’s missing from the petition: Noam Chomsky pointedly refused to sign. How that must’ve stung his comrades! For that matter, virtually all of the world’s well-known linguists refused to sign. Ray Jackendoff and Michel DeGraff were originally on the petition, but their names turned out to have been forged (were others?).

But despite the flimsiness of the petition, suppose the Linguistics Society of America caved. OK, I mused, how many people have even heard of the Linguistics Society of America, compared to the number who’ve heard of Pinker or read his books? If the LSA expelled Pinker, wouldn’t they be forever known to the world only as the organization that had done that?

I’m tired of the believers in the Enlightenment being constantly on the defensive. “No, I’m not a racist or a misogynist … on the contrary, I’ve spent decades advocating for … yes, I did say that, but you completely misunderstood my meaning, which in context was … please, I’m begging you, can’t we sit and discuss this like human beings?”

It’s time for more of us to stand up and say: yes, I am a center-left extremist. Yes, I’m an Enlightenment fanatic, a radical for liberal moderation and reason. If liberalism is the vanilla of worldviews, then I aspire to be the most intense vanilla anyone has ever tasted. I’m not a closeted fascist. I’m not a watered-down leftist. I’m something else. I consider myself ferociously anti-racist and anti-sexist and anti-homophobic and pro-downtrodden, but I don’t cede to any ideological faction the right to dictate what those terms mean. The world is too complicated, too full of ironies and surprises, for me to outsource my conscience in that way.

Enlightenment liberalism at least has the virtue that it’s not some utopian dream: on the contrary, it’s already led to most of the peace and prosperity that this sorry world has ever known, wherever and whenever it’s been allowed to operate. And while “the death of the Enlightenment” gets proclaimed every other day, liberal ideals have by now endured for centuries. They’ve outlasted kings and dictators, the Holocaust and the gulag. They certainly have it within them to outlast some online sneerers.

Yes, sometimes martyrdom (or at least career martyrdom) is the only honorable course, and yes, the childhood bullies did gift me with a sizeable persecution complex—I’ll grant the sneerers that. But on reflection, no, I don’t want to be a martyr for Enlightenment values. I want Enlightenment values to win, and not by vanquishing their opponents but by persuading them. As Pinker writes:

A final comment: I feel sorry for the signatories. Moralistic dudgeon is a shallow and corrosive indulgence, & policing the norms of your peer group a stunting of the intellect. Learning new ideas & rethinking conventional wisdom are deeper pleasures … and ultimately better for the world. Our natural state is ignorance, fallibility, & self-deception. Progress comes only from broaching & evaluating ideas, including those that feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

Spend a lot of time on Twitter and Reddit and news sites, and it feels like the believers in the above sentiment are wildly outnumbered by the self-certain ideologues of all sides. But just like the vanilla in a cake can be hard to taste, so there are more Enlightenment liberals than it seems, even in academia—especially if we include all those who never explicitly identified that way, because they were too busy building or fixing or discovering or teaching, and because they mistakenly imagined that if they just left the Purity Posse alone then the Posse would do likewise. If that’s you, then please ask yourself now: what is my personal break-point for speaking up?

247 Responses to “My Enlightenment fanaticism”

  1. Jerry Coyne Says:

    Good post, Scott. I went thorough the letter’s claims first, with no intention of writing anything, but when I saw how sleazy they were, I just put together a post. I do think it’s worthwhile to examine each claim, for now there’s something on the record that people can consult to see the mendacity of the letter writers and signatories.

  2. Paul Topping Says:

    Well put, sir! I hope the LSA does respond with a strong “no”. I do sense a building opposition against these folks who value purity testing others over real work towards improving society, though I’m perhaps biased by what I read. While I suspect they won’t win this particular battle, they are going to be hard to dislodge from education, from corporations’ HR departments, and from mainstream media outlets. We just have to keep fighting.

  3. Armin Says:

    “I consider myself ferociously anti-racist and anti-sexist and anti-homophobic and pro-downtrodden, but I don’t cede to any ideological faction the right to dictate what those terms mean.”

    That encapsulates to me a healthy progressive worldview. When I proclaim myself to have progressive values, that is what I mean.

    While right-wing authoritarianism right now represents a much greater danger to the world in the near term, left-wing authoritarianism represents in my view a greater danger in the long term. We should always be at least as vigilant in calling out oppression from within as without because enemies who pretend to be your friends will rot you from the inside. And once that happens, we cede our legitimacy to the fascists.

    Scott, I am a glad that you are giving a voice to reason in an age in which unreason prevails far too often.

  4. jonathan Says:

    what is my personal break-point for speaking up?

    A good question, that has been much on my mind of late. So far my plan has been to wait until I get tenure, but it occurs to me that this might only be an excuse for comfortable inaction. Will I truly speak up then if I am silent now? And if I do, will it be too late?

    Our department chair recently forwarded an email from the administration on the university’s social media policy. The end is rather foreboding:

    “The University reserves the right to investigate complaints about social media posts that call into question an employee’s ability to execute fair and equitable judgment on the job. It is our duty to uphold the values of the University. As such, please encourage your employees to exercise good judgment.”

    Am I paranoid to view this as carte blanche to punish any who question prevailing political orthodoxy? Certainly my dean has been clear about where he thinks we ought to stand on such matters.

  5. TG Says:

    Standing applause.

    Thank you for this Scott. As a former introvert nerd who was routinely bullied at school I have also learned to accept the hard fact that one should NEVER cave in. Every time you give in to the angry mob, any minor concession, as reasonable as it can be, it NEVER leads to anything good. It only strengthens the bullies and paves the road to bolder requests and worse injustice. I don’t care if the accused is Satan in person, as soon as there is a mob lynching (real or virtual) I always stand in the accused’s defense, because it is pretty clear to whoever does not have salami slices over their eyes that this is not the way to solve issues.

    It is true that Steven Pinker is such a ridiculously hard-to-justify target for moral lynching that he probably won’t need these words. But I also know very well that when you are in that situation you feel like all the world is against you. So it is very important to to fight the moral mob by expressing at least our support in saying: you are not alone.

  6. Armin Says:

    #1 Jerry Coyne: I think it is possible, and even quite likely, that at least some of the signatories (in contrast to the letter writers) were not mendacious but manipulated.

    Doing the kinds of things that help shield one against misinformation and propaganda (checking the facts, checking the arguments based on those facts, checking one’s cognitive or other biases in evaluating the arguments based on those facts) is hard work many of have not yet got into the habit of performing. Your breakdown of the letter provides a needed tool to help people do this.

    From a more general perspective, this is to me just one more of a myriad of examples illustrating that we really have not yet properly adapted to the “age of information”.

  7. John Figueroa Says:

    You always have such a good way of expressing things, Scott. I’m bound to quote from this essay in the future because you’ve put my unequivocal rejection of the extremes’ characterizations of me so well.

    To go from Chomsky defending the right of a professor to keep his role in academia despite being a Holocaust denier (which I honestly think goes a bit too far) to Chomsky defending Pinker’s right to keep his role in academia despite being writing something that, when taken out of context, could have been interpreted as an unintentional microaggression, is pretty sad. Especially since, as you say, if there’s any time at all to call a tme-out on infighting among us left-of-center folk, it’s NOW.

    I am exceedingly relieved that the LSA has not removed him yet and I desperately hope they don’t. Maybe this is finally the line in the sand. Fitting, since there aren’t many people more of a radical Enlightenment liberal than Pinker (and I’m assuming that is the real reason they wish to see him gone).

  8. Ash Jogalekar Says:

    After looking at the tweets I get the feeling that the LSA is on ice so thin here that any thinner and it would be a new kind of monoatomic material; they’re grasping at straws. Sadly that only vindicates how we live in a world where a few outraged individuals can try to take anyone down if they don’t conform anything less than a hundred percent to their views.

    Most importantly, do these individuals realize that digging up someone’s tweets and even other tweets that they liked and retweeted or even liked (as has happened in some other recent cases) is very much in the spirit of Stalin’s show trials or the Inquisition where individuals’ entire life history was minutely combed by bureaucrats looking for evidence that they had said the slightest bad thing about the dear leader or the established orthodoxy? How does this not bear the fingerprints of classic Orwellian scrutiny and silencing?

    Personally for me this year has been a watershed. As much as I hated my fellow liberals’ attacks on free speech and viewpoint diversity until now, I thought they would not start to walk down a slippery slope with such alacrity. But it didn’t take too long before they went from Milo Yiannopoulos to Steven Pinker, from Robert E. Lee to Jefferson and Washington. This is where we collectively need to take a stand.

  9. Dagon Says:

    You (and Steven, and even mis-aligned intellectuals such as Yarvin/Moldbug) have my full support. I’m not in academia, and don’t have a platform to speak out, but this does seem like we’re near or past a tipping point where we should resist rather than just staying silent.

    So the question is HOW to fight back, as opposed to just decrying and disagreeing, which mostly provides them ammunition to use in the future. I don’t have good answers here – job walk-outs or visible protests when someone is canceled might help, but I’m not sure I have the fortitude to do so in a principled way (much more likely to only do it in the egregious obvious overreach cases, which lets the overton window continue to shift).

    I do want to warn against improper aggregation when modeling “their” motives and reasoning. Bootleggers and Baptists is the best characterization – there are a few who have a mix of honest (wrong) belief and drive to power that makes them instigate such things, and a whole lot who mostly want the sense of acceptance and belonging they get by signaling outrage to their peers. This mix makes it VERY hard to respond rationally _or_ strategically. Because most aren’t deeply intellectually engaged, reason won’t work. And because the leaders are fanatics, threats of protest or retaliatory use of their tactics won’t work.

  10. jonathan Says:

    John Figueroa #7:

    I assume that the “real reason” they want Pinker gone is because of his frequent stands against the orthodoxy and flirting with forbidden knowledge, which makes him suspect as a thought criminal. He has done this most directly through The Blank Slate and related works, but also in other cases (e.g. this).

  11. Charleen Danielle Adams Says:

    ‘If the LSA expelled Pinker, wouldn’t they be forever known to the world only as the organization that had done that?’


    Here is the letter I sent to the executive director of the LSA about that:

  12. Bunsen Burner Says:

    I’ll just say what I said about Hsu’s inquisition. People need to contact the signatories and ask what the hell they are thinking. You’ve pointed out that a couple of the signatures were forged. Well, guess what, I guarantee you that lots of those signatures are forged. Furthermore, in previous inquisitions, several academics claimed that they had been lied to as to the petition they were asked to support. I’m sure many signatories don’t even know that this petition exists.

    In fact, where are the inquisitors? Why are they always so anonymous? Let’s have their names and affiliations so that the rest of us can send petitions to their employers demanding their resignation. Again, unless there are consequences for these types of petitions there is no reason for the purity posse to stop. Let’s stop making this sort of thing consequence-free.

    Finally, can we please stop talking about Red Guards and Stalinism. The correct analogy is McCarthyism. Calling them Red Guards just makes them feel more edgy and cool. McCarthyist is a way worse label to pin on this group as it removes their pretensions at ‘radicalism’.

  13. Steve E Says:

    Amen. People love to erect “no trespassing” signs prohibiting discourse around certain subjects, because certain subjects are uncomfortable. However, these “no trespassing” signs cut off rational discourse, leaving only irrational discourse. If you’re interested in sloganeering, you’re welcome to shout about topics like violence, sex, and race. But if you’d like to introduce reason, data and nuance into the discussion, then go away! You might be brandished a witch. The catholic church didn’t resist Galileo’s findings on the grounds that the findings were wrong; they resisted them because they felt looking into those questions was a danger in and of itself. It’s the same with the witch-hunters of present. They don’t dispute findings or debate the merits of a position, instead they resist inquiry generally because they consider it a danger in and of itself.

    Here’s an interesting statement in Harper’s inspired by this subject:

  14. Vaarsuvius Says:

    The power of the mob is strong. It’s the fuel that drives protests and rallies and Movements (in the majuscular sense with a capital M as in the Civil Rights Movement), but can easily become harnessed for misdirected aggression. It is hard to stop precisely because it is so necessary and powerful: the same drive to cancel also drives people to march in the millions against police brutality, the same righteous indignation that pushes for change relentlessly can push for someone you don’t like to be sacked just as relentlessly, without a whit of concern for evidence beyond the passingly satisfying- hence why aggregations of twitter posts are so often pushed and cited, masses of micro-indignations that the human brain knits together to form a web.

  15. Peter Woit Says:

    Thanks very much for posting this, it’s important that progressives (full disclosure: I’m a Warrenite) face up to the cancer within that is cancel culture. I’m encouraged to also today see this

    which comes with a long and distinguished list of signatories.

    We’re a short few months away from an election of the most extreme importance for the future of US democracy. I can’t begin to understand what those behind this petition think they are doing: is the goal to convince undecided voters that the left is just as illiberal, vindictive and out of touch with reality as Donald Trump and the Republican party? Even if that is the goal, why not pursue it by going to war with your political opponents rather than your allies?

  16. Hal Says:

    Professor Aaronson, you may think you are a liberal and a progressive, but that line has now moved and you’re one of us reactionaries. It’s like the Mensheviks who thought that throwing out the Czar and being on the socialist leading edge was cool, but got out-lefted by the more militant Bolsheviks.

    So come join us. You already live in Texas. Now just embrace tax cuts and private insurance and limited government and you will understand the power of the dark side!

    [All kidding aside, you’re not the first classical liberal I admire from the right to face this conundrum. The centre cannot hold.]

  17. Michael Says:

    Interestingly, many scholars signed a letter supporting open debate today, including Chomsky:

  18. Vaarsuvius Says:

    Cont.d (apologies for misclick):

    Lest we forget, this is not some new leftist phenomenon: gamergate was founded on similar tatters by the right for distinctly less agreeable motivations and even less honesty (I do not believe claims have been outright fabricated just yet), and the mobs did not write to cancel or “remove honours” but scrawled death threats over the internet, all the while insisting that it was their targets that did such things. Reflecting their strategy or fighting fire with fire is a terrible proposition.

    And, to a degree, public outcry is necessary- I doubt any one would call the loss of such luminaries as Milo Yiannopoulos a cancelling, and sometimes the comments are that terrible (casual appreciation of pedophilia is, alongside casual endorsements of cannibalism, perhaps a line we may draw in the sand if nothing else). Staid institutions resist change, and it was not very long ago that the changes being resisted were “jews should seek matriculation elsewhere” or “no blacks and dogs inside this establishment”.

    Modern social media is a poorly equipped platform for extensive, nuanced discourse, and not by accident: it has been engineered for instant reward and rapid memetic dissemination, features that are usually incongruent with patience and well-evidenced debate. Perhaps the answer then is a rethinking of public forums where such invigilations are held, or at the very least some consideration towards the underlying systems that develop these trends.

  19. Scott Aaronson on the attempt to cancel Steven Pinker | 3 Quarks Daily Says:

    […] More here. […]

  20. justastudnet Says:

    On another unfortunate note, Ron Graham has unfortunately passed away.

  21. Scott Says:

    Jerry Coyne #1: Thanks so much for your post, which saved me the considerable effort of writing a similar one! You’re right, sometimes it’s well worth responding even to things that merit no response. 🙂

  22. Yash Sharma Says:

    What’s really depressing is that a majority of the people calling to cancel Steven Pinker are students (a look at the list reveals a lot of Phd students).

    I read in a book by Steven Pinker that sometimes progress happens ‘funeral by funeral’, where the older generation with outdated views fades away, and the younger generation builds a fairer world. The petitioners might agree and say that they are trying to fade out the racist views (in their opinion) of Pinker.

    This situation also put end to my false belief that the cancelers are mostly just an angry twitter mob, who can be ignored safely. But these are students/associate professors in well-known universities many of whom will have more decision-making powers in the coming years.So, they are not going anywhere and we will have regular interactions with them on university grounds or workplaces.

    How can we have a conversation and make the other side agree that criticism of ideas, especially when it goes against our established world-views is one of the most vital ways to a better world?
    Because currently they seem to make themselves immune from criticism and respond by trying to make everyone else shut up and leave.

    If anyone knows how a common ground can still be reached, I would really like to know.

    One thing that’s heartening is Pinker’s response to it. Once again, he has been an example to learn from on how to communicate with reason and clarity.

  23. Scott Says:

    Ash Jogalekar #8:

      As much as I hated my fellow liberals’ attacks on free speech and viewpoint diversity until now, I thought they would not start to walk down a slippery slope with such alacrity. But it didn’t take too long before they went from Milo Yiannopoulos to Steven Pinker, from Robert E. Lee to Jefferson and Washington. This is where we collectively need to take a stand.

    That’s extremely well-said. I ask myself again and again these days: how did it take, like, three weeks to get from tearing down statues of Confederate generals (something I’ve strongly supported for years), to tearing down statues of the men who defeated the Confederate generals in war and also abolished slavery?

  24. Scott Says:

    Hal #16:

      All kidding aside, you’re not the first classical liberal I admire from the right to face this conundrum. The centre cannot hold.

    Thanks, but why can’t the center hold? I mean, we get called nasty names, but I’m still here, so is Pinker, and so are thousands of others!

    Or do people think I’m being insincere when I denounce Trump and the modern Republican party? As often as I’ve done it, it’s about 1/BusyBeaver(1000) of what they deserve.

  25. John Michael Says:

    Bunsen Burner #12:

    In fact, where are the inquisitors? Why are they always so anonymous? Let’s have their names and affiliations so that the rest of us can send petitions to their employers demanding their resignation. Again, unless there are consequences for these types of petitions there is no reason for the purity posse to stop. Let’s stop making this sort of thing consequence-free.

    Nonsense. This is the exact trap they’re falling into. I have a pretty high bar for kicking people out of academia for ideological reasons, and while “Holocaust denier” meets it, “having a much lower bar than me on this very issue” does not.

    Hal #16:

    The thing is, the right is one of the reasons why people like Scott think it’s urgent that we on the left unify in support of liberalism. How else can we stop people on your side, if we can’t stop fighting each other for a single election? And I think you’re wrong and we will succeed.I think the vociferous McCarthyists have weird disproportionate power right now because of the way instant communication and broadcast tech has developed. I think they’re outnumbered, but e.g. administrators at universities don’t realize that. The center will hold; Biden will win [confidence: 65%].

    Same goes for Dagon #9’s support of yarvin: he is one of the people opposing liberalism and who i believe will fail in a fair ideological fight.

  26. Scott Says:

    justastudnet #20:

      On another unfortunate note, Ron Graham has unfortunately passed away.

    I was extremely sorry to hear that. I was privileged only once to meet Graham—when I had dinner with him in San Diego—but he’s been one of the giants in whose shadow I walked ever since I first learned about him, probably at MathCamp when I was 15. He will be missed.

  27. L Says:

    Scott, sorry but you still seem to be in denial as the revolution eats its children. You start by spewing insults at the president who had nothing to do with this nonsense, and if anything, acts as a protection and a reasonable and workable model against this “cancel”-culture: ridicule and ignore it without ever apologizing. By attacking him, you contribute to the problem and it will not win you any favors with the woke crowd either.

    As for the fact that your red line is at Pinker, I can only say:
    “when they came for Gen. Lee I didn’t say anything, as I wasn’t a southerner,
    when they came for Mencius/Milo/etc. etc. etc.
    …. ”

    I liked NN Taleb’s stance better: Pinker has been spreading pseudoscience for a long time now, but I still oppose canceling him.

  28. AcademicLurker Says:

    If it helps any, I really do get the sense that the resistance to this mania are no longer quite on the back foot as they have been for the last 3 years or so. I subscribed to the patreon of a podcast that criticizes the excesses of online woke cancel culture. The podcasters expected that maybe it would provide a bit of extra walking around money after 6 months to a year. By the end of the first month the monthly income from the patreon was over $12,000.

    Yascha Mounk who writes for the Atlantic recently started an online magazine whose statement of purpose is

    “To defend the values of a free society with courage and conviction, we need to build institutions of our own”

    To his shock, he got 15,000 paid subscribers within a single *day* of announcing the project.

    So maybe there’s hope.

  29. Artur Ekert Says:


  30. Michael Mills Says:

    Postmodernist identitarian intersectionality is a virulent memeplex pandemic that has infected the academy. This is simply another recent symptom. Sadly, academia currently has no effective vaccine or treatment.


    How the Woke Virus Infects Academia and Our Covid-19 Response

  31. John Michael Says:

    This really is on the verge of McCarthyist levels of illiberalism. Here’s a sociological paper published a few months ago: “I have identified 103 such professors who offer their public support of Trump through blogs, essays, op-ed pieces, public lectures, tweets, YouTube videos, and even a couple of trade books.” How did the author write that without realizing who he sounded like?

  32. Dan Fitch Says:

    It’s a fantastic example of people talking past each other.

    Pinker’s tweet: “Data: Police don’t shoot blacks disproportionately. Problem: Not race, but too many police shootings.”

    Petitioners’ quote from the article: “The data is unequivocal. Police killings are a race problem: African-Americans are being killed disproportionately and by a wide margin.”

    The petitioners are angry because Pinker seems (to them) to be downplaying race as an issue, even though the article directly says it is an issue. Pinker seems to paint it as “just stop the police from shooting people”, which is certainly one option. The other option, that the other side of this argument is trying to push awareness of, is what the article he links is actually about: Police don’t shoot blacks disproportionately, but they SURE DO interact with and arrest them disproportionately, so maybe we could consider looking into why THAT is.

    Painting it, as Pinker does, with the liberal view of “well let’s just stop the police shootings” angers those further left who say “well hey let’s maybe not have structural differences in how people of different races are treated by the police”. Pinker and his critics are talking about TWO DIFFERENT THINGS, and neither is meeting in the middle. Pinker’s tweet does not engage with the structural racism bit from the article at all, and indeed, he seems to try to downplay structural racism in general, which is the issue that angers his critics. Does he not understand this?

    Maybe we should do both. Cut police violence, cut the structural racism in the justice system. Pinker’s position seems to ignore the second bit. I might be misinterpreting here, but I think Pinker’s rosy attempts at optimism really rankle those who are still angry about oppression all over the world.

    America is still number 1 in both total prison population AND per capita prison population. By a lot. And that’s new, within Pinker’s lifetime. This is a problem we need to engage with, not just put on rose colored glasses and say “Well at least some markers of visible violence have decreased!”

  33. armin Says:

    #22 Yash Sharma
    “If anyone knows how a common ground can still be reached, I would really like to know.”

    I won’t pretend to have a definitive answer, but I do think this should be seriously tried out:

    Before engaging in a debate, make it a point to clearly articulate and explicitly agree on the parameters of the debate.
    Some parameters I would insist on:
    1. If not (ideally) entirely the goal, it should be at least a significant part of it to come closer to truth by unveiling and agreeing to discard demonstrated falsehood, misconception, and bias, rather than “winning”. That also means that conceding a point, if it contributes to that, can still be conceptualized as progress, rather than “losing” the debate.
    2. The first focus should be on finding agreement on facts. Agreement on facts precedes agreement on any argument because if two sides cannot agree on facts, further debate is pointless.
    3. Leave emotions out. If one side becomes too emotional in their arguments, the other may call for a short cooling-off pause.
    4. Attack ideas, not people.
    5. Try to not just understand the argument from the other side, but also the value system within which it is embedded. I believe ignoring this can become an obstacle to understanding what motivated an opposing viewpoint, and stand in the way of finding mutually agreeable solutions or at least a compromise. And if the values are authoritarian, bringing them out in the open may make it more likely that they will be reconsidered by those who hold them.

    The first four points especially are so much taken for granted in scientific, mathematical and philosophical debate that we never need to bother to articulate them. But, as far as I can tell, political debate has regressed so much in recent years that I think there is value in making them explicit and agreeing on the parameters first.

    In cases in which one or more parties are not completely closed-minded, having explicit parameters might make it more likely to find common ground, but otherwise it may still save time: If someone cannot even agree to reasonable ground rules, it is highly likely that any time spent debating them will not be productive.

  34. Hal Says:

    John Michael #25 “How else can we stop people on your side, if we can’t stop fighting each other for a single election?”

    One of the characteristics of being a relative right-winger is that I am by nature pessimistic of attempts at unity or to otherwise better human behavior. And one of the endearing (and enduring) characteristics of liberals is to think that This Time We’ll Do Better, This Time Is Different.

    Prove me wrong friends, prove me wrong.

  35. Vaarsuvius Says:

    Michael Mills #30:

    Suppose I agree whole heartedly with the fellow from new discourses. Postmodernist identitarian intersectionalist Critical Social Justice- BAD. I have a few questions:

    1. What is the revolution for? I keep getting told that they have a radical agenda, which they promote to achieve the revolution (artful bold type removed). But every layer of that article only shows them laying the (seemingly reasonable) ground for “the revolution” which is never explained except that it is radical and involves… A lot of special words whose definitions all point to “a tool used to justify or move society towards the revolution”. Is “the revolution” an asymptote?

    2. Your answer. Ok, this is a bad approach. What is the ideal answer here? If the field itself is not at fault, how are these issues (which the article never denies are true) to be addressed? Is it another case of “be patient?” If the issue has already taken the time of their grandparent’s and parent’s generations when is positive change going to happen? You claim that they are not interested in helping anyone except by initiating “the revolution” (see question 1), but if they are dominating the discourse it is because there aren’t exactly many alternatives being thrown around (except of course the ever popular “the weak deserve their place” which I think everyone can agree is a shit answer). What is the other plan here?

  36. Guy Says:

    armin #33:
    Here, here!
    A public forum holding open-minded debates of this sort, between representatives of various parts of society, is the way forward. A prediction: If such debates were to be broadcast on national tv, and were well produced, people would watch the hell out of them!

  37. Deepa Says:

    I was looking forward to your post on this!

    Jerry Coyne #1:
    Thank you for your excellent work on this. Timely and thorough.

    Despite a lot of interest in linguistics, I have never heard of the LSA, but have read sime of Dr. Steven Pinker’s books. And I just bought another to show my support. I deeply appreciate his STEADFAST support for free speech, particularly for those he might not agree with politically.

  38. John Michael Says:

    Hal #34:

    The fact that the world has been getting better basically every single decade for centuries falsifies your idea that things can’t get better. There really isn’t much else to say; progress is possible, and we know this because it’s been consistently happening.

    In 2016, there were a confluence of unfortunate factors. An economy that didn’t quite recover in time to alleviate the attractiveness of a scapegoat. A shift in immigration to be largely Hispanic, with a shift in culture to view them with prejudice. A media landscape with norms that didn’t catch up to the tech. A party that was feminist enough to vote for a woman, a country that wasn’t quite there, and a decades long propaganda campaign against her. An electoral system with a glitch, designed when the United States was plural and its cities small. An unfortunately timed letter from a powerful man desperate to maintain the appearance of even-handed objectivity, at the expense of fairness and honesty. And the last-gasp geopolitical ploy of a dying empire from across the sea.

    It was, just barely, enough for the world to take one big step backwards. We got unlucky. But I think that we will return to our regularly scheduled programming of staccato progress and mediocre government policy, starting in four months.

  39. Pierre Says:

    Hello from France–

    I’ve spent much of my life arguing with Anglo-American conservatives blaming all of the world’s ills on the French Revolution, supposedly a blueprint for Lenin and Pol Pot, but boy, your progressives are LUNATICS! I detect the stench of Calvinist Puritanism in all of their manichean castigations. This is like a victory of the 17th century over the 18th. Let nobody say America has no culture…

  40. Shmi Says:

    First they came for Larry Summers and I said nothing…

  41. armin Says:

    #15 Peter Woit:
    “is the goal to convince undecided voters that the left is just as illiberal, vindictive and out of touch with reality as Donald Trump and the Republican party? Even if that is the goal, why not pursue it by going to war with your political opponents rather than your allies.”
    It seems plausible to me that for many of them this is not their goal at all, but rather an incidental consequence of what they are really after:
    It is easier to gain concessions from allies than from those who regard you as their enemies and have dug their heels in to oppose you wherever they can. The point of gaining the concessions is to gain power, power that in their minds helps equalize injustice and oppression, but by its illiberal means of acquisition creates more its own kind.
    Finally, there is a silver lining to more years of Trump for the authoritarian left: More people will be driven to it by him than they would if, say, Biden replaced him. This is not to say that they necessarily want Trump to win (though I personally do know a few extreme leftists who want Trump to win because it will hasten the breakdown of the system and a presumed subsequent revolution), but only that extreme injustice and oppression from one side tends to beget more of the same from the other.

  42. Scott Says:

    Shmi #40:

      First they came for Larry Summers and I said nothing…

    I was only a postdoc then, with no job security, but I did say a few things (check this blog’s archives).

  43. Dan MacKinlay Says:

    I see this recurring pattern as a co-ordination problem. e.g. I’m not a fan of all of Pinker’s talking points, but I get that he argues well and transparently and generally does the thing that we hope to get from open debate. So, good. I imagine (?) that this is a common stance amongst many political policy orientations (I am rather left, in USA terms). But there is no media moment there in general background approval of ongoing debate, no event to co-ordinate upon – “Well done, public sphere, please proceed you are doing just fine” leads to no petition. OTOH seizing upon a moment where you get to claim someone is terrible and must be punished, this is a *media spectacle* and cuts through the background noise to rouse the illiberal, persuadable or grumpy. It is easy to recruit to causes that can produce these moments, and much harder to recruit to causes that advocate low-key, unspectacular tolerance. I think we can expect a lot more of this so long as our mediascape continues to have the shape it does; only the causes that make exciting urgent facebook recruitment drives will attain prominence. How DO we coordinate on debate and tolerance, except by reacting (as you have, Scott) to events such as these?

  44. Peter Gacs Says:

    Just as others I am thankful for having somebody with Scott’s breadth of vision, to notice so much that is important to me, and to express the right reaction so much better than I could. I would like to add how I see the behavior of my environment in the current atmosphere on the left: not just“because they mistakenly imagined that if they just left the Purity Posse alone then the Posse would do likewise”. People and institutions feel the need for lot of symbolic action. It goes beyond just saying the right words: see BU’s creation of a Center for Antiracist Research, with an endowed professorship, from one day to another. It is hard to know (especially now that personal contact is much curtailed) how much of this is just a defensive reaction.

    Thoughtful public discourse is under attack, and an eloquent lament for this is in place. On the other hand, I would feel better if I could also point at some positive steps along with the lament: a forum going beyond the discussion of fine points, and considering real, non-symbolic and realistic (also politically) recommendations for actions that address the root causes of the current uprisings (of course instead of scrutinizing each other for micro-behaviors that can be labelled racist…).

  45. ira Says:

    If there ever was a time to trot out Groucho’s Principle: ‘I wouldn’t be a member of any club that would have me as a member.’

  46. Scott Says:

    Peter Woit #15:

      I can’t begin to understand what those behind this petition think they are doing: is the goal to convince undecided voters that the left is just as illiberal, vindictive and out of touch with reality as Donald Trump and the Republican party? Even if that is the goal, why not pursue it by going to war with your political opponents rather than your allies?

    Couldn’t have said it better. Is it completely lost on these people that, right while this is all happening, Trump gives a speech at Mount Rushmore saying that, no matter how many people needlessly die from covid, you need to vote for him because he’s the only one who will protect you from cancel-mobs trying to end your career? Is the Purity Posse’s goal to terrify everyone outside their clique until just enough people in just enough swing states actually buy that argument? Is that how avidly they prefer not being in power, so Trump and McConnell can continue to destroy the world? Is it the old “heightening the contradictions” thing?

  47. Y.E Says:

    Disclaimer: I’m Black.

    I don’t think his statements are congruent with the reality that Black people face, the sheer cruelty of the police executions that this digital age has exposed, police that then go free, protected by the system. Pinker is a brilliant man but his Twitter statements are less than helpful.

    To quote MLK:

    “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…”

    On the other hand, I don’t think Pinker deserves to be “cancelled” like this. His sentiments are representative of many others and deserve discussion. We need to let people into each other’s worlds. We don’t realize how isolated we really are.

  48. Peter Woit Says:

    #41 Armin,

    Sean Carroll has an opposite reaction to the open letter I and someone else mentioned, see here
    where he makes the pro-cancel culture argument (while objecting to the term).

    In his description this is a moral issue, pitting good (“people who are fighting against forms of discrimination such as sexism, racism, transphobia, etc.”) against evil (“people who don’t see themselves as part of the problem”). In this view of the situation, it’s not “gaining concessions” or any other tactical goal that matter. Fighting for good against evil is the overriding concern, with collateral damage up to and including the election of a Trump a price worth paying.

  49. Armin Says:

    Guy #36:
    I have serious reservations about the prospect of success of such a forum on National TV because leaving emotions out of a debate takes away the spectacle aspect of it and reduces its entertainment value.
    Of course, entertainment is not the (main) goal, but we live in an age in which this is the reality of TV, good luck finding advertisers who think otherwise.
    However, there are other media and settings for which such fora are realistically feasible. One example might be public debates between academics which sometimes are streamed or put on youtube etc. I have always wondered why these kinds of ground rules are not articulated at such events, especially when it comes to politics and religion. While discutants rarely behave in a way that would constitute a blatant break, I sense that without them sophistry has a subtle advantage over substance.
    But aside from all this, I meant my suggestion more as personal advice. Next time you find yourself beginning the kind of discussion that is liable to leave the parties with no common ground, take a step back and ask yourself and the other person things like “what is the goal here?”, “what facts can we agree on?”, “if one of us gets too heated, can we agree to give the other side the right to call for a short pause?”
    I admit I feel more than a little naive writing this because especially the political atmosphere has become so polarized. But in the last few years I have not seen this done, and we need to try something.

  50. Moshe Zadka Says:

    I don’t think of myself as “center”, and I think this is the essential bit. The world exists on more than a left-right spectrum. I think the leftist and the liberals had an alliance, albeit an uneasy one, for the last half-decade. While break-ups are hard, this is what’s happening. Because this alliance existed, there are many friendships across these alliance lines. These friendships might or might not survive the breakup, but the breakup will happen regardless.

    I’m not center. I’m not left. I’m not right. I’m a liberal. For most of my life, that allied me with the “left”. I’m still, on most concrete political positions, more closely aligned with the left. But if alliances shift, I know which side of the divide I will be on.

    I am a liberal extremist. This is not “center left”, or “left-leaning”. This is a coherent position, which disagrees, and has always disagreed, with many positions: with extreme reformers, with staunch conservatives, with the foreign-policy “left”, with the foreign-policy “right”, with the economic policy “left”, and economic policy “right”. If alliances will shift, we might have to eat different crow than we had to eat with previous alliances, and push back against the worst of it with the threat of pulling our alliance.

    But I will never forget where my true loyalties lie, and all alliances will be made as practical decisions on the base of the ideology and the best available compromise.

  51. Dan MacKinlay Says:

    Hmm, now that I’ve thought about this, I have a better way of phrasing my question, via a shaky game theory metaphor.
    Suppose we here (or at least some commenters?) espouse enlightenment virtues of debate and free thought in addition to our various other political agendas, and some people who share our other political agendas do *not* share the enlightenment ideals. We are, naturally, nervous of being lumped in with those others by our political opponents because a) they are espousing an illiberality that we do not share and 2) they are doing it in such as way that we see as a terrible strategic PR move as far as furthering our other political goals. Thus we are lumped in with people who are doubly dunderheads, both by their opinions and by their strategies. This is excruciatingly embarrassing and also politically disastrous.

    Moreover, although the dunderheads are a minority of our political fellow-travelers (or at least, I imagine it is a minority but I have no data for this), since their maneuverings are newsworthy they will become seen as representative of those of us who have what we hope are less dunderheaded views, hurting our mutual goals. (that is, assuming we truly share goals.) What is the best way to manage this political liability? I think there will always be freshly zealous political converts who will be happy to ignite ill-considered campaigns like this, and media attention to feed the flames, and thus attract similarly careless new converts.

    To rephrase, anti-enlightment behaviour seems to be a successfully invasive strategy in the iterative media game. Are enlightenment norms an evolutionarily stable strategy that game? How could we change the dynamics to make them such?

  52. fred Says:

    Thank you for this post, Scott!

    When Trump got elected, my only real fear was that the balance was going to be perceived so tilted that the “other side” (whatever is the other side of a narcissistic tv celebrity/conman) was going to go to other types of extremes as well.
    Once they realized that they couldn’t take down their real enemy, they turned against a much easier and softer target – the reasonable center, and reason.
    And it wasn’t enough for the center to be neutered (i.e. rendered politically irrelevant), but now it’s become an active enemy: “silence is guilt”, “you’re either with us or against us”, etc.

    We thought Trump was going to be the end of democracy, but little did we know half of the job was going to be done by the new progressive left (and the news media on their side).
    This is making me sick to my stomach.

    And if this bullshit keeps going on a few more months, the gangster, his posse, and their 1950s vision of America are going to start looking like the reasonable side, at least to the average folk caught in the middle of all this. Absolutely mind blowing…

  53. SJW Physicist Says:

    “If there were ever a time for liberals and progressives to put aside their internal squabbles, you’d think it was now”

    Couldn’t agree more. For those who are not aware ICE put out a news release saying that international student(holding F1 and M1 visas) taking all online classes can be deported. This even applies if the university transitions to all online courses in the middle of the semester due to the pandemic.

    For some background and stuff you can do about it see

    and the ICE news letter

    This coming a bit over a week after trump attacked the H1B visa program, suspending the new issuances of H1B work visas.

    This creates a lot of uncertainty and fear in international students’s lives, and risks exposing them to coronavirus if they are forced to travel. It also undermines universities ability to combat the coronavirus as they might have to choose between exposing there students to coronavirus and forcing many of the international students to leave the country.
    Please call your representatives in congress about this. This does rase the nation profile of these issues and creates pressure on the administration to change policy. Also if you are decent at writing (unlike me) write an oped in your local news paper, this raises awareness the general public and politicians read them and take them seriously. I not optimistic this can be changed, but we have to fight.

  54. ira Says:

    Scott #46

    The ‘purity posse’ are NOT strategic thinkers. Indeed, there’s not much of any type of thinking going on at all — neither strategic, nor tactical, nor substantive. Their only shtick is righteous indignation: it feels good.

  55. fred Says:

    A thought experiment to clear your chakras:

    Imagine a world just like this one, but where skin color has been magically reversed – the American majority has black skin, the minority that suffered slavery has white skin. “Black supremacy” is a thing, and BLM has become WLM.
    After being teleported in this parallel reality, with which side do you personally identify the most?

  56. Not Convinced Says:

    An important note about Chomsky’s support here is that he has major disagreements with many of Pinker’s views on politics and society.

    Given that, I have to ask: how do you *now* feel about Chomsky defending the free speech of a Holocaust denier? You attacked him for that on this same blog a few years ago. You even tried to argue that this defense signaled that Chomsky harbored some secret agreement with those horrific views. Have you changed your mind? That would go a long way to convincing a skeptic that your call for Enlightenment values is genuine, and not just a convenience for defending people (Scott A, Pinker, etc.) you generally support.

    As Chomsky put it aptly: “Even Stalin was in favor of views he liked.”

  57. Troll Says:

    The answer to cancel and outrage culture is anonymization and trolling. Poke and prod the fragile special snowflakes who get triggered and who think they can silence every disagreement.

    Discussion can only proceed anonymously because the whole point of cancel culture is reduction of every single disagreement into ad-hominem.
    Their stance is so extreme that it reverses on its head, and not only do statements get nullified by the entire history of their speaker, they would automatically take the opposing side of their opponents. In countries where the leader under-reacts to coronavirus the left’s stance is that it is dangerous virus that must be avoided (a.k.a the US and Trump), while countries where the leader overreacts to coronavirus it is a scare tactic used by a facist leader (a.k.a Israel and Bibi). Discussions are reduced to picking a binary side and ad homineming canceling the opposing side to victory.

    If you dare respond to a discussion with an actual relevant argument instead of attacking the speaker personally, you’re a disgrace. How dare you even talk to them while the truth and mortal highground is so clear. It’s much more preferable if you would throw tomatoes at the sinners from high up your tower.

    I’m not sure how did the left because so saturated with corrupt ideals. If instead of Trump, it was a sane republican running, I can definitely see him taking over Biden easily. The left is silently supporting anarchists while silencing moderate centrist leftists. Professors can get fired for moderate views while anarchists destroy legacy and go unpunished and without a response.

  58. Not Convinced Says:

    Troll #57: “The left is silently supporting anarchists while silencing moderate centrist leftists.”

    This is laughable, and almost the exact opposite of the truth. We just had a primary season where the “centrists” routed the “left wing” and picked a barely-conscious middle-right candidate. Why? Just so they could avoid picking a leftist who was calling for policies even right-wingers generally support in most of Western Europe. The main method was simply screaming “socialist” and “communist” in various ways, including (for example) the two main figures on the main ostensibly left-wing network proclaiming that this leftist’s supporters are brownshirts and that their anchors would get executed in the streets if he was elected.

    But yea, it’s the anarchists on Twitter who are *really* in power…

    But yea, random misguided students yelling for a prof to get fired on Twitter means the anarchists have won.

  59. antiquark2 Says:

    When you’re in the voting booth, you’ll have to think long and hard between choosing an orange bozo, or the morality police who will relentlessly punish anyone and everyone for WrongThink.

  60. Scott Says:

    Y.E. #47: Thanks for your comment.

    I’m a huge fan of the Letter from Birmingham Jail, including the passage about white moderates. I’ve never been a fan of “moderation” for its own sake. If we’re absolutely sure that something is the right course of action, then we ought to pursue it no matter how “extreme” it sounds. The issue, instead, is to be sure we’ve diagnosed the problem correctly and found a workable solution, and that we’re not inadvertently going to make things worse. This is what I was trying to get at with oxymorons like “radical moderate.”

    If you look at Steve’s Twitter page, one thing you’ll see is that he’s massively interested in the problem of how to reduce police violence—part of his general interest in how to reduce violence of all kinds. And I think Steve’s concern is that, when police violence immediately becomes a “theological” issue—i.e., a question about the systemic racism of all of Western civilization for the last 500 years—it diverts attention from questions like:

    What about body cameras? Do they actually work to reduce the rate of police shootings? What about breaking up police unions? Training in de-escalation tactics? Getting rid of qualified immunity? Which reforms are the most important ones? What do the data say?

    These are all issues where there’s a real chance to improve things over the next year and save lives, without first needing to purify everyone’s souls, as important as the latter might be. But not if the momentum is dissipated.

    The other thing you’ll notice about Steve is that he’s an unbelievably data-driven guy (and not just in his writing and tweets—he’ll literally rattle off meta-analysis results from memory when you’re sitting having a beer with him). I read the NYT article that the petitioners blamed Pinker for tweeting, and I actually thought it contained a major insight. Namely, it looks like the data clearly show that, however racism is operating to cause more blacks to be killed than whites in police encounters, it’s doing it before the encounters even start—just by causing blacks to have more interactions with cops in the first place. Once the encounter starts, the chance that it ends in a shooting is (surprisingly) almost independent of the suspect’s race … unless the studies are wrong. This sort of knowledge can help narrow down where interventions against police racism would be most effective.

    This is closely analogous to the “why are there so few women in STEM?” question. People assume it must be sexist advisors and hiring committees and so forth, but then you look at the percentage of women at each stage of the pipeline—high school, undergrad, grad, etc.—and you find that, no, whatever the problem is, it’s already fully present by high school. The initial hypothesis does not survive an encounter with the data. Again, once you know that, you can better target anti-sexist interventions.

  61. Dan MacKinlay Says:

    Y.E. #47:

    Thank you for taking the time to cross into what is probably a pretty white-dominated discourse right here.

    Troll #57:

    Ad hominem arguments I think are only part of it. Also value-signalling, group-membership-signalling… There is a lot of rhetorical work being done in this debate.

    If I might mention a model that I think both your comments touch upon: Zvi Mowshowitz’s piece on “Levels of simulacra” with a case study of covid is IMO an interesting perspective.
    (He summarises the simulacra model in a nice package, but do follow his links to the original authors)
    Mowshowitz’s assertion is, more or less, that it is instructive to dissect our debates into asserting fact, and exercise of social dynamics, and a spectrum of purposes in between.

    Y.E., it seems to me that your point, in terms of simulacra, includes the idea that a social-dynamic outcome (high on the simulacrum scale) of ham-fisted invocation of open discourse can be feeding placid white moderate-ism can be perpetuation of a status quo of inequity and failure of understanding. I think that Troll you also touch upon the us-and-them team-membership dynamics that are playing out in making arguments ad-hominen, and the ultimate allegiance-signalling.

    We are all here participating in these higher-order simulacra dynamics. Does it help to have a model for that that makes it explicit? (It does for me, I feel.) Who am I rallying to my flag with my rhetoric? What social dynamics do our espousing of enlightenment discourse foster?

  62. John Michael Says:

    Not Convinced #56:

    I can’t speak for Scott, but I also don’t agree with either the effort to cancel Pinker or Chomsky’s defense of the Holocaust denier. Let me explain why.

    I think that academia (and other liberal institutions) should have a high bar when deciding whether or not to fire someone for their speech. That bar is not infinitely high. Basically, only if their speech proves that they cannot competently fulfill their duties—including treating students fairly—is the bar crossed. Holocaust denialism, to borrow a phrase from an earlier post by Scott, is more than just an incorrect and unorthodox position on history. It is basically always a “load-bearing absurdity” for neo-Nazism, with all that that entails. One cannot reasonably expect that such an academic would treat Jewish students fairly.

    (Incidentally, I think that the bar for when speech should have any legal consequences ought to be even higher than it ought to in liberal institutions, because unlike universities, the government has an army. In particular, I think Holocaust denialism ought to be legal.)

    Chomsky, apparently, either rejects the idea that a Jewish student would be definitely be treated unfairly by a Holocaust denier, or places an even higher bar than I do when it comes to what speech is bad enough that it can’t be tolerated in academia.

    Scott, Chomsky, and I all agree that wherever that bar is, it’s clear that the picayune offenses of Pinker aren’t enough to merit intolerance.

  63. Scott Says:

    Not Convinced #56:

      I have to ask: how do you *now* feel about Chomsky defending the free speech of a Holocaust denier? You attacked him for that on this same blog a few years ago.

    No, that’s completely wrong. I never had any problem with Chomsky defending the free speech rights of a Holocaust denier. The problem was that Chomsky wrote a foreword to Faurisson’s book, and described him as “a relatively apolitical liberal of some sort.” He went way beyond defending Faurisson’s free speech rights, and tried to legitimize him as a serious scholar. Get your facts straight.

  64. Not Convinced Says:

    From Wikipedia article on Faurisson Affair: “The scandal largely dealt with the inclusion of an essay by American linguist Noam Chomsky, entitled “Some Elementary Comments on the Rights of Freedom of Expression”, as an introduction to Faurisson’s book, without Chomsky’s knowledge or approval.”

    As someone recently told me: “Get your facts straight.”

    “… tried to legitimize him as a serious scholar” is also a lie with zero evidence to back it up.

    All this was pointed out to you before, I suspect.

    By suggesting that Chomsky might actually be a Holocaust denier, you are deploying *exactly* the same tactics that people are trying to use against Pinker and the other signatories of that letter, as we speak.

    Thanks for confirming that this is indeed just another round of pearl-clutching that can be safely ignored, and not an actual serious commitment to Enlightenment values.

  65. Justin Says:

    How should we speak up? Nobody asks my opinion on who should be cancelled (or on forcing international students to uproot their lives, etc.)

  66. Jacob Says:

    I am one of those people who thought the uproar about ‘cancel culture’ was overblown and not a serious problem relative to most issues in the world. And then they came for Steven Pinker. And I saw the outright falsehoods and lies being spewed about an intellectual that I respected. About an intellectual that formed my world view about a great many of things. This time I know about the person, I know intimately the details of his beliefs (and I don’t always agree with them), and I know that the accusations are complete bullshit. A highly upvoted reddit post claimed he ‘defended Epstein’ and linked to an article where he literally attacked Epstein. How many other people were ‘canceled’ and I just assumed it was a just part of a just broader reckoning of society? I don’t know.

    I still think the threat from the right (i.e. Donald Trump and populists) are an order of magnitude greater than the threat from the left, but actual liberals need to stand up and defend the free inquiry our intellectual ancestors died for.

  67. marxbro Says:

    “Yes, sometimes martyrdom (or at least career martyrdom) is the only honorable course, and yes, the childhood bullies did gift me with a sizeable persecution complex—I’ll grant the sneerers that. But on reflection, no, I don’t want to be a martyr for Enlightenment values. I want Enlightenment values to win, and not by vanquishing their opponents but by persuading them.”

    If you want enlightenment values to win shouldn’t you study Marx’s criticisms of liberalism and actually engage with them? These leftists aren’t coming out of nowhere, they’re seeing the problems with capitalism and actually coming to a logical conclusion, that is, communism must be instituted.

  68. Jordan Says:

    @Scott 60:

    What about body cameras? Do they actually work to reduce the rate of police shootings?

    Research has been done on body cameras. They don’t reduce police violence.

    Training in de-escalation tactics?

    A lot of the cities in which the police responded to the George Floyd protests with violence already required police to do de-escalation training. For example, this is true of the NYPD, who responded to the protests by, among other things, driving a car into a crowd. And similarly for other kinds of training. In one notable case, an activist who trains police in implicit bias was shot during a protest. So whatever effect these trainings have—and the extant research doesn’t support claims of their effectiveness—they are clearly insufficient.

    What about breaking up police unions? […] Getting rid of qualified immunity?

    These two I think are definitely good, though I think their effect would be limited. But it’s hard to study the effects of those things without actually doing them first. 🙂

    Research on these issues is definitely good. It’s good to have data backing up policy proposals. But we already have a lot of research on police violence and police racism. And beyond the research, we can look and directly see what’s happening in the world. Compare to the Trump administration ICE’s recent decision that international students taking online classes will be deported. We don’t need a scientific study to know that that’s evil—though of course, it wouldn’t to have research to back up this conclusion. We don’t need a scientific study to know that police teargassing trapped protesters is evil. We don’t need a scientific study to know that kneeling on a black man’s neck for nine minutes until he dies, while your fellow cops look on and do nothing, is evil.

    In this context, if someone spends all their time asking for more data and Just Asking Questions, of course people are gonna push back. The most charitable assumption is that Pinker is simply unaware of the extant research, and is unaware of what’s happening on the streets. But in that case—the one that paints him in the best light—he’s being wildly irresponsible with his platform by speaking out before doing some basic education on the matter. Under less charitable assumptions, he’s being malicious. In neither case does he look good.

  69. John Michael Says:

    marxbro #65:

    Funny, when I talk to communists, I usually feel like they haven’t even made an effort to understand the basic arguments for welfare-state capitalism. Maybe we could all make a little more effort to understand each other’s views and make ourselves capable of passing the ideological Turing Test.

    (Or is the preceding paragraph too laden with liberal values and standards for discussion?)

  70. Dave Lewis Says:

    A nice articulation of the need to preserve good-faith disagreement:

  71. Scott Says:

    Not Convinced #64: I never said Chomsky is a Holocaust denier, and I don’t believe for a minute that he is. What I do think, is that Chomsky is so utterly committed to some principle like “the enemy of my enemy [meaning US imperialism or whatever] is my friend,” that over the decades he’s consistently been willing to defend the “scholarship” not only of a Holocaust denier (cf. his “relatively apolitical liberal” comment), but also of Pol Pot supporters and other mass-murder enthusiasts. This has nothing to do with free speech rights (which, again, I’m also pretty absolutist about), and it’s not some inexplicable quirk but goes to the core of Chomsky’s worldview. And he never, ever apologizes for any of it.

    Having said that, what I’ve learned to respect a lot about Chomsky in recent years is that, however strange or even abhorrent I find his some of his principles, he sticks to them, follows them to their conclusions, even where almost anyone else would bend them for ideological convenience.

  72. Scott Says:

    Justin #65:

      How should we speak up? Nobody asks my opinion on who should be cancelled (or on forcing international students to uproot their lives, etc.)

    For a student, or anyone else early in their career, I think maybe the most important thing is just to practice the habits of intellectual courage, independent thought, and standing up for the dictates of your conscience even when unpopular. You’ll need those habits later!

  73. marxbro Says:

    “Funny, when I talk to communists, I usually feel like they haven’t even made an effort to understand the basic arguments for welfare-state capitalism.”

    How so? What ‘basic argument’ for welfare capitalism do you think Marxists have missed? Quotes from Marxist sources showing the issue you’re talking about would be helpful.

  74. fred Says:

    “Waffles are tasty!”

    Scott, this is a very problematic example of cultural appropriation since waffles actually originated from medieval communion wafers, typically depicting the imagery of the crucifixion of Jesus…

  75. marxbro Says:

    “What I do think, is that Chomsky is so utterly committed to some principle like “the enemy of my enemy [meaning US imperialism or whatever] is my friend,””

    Do you have any evidence that Chomsky is “utterly committed” to this principle? In fact, having some knowledge of his work, the opposite seems true and he constantly criticises America’s foreign enemies or other ideological opponents. Just look at his criticism of Leninism for an example. Now, I don’t think Chomsky gives a particularly convincing case against Leninism, but he certainly isn’t following an “enemy of my enemy” principle there.

    Have you actually read and listened to Chomsky? Again – do you have any evidence that Chomsky is “utterly committed” to “the enemy of my enemy [meaning US imperialism or whatever] is my friend”? This means you should be able to provide quotes and reasoning. Surely your Enlightenment values would be of some use in analysing Chomsky’s political principles here?

  76. Scott Says:

    Sorry, but Communism and Chomsky have become too much of a digression from what I wanted to talk about here: namely, Enlightenment values and the attempted cancellation of Steven Pinker. If someone other than marxbro wants to take up the former topics, they can; otherwise I’m going to close that thread of the discussion.

  77. Erik Cain Says:

    This post and these comments make me very happy. This is the first discussion I have seen in quite a long time that provides optimism that not all is lost. My belief that academia had completely lost intellectual honesty in the face of the mob was mistaken. I am so very glad that reason and open discourse about uncomfortable issues have not been jettisoned by a larger portion of the academic community then I believed was the case.

  78. Arch1 Says:

    Thanks Scott, Jerry, Barbara and those who included the Harper’s pointer. Valuable reminders of one of the most precious Enlightenment values: The free exchange of ideas, of which the cancel culture (regardless of the target) is the antithesis.

  79. Efnysien Says:

    Thanks for the post, Scott. Aside from speaking up (which is invaluable), one question is how exactly did we get into this situation with a fractured and divided left that rejects Enlightenment values? And going into the future how can we renew faith in Enlightenment principles (openness to debate, valuing a diversity of ideas, belief in the scientific method, just to name some) in the next generation?

    Was it the case that these values were never broadly embraced by the American public? As you and many others have pointed out, cancel culture in America has its roots in McCarthyism and the red scare. Probably these ideas can be traced all the way back to the pamphlets in the American revolution (and even further back to the British Civil War). It is a tool used by a mass of the powerless to publicly shame someone perceived to be powerful.

    Maybe our failures, and the emergence of cancel culture comes from an inadequate toughening of the current generation, in terms of teaching intellectual humility, being able to recognize one’s own limits, and to have respect for others seeking the truth, even if you disagree with them. Maybe this is a consequence of parents in the 80s and 90s endowing their children with an unrealistic vision of their excellence that could not be fulfilled by reality. Of course this armchair analysis is not very deep, but I am curious to hear what you think we can do to prevent this culture from becoming entrenched in the West.

  80. Dandan Says:

    That article about police killings is actually contradicting itself. How it’s a race problem when the proportion of killings is a direct consequence of the proportion of encounters? The data shows that the police don’t prefer to kill blacks over whites. But the dumb people will quote what they like ignoring all the logic.

  81. Yosi Says:

    To me this looks like a denial of service attacks. There are real issues that need addressing, and there are people who divert everyone’s time and energy to insignificant details with zero influence on reality. Like in DOS, these people should be blacklisted from any discussion, and condemned for ruining a chance for making real progress.

  82. Richard Says:

    I remember back when I started studying linguistics in graduate school (this was WAY back in the late 70s, my first linguistics instructor explained the history behind the LSA and how it was four parts politics and one part linguistics. I believe back then it was still enthralled with postmodernism this same instructor was always throwing in references to Derida and Foucault, although in her defense, they were usually negative.

  83. Bunsen Burner Says:

    Y.E. #47

    ‘Pinker is a brilliant man but his Twitter statements are less than helpful.’

    Pinker’s Twitter statements are incredibly helpful because they detail research that police violence in the US is not a straightforward Black vs White matter. This has been discussed by numerous scholars such as Randall Collins, Adolph Reed and many other, for example:

    It’s exactly because this is such an important issue that we need people like Pinker to keep us away from infantilizing one-dimensional narratives and make sure that ideology does not trump facts.

    This is a lot like Hsu’s inquisition where his statements were deceptively presented as some sort of racist opinion when he was just discussing research that had already been carried out and published. These are all attempts to attack people’s reputations; they have nothing to do with honest attempts at combatting racism or police violence.

  84. Anonymous Says:

    marxbro #73

    What ‘basic argument’ for welfare capitalism do you think Marxists have missed? Quotes from Marxist sources showing the issue you’re talking about would be helpful.

    How do you think people define “Marxists”? Do you think they mean Karl Marx himself? Or specific notable scholars who subscribe to Marx? Or people who have read Marx, and refer to Marx’s writings? Or just people who like communism? Do you think Democratic Socialists of America are considered “Marxists” by many? I hope you can use some mainstream sources to substantiate the claim your answer is the colloquial, commonly-understood definition.

    It seems this was even a linguistic problem even in Marx’s time! (If Engels is to be believed):

    Engels claimed that Marx had criticized self-proclaimed Marxist Paul Lafargue by saying that if Lafargue’s views were considered Marxist, then “one thing is certain and that is that I am not a Marxist.”


  85. STEM Caveman Says:

    @Not Convinced,

    Wikipedia lies or obfuscates on political subjects. The leftist takeover there is nearly complete, something that has happened under the radar (though known to any editor) but is a lot more far-reaching and Orwellian than blacklisting people like Pinker.

    Chomsky knew, approved of publication, and specially produced his essay for use by the French negationiste group supporting Faurisson. Later, he wrote to them:

    I’ve received stacks of letters from France asking me to withdraw the thing I sent you on civil liberties and Faurisson. The general tone of what people are writing to me indicates that the general level of hysteria is so high that no-one will pay attention to the facts in any case, and that the whole anti-imperialist effort will be undermined by a campaign aiming to link me with neo-Nazism. It is with reluctance that I finally tend to agree. I don’t know what the situation is at the present time. If publication is not yet in hand, I suggest firmly that you don’t put it in a book by Faurisson […] but that you either drop this essay or publish it separately elsewhere. I’m sorry, perhaps it’s already too late.

    It was too late. The negationistes “immediately phoned Chomsky, who had meanwhile received copies of the book on December 12. His immediate reaction was clear: he stood by his preface and asked us to treat his letter as null and void.”

    See and Chomsky’s correspondence about this with Werner Cohn. He does not dispute Guillaume’s account of events.

  86. Mitchell Porter Says:

    It may be Twitter progressives who are cancelling anyone they can. But it would be mainstream liberals who gave the west e.g. human resources departments in every major corporation that don’t just consider race, gender, sexuality, etc an issue in hiring, but which actively strive to reeducate their employees on these topics. Indeed, the universities which succumb to these petitions, are themselves major corporations, in the “education sector”.

    In a “diverse” society of multiple group identities, I find it hard to see a way back to a society of individualism. Inter-group competition is so constant that everyone is attached to their group, for survival’s sake. One might almost say that individualism is a luxury that exists only in small affluent groups, or in medium-sized homogeneous groups.

  87. wb Says:

    When are they going to cancel Joe Biden for his “racial jungle” statement(s) in the 70s ?

  88. Bunsen Burner Says:

    Efnysien #79

    ‘…one question is how exactly did we get into this situation with a fractured and divided left that rejects Enlightenment values?’

    There never was a single monolithic left like that. The current SJW brand comes from the tradition of the New Left exemplified by Herbert Marcuse and his Repressive Tolerance. Over time we had a left that moved away from economic issues and class analysis to more cultural politics. This sort of identity politics uses the analysis of power and oppression from thinkers like Foucalt as its organizing principle. For them, enlightenment values are things only people with power can hold, so paradoxically are therefore values of oppression. This is why there is no middle ground possible with these people.

  89. Armin Says:

    #48 Peter Woit:
    Thank you for bringing the tweet thread to my attention.
    I must say, I find it unfortunate. It starts off with an ad hominem (2/n), makes a claim which by means of simple google search can be shown to be unduly narrow (3/n, 4/n), commits the fallacy of appeal to motive (5/n), then (as best as I can tell) mischaracterizes the intent of the letter he criticizes (6/n).
    Where I can find common ground with Sean is that the letter would have been more potent if it had referenced each alleged instance of censoriousness with footnotes citing the specific instance (I strongly recommend that future letters on this subject do this!). However, if by means of a google search one can easily locate those instances, then that weakens this criticism. In particular, his dismissal of the letter
    as relying on “weasel words and sweeping generalizations” (10/10) is just too fast and self-servingly convenient.
    Does this show that Sean is a left-wing authoritarian? I don’t know him personally, but based on this tweet thread I am not yet prepared to say that. Rather, I think left-wing authoritarianism is a form of demagoguery to which left-leaning people tend to be more susceptible because they are especially sympathetic to the injustices suffered by minorities, the poor, and women. I believe many who are deceived by it are actually quite well-meaning people; where I draw the line is where engagement with them with reasonable arguments yields absolutely no introspection (as with any ideologue). I have not engaged with Sean, so I cannot say yet. By the principle of charity, I will consider him well-meaning for now.
    To your more general point, I’d be surprised if anyone who sought power (other than politicians and parties) would openly admit it. Of course they will frame it in self-justifying terms and in this instance, the justification is based on a moral argument. But I think we should not just look at what people say but also try to discern what they are really trying to achieve. Ideological conformism is power to the propagators of an ideology.

  90. Bunsen Burner Says:

    antiquark2 #59

    ‘When you’re in the voting booth, you’ll have to think long and hard between choosing an orange bozo, or the morality police who will relentlessly punish anyone and everyone for WrongThink.

    Wrong. With Trump out of the way, I predict that the current hysteria will die down significantly. Trump triggers the SJWs in a way that Biden doesn’t. Also, I think the confusion of having the Democrats in power and having to come to the defense of ‘their side’ is going to make a lot of liberals stop supporting these kind of attacks.

  91. fred Says:

    Burner #90

    Hopefully you’re right.
    But it’s likely that Trump coming to power and then the reaction were a symptom of something deeper in the culture, not just some random glitch.

  92. Yash Sharma Says:

    I would still like to believe that many of the cancelers are actually doing this out of an over-whelming guilt about how history has brutally treated minorities, women. And over-correcting is one way they see of making things right. It doesn’t lead to the form of progress all of us want, but might actually make the cancelers feel better when they get a moral high-ground.

    With the above assumption, I feel that cancel-culture is really a yearning for Utopia. It was from reading Steven Pinker that I learnt the terrible effects of yearning for Utopia, ranging from ethnic-cleansing and eugenics to mass starvation.

    Maybe regularly and actively denouncing prophets of doom who lead people into thinking that we are all gonna die and extremely radical choices are our only options would help. It might be an option worth trying to keep people from shifting to extremes.

  93. Scott Says:

    Jordan #68:

      We don’t need a scientific study to know that kneeling on a black man’s neck for nine minutes until he dies, while your fellow cops look on and do nothing, is evil.

      In this context, if someone spends all their time asking for more data and Just Asking Questions, of course people are gonna push back.

    Thank you for articulating so clearly what might be going through the Pinker-cancelers’ minds, that causes them to put such a horrific reading on what he says. But if that’s really the issue, then I daresay it seems like a misunderstanding that could be cleared up in a few sentences!

    As far as I know, there’s zero reasonable dispute, certainly not from Pinker, that what happened to George Floyd was an act of evil that (pending the trial result) appears to have been murder. Alas, there will always be evil people in the world, who when they think they can get away with it will commit evil acts—some acts racially motivated, others not. The question that interests Pinker is what systems we can put in place to reduce the frequency of the evil acts, given (e.g.) statistical evidence about all the situational factors that make them more or less likely. To ask the latter question, in my mind, is in no way to excuse the acts, even if the nature of the question sometimes makes it feel that way. In fact, asking that question is a crucial and relatively neglected part of civilization’s fight against evil.

  94. Scott Says:

    fred #74:

      “Waffles are tasty!”

      Scott, this is a very problematic example of cultural appropriation since waffles actually originated from medieval communion wafers, typically depicting the imagery of the crucifixion of Jesus…

    Aha, thanks! I was waiting for some commenter to elucidate how “waffles are tasty” is actually Problematic after all. 😀

  95. Cyril Says:

    @Scott #71

    With respect to the value of sticking to principles no matter what, as you say Chomsky is doing, I find that Leszek Kołakowski’s essay “In praise of inconsistency” has interesting things to say.
    Unfortunately, I can’t find the essay anywhere in open-access online; but he essentially argues that absolute consistency is identical to fanaticism.
    If by any chance you’ve read the essay already, I’d be interested in hearing your opinion.

  96. Scott Says:

    Dandan #80:

      That article about police killings is actually contradicting itself. How it’s a race problem when the proportion of killings is a direct consequence of the proportion of encounters?

    I don’t regard it as at all implausible that the rate of police encounters is higher for African-Americans partly for racism-related reasons. (One example being how crack cocaine is policed so much more heavily than powder cocaine.) Anyway, this is what exactly what good social science research can do: focus our attention on where the actual causal factors might be, and eliminate where they aren’t.

  97. Matthew Says:

    I agree with the thrust of Scott’s point in #91, that you do not need to deny that a specific act was evil in order to want to talk generally about the best way to stop future evil acts.

    However, I was surprised to find that the case for what Derek Chauvin did being murder might be weaker than people would assume — see this analysis by Gavrilo David:

  98. Michael Says:

    @STEM Caveman#85- Don’t dunk on Wikipedia. Their description of what happened was more or less accurate:
    “Chomsky granted permission for the essay to be used for any purpose. Serge Thion and Pierre Guillaume then used it in 1980 as a preface when publishing a book by Faurisson, without Chomsky’s knowledge.[9] Later Chomsky requested that the essay not be used in this manner, since he believed the French intellectual community was so incapable of understanding freedom of speech that it would only confuse them further, but his request came too late for the book to be changed.[9] Chomsky subsequently said that asking for the preface to be removed is his one regret in the matter.[9]”
    It was Not Convinced’s summary that was misleading.

  99. Elizabeth Says:

    Standing up for liberalism means defending objective reality, rational debate, and established terminology from leftist challenges based on emotions.  This is easier said than done; the collective left are master emotional manipulators that can put almost anyone on the defensive.  Like children having a tantrum, they will escalate to the maximum degree; e.g. a statistical discussion on criminal justice turns into an emotional fight when one of the participants is personally charged with being a racist.  All but the most stoic liberals with enlightenment values will crumble at this point, not just because of cancellation consequences, but because the charge of racism is so abhorrent.  But by becoming defensive, the liberal accepts the charge and the debate shifts from rationality to emotions.  “Never mud wrestle with a pig, you’ll both get filthy and the pig will like it.”
    Liberalism is prone to this emotional subversion because it is a conscientious ideology, especially in our soft modern times, and extremists can prey on this weakness to seize power.  The solution is to deal with the collective left the same way that we would deal with an emotional manipulator in our personal lives.  We must be aware of their tactics, and guard against them.  Resist the urge to participate in those tactics even when it seems to benefit some “greater good.” Promote rational examination of the full facts, discourage emotionally charged accusations based on partial information.  Be the stoic parent who disciplines the bratty child, not the “fun uncle” that lets the kid have their way until they grow up into a career criminal.  

  100. Jeremy H Says:

    Is 536 a lot? That’s an honest question. Because currently, I don’t know what the denominator is.

    If it were 536 Harvard Professors (~1500 total), then that’s a huge number. If it’s 536 Harvard Alumni (~370K), then it’s small enough to be within the expected fringes of any group that size. If it’s Twitter accounts, then 536 is effectively 0, and not even worth a one-sentence rebuttal.

    The Linguistic Society has 3500 members. Assuming that all signatories are members (maybe true), and that all signatures are valid (known to be false), then we’re looking at 15%. That’s an upper bound, and given what we already know, the actual percentage may be as low as single digits. We can even go further. How many signatories intended this to be a warning shot in a larger culture war? How many truly wanted to lightly censure Pinker and nothing more?

    And once we’ve actually put the letter into perspective, does it merit more than a quick link to Coyne’s rebuttal, perhaps as a footnote to a regular post? By dedicating an entire post to the topic, are you inadvertently granting them legitimacy and therefore power?

    I guess I’m asking for a Pinkerian approach to the issue. 🙂

  101. Scott Says:

    Jeremy H #100:

      By dedicating an entire post to the topic, are you inadvertently granting them legitimacy and therefore power?

    It’s a good question, but I’d say that the tactic of largely ignoring the cancel-mobs has already been tried and hasn’t worked. The issue is not merely how much power over the intellectual world they have now (most of it in their potential targets preemptively censoring themselves). The issue, rather, is how much power they will have if unopposed, particularly given how much of their support base comes from my generation and younger. And as we’ve seen, the “default” response of university bureaucrats, journal editors, etc. has been to cave immediately to every one of their demands, often with abject apologies and with no investigation. I’ll leave it to others (if they’re interested) to make a Pinkerian case with statistics, but at a high level, this is what’s pushed many of us to the view that a robust response is needed.

  102. Bunsen Burner Says:

    fred #91

    ‘But it’s likely that Trump coming to power and then the reaction were a symptom of something deeper in the culture, not just some random glitch.’

    Oh, without a doubt. I wasn’t trying to imply that getting rid of Trump will make everything nice and normal again. I think what is called the culture war is due to complex inter-generational changes in political demographics. However, living across the pond from the US it’s obvious that Trump Derangement Syndrome is actually a thing. I suspect that with Trump gone the number of people supporting this canceling nonsense will diminish as it won’t be so easy to label people as either ‘our side’ or Trump-supporting Nazi-adjacent white supremacist. But of course, I am too much of a coward to put any serious money on that 🙁

  103. Not Convinced Says:

    @Michael #98 says “It was Not Convinced’s summary that was misleading.”

    I did not provide a summary, I provided an unmodified quote from Wikipedia which directly contradicted Scott’s claim that “Chomsky… wrote a foreword to Faurisson’s book.” No fair-minded defender of free speech could claim that writing an essay on free speech and telling people they can use it however can be fairly summarized as “writing a foreword to their book,” or as providing any support for their views whatsoever. Including the rest of the story as you (probably correctly) describe it should also not affect this conclusion, again provided that one is actually a fair-minded defender of free speech.

    Of course, Scott’s aim was *not* to be fair-minded, but to just repeat a tired old ad hominem on Chomsky which indirectly suggests that he is a sympathizer or enabler of evil. If one looks at the old thread on Scott’s blog, I suspect they will find that this was clearly pointed out to him at the time. And yet he still repeats it as fact.

    One might also compare Scott’s repeated bringing up of the “relatively apolitical liberal” quote to the present attacks on Pinker for calling a killer of four black kids “a mild-mannered engineer” and “folk hero.”

    So what is the difference between Pinker and Chomsky? Well, there is an obvious one: Scott mostly agrees with Pinker, particularly on the views under attack here, whereas he finds Chomsky’s views awful.

    So now we can all draw our own conclusions. Is Scott genuine in his calls for defending free speech and Enlightenment values? Or is the problem instead, as Chomsky himself said in response to the Pinker attack, that “the wrong ox was gored”?

  104. Anonymous Says:

    As with the Hsu affair I wonder how many people on that list signed it so as to defensively pre-establish a grievance against the possibility of being rejected for tenure / publication / fellowship in the field, especially considering the real possibility of an upcoming crunch in academic positions worldwide.

  105. fred Says:

    Scott #96
    “I don’t regard it as at all implausible that the rate of police encounters is higher for African-Americans partly for racism-related reasons. (One example being how crack cocaine is policed so much more heavily than powder cocaine.)”

    or more simply that high crime rates in many urban black neighborhoods (nearly all of the recent spikes in shootings in major cities) have their roots in a lack of job/education opportunities and a broken social fabric, which have never been seriously addressed since slavery was abolished.

  106. Jordan Says:

    @Scott 93: You cut out an important part of my point—that there is already research on these things you said Pinker is calling for research to be done on—and thereby distorted my point to make Pinker’s critics look foolish. Dunno whether that was intentional, but it strikes me as an intellectual vice to do so.

  107. fred Says:

    Not Convinced #103

    “attacks on Pinker for calling a killer of four black kids “a mild-mannered engineer” and “folk hero.” “

    Actually noone was killed, here’s an unmodified quote from Wikipedia:
    “On December 22, 1984, four men (Barry Allen, Troy Canty, Darrell Cabey, and James Ramseur) were shot and wounded by Bernhard Goetz”.

  108. fred Says:

    Burner #102

    Oh, I see, you’re right.
    I also do believe that TDS is a thing – Trump’s only real talent is that he knows how to push the right buttons to drive many folks on the other side so crazy that they lose their way.

  109. Scott Says:

    Not Convinced #103: There’s an obvious asymmetry here. As harshly as I’ve sometimes criticized Chomsky on this blog, you’ll notice that I never once suggested that he should face any form of academic censure for his views—and I’d strongly oppose such a suggestion by anyone else. (While this wasn’t technically “academic censure,” I did express anger—as did many of my Israeli friends—when Chomsky was refused entry into Israel.)

    The main issue with the anti-Pinker letter is not that it criticizes Pinker, or even that it (effectively) calls him a racist; rather, it’s that it demands that the association for professional linguists ratify its stance. And if we let the precedent get established that scientific organizations are ideological police—not merely of neo-Nazi tirades and the like, but even of calm, friendly, reasoned dissent like Pinker’s—at that point our academic system is hard to distinguish from the late Soviet one.

    So, at least on the level of academic norms, I don’t see any hypocrisy.

    Having said that, let me bend over backwards to concede you’re right about something. In my previous comments about Chomsky, I now feel like I gave a few isolated remarks, like the “relatively apolitical liberal” one (or “I see no hint of anti-Semitic implications in Faurisson’s work”), greater importance than they deserved. I apologize for that.

    If it’s indeed true—as many have argued at length, and as my reading on this dreary subject led to me to believe—that Chomsky, throughout his career, has denied or minimized murderous atrocities (like Pol Pot’s) whenever he thought that the larger fight against “Western imperialism” demanded that he do so … well, still, seriously making that case requires a detailed examination of Chomsky’s political oevure. It can’t really be done using a few “gotcha” quotes, or in the space of a blog comment, so I shouldn’t have tried.

  110. Student Says:

    Maybe the correct response to cancel culture would be a counter movement of freedom of speech, which would pressure universities to announce that they would no longer fire any professor over publicly stated opinions, as long as their opinions aren’t illegal?

    Maybe laws need to be passed such that firing a person based solely on his public statements will be illegal?

    There needs to be a counter movement of people willing to protect the freedom of speech, and it must be fanatic, and go as far as allowing even politically incorrect and rude, as a matter of principle. Because once you only allow things you tolerate yourself, that’s a green light for others to silence things you say they don’t tolerate.

    Honestly, cancel culture is the worst oppression of all. It’s much worse than the some of the supposed oppression these cancel culture tend to claim.

  111. Scott Says:

    Jordan #106: But Pinker constantly writes and tweets about research on such questions that’s already been done, practically begging the world to pay more attention to that research! For example, in the very tweet that he got attacked for, he was pointing to research showing that the rate of police shootings per encounter doesn’t vary much with race, and that the racial effects lie elsewhere (e.g., in whatever influences the rate of encounters). This strikes me as true, counterintuitive, relevant to the goal of protecting black lives, and ignored in most popular coverage.

  112. lewikee Says:

    We are in the middle a cultural war. The aim is to damage the other side as much as possible and the weapons are words (most commonly used in thinly-veiled rhetoric). In a war, the equilibrium state will be one of extremes, cynicism, and willful blindness to any redeeming qualities of the other side. A war will have innocent casualties, and friendly fire, too. You witnessed a salvo that resulted in both, and are speaking up about it, and that’s fine. But to me this feels like a citizen in WWII asking passing soldiers to put their guns down. Or asking those enlisting to reconsider. Admirable but futile.

    I think your energy would be better spent making sure more people are registered to vote to increase the chance that the person most willing and capable of prolonging this war (among many other things this person is capable of) can be stopped. I understand this sounds like a false choice and that you could do both. But I think an hour spent doing that is orders of magnitude more effective than one spent appealing to rationality in today’s discourse, even with the size of your audience.

  113. fred Says:

    Student #110

    “as long as their opinions aren’t illegal”

    Sorry if this is a naive question, but is there really such a thing as an “illegal opinion” in the USA?
    I.e. can someone pass me a list of yes/no questions about my beliefs (*), and then based on some of my answers I could get arrested?

    (*) so, no questions about past actions (like immigration asking during citizenship interviews “did you ever work for the Nazi Germany?”), or future planned actions (like “do you plan to rob a bank tomorrow?”)… but true “opinions”, like “Do you think that the earth is flat?”, “What do you think about what the Nazis did during WW2?”.

  114. Not Convinced Says:

    Scott #109: I appreciate the apology and understand your position, Scott. Thank you.

    Student #110 said: “cancel culture is the worst oppression of all”

    I was wondering how long it would be before all the pearl-clutching in this thread culminated in a statement like this. If people here really believe that this quote is even remotely true, some serious self-examination is called for.

    An easily worse “oppression” in academia, which actually stands to result in a lot of people’s careers being destroyed (unlike the dumb anti-Pinker letter), is going on right now. This was already mentioned above. With the recently announced ICE guidance, a huge number of students on valid visas may have to give up their studies and leave the US simply because their courses are taking place online. Undoubtedly, for many of these students, this is a career-destroying prospect. Unfortunately, they don’t have Pinker’s platform to launch a defense, and their attackers are far more powerful.

    This also matters to me a lot more simply in personal terms: I now have to think about whether I want to switch my own course to in-person just in hopes that it will allow some of these students to stay, and how to balance that against the risk of infection to the students, myself, and my own family.

  115. Type-logician Says:

    Scott #111: if you’re interested in documentation that would support a devastating critique of Chomsky’s intellectual ethics, a good place to start would be the brief essay by Shalom Lappin on the late Norman Geras’ blog at

  116. Vaarsuvius Says:

    A question for Scott on the subject of controversial “rationality-adjacent” figures: Dominic Cummings appears to share, if not similar beliefs, at least an overlapping lexicon with some of the more rationalist groups on the internet (superforecasters, “oddballs”, preservation of genius etc). None of this explains why he decided to test his eyesight by getting into a dangerous moving metal box capable of reaching lethal speeds for a long drive, of course, but what are your opinions on this aspect of the current British administration?

  117. Bunsen Burner Says:

    Student #110

    You are 100% correct as a general principle. At-will employment is an abomination and employers should have just cause in firing employees. However, this has nothing to do with the current discussion. Pinker is not getting fired. This is a deliberate attempt to tarnish an academic’s reputation because he is well known enough to sway people from accepting certain viewpoints as dogma. It is not at all clear how to deal with this. Personally I think we should view petitions such as these as a form of defamation and the people responsible forced to account. Legally, I suspect this is difficult as you can see in the caveats they provide that they are careful to only suggest certain things about Pinker, not actually make a concrete accusation.

  118. fred Says:

    Addendum to #112
    I could see how expressing one’s opinions (i.e. free speech) could be illegal depending on the context… but it’s hard to imagine how simply holding an opinion (evidence for which could be the result of answering a questionnaire or show up in a CAT scan of the brain), could be illegal.

  119. Scott Says:

    lewikee #112:

      I think your energy would be better spent making sure more people are registered to vote…

    I’ve blogged about election issues many times and will continue to do so (look at the new header of this blog!). But showing people that there’s a liberal alternative to hard leftism, and urging the anti-Trump forces to stop their infighting and work together, are both things that I do regard as election issues!

  120. fred Says:

    Regarding the effects of the pandemic on students, hopefully there will be some silver lining:

    “Soon after Newton had obtained his BA degree in August 1665, the university temporarily closed as a precaution against the Great Plague. Although he had been undistinguished as a Cambridge student, Newton’s private studies at his home in Woolsthorpe over the subsequent two years saw the development of his theories on calculus, optics, and the law of gravitation.”

  121. Nick Says:

    TG #5

    > … as soon as there is a mob lynching (real or virtual) …

    I know academic freedom is an emotional issue for everyone, but this kind of histrionic exaggeration really doesn’t help things. Let’s be clear, what’s happening to Steven Pinker is not at all like a lynching. It’s not even close. Suppose these angry and dumb signatories get their way. What will the consequences be for Pinker? Scott can’t even state the outcome without using scare quotes:

    > stripping him of “distinguished fellow” and “media expert” status (whatever those are)

    Wow, harrowing stuff. Just like Sam Hose, right?

    A friend of mine recently told me with a straight face that he, as a white male academic (like many of us here), feels that he belongs to one of the most vulnerable classes in America. That is utterly delusional, and just as flinging wild and baseless accusations on Twitter doesn’t help the cause of justice for black people, neither do inane claims of persecution help convince anyone that academic freedom is in jeopardy.

    All that aside, as an SJW sympathizer myself, this list of charges made my eyes roll. Is this really all that these hundreds of academics have to offer to help black people? Like, they didn’t have anything at all better to do? That’s pretty pathetic.

  122. Sniffnoy Says:

    Moshe Zadka #50:

    Well said.

    Scott #60:

    Scott, the idea that this is somehow “moderate” is ridiculous. It is what Moshe Zadka called it, and what I’ve pointed out that it is in past comment sections: Radical liberalism. (OK, I don’t know if it’s actually radical as such, but there seem to be few enough defenders of liberalism in these times that perhaps merely standing up for it at all is a sort of radicalism!) There is nothing moderate about that. Liberalism is not some moderation between leftism on the one hand and traditionalism-authoritarianism on the other; it’s simply its own thing. I am aware that the standard US political spectrum places it there. But like… that’s plainly wrong and should be ignored. Like, if it were inbetween them, some sort of average, then any common features that those supposed endpoints share, it would too. And yet it doesn’t; it has its own distinct features that they don’t (individualism, free speech…).

    I would think that the oxymoronic nature of “radical moderate” would point out to you here that you are making a mistake in calling this “moderate”. Can you perhaps explain why you continue to refer to this as “moderate”? Do you really think liberalism can be sensibly modeled as some sort of mixture of leftism and traditionalism-authoritarianism? If so how do you explain its distinctive features? Some of those features (e.g. free speech) I’ll admit could be modeled as simply a compromise to allow coexistence of uneasy partners, but others (e.g. individualism) I don’t think can be.

    Peter Woit #48, Armin #89:

    I think the correct response to Carroll is actually quite simple — object-level concerns do not override meta-level concerns. One must not trade off a good processes for an individual good result, because in the long term a good process will yield many good results. These issues of racism are object-level issues compared to the meta-level issue of free argument. Don’t eat the seed corn.

    Fred #113:

    No, of course there is no such thing as an “illegal opinion” in the US. There are some exceptions to free speech (in the legal sense) in the US, but not many; it is very well protected. This is especially true when one is discussing matters of opinion rather than fact. (Note that legally, any inference from other facts is considered “opinion”, if I’m not mistaken.) It is possible for an expression of an opinion to constitute defamation, but only when that opinion is implied to be based on private facts that are not publicly known. Opinion or inference based on publicly known facts is always protected. (Note: I am not a lawyer and may have this wrong, and this is certainly not legal advice.)

  123. Stephen Jordan Says:

    I’m with you 100% Scott. When someone engages in good faith intellectual discussion of controversial topics it is appropriate to respond in kind, i.e. with good faith argumentation. Cancelling, getting them fired, deplatforming, doxing, shaming campaigns, and so forth are unproductive and fundamentally wrong. That’s not a way to seek truth. That’s just a form of “might makes right.” Like you, I’m very concerned about how prevalent and normalized it is becoming. I’m not sure what to do about it that has a chance of being effective.

  124. Scott Says:

    fred #113:

      I.e. can someone pass me a list of yes/no questions about my beliefs (*), and then based on some of my answers I could get arrested?

    Sure, if your yes/no answers spell out the nuclear launch codes in binary or something 😀

  125. Michal Says:

    I agree with the free discourse norms Scott is supporting here, but (if I understand the situation correctly) the progressives he’s arguing against have their own incompatible norm that they are unlikely to be persuaded to give up.
    In the early 20th century and earlier, much of the social science being published on issues of race, gender, class, etc. was biased to confirm the (usually elite) researchers’ prejudices and was used in politics to support the biased social order. The civil rights movements of the middle to late 20th century understood this, and also understood that it was hard enough for such bias in research to be recognized by nonspecialists that in the short term norms of free discourse would continue to give support to bigotry. Thus they decided on the ‘every group is equal’ idea as enforceable orthodoxy not (or at least not only) because they thought it was accurate, but because they expected any idea on this subject that diverged too far from theirs to be used to harm them and because ‘every group is equal’ was a useful Schelling point. This may no longer be useful (I think it is not, since bigotry has been unpopular enough for long enough in academia and connected social groups that research being biased to support the author’s bigotry is no longer common, since neo-Nazis and others who would use unorthodox research to support political bigotry (of the traditional sort, rather than e.g. affirmative action, which progressives tend to be fine with) are few and politically weak, and since requiring research to conform to orthodoxy makes it much harder to figure out how to solve social problems), but these progressives still think it’s useful, still tend to enforce it as a social norm, and will therefore interpret support for a return to free discourse as an attempt to harm the oppressed groups they claim to be trying to protect.
    Since such progressives are relatively common, especially in social groups connected to academia (not to mention disproportionately empowered by the format of modern social media), and not generally interested in the details of science they regard as likely to be both inaccurate and harmful, Scott’s “Enlightenment fanaticism” is not likely to result in a weak and unpopular movement being quickly exposed as such, nor in a reasoned debate — after all, these progressives regard open-minded discussion of these issues as harmful. Instead, if something like this is tried, it seems likely to result in a struggle between two factions with incompatible norms, each of which considers the other too harmful to be allowed to gain power, over control of a set of related social groups parts of which each side already has influence over. “Enlightenment fanaticism” is likely to be the position of many academics, especially those in math and science, who are used to their work not being politicized or censored (although taking advantage of this would require overcoming the coordination problem of the first few to speak up being strongly targeted by the progressives); meanwhile, many of the students are likely to be progressives, they will be connected to a broader social media community that will probably remain committed to progressive norms and outraged by violations thereof regardless of what the outcome in academia is (so that a separation between the two groups like that between creationism and science described at is unlikely), and university administrators are likely to be influenced by online controversy because they’re afraid it might cause fewer students to apply and graduates to donate to them. I don’t know whether the “Enlightenment fanaticism” strategy is likely to work — it is, at least, plausible that it will, and if it does it will seriously diminish the power of progressives to police academic discourse — but it is higher-risk than alternatives such as the Kolmogorov option, or just trying to preserve the status quo (especially if Jeremy (#100) is right and the cancellers intended this petition as a mild rebuke rather than a drastic escalation), so you should consider whether its expected value is worth it before escalating the conflict.

  126. Scott Says:

    Not Convinced #114:

      This also matters to me a lot more simply in personal terms: I now have to think about whether I want to switch my own course to in-person just in hopes that it will allow some of these students to stay, and how to balance that against the risk of infection to the students, myself, and my own family.

    The solution that I came up with is to add a small and safe in-person component to your course—for example, outdoor office hours. (Indeed I was already planning on holding outdoor office hours for my quantum computing class, even before this hateful policy.) Does anyone see any downsides that I somehow missed?

  127. Not Convinced Says:

    Scott #126: Indeed, one can come up with lots of ways of potentially “getting around” this rule, but it’s not clear at all what the consequences would be. For example, if it turns out that a lot of faculty do something like this at University X, will ICE decide that *none* of the “in-person courses” at University X actually count, resulting in an even worse outcome for students? Will they case-by-case deport students if they decide their courses aren’t *really* in-person? Yea these things sound crazily draconian, but so would their current guidance if you told me about it a week ago. I just don’t know enough to say what one can or should do. I hope this will all amount to nothing, but hope is not a plan.

  128. Scott Says:

    Not Convinced #127: So let’s at least force ICE into the position of academic dean, make them comb through every course syllabus, to buy time while the legal challenge by Harvard and MIT unfolds. I’d love to see them explain why in-person office hours don’t add value to a course even though in-person lectures do. (Personally, I think it’s very likely that the former add more value.)

  129. Another student Says:

    I agree with Student #110. We need official policies and legal protections explicitly protecting freedom of speech, whether we are tenured or not. There needs to be an acknowledgment that, short of hate speech (defined where I’m from as advocating genocide against an identifiable group), unorthodox opinions should not be considered as part of job performance evaluations.

    I’m not sure if it’s just me, but it seems there are a lot more people posting anonymously these days for fear of cancellation. With stories coming out of powerful tenured profs being cancelled, and people being fired over things their relatives or relationship partners have said or done, students like myself and #110 can’t afford to speak up. An academic career was precarious enough before coronavirus, even moreso after, and yet more again with this new wave of online mob behaviour. It seems a lot of people are quietly anonymizing their online presence in self defense.

    So, as Scott said, the question becomes, “what is my personal break point for speaking up?” And the answer is, right now, as a student, I can’t afford to publicly – so the breakpoint is the point where I decide I may as well give up on my own and my partner’s academic career. That’s a heavy breakpoint, and I don’t think we can demand people take that kind of risk to speak up publicly. We need legal protections.

    Short of that, I think social media has made people discount the value of in-person interactions. You don’t always have to speak up publicly to make a difference, and in fact I think very few minds are changed online. Instead, personal, honest one-on-one conversations with friends and acquaintances can really help heal the divide, when people start to see that those with whom they disagree are not evil troglodytes, but normal caring people with largely similar values, who disagree on the best path forwards. We can open rational discussions again by having them in real life with real people we actually know, in settings where people are calm and may actually be willing to consider new perspectives, rather than performing an argument for social media likes.

  130. Scott Says:

    Michal #125: The Kolmogorov option has its place; I’ve chosen it before and will surely choose it again. But alas, it doesn’t work when a specific individual who you know or care about is in danger of being cancelled. Then it’s either speak out, or risk being unable to live with yourself.

  131. Not Convinced Says:

    Scott #128: Sure, what you describe sounds not too bad, but I’m not very hopeful that ICE or the Trump admin would settle for it. Given how the world seems to work lately, I think a more likely outcome is that some outlet (e.g., Fox) digs up and heavily publicizes instances of faculty “cheating” this guidance in some way, and then ICE or the administration reacts with some dumb, punitive additional measure that makes things even worse.

  132. International Student Says:

    There are a million international students currently. They have been kicking out 80-90% of them every year (after their stay is completed) for the past 20 years. Why suddenly the passion for international students? In fact it is a legality that no course should be online. The rules are bent so that you only need to take 1 unit of in person class now. I doubt even 70% of your students show up to trivial classes. Why are you guys blowing this up? I am not a Trump fan. But unlike you I think he is going to win. I am just wondering are you guys nuts? You are ignoring 90% tragic situations and focusing on the 10% minority situations.

  133. Scott Says:

    International Student #132: I wasn’t aware that this comment section was able to receive missives from parallel universes!

    Here in this universe, the question is whether our grad students are going to be forced to try to make the very dangerous trip home in the middle of a pandemic.

  134. Not Convinced Says:

    International Student #132: No doubt there are worse things in this world than what could happen to these students. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about it or try to do something about it. I am curious about what “90% tragic situations” you’re talking about specifically. What situations are those?

    And this isn’t just normal “students going home after their stay is completed.” This is students being forced to go home despite needing to continue their studies, and making it difficult or impossible for them to continue their degree (large time zone differences and the difficulty of returning being just two major issues for them to surmount.) Add to that what Scott said about being forced to do a surprise move in the middle of a pandemic. I don’t think this is something that can just be dismissed as a minor inconvenience to a few.

  135. Nick Says:

    Scott, I have never commented on here before, but I’m writing now to politely request: please do not suggest that this kind of behavior represents “the left” or “leftists”. Sure, it is the most visible/publicized form of what people tend to think of as “leftist” thinking right now, because it drives sanctimonious (on both sides) social media engagement better than other “leftist” positions do. But it is a historical aberration; and even presently, as a matter of demographic fact, it is not close to being as representative of the views of people who’d be considered “leftists” as you suggest. It’s just that these views tend to dominate in the present moralizing dynamics of social media. I’ll use myself as an example. I imagine you would consider me a leftist (though I’d rather not use that term). I think cancel culture is wrong, and also particularly antithetical to “leftist” positions. I agree with the Enlightenment views you (and Chomsky) profess about free speech. I’m a historian, and I find much of Pinker’s historical scholarship to be seriously misleading (and, I think not coincidentally, perfectly designed to attract glowing blurbs from people like Bill Gates). I admire his technical work as a linguist and his skill as a writer (as I admire your technical work, and skill as a writer). My point is, there are many “leftists” who have bundles of views like this, i.e. who have different views on certain fundamental social and economic issues from you or Pinker, but who have a strong commitment to free speech. Historically speaking, there’s a lot of evidence to support the claim that a robust commitment to free speech is more characteristic of “leftists” than of “centrists”.

    So, please be more careful about how you portray people with views that are further to the “left” than yours. Suggesting that fanatical cancel culture is characteristically “leftist” just further polarizes a lot of people who actually agree on substantive issues, like the importance of free speech, the terrifying implications of attempting to “cancel” someone as mildly objectionable (for those who disagree with him) as Pinker. I for one was annoyed as hell when I first read your post (and your responses to Not Convinced about Chomsky) because of this. It was difficult not to respond with a lot more snark, to match the snark of your post (e.g. “How that must’ve stung [Chomsky’s] comrades!”, an outrageously misleading statement, when most people who admire Chomsky admire his lifelong commitment to free speech). But I tried to tone it back in the hope of making this plea to not paint “leftists” with such a broad brush more effective.

    Thanks for your blog, and all your amazing research and exposition in theoretical CS.

  136. Scott Says:

    Sniffnoy #122:

      There is nothing moderate about [liberalism]. Liberalism is not some moderation between leftism on the one hand and traditionalism-authoritarianism on the other; it’s simply its own thing. I am aware that the standard US political spectrum places it there. But like… that’s plainly wrong and should be ignored.

    This is precisely the idea that I was trying to express, possibly badly, with phrases like “radical moderate” and “the most intense vanilla anyone has ever tasted.” You’re right: liberalism is not just a compromise between left and right, but its own thing, so that it’s entirely possible to be a “liberal extremist” (like me and I guess you), as funny as many people find that. If you take its average projection onto a contemporary US political spectrum, you probably do end up somewhere center-left, but liberalism is not reducible to that any more than India is “the average of East Asia with the Middle East.”

  137. Scott Says:

    Nick #135: The fundamental problem is that, as far as an outsider reading the news and social media can tell, the cancel culture that you and I both oppose has by now almost completely taken over “the Left,” just like Trumpism has almost completely taken over the Republican Party. So for a leftist to say that they’re not responsible for it, though in one sense welcome (since at least they’re dissociating themselves), in another sense rings as hollow as for a Republican to say that they’re not responsible for Trump.

    The obvious solution is for the leftists who still believe in the old values, like free and open debate, to make their voices heard more loudly. Failing that, I fear we’re going to need a more specific term, like “Old Leftists.” Your faction, an honorable one, has (alas) been almost completely sidelined in the popular consciousness—which, in political subjects, is the same as being sidelined, period.

  138. Laurence Cox Says:

    Scott #136

    In the UK around 15 years ago the then newly-founded YouGov polling organisation was persuaded by Chris Lightfoot and Tom Steinberg to add some political positioning questions to one of their standard surveys. Here is a posting from a blog by Francis Irving from 2016 (just after the EU referendum) which recapitulates their arguments:

    Although American politics looks fairly different on the surface from UK politics, i think that Nigel Farage and Donald Trump would occupy fairly similar places on this 2-dimensional plot, while your liberal extremists would be at the opposite end of the same axis. Note that what they call ‘The axis of UKIP’ is shown as orthogonal to the conventional left-right axis (there is no correlation between them), and the two axes together only amount to 27% of the variation in beliefs; the vast majority of beliefs polled do not correlate with each other or with either of these axes.

    I suspect that the people going after Stephen Pinker are also towards the right-hand side of the ‘Axis of UKIP’.

  139. Jelmer Renema Says:

    @Scott 137: You say that cancel culture (which you see as anti-enlightenment) has completely taken over the left and that any pro-enlightenment left has become functionally invisible, but at the same time everyone who has passed by this discussion (and previous ones) to argue the case for the left – of whatever stripe – has done so claiming to stand in the tradition of enlightenment values. This reinforces my earlier point that ‘enlightenment values’ is a strongly underdetermined belief system, since different people can come to very different conclusions based while adhering to the same principles, or at least claiming to do so.

    At the same time, even the cancel culture people stand in the tradition of the enlightenment. They would claim that their commitment to free speech is so strong that it involves a radical leveling of the playing field in which that speech happens. Their argument (irrespective of the merits of the Pinker case) is that if (for example) the right to existence of one party to a debate is called into question, then the debate really isn’t on a level playing field and therefore doesn’t adhere to free speech values.

    Of course, this is nothing more than a cultural version of the argument against e.g. the liberal notion of free elections by arguing that as long as money holds power in politics, free elections are not free (as is made regularly by the antiparlimentarian left).

    All of this is of course orthogonal to your understanding of free speech, but that is sort of the point – that’s where the essence of the debate is.

  140. International Student Says:

    Grad students can take a 1 unit TA requirement class or something silly or a 12 unit PhD qualifying exam or candidacy exam class if the school is well established. I really don’t understand why your underbelly or rather belly is exploding. They have been literally asking to fight grads with (overloaded with US supplied $$s undergrads) for the visas that were originally intended for grads. They have been asking latinos to come in for freebies while kicking out grads for the past 20 to 30 years or making them low class visa holders. Studying in US is a privilege. I really think the monster is going to win. You guys are literal nuts.

  141. Inverness Says:

    “For the record, Alan Dershowitz asked Pinker for a linguist’s opinion of a statute, so Pinker provided it; Pinker didn’t know at the time that the request had anything to do with Epstein.”

    So if I’m understanding this correctly, Dershowitz asked Pinker for linguistic advice vis-a-vis laws against sex with underage girls, and Pinker wasn’t the least bit curious about what this was all about?

  142. Bunsen Burner Says:

    Inverness #141

    ‘Dershowitz asked Pinker for linguistic advice vis-a-vis laws against sex with underage girls, and Pinker wasn’t the least bit curious about what this was all about?’

    The law in question is a fairly comprehensive and complex one involving using the internet and enticing minors. I would certainly hope that Pinker was not curious about what it was all about. Using linguistic experts to parse laws and testimony is quite common and an important part of delivering a fair trial. If experts started to only provide their expertise in trials they approved of then this could lead to people’s rights to a fair trial being compromised. Something that may be ok in a dictaorship but certainly not all right in any country I would care to live in.

  143. Scott Says:

    Inverness #141: Maybe he was curious but thought it wasn’t his place to ask, because of lawyer/client confidentiality? While I don’t blame Pinker for answering a language question when asked, I do blame Dershowitz for putting Pinker into this position.

    Having said that, I confess that I don’t understand the position of people who think that close reading of statutes is an inherently immoral activity, if the statutes concern certain subjects like sex trafficking of minors. It’s like, do those people believe in the concept of law in the first place? Are certain crimes so heinous that anyone who’s accused of them should just be shot on sight?

  144. fred Says:

    Scott #142

    And we also need law makers to come up with the statutes in the first place.
    How to do this if those things can’t be discussed openly and precisely?
    And what about the cops, the crime scene investigators, the forensic doctors, the prosecutors, etc. who deal with sexual abuses on a daily basis and then who all may rely on (indirect) expert advice in various fields (law, language, psychology, …)?

  145. lewikee Says:

    Scott #142: Certainly, no one should be punished by the law for merely being accused. However if someone barely lands on the right side of the law on a multitude of child sex trafficking charges, the likelihood of that person having committed egregious immoral acts approaches 100%. In that case, the law shouldn’t punish, but I think the public is right to admonish that person. I am not speaking about Pinker here, but about the accused in your final, specific, admittedly rhetorical question.

    It is not because you technically beat the specific logic of the law that you therefore acted morally.

  146. fred Says:

    The topic from mainstream media’s point of view – The Hill’s reaction to the Harper’s letter

    (quite a good analysis all things considered)

  147. Scott Says:

    Jelmer Renema #139: I completely agree with you that Enlightenment values are an “underdetermined belief system,” in the sense that people who fully subscribe to them can (and do) disagree with each other about all sorts of things. The American Founders spent most of their time arguing with each other, I have serious disagreements with Pinker that I’ve previously aired on this blog, etc. And certainly one can subscribe to Enlightenment values while being far to my left—as shown by Chomsky, at least some of the time.

    All the same, Enlightenment values aren’t infinitely flexible, and I find modern cancel culture (just like Bolshevism and Maoism in earlier eras) to be well outside my understanding of those values. It isn’t even a close call.

    The central claim of modern cancel culture is that certain ideas (for example, explanations for gender disparities in STEM involving differing average male and female interests rather than pure misogyny) need to be shouted down, and anyone caught toying with those ideas fired from their jobs and shamed—when it’s clear to any disinterested observer that the reason why that’s necessary is not that the ideas have been decisively refuted by evidence, but rather that they haven’t been. Once admitted, this sort of thing is liable to metastasize into a general fear of the truth and of anyone who pursues it.

    Regarding the claim, which of course I’ve seen, that “speech isn’t truly free if one side’s existence is called into question”—to anyone with an Enlightenment mindset, the obvious risk is that as soon as you admit a caveat of that kind, opportunists will astronomically inflate what it means to “call someone’s existence into question,” until it encompasses pretty much any idea that they disagree with. And that’s precisely what we’ve seen happen.

    Here’s an example that might work on friends to my left: suppose that, anytime someone criticized an Israeli airstrike, I said they were placing Israel’s very survival at stake, and thereby setting the stage for a second Holocaust and denying my right to exist as a Jew. And that they’ve thus placed themselves totally outside the bounds of civilized discussion, and merited no reply except cancellation and censure. It seems to me that that would be no more unreasonable than many positions that are now commonly accepted in cancel culture.

  148. Michael Says:

    @Scott#141- I think that there’s two elements at play here. One is that people consider getting someone off “on a technicality” a good thing when the person is innocent and a bad thing when the person is guilty. Does anyone really think Epstein is innocent? The other issue is that people often agree that lawyers defending guilty clients are just doing their jobs but don’t allow the same leeway to expert witnesses.

  149. Michael Says:

    @Scott#147- What’s funny about the “speech isn’t free if one side’s existence is called into question” argument is that the people who attacked you during the comment #171 mess really WERE trying to pretend that men that thought asking a woman out was sexual harassment didn’t exist or that men for whom following an “if you’re not sure don’t do it” policy was unhealthy didn’t exist.

  150. Not Convinced Says:

    Scott #147 says “Here’s an example that might work on friends to my left: suppose that, anytime someone criticized an Israeli airstrike…”

    Oh it works, and sounds very familiar. There have been many examples of people (including academics) getting “cancelled” (to use the new nomenclature) for expressing opposition to Israeli policies, support for BDS, etc. In fact, this often happens by tactics you clearly abhor (tarring them as anti-Semites instead of anti-Trans, accusing them of Holocaust denial instead of denying existence of trans people, trying to get them fired, trying to deny them tenure, etc.) The major difference between those cases and the Pinker situation is that *those attacks often worked* because the victim didn’t have Pinker’s fame, platform, and elite support, but the attackers did.

    The fact that you dress this up as some sort of hypothetical is strange. “Wrong ox” indeed.

  151. Scott Says:

    lewikee #145 and Michael #148: Another issue is how far the “chain of contamination” extends. Granted that Epstein was a very bad guy, until recently, we didn’t normally regard defense attorneys as being contaminated by the guilt of their clients. (And we still don’t, outside of a few special areas like sex crimes.) Of course Dershowitz was also Epstein’s personal close friend, which changes things … but then does the chain of contamination extend to a third guy, who Dershowitz consulted for a footnote without telling him that it had anything to do with Epstein, and who (as it happens) also knew Epstein albeit much less well than Dershowitz, and who (unlike Dershowitz) always disliked Epstein? Does it extend to anyone who defends that third guy? The belief that there’s no limit to the length of contamination chains could be taken as one possible definition of the witch-hunt mentality.

  152. Sniffnoy Says:

    Scott #147:

    Yes, well said.

    To deny someone’s “right to exist” would normally mean to call for their death (or worse, to actually commit violence against them). Certainly, if someone is calling for your death, the proper response is to take, uh, stronger measures than, y’know, arguing. The way this phrase is used by the SJers, though, is evidently much broader than that; your analogy is not a bad one. The use of the phrase seems to enable a conflation whereby all sorts of arguments (that aren’t about anyone’s killing), are lumped into the same category with calls for people’s deaths, justifying the use of the same responses to both. Which is not exactly good reasoning and has the obvious bad outcomes.

    Also, all the major political schools of thought are underdetermined? Like, none of them are full of people who all agree with each other…

  153. fred Says:

    Not Convinced #114
    “Unfortunately, they don’t have Pinker’s platform to launch a defense, and their attackers are far more powerful.”

    Not Convinced #150
    “The major difference between those cases and the Pinker situation is that *those attacks often worked* because the victim didn’t have Pinker’s fame, platform, and elite support, but the attackers did.”

    Repent Comrade Pinker! And atone for your sins of “Power”!

  154. lewikee Says:

    Scott #151: I think contamination chains with ridiculous lengths are a sign that you’re looking at a bad faith attack, which in turn is a sign you’re looking at a witch hunt. It’s effective, since guilt by association attacks takes advantage of a moral bug we have in our systems.

  155. Jaskologist Says:

    Interesting parallels between your last sentence and Rod Dreher:

    What’s your Woke Breaking Point? State it and defend it in the comments. If you can’t, then we all know which side you’re on, whether you do or not. Don’t play innocent. The unwillingness of decent liberals to draw a line in the sand and defend it is why these statucidal Stalinists get away with it.

  156. Alex Lamb Says:

    One problem with enlightenment liberalism is that I think it takes as an assumption that the only way to control other’s speech is either the government or an explicitly violent mob. In early modern Europe, this view may have been accurate, but today it’s not really the case. Almost everyone works for a company or the government, and it’s kind of easy to pressure companies to fire people. And likewise there are a few companies that can easily pressure and control other companies. For example, it’s very hard to run a company without access to payment processors, and payment processors can block you if you don’t block certain people. In many ways this forms a corporate pseudo-government layer, which I think didn’t really exist in early modern Europe (to my knowledge). At some point it seems feasible that this pseudo-government layer could merge with the actual government, which would lead to a situation somewhat like what we have in China, where corporations control speech and those corporations have branches which are political in nature.

    I think to get the type of “freedom of speech” that you imagine from the government, you’d somehow have to redefine it as a positive right. I feel like this would be very difficult to reconcile with our current system, with at-will employment being the most obvious hurdle.

  157. Not Convinced Says:

    fred #153: my statements about power in those cases were correct and directly relevant. That difference in power is precisely why Pinker is still employed, and why many of the victims of “cancellation” in other cases are not. Whether it’s fame, clout, his connections to elites, the number of his supporters, etc., this is a form of power no matter how you slice it. And it’s power that many others don’t have.

    Your lame and completely transparent attempt to conflate my statements with something else entirely (and simultaneously label me a commie) says a lot about your real feelings on free speech and honest debate.

    Now, what do I *actually* think about whether Pinker deserves that power? Well, not surprisingly, it’s the *opposite* of your “rephrasing” of my statements. Pinker deserves the power of defense. Not because he’s Pinker and his thoughts are important and he knows a lot of rich people, but because (as a matter of general principle) *everyone* deserves the power to defend themselves against accusations, and *everyone* deserves to not have their livelihood threatened because of their political views.

    If that view makes me a “comrade” then so be it.

  158. My Opinion Doesn't Matter Says:

    If radicals and liberals can’t declare peace soon, liberals may be forced into the company of conservatives, just to survive.

    What a hilariously ironic and terrible potential future, one side that wants to share resources and reform institutions but will burn anyone at the stake who tries to figure out how either should be done, and another side that permits reasoned debate and the optimal allocation… of a $0 social works pie!

    “We will do something about it so long as nobody talks about what we do.” Or,

    “We will let you talk about it so long as you do nothing.”

  159. Anonymous Ocelot Says:

    Not Convinced #150

    Scott, on someone getting canceled for BDS:

    Much as I detest BDS, I think that supporting it in one’s private life should be no bar whatsoever to being a university administrator. It would become a problem when, and only when, evidence emerged that the administrator acted prejudicially toward Jewish students or faculty or candidates, Israeli students or faculty or candidates, students wishing to continue their studies in Israel, etc.

    [emph added by me]

    Scott is consistent here. I also think your response showed little charity: the fact that real BDS “cancellations” exist (a fact of which Scott is well aware)–how does that at all refute the point he was making? If you reread your comment 150, it begins and ends with the fact that BDS-cancellation exists, and doesn’t at all attempt articulate a clear delineation on which cancellation tactics are okay / not okay. In fact, Scott was using BDS cancellation as an example of something that was also bad; so you seemed to be agreeing with him?


    The major difference between those cases and the Pinker situation is that *those attacks often worked* because the victim didn’t have Pinker’s fame, platform, and elite support, but the attackers did.

    Sorry … is the implication here that the same political corner that is trying to get Pinker fired does not regularly succeed in getting people fired? This article contains two recent cases (plus a third case of a person’s business shutting down for the anti-Jewish sentiments of the owner’s daughter… which is also bad! As everyone in this thread agrees) :

  160. Allemaraiccire Says:

    It’s obvious “Enlightenment Liberals” should vote for Trump. The ideological distance is pretty small compared to the current Democratic Party, which at this point is essentially the political arm of Marxist Terrorist organizations like Antifa and BLM.

  161. Scott Says:

    Not Convinced #157 and others: In this video, Pinker explicitly says that, as a tenured professor at Harvard, he doesn’t feel threatened in the slightest by the cancellation attempt—the concern is entirely for more junior people who lack the same protections, and who he thinks (plausibly) the cancelers go after the big names to try to intimidate.

  162. Scott Says:

    Allemaraiccire #160:

      It’s obvious “Enlightenment Liberals” should vote for Trump. The ideological distance is pretty small…


  163. Leo Says:

    I’m intrigued by the idea of liberalism as a separate faction, and I might want to join. Dear radical liberals, mind fielding some questions? To avoid degeneration into real-world present controversies, I will use outlandish analogies; of course that might net some answers along the lines of “I don’t believe that there’s any real analogue to this”.

    0) Could you please pick a disambiguated name? “Liberal” already means “American centre-left” and “laissez-faire capitalist”. “Enlightenmentism” might work.

    1) How would you summarise the liberal platform? E.g. is the pro-downtrodden-ness part of it, or just a contingent consequence of rational investigation?

    2) I happen to live in 19th-century Russia. (We do have time travel and Internet access, so it’s not so bad.) We keep getting pogroms; of course, I understand that liberalism allows us to defend ourselves by force of arms, but I notice that the pogroms tend to happen after certain people give speeches. Alice outright says “massacring Jews is awesome, go do that after the speech”; Bob politely argues about the benefits to society of having fewer Jews; Carol simply quotes perfectly-sound phrenology studies that have no obvious connection to pogroms, and her the audience clearly thinks otherwise. What, if anything, does liberalism allow us to do about these pogrom-inducing speeches?

    3) Also, a Christian little girl was murdered recently. The murderer is Jewish. Of course, if that gets out, we’re in for another pogrom — we can argue that individual killers shouldn’t reflect on the group and that Jews don’t disproportionately kill Christians, but it’s not going to work. How, if at all, does liberalism allow me to suppress others’ freedom of inquiry into the question and freedom of speech about it?

    4) I’m no longer in 19th-century Russia, but I have a deathly peanut allergy. There’s a large group of people who think peanut allergies are fake. They’re liberals, so they don’t want to force-feed anyone peanuts; they just want to repeal ingredient labeling and cross-contamination laws, to eat peanuts next to me, and to prevent parents from depriving their children of peanuts. They don’t think they’re calling for anyone’s death, indeed they think they’re trying to help us by showing us that peanuts are good and that we needn’t pretend to get “anaphylactic shock” for attention. What can we do about this?

    5) Our culture has a taboo against investigating how much wood a woodchuck can chuck. Some people, moved by (verifiably honest) Paul-Grahamian intellectual curiosity, look into the question anyway. And they all end up hating and mistreating people named Chuck, and causing much harm as a result, even though they can’t point to any specific evidence they’ve uncovered that justifies this. Perhaps this is because of the influence of other people investigating that question, perhaps it’s a genuine bug in cognition. Can liberalism handle this, or does it collapse without the axiom that rational inquiry is always possible?

    6) Ok, I don’t have a clever analogy for this one. One of my friends likes to argue that a) good ideas used to beat bad ones in the marketplace of ideas, but this stopped around 2000; b) “cancelling” people leads to the policies they advocate becoming less powerful; c) it’s possible to point the “cancellation” mobs at bad actors (not Trump personally, but many of the people with similar politics); d) we needn’t fear retaliation if we do so, because our enemies won’t refrain even if we do. What do you say to my friend?

    7) Come to think of it, is this a matter of pragmatism or principle? Are you in this because freedom of inquiry and speech are worth any cost, or because they bring prosperity and peace?

    8) If someone says “I don’t like the Mayans because their stupid sun stone is ugly”, they can be refuted by pointing out the Sun Stone is Aztec. But what’s to be done about people who say “I don’t like the Mayans because they’re different and icky, period”?

    9) Are there a cool logo and colour scheme?

  164. Not Convinced Says:

    Anonymous Ocelot #159: I suspect the reason you’re confused is that you are trying to ascribe motives to me that I don’t have and then (surprise) not finding evidence for those motives in what I write. I *do* agree with Scott and Pinker’s public statements that “cancelling” people is wrong.

    What I don’t agree with is the idea that this is a new phenomenon, or that it’s a special characteristic of the left or the right. Except for the name, this has been around for a long time, and (in my view) mostly a matter of elite vs weak and not left vs right. It was and is a well-known part of the civil rights, labor, and peace movements, for example. Yea people got fired or defamed for their views aplenty. They also got sent to prison, or were just murdered, both of which do a pretty good job of “cancelling” someone, I’d say. This goes on up to the present.

    Does that mean we shouldn’t defend Pinker? No. But it probably does mean that this isn’t some shocking new development that signals the end of Enlightenment values or whatever. The fight for those values has been raging for a long time, and we’re only now noticing this particular aspect of it, and starting to show up.

    So why are we only showing up now? Optimistic view: because we do firmly believe in those values but just weren’t paying attention. Cynical view: because we’re part of the elite and the weak are starting to use the same weapon against us.

  165. Siddharth Says:

    One of the most useful concepts that I’ve learned in the last couple of years is the notion of intra-elite competition induced by elite overproduction, introduced by Peter Turchin. (Scott Alexander covered this nicely in his book reviews of Turchin.)

    Consider the huge puzzle of why the left and the center aren’t currently united in defeating a foe they all despise—namely, the far right, and in particular, Trump. The best explanation I can see is that America has massively overproduced candidates for positions of high status (e.g., about 35% of Americans have a college degree; 13% have a masters; and 3.5% have a doctorate or a professional degree), while there hasn’t been a comparable rise in the number of high-status positions for people with lots of education to occupy. This suggests that there will considerable infighting educational institutions—which strongly lean left and center—for status. This helps me see why a lot of cancel-culture is lead by young college students and recent graduates and why the targets are often famous professors, like Pinker or Scott.

    Thus, while at the level of political philosophy, I’m largely in agreement with Scott, and applaud his attempts to push back against the illiberal tide, and agree with him that the center ought to defend its position more vocally, I worry that unless there are changes to the underlying sociological factors, such unproductive infighting is going to continue for a long time to come.

  166. Jon Tyson Says:

    Pinker gave an interview on his “cancelling” on July 8:

  167. Sniffnoy Says:

    Leo #163:

    But the laissez-faire pro-market people are liberals in the same sense! And the American center-left draws heavily from it; but as your calling it “center-left” indicates, it is of course a mishmash of various stuff.

    When I say “liberal”, I’m not picking out some specific point in policy-space, but a broad set of principles that, as Scott said, leave lots of things underdetermined. (And yeah, I agree that this is a heavily overloaded term, but, well, I can’t find a better one. :-/ )

    Basically, I see three major poles in politics-space right now; liberalism, leftism, and… that third thing. I like to refer to it as “traditionalism-authoritarianism”, which I realize is a mouthful, but I don’t really have a better name for it. But I call these “poles” to make it clear that people, y’know, combine them. The Democrats are mostly a mix of leftism and liberalism (but with some traditionalism-authoritarianism in there too, unfortunately); the Republicans seem to be basically traditionalism-authoritarianism with some weird ill-fitting elements of liberalism bolted on (and those elements seem to be wearing away at the moment). But, y’know, it’s America, it was founded on liberal principles, it’s not a surprise that they’d be everywhere here to some extent, even if often the layer of liberalism is disappointingly shallow. (The flip side of that is that, y’know, it’s America, and while the founders might have been basically liberals, the population is often quite authoritarian, so, yeah, even the Democrats have a fair bit of that… :-/ )

    So, basically, the answer to most of your questions are going to depend heavily on who’s answering; there’s no one fixed acceptable answer. A number of your questions involve difficult situations where different principles come into conflict with one another, and so different people will resolve those conflicts in different ways. Others involve questioning liberalism’s assumptions and boundaries, and different people will have different ideas as to just how far its domain of application stretches, and how much of it to retain when those assumptions fail. These are not all easy questions! I could give you my personal answers, but I don’t know how much that would tell you about liberalism in general, rather than about myself in particular.

    On the other hand, if you want to distinguish liberalism from leftism from traditionalism-authoritarianism, or from whatever other poles you see as existing out there, there’s a number of questions that each camp (or at least the polar elements of each camp) would largely find easy and would largely agree among themselves on. If you already find yourself giving the liberal answers to those questions — well, what are you asking us about answers to the hard ones for? Figure out answers for yourself! 🙂

    …but also I’m not going to supply my answers right now because I’m feeling lazy at the moment. 😛 Maybe I’ll get to it later.

  168. Alex Lamb Says:

    @Leo 163:

    I don’t agree with it myself, but the standard liberal-libertarian stance is that people should be allowed to advocate for acts which are destructive, but if any people actually carry out those acts, then they (and anyone directly involved) would be severely punished, and that ideally this would deter future action. This applies to your allergy example and your pogrom example.

    I think you’d have to agree that the government having the power to decide that a certain action will cause crime or violence is a pretty large power to have and potentially abusable. For example, how many people have died as a result of shows with sympathetic violent characters like “The Wire” or “Breaking Bad”? No one really knows the exact causal link, but I’m sure I could argue that such a link exists (and I bet it actually has led to some deaths). Moreover, this sort of thing seems very easy to abuse, since almost any speech can lead to violence by someone, and the government could easily apply a double-standard to groups in-power and out-of-power.

    I think this sort of restriction quickly leads to the Chinese system, which has its strengths (and is doing very well now), but I can understand why the liberal-libertarians don’t want it.

  169. Gabriel Says:

    The problem is that the law forbids a “hostile work environment”, which includes “harassing”. And these people claim that you’re harassing them, and making them feel threatened, with your viewpoints. Therefore, your employer fires you in order to avoid lawsuits. John Stossel explains:

  170. Sniffnoy Says:

    Leo #163:

    OK, still don’t have time right now to answer most of your questions, but there is one particular question I want to, um, not quite address, which is #5.

    Because basically, my realistic answer to that one is — are you really in that situation? Check again.

    I realize that certain people claim that such situations exist in real life, but, well, frankly, I think they’ve done a poor job of demonstrating it, and I find the claim pretty doubtful.

    If such conditions really do hold, then, yes, liberalism will have trouble there. (Or at least I’d say it would — people with a more deontological view of things might not.) And if I were to give a proper answer to #5 (which maybe I’ll get to later), I could expand on that somewhat. Because, yes, answering crazy hypotheticals does matter. But noting that the hypothetical is crazy also matters. And this isn’t my answer to the crazy hypothetical of #5, but rather me noting that it is that.

    If such conditions were to truly hold in real life, then the actual first question is not, what do we do about it, but rather, how do we determine whether we are in such a situation? We can’t just take someone’s word; we need good evidence. Like, that’s a truly exceptional situation, and we should be inclined to doubt claims that we’re in it — especially when the claimant wants us to make an exception to the liberal way in a way that will benefit them. Like… everyone wants an exception, so everyone is incentivized to claim that their situation is exceptional. Well, most situations aren’t exceptional. So the question you need to ask first, when dealing with an exceptional situation whose reality may be hard to verify, is not what you do in that case, but how you tell you’re in that case.

    And so my answer before verification is, please give us some actual convincing reason to think that this is actually true, not just that it has coincidentally held true in the past but that it will continue to hold true in the future, and that you could not do the research yourself and do it better and correctly without losing your own sanity. (Which obviously does not just mean, “stating a reason”, but responding to counterarguments and making it pretty damned airtight…) And until then, you’re going to have to argue the facts of the area, and not attempt to block it off from study.

    My answer after verification, eh, like I said, I’ll answer that if I get to the rest of them. But that answer is a lot less relevant. Some of your other questions present realistic exceptional scenarious, that are pretty credible when claimed. But that one not so much.

  171. Vaarsuvius Says:

    Revised thoughts on the situation:

    First, on the seemingly common assertion (which Scott apparently agrees with) that the people behind this cancellation attempt are using it as a display of power, or somehow making a veiled threat to the “lesser academics” out there: this seems to be a misreading of the psychological motivations involved. Righteous indignation TM (The driving force behind a lot of this) does not lend itself well to tactical thinking nor far-ranging strategy: if indeed such an amount of strategic coordination existed between the various groups loosely labelled “red guards” “purity posse” etc did in fact exist (for the record, they appear to be very different groups and in my view this amount of assumed coordination enters the realm of conspiracising) you would think that they would start with Mr. Pinker to “set the tone” before heading for the lower hanging fruit, that they might maximise their gains. It seems far more likely that this is merely a result of the constant one-upping and in fighting historically seen in such groups rather than som kind of nefarious scheme to terrorise the academic world.

    Second, the nebulous nature of the “groups” behind these actions. As stated above, there does not appear to be any kind of centralised apparatus from which these attempts originate unless you are willing to indict everyone from BLM to MeToo. Whatever their means of gaining prominence, it appears that these efforts do at the very least begin as grassroots concerns, invalidating the comparison to Red Guards or other government apparatus.

    Furthermore, the dividing line between appropriate accountability and “cancelling” is murky at best: taking as given the materially untrue accusations against Mr. Pinker, what is the bar before he transitions into Milo or R. Kelly or Cosby or Weinstein? One can make a case that material crime (rape in the case of MeToo and murder in the case of BLM) separates the “correct” cancels from the “incorrect”, but that places the Freedom Medal recipient Mr. Limbaugh in the clear, and more importantly does not address the systemic concerns and questions of lingering malpractice that these attempts are at least theoretically motivated by. Dog whistles are real, in the sense that they are common linguistic disguises adopted by people to hide abhorrent beliefs: witness the transformation of titles used to refer to African Americans. What institutional mechanisms or evidentiary standards should replace these blunt attempts, to prevent their repetition, or should they themselves be simply ignored and trusted to go away?

  172. Leo Says:

    @Sniffnoy #167 and #170

    Buddy, I don’t *know* what the easy questions and their answers are! That’s why I’m asking! I don’t even know if being “ferociously anti-racist and anti-sexist and anti-homophobic and pro-downtrodden” is part of the liberal platform, or simply one of many opinions that a liberal might hold. I do understand (small-l and big-L) libertarianism, so maybe you could write a diff from that?

    I do in fact observe that there is such a _Necronomicon_-like topic that turns honest nerds into evil idiots. For the blatantly obvious reasons, it would be a bad idea to present the evidence in public. But you’ve been consistently obviously reasonable for a decade, so private discussion sounds good. Mind if I email you? (Real-time text chat might be even better but I don’t have your contact info for that.)

    @Alex Lamb #168

    I see how it applies to the pogrom example: the people shouting “kill the Jews!” get “we would rather you didn’t!”, the people doing the actual killing get bullets. Is this because the standard liberal-libertarian believes that this is in the long term the most effective way to stop pogroms, or because they believe it’s inherently right even if the cost is pogroms?

    I don’t see how it applies to the peanut example. Someone advocates the repeal of labelling laws; the laws are indeed repealed; a company adds peanuts to its products without a warning label, as is now legal; customers die. Straightforward application suggests that the company should be punished (for its legal actions!) and perhaps the lawmakers for passing the law: that seems absurd! Let alone more diffuse harm, e.g. allergic people having to stay home because there are too many peanut-eaters on the streets.

    In practice it is clearly possible to have government restriction of some but not all opinions: most European countries ban racist insults and advocating Nazism, and while there are some questionable legal rulings, this hasn’t descended into legal action against _Breaking Bad_ or Dr Pinker.

    More importantly, government is the easy question. (Indeed, the circancellions believe that governments mustn’t curtail free speech, only private actors.) Whether I should or not, I have the power to decide who I befriend, who I allow to comment on my blog, who I take on as a client or employee, who I trash-talk to my friends, who I trash-talk in public, who I heckle and protest against, who I boycott to get them to fire an employee. The question is when I should use these powers.

  173. jonathan Says:

    I’m going to defend the view that the “cancel culture” phenomenon is actually generally in the best interest of the people practicing it, at least in advancing their political views.

    The reality is that these mobs are effective — people are *scared*. They really do shut down expression of certain ideas, and inquiry into them. And this is in their interest, because many of these ideas would be quite successful if they were allowed to be freely expressed without consequence. And they would be influential in affecting policy.

    And since the participants in the mobs are convinced that these ideas are wrong, and bad, and indeed evil, and the policies they support are likewise wrong, bad, and evil, they see this as a good thing. And since they see those who hold these ideas as terrible people, they don’t really have moral qualms about shutting them down either.

    So really, why should they stop? You can appeal to general free speech principles, but I think that’s assuming a moral framework that members of these mobs don’t agree with.

    (Note that I’m not claiming these mobs are the result of a coordinated rational political strategy. Just that I’m not sure why the participants should think they should stop, at least according to rational reasoning under their own intellectual and moral beliefs.)

  174. jonathan Says:

    Something I’ve realized recently is that most participants in these “cancel mobs” have a different view of history than mine (and probably of Scott and most commenters here).

    Basically my view (probably shared by most here) is that “enlightenment liberalism” has been a hugely successful force historically, leading to great benefits to humanity (including things like the scientific revolution, industrial revolution, democracy, human rights, and so on).

    However, many of the people on the “other side” of this issue do not take this view. Instead they emphasize a history of oppression of various groups, and a long fight against this oppression. Under this view, the main thing is to fight against the oppressors. They don’t have a lot of trouble figuring out who’s right or wrong, since they think it’s pretty clear. They also see excessive glorification of past enlightenment or scientific figures as eurocentric, sexist, and racist.

    This may be one reason that explicit appeal to “Enlighenment principles” may fail to win them over.

    (I’m trying to be fair and accurate here, but of course my description is necessarily simplistic and stereotyped. I welcome corrections from people whose view I’m trying to describe.)

  175. fred Says:

    Most of those cancellations are clearly motivated by a small and very bitter fraction of the average majority wanting to get back at the minority among us that’s been very successful, i.e. exceptional intelligence, beauty, strength, or circumstances (like a scientist focusing on some theory at the start of his career, which happens to be the right theory), all of which are rare by definition (only a small fraction of births/lives are blessed with it).
    For them equality of opportunity isn’t enough, they want equality of outcome (of course the bar is always set right at their level, they never see the rest of humanity that’s “under them” and looking up at their own luck).
    And since the successful is somewhat safe from that cancellation (because of their very success), they then turn to much easier targets, swapping exceptional “success” with mere “privilege”.

    When achievements are shared, it’s important to celebrate them, because that’s how humanity is inspired and progresses, not by dragging everything that sticks out back down to some common denominator of comfortable mediocrity.

    The irony is that while that sort of success is indeed important for humanity as a whole, it’s been terribly overrated at the individual level (and over amplified by social media, leading to even more pathological levels of envy and jealousy, especially in the academia it seems) – trying to simply be a better person with the ones directly around us is a much more effective, important, and accessible way to improve society.

  176. Alex Says:

    I don’t know if I should be commenting at all, because I don’t know anything about Steven Pinker, nor the 536 signees of the letter. But I want to say something because the kind of premise of this article, and a few other articles I’ve seen on this blog, seems to be that liberals and progressives (which seem to be what Americans call what I would call “leftists”) have fundamentally similar values and aims; or at least that the difference between the two is far smaller than the difference between either of them and this kind of overt authoritarianism (or proto-fascism or whatever other descriptors are used to characterise the ideology that Trump espouses), and that therefore we should team up to beat the real bad guys.

    In this thread I see a lot of discussion about ideology and hypotheticals. Not only do I not know anything about Steven Pinker, but I also can’t talk about these with any confidence. I haven’t read Marx, Adam Smith or Hegel. I don’t know what “Enlightenment values” determine in the context of economic and foreign policy, and these are the policies that affect me. I can only talk about my experience of the effects of policies enacted by claimed proponents of these ideologies — call it a results-based approach, if you like.

    I am probably younger than the average on this blog, and my earliest political memory is of 9/11 and the subsequent disastrous sequence of wars in the Middle East. These wars were largely championed by people like Tony Blair, Jack Straw, Joe Biden, the Clintons; as well as those on the right, like Bush, Cheney and so on. The wars were humanitarian disasters, and disproportionately punished the weak and vulnerable in the relevant countries. During this time, the US and UK initiated a torture program for illegally-detained non-combatants, under the guise of “enhanced interrogation techniques”. This appears to have been widely supported, and was certainly not condemned, by the former bloc of people. There is a lot more to be said about the atrocities committed as part of these wars, but I will leave it at that.

    The aforementioned set (Blair, Straw, Biden, the Clintons…) would all describe themselves broadly as centrist liberals. Perhaps this description is incorrect, or perhaps you (Scott) are working from a different definition of liberal. I have to say I haven’t seen a lot of disavowing of this group from other self-described liberals, and so I have to assume the members of this set are, broadly speaking, liberals; I can only label these groups by what they say and do, as I don’t have some more fundamental definition.

    The next big political event for me was the 2008 financial crash, caused by massive financial deregulation. This crash caused the median household wealth in the US to drop by 35%, and obviously had bad repercussions all over the world. There are lots of causes for this, but it looks like repealing Glass-Steagal was a bad idea; the ability for private lenders to be very predatory was left unchecked; generally, there was a complete lack of accountability all over the financial world. This was a mode of operation that Democratic and Republican governments largely agreed on since the 80s. Then, the bailout under Obama shifted huge quantities of money from the government directly into the pockets of the large corporate entities whose business practices seem to have been responsible for much of the damage in the first place! Again, there seems to have been insufficient introspection on this from the centrist wing of the Democratic party. I don’t believe Hillary at all when she says she went over to Wall Street and told them to “cut it out”(!), and the fact that she made this statement at all speaks to me about how this appeal to the people who view many Wall Street companies’ behaviour in this time as criminal is purely lip-service.

    Taking a greater scope than 2008, the purchasing power of people in the US has been constant for 40 years, and the life expectancy has gone down in recent years, largely due to “diseases of despair”. As recently as 2016 Obama was waxing lyrical about the prosperity driven by free markets. I haven’t seen much of that prosperity.

    Under Obama’s administration, the Black Lives Matter movement began. I don’t claim that the President has ultimate power over the police in every state, but the Democrats increased their majority in the House and Senate in 2009, and I find it hard to believe they were so hamstrung by the Republicans and legislative system that they couldn’t pass any meaningful legislation to disarm the police, enact wide-ranging gun control, make healthcare free at the point of service or empower the victims of brutality in trying to take on the police in public or in court. All of these are taken as given in my country! Instead, it appears there wasn’t the political will for it — but the political will from whom? Certainly self-proclaimed leftists have been clamouring for these policies for all of my lifetime. The authoritarian right didn’t have power at this point in 2009 (I believe the Dems controlled the supreme court too, but google isn’t as forthcoming about that). The only explanation I see is that self-proclaimed liberals (both as voters and as politicians) weren’t willing to commit to policy which would save lives, bring families out of poverty and prevent oppressive violence.

    Drone strikes increased under Obama, targeting North Africa and the Middle East with complete impunity. Weddings and hospitals have been blown up, with rationales that are either obscure or laughable. Despite the Paris agreement, US crude oil production increased by 80%, while the ecology of our planet may be on the verge of unravelling due to climate change. The Dakota access pipeline began in 2014. The Flint water crisis began in 2014, and is still completely unresolved. The US became the world leader in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, a country which began bombing Yemeni civilians in 2015. All of this under an administration that would characterise itself as being liberal. Similar countries under liberal administrations (Canada, various European countries) have committed similar sins. Since Trump came into power, the Democrats have voted in favour of Trump’s budget for the wall and for the military.

    I can see a few defences of this by people who hold similar positions to Scott: that (1) these people aren’t actually liberal in the sense you mean it, or (2) the people responsible are a few “bad apples”, and that despite this, liberal ideology itself is sound, at least compared to the opposition.

    For (1) I haven’t seen any outcry about these figures being described as liberal. No disavowing of their ideologies, or great schisms in liberal thought. Perhaps these are “economic liberals”, as opposed to “intellectual liberals”, as you (Scott) would position yourself. But if you are asking progressives and liberals to come together, what is the difference?

    For (2) I find it hard to believe that we should blame the results of other political systems on the structures themselves, and the ideologies underpinning them, but for modern liberal policy the individuals in power are to blame and the ideology is divorced from the outcomes of their behaviour and legislation.

    If these policies are liberal, and the people responsible for them are liberal, then how can people who find all of these policies and people contemptible see ourselves as only “squabbling” with liberals; how can you admonish us for not setting aside our differences? From my point of view, there are some notable material differences between the Trump administration and previous liberal administrations. Hypothetical Covid19 responses specifically come to mind, as do approaches to science in general and respect for American democratic institutions.

    But many of them look only aesthetic to me. Should we offer Muslims academic positions while we drone bomb their native countries and torture their compatriots in Guantanamo Bay? Should we encourage racial diversity in our white collar institutions while the police target black and poor people for murder in the street, and low-income communities are used as sources for legal slavery in prisons? Should we sign milquetoast climate agreements while expanding our fossil fuel output? Should we maintain a veneer of civility when we cut funds for pensions and social welfare to appropriate for large multinationals, prisons and the military? Should we try to avoid conducting domestic policy with the same brutality we conduct foreign policy? Because regardless of what the ideology might claim to be about underneath, the latter policies in every single one of those questions have been enacted and supported consistently by self-proclaimed liberals.

    Lastly, it should be noted that the left setting aside political differences with liberals to beat a greater evil doesn’t typically mean meeting somewhere in the middle; it has historically functioned by the smaller (left) party ceding ground almost entirely to the larger one, which then triangulates right to attempt to pull votes from the “actual” threat. Even from a purely electioneering standpoint, this strategy has yielded mixed results, and from the perspective of someone who wants to see actual material results in policy, there is little to no incentive to behave in this way.

    I fear for my future, and the future of my (potential) children — on existential grounds, not just for their quality of life. And much of the responsibility for that fear seems to lie at the feet of people and systems which call themselves liberal.

  177. hnau Says:

    “Center-left”? Don’t sell yourself short. Everything I’ve seen of your political views reads as Democratic-party-line and often substantially leftier, as opposed to (say) Scott Alexander who’s much more inclined to give various conservative / libertarian positions their due.

    And that makes your Enlightenment commitment all the more valuable! Please know that you have the full support of at least one reader who tends to eye-roll at your politics and is even skeptical of some of the “Enlightenment” claims. What you’re doing here is good and important and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  178. Jelmer Renema Says:

    @ Scott

    I don’t understand why you respond to my claim that everyone to the left of you claims to stand in the tradition of the Enlightenment, which is a factual claim about the contents of their beliefs with the opinion that you don’t recognize them as such. I understand that even less in light of the fact that we agree that Enlightenment values are an underdetermined system. If you want to understand someone else’s opinion, surely it’s their self-professed beliefs that matter – if sincerely held – regardless of what you happen to think of those beliefs?

    As for the slippery slope argument: I simply don’t buy it. The pendulum always has to stop somewhere. Most Western European countries have much stronger restrictions on speech than the US does, and so far no transitions to North Korean style dictatorships have been reported.

    As a friend of mine always says in these discussions: every medicine is poison in large doses. To cure a disease, you sometimes have to accept a lesser evil. The best action is not to refuse to do anything, but to do exactly so much that the cure is not worse than the disease. I don’t see why a position like social democracy, where you use moderate anti-liberal aims to much more successfully achieve liberal ends in the long run is not a better position than one where you would do nothing. Hence the old saying ‘a socialist is a liberal who actually means it’.

    As for the Israel boycott thing: yes, that is precisely how people like Ted Cruz argue for gag laws on BDS and so on. This far from hypothetical, as others already pointed out.

  179. Jelmer Renema Says:

    @ Alex 176: thrice yes to everything you say. I think the real animus on the left against liberals comes from the fact that many (including myself) believe that liberalism has largely moved from a restricted progressive stance (i.e. where they hold progressive values but implement them in a restricted way) to an anti-egalitarian stance, where putting up restrictions to egalitarian measures has become the whole point, so that you get much the same outcomes as when outright conservatives are in power.

    You call these people “economic liberals” but “neoliberals” or “classical liberals” or “libertarians” are the more mainstream terms depending on what exact flavour you’re after. These are liberals who are not in it for the wisdom of moderating your actions and not having the ends justify the means, but who are in it to make sure we never get anywhere near the stated ends.

    Why this came to be can be understood from the historical development that capitalism underwent. In the late 19th, early 20th century, two things happened simultaneously: 1) traditional landed elites were absorbed into or displaced by financial and business elites. 2) the growth of socialism and centrally planned economies became an existential threat for capitalism, especially after the advent of the Soviet Union. We know how it ends now, of course, but keep in mind that all the way to Sputnik, the idea that the Soviets would simply out-compete the west was seen as entirely credible.

    This meant that in the 1930s-1950s, capitalism was on the back foot in a way that is unimaginable now. It seemed central planning had won the argument, and that every state was going to end democratic socialist or communist. At the same time, a new justification for anti-egalitarian ideas that was suitable for the new elites had to be found.

    The solution – to step over much detail – was to use liberal notions like the neutrality of free markets to enforce anti-egalitarian outcomes, i.e. to take the stated methods of your opponents and use them to your own ends. The key people behind this idea are Hayek, von Mises, Roepke, and Eucken (the latter two are much less known in the Anglo world but very influential in Europe). The idea was to constrict collective action to the point that anti-egalitarian outcomes were sure to result. This would be a kind of liberal buttress to shore up the conservative values that were at that point too weak to stand on their own. Again, skipping over much detail and differences in US vs Europe here.

    This kind of thinking goes under the various names that I mentioned above, and is the dominant strand of liberalism in the world today, unfortunately. And it is a pretty clever trick too, since it allows you to claim all sorts of progressive values while never actually doing anything about it.

  180. Sniffnoy Says:

    Alex #176:

    I think your mistake here is thinking that mainstream politicians, of the sort who get elected to Congress, are good examples of any particular school of thought, rather than all being mishmashes. Yes, the Democrats have a significant authoritarian element to them. It’s unfortunate. But that’s the electorate, so that’s who gets elected. :-/

    This is why I specified, I don’t mean “liberal” as in “the Democrats”, but rather, y’know, that Enlightenment thing. Obviously the Democrats have a significant component of that, but they also have a significant component of leftism, and a significant component of authoritarianism. Like I said, a mishmash.

    You want to understand the basic ideas people are arguing over, don’t look at mainstream politicians. They’re mostly not really the consistent-ideas sort.

  181. Christopher Blanchard Says:

    I’d like to try to clarify this a bit, and it’s personal. I am, amongst other things:

    Profoundly conservative
    An extreme liberal
    Very left wing

    The way I see this is that any grown-up, competent, thoughtful adult has some or other combination of these tendencies inside them – as well as others. My balance of the three makes me a commited Green (I am English, so that isn’t necessarily the same as US Greens). To clarify a bit:

    The conservative wants to keep what is good (which makes me conservationist), values relatively small scale social cohesion and is sceptical about improvement schemes, especially those which look utopian. That is not to say they don’t work, just careful.

    The liberal wants reason, above all, and generally leaving people alone to get on with their lives. Power is something to be stopped – dead, so someone else’s sexuality or religion is none of your business, and if you have the power to interfere, as in business hires or by promoting ‘racial’ segregation in housing (which is an underlying, and big, cause of ‘racial’ divides in the USA), then we are, cautiously, entitled to use government power to stop you.

    The left winger in me doesn’t believe people earn large amounts of money. I mean I am (as Tony Blair) OK with people being rich – if you have a million dollars, then fine, but ten million is iffy except in rare exceptions like hit musicians, a hundred milllion is ludicrous, and I favour a tax system which will destroy every big fortune, so no billionaires, at all. To quote Obama ‘you didn’t build that’.

    Different people have different proportions of these things, but they mix, so a different conservative might not share my hostility to great wealth, but will understand my emphasis on fairness, and a different liberal might want less restriction on speech which might incentivise violence, but will understand my hostility to irrational discrimination.

    The point of this is that there are really two sides to most of these arguments. On the one side, with pretty well everybody commenting here, are the people with some kind of self knowledge, who know they are mixtures and look to pragmatic and negotiated answers to difficulties, and on the other side, there are juveniles (who will grow out of it), fanatics and fools.

    That is the bigger division – not between left, liberal and conservative, but between reasonable and unreasonable.

    Oh, and I know, life ain’t that simple, but still.

  182. fred Says:

    If you consider cancellation as a form of ostracism, then it’s clear it’s not new and a sort of social group dynamic, with its own benefit and dangers, and not really specific to some particular political leaning.
    But ostracism has clear rules and was accepted across the while society, while cancellation is just chaotic.

  183. Douglas Knight Says:

    Here are a couple of examples of “illegal opinions”:

    Mere mention of jury nullification is criminal if you’re too close to a courthouse. This is more of an illegal fact than an illegal opinion. Despite that the country was founded on jury nullification.

    A party to an upcoming trial talking about it publicly is subject to retaliatory movement of the venue.

  184. Alex Lamb Says:

    “because the standard liberal-libertarian believes that this is in the long term the most effective way to stop pogroms, or because they believe it’s inherently right even if the cost is pogroms?”

    I think they believe (probably correctly) that a rule which is intended to stop pogroms will expand into broad restrictions on speech. The latter is what they find undesirable, and they’re probably willing to put up with some undesirable behavior to have a society that they prefer, on the whole.

    I actually lean more towards the restrictionist side, and I think that if you look at it objectively, tv shows that idealize crime probably cause orders of magnitude more harm to society than offensive insults, on the whole.

  185. william e emba Says:

    The Algerian War was noted for the guerillas’ vicious war on the center. Fence-sitting or wishy-washy sympathies were equated with supporting the enemy. A massacre of a hundred uninvolved civilians led to harsh French reprisals, and it all spiraled out of control from there.

    Not a pleasant precedent.

  186. william e emba Says:

    It does not help when academic nobodies create issues out of nothing, because hey, the right noise counts as deep thought in today’s progressive community. Especially when it’s cutting edge science that none of the squeaking idiots have a clue about, but cheap shots against science are always cool.

    We saw a rather ridiculous example here on this blog. People preemptively made an issue out of “quantum supremacy”. Seriously? Would it have been too much to wait for somebody to try to make it some kind of personal trigger issue (instead of patronizing the intelligence of the supposed victims), and the only possible reaction would have been laughter. Instead, the trolls got fed, and it’s now documented as a potential career derailing issue.

  187. Not Convinced Says:

    william e emba #186: “… it’s now documented as a potential career derailing issue.”


  188. Dan MacKinlay Says:

    After a healthy bout of us all talking past each other on even so specialised and, I imagine, thoughtful, a community as I imagine Scott’s blog would attract, I am more sympathetically disposed to Lili Loofbourow’s take
    which I found via Tanner Greer

    It is especially pertinent given how many posts in this thread have been about “the other side” not arguing in good faith, often caricaturing their motives on scant evidence, which is indeed par for the course in internet discourse. If I may summarise, Loofbourow’s argues that applying terms “Good faith” and “free speech” and “enlightenment” to analyse internet discourse is a category confusion.If the mechanism of the media is a self-perpetuating rhetoric machine that thrashes out the same tired arguments endlessly and surfaces only the most troll-addled examples of each, why are we complaining about the incivility of those arguments? If this machine raises up the worst example of every viewpoint, why are we surprised that bad actors rise to the top? Why are we complaining of poor tea service in the trenches?

    The fact that we have each taken time to respond to this post itself is indicative that it is an internet outrage that crossed the line of being bad enough that we took time out from our real jobs to opine about it. And maybe while that was happening we did not spend the time making efforts to make a difference in the real world outside the automatic outrage factory. in short, I wonder if by weighing in here, we are part of the problem, falling for cookie-cutter internet clickbait, which for all that in this case it is triggered by a real event, is still serving the divisive, aggravating, alienating purpose of fake news?

  189. Armin Says:

    #171 Vaarsuvius
    Re: Power vs. Righteous indignation.
    I believe it is useful to divide any ideological group into “leaders” (thought-leaders, influencers, spokespeople etc.) and “followers”.
    Applying this distinction to the “cancel culture”, I think it is accurate to say that “followers” are largely driven by righteous indignation whereas “leaders” are (often but not always) driven by power. This is actually not much different than what happens on the right. For example, many times, Fox News viewers develop an antipathy to leftist causes because it intentionally frames them in ways that provoke their righteous indignation. The payoff for Hannity&Co. is that viewers will keep coming back to watch, thereby ensuring high salaries and open ears in influential places.
    The power the “leaders” seek can be quite turf-specific. Someone who seeks power within a limited academic setting, or some other setting with its own community (e.g. social or other media audience) may be quite okay if their actions within a larger scope are contrary to their professed goals.
    For example, a “cancel culture” “leader” may be perfectly aware that conservative media will milk every instance of “canceling” to its fullest to alienate people from anything left of the GOP, while ignoring the often far more egregious and consequential instances of oppression from the right (e.g. voter suppression, police brutality, the penal system, whistleblower intimidation, etc.) [As an aside, this strategy has been tremendously successful in convincing wide swaths of people that left wing authoritarianism is worse than right-wing authoritarianism, see #110 and #129]. In fact, they might even desire it at some level because it helps recruit more followers, as that makes it easier to inflame their righteous indignation.
    How does the distinction manifest itself? While I cannot read people’s minds to discern their motivations, I can observe. If I see someone expressing views that are followed by others, then they are likely a “leader” in their group. If, in addition, they use manipulative and dishonest arguments and are unwilling to introspect in the face of a challenge, then I consider them to be primarily motivated by power, rather than righteous indignation or whatever. If a “follower” uses similarly faulty argumentation, I consider it likely that they are driven primarily by righteous indignation than power, but have been manipulated (many ideologies gain adherents through manipulation).
    Maybe this is not fool-proof, but I believe it is a good rule of thumb to go by (see also my comments #6 and #41).

  190. Why am I here Says:

    Not so enlightened:

    Alice’s speech should be illegal. Calling for the massacre of a group of people should generally be illegal, especially if it is based on some intrinsic characteristic like race or ethnicity.

    Bob’s speech shouldn’t be illegal. However, I think that both platforms and employers should have the right to remove Bob’s speech or terminate him based on it given it’s inflammatory nature.

    Carol’s speech is similar to Bob’s. Just as some people would claim that the development of the nuclear bomb or strong AI is unethical, some may feel the same as Carol’s research. If that is the general sentiment at an organization employing Carol, they should have the right to terminate her employment.

    3) Destroying evidence or suppressing an investigation into a crime should be illegal.

    4) Elect or lobby officials to change the laws… I doubt anyone has the will to do such a thing so I am not sure what the question is getting at, not to mention that companies would voluntarily label.

    5) Interesting one. I think this ties into the first. If the people openly advocate for exterminating people named Chuck then it should be illegal. The more interesting question is if some actors are creating consipiracy theories involving Chucks what can be done about it? It does look like a bug in our system in general since it is much easier to create these conspiracies than dissuading people from believing them.

    6) Ok, I don’t have a clever analogy for this one. One of my friends likes to argue that a) good ideas used to beat bad ones in the marketplace of ideas, but this stopped around 2000;
    Agree. :/

    b) “cancelling” people leads to the policies they advocate becoming less powerful;
    I don’t agree.
    c) it’s possible to point the “cancellation” mobs at bad actors (not Trump personally, but many of the people with similar politics);
    Again, I don’t agree. It would be hard for the cancellation mob to cancel someone like Tucker Carlson. They can really only have any effect on those in certain spheres like academia.
    d) we needn’t fear retaliation if we do so, because our enemies won’t refrain even if we do. What do you say to my friend?
    Building bridges would be a more effective strategy.

  191. sf Says:

    Scott #111

    “research showing that the rate of police shootings per encounter doesn’t vary much with race, and that the racial effects lie elsewhere (e.g., in whatever influences the rate of encounters)”

    This has been brought up a lot in the news lately, independent of Pinker. But it isn’t convincing.

    If one group’s encounters are overwhelmingly jaywalking type incidents; petty police harassment, etc. — then it’s quite possible that, by setting those aside and restricting to serious encounters, the rates of police shootings per serious encounter will show effects of racial discrimination.

    Maybe it would be better to consider personality traits of individuals in such encounters; if the person’s priority is to avoid trouble then they have less chance of getting shot. Police encounters with minorities could involve a higher percentage of such people, due to racism, (which dilutes the apparent rate of shootings) whereas encounters with whites are likely to lean more heavily to troublemakers. This would also explain how racism is consistent with the data mentioned, if in fact racism influences the rate and type of encounters.

    A quick search produces two good overviews:

    04 September 2019 What the data say about police shootings

    The upshot is that research on the subject is not yet mature or conclusive, so any claim has to be taken with a grain of salt.

  192. roi Says:

    Anonymous Ocelot #159:

    > a person’s business shutting down for the anti-Jewish sentiments of the owner’s daughter

    The cancellation was due to her anti-black sentiments. The article’s wording was deliberately misleading, but one has to be willfully blind to believe that her antisemitism on its own could have proved anything but a net positive for her and her family’s business.

  193. TG Says:

    Nick #121:

    > Let’s be clear, what’s happening to Steven Pinker is not at all like a lynching.

    I wrote “virtual lynching”, and to me that’s exactly what it says. I also wrote that, whatever the reasons, one should never give a single concession to the angry mob: they’ll come for more. Once stripped of “distinguished fellow” and “media expert” status what will come next? Let’s not be naive and think that the accusers will be satisfied.

    But regardless of that, sorry, I don’t get your point. Are you suggesting that, since the punishment is “bland” we should be OK with that? Or that we shouldn’t be concerned and angry ourselves for this episode because that would “derail” useful anger and concern from more important topics?

    What does all this have to do with “left”, “center”, “right”? Stop being triggered by these words: They. Have. Literally. No. Meaning.

    > I know academic freedom is an emotional issue for everyone

    I hope I just didn’t get the sarcasm here. I would rather say that academic freedom is the very opposite of an emotional issue. Furthermore, the concerning aspect here is not just the “academical freedom” but rather the “cancel culture”. If Pinker were a plumber and the angry mob were after him because he said something nasty about “blackwater”, I would be as concerned as I am now. In a very non-emotional way.

    Pro tip: life is beautiful and more productive when you don’t have a Twitter / Facebook / Instagram account 🙂 trust me, try it!

  194. John McAndrew Says:

    The irony here is that the signatories have now opened themselves to getting “cancelled” by future groups with their political agendas: How many read the letter and investigated the facts before signing?

    I find it extraordinary how identity politics with their particular narratives has developed so far in 2020, yet this is just the beginning.

  195. jonathan Says:

    @sf 191:

    If one group’s encounters are overwhelmingly jaywalking type incidents; petty police harassment, etc. — then it’s quite possible that, by setting those aside and restricting to serious encounters, the rates of police shootings per serious encounter will show effects of racial discrimination.

    Here is data from the FBI on arrest rates by category of offense and race. From memory, blacks are about 28% of people shot by police in the WaPo database over the last 6 years. You can compare this to the black share of arrestees for various categories.

    Obviously arrests are not the equivalent of encounters, but I think it’s a safe bet that if an encounter escalates to the point of the cops shooting someone, the encounter has become an arrest attempt.

  196. liberal_lurker Says:

    Leo #163

    If SlateStarCodex was still accessible around I would link the post titled “Current Affairs “Some Puzzles for Libertarians”, Treated as Writing Prompts For Short Stories”. The fundamental point of that post is that while there are a great many problems (contrived or otherwise) that Liberalism may not be able to solve it often provides the “least bad” outcome.

    With respect to questions #2 and #3 on liberal defenses against “pogrom inducing speeches” and mob violence in 19th century Russia. The big picture answer is political action to create a liberal democracy that establishes the rule of law and universal rights such as equal protection under the law, in this case the right to police protection. The small picture answer is that your questions are nonsensical precisely because the Russian Empire was not a liberal democracy. In that environment the liberal answer is the same as the answer for any other ideology and that is “anything goes”. “Anything goes” did not work out particularly well for Jews in Russia or for all the other groups in similar situations throughout history.

    Question #4. Political action. Civil Disobedience. All the same tools that we currently use (often unsuccessfully, there are no guarantees) for equivalent situations. I really don’t get the point of this question. Honestly, you should be damn thankful that the people who think peanut allergies are fake a liberals. Consider the alternative.

  197. NLPer Says:

    Thank you for this post.

    There’s been a smaller scale kerfuffle at ACL (the leading NLP conference) last week, where a highly regarded paper on gender disparity in publications and citations made someone’s “blood boil” on Twitter because it assigned genders based on author names and only acknowledged non binary genders in a footnote. This was a virtual conference, of course, with plenty of official venues where the offended party could raise their issues and start a dialog but they chose to do it in dramatic fashion on Twitter, sending the well meaning author into such panic that he wrote to the PC to withdraw his paper. See

    If you have worked in NLP, you will know that the methodology of using names to infer genders is not new at all, and while it’s clearly flawed, it does give us useful aggregate data in the absence of self identification. There are hundreds of papers written in the last ten years that should be cancelled by this argument.

  198. Leo Says:

    @liberal_lurker #196:

    Ah, but I’m accusing you of heresy against other scripture: _In Favor of Niceness, Community, and Civilization_. The claim therein is that some people refuse to kill their political enemies, refuse to make laws against them, refuse to make up lies against them, refuse to hold any personal animosity against them — and, instead of getting crushed like you’d expect after giving up such an advantage, the practice takes hold. (Therefore pragmatism and principle coincide.)

    You’re claiming that once a liberal democracy is in place, one must hew to… whatever principles it is that everybody is hinting at but refusing to define… but if that’s not the case, anything goes. That’s quite a different claim. It strikes me as unstable: as soon as someone does something illiberal against you, like try to get you fired, you retaliate in kind, and soon we’re back to the state of nature.

    The point of question 4 is to probe the limits of “you can defend yourself by force of arms if people are trying to kill you”, what counts as a malicious violent attack vs as an unfortunate side effect to be tolerated.

    I have a new question which might get less chiding for not agreeing and more explanation of what I’m supposed to agree with:

    10) Earthlings often discriminate against Martians. Presumably, no liberal would want a law against saying “Earthlings! Don’t let the slimy green monsters near your cows!”, and no liberal would threaten to boycott that person’s employer unless they get fired. Also, no liberal would blame a Martian for refusing to associate with someone who says that. But what about all the stuff in the middle?

    In _Not just a mere political issue_, the other Scott A advocates friendship with anyone who isn’t “violent, ignorant, or rude”. On the other hand, civil rights for African-Americans were won in ways that were peaceful but very rude indeed. It seems like I can’t do both (though I can think of solutions like “chant rude slogans at a politician but have dinner with that politician’s powerless supporters”); when should I do either?

    The answer might be “liberalism doesn’t say”, but if the sole content of liberalism is “don’t try to get people fired or legally punished for what they advocate”, that’s hardly enough to make it a political identity.

    11) What about actions other than advocating for a specific position? _Not just a mere political issue_ says it’s philosophically untenable to shun abortion doctors but not pro-choicers in general, for example.

  199. Scott Aaronson on the attempt to cancel Steven Pinker | Egg Syntax Says:

    […] Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » My Enlightenment fanaticism […]

  200. liberal_lurker Says:

    Leo #196

    The preservation of liberal democracy (including capitalism) is itself the major victory. The advantages given up by liberals that you mentioned may result in (sometimes crushing) losses on this or that particular political issue but those issues are of secondary importance. As long as the system remains in place you have the potential for reform, to undue previous losses and to maintain the prosperity (from capitalism) that can fund social services and generate moral progress ( The morality that you can afford in good times is a lot nicer than that which you can afford in bad times, that is why it is so important to preserve those good times.

    Why should liberals make some of those sacrifices when their opponents won’t? Because things like universal rights, the rule of law and capitalism are more important to liberals than to their opponents and can not be taken for granted. A lot of those opponents are psychologically predisposed to support authoritarianism and we are essentially holding them inside a liberal democracy against their wishes.

    “but if that’s not the case, anything goes. That’s quite a different claim. It strikes me as unstable: as soon as someone does something illiberal against you, like try to get you fired, you retaliate in kind, and soon we’re back to the state of nature.”

    “Anything goes” was a reference to an environment of mob violence in which the authorities are either absent or complicit. It obviously is unstable and the limiting factors in such a situation are not moral but strategic/tactical. The winning side will always be the ones that have either a numerical advantage or a connection to state power.

    Questions #10 and #11. Neither boycotts, nor shunning or even condemnatory open letters are illiberal in and of themselves. What people are really objecting to lately and calling illiberal is the complete absence of reason, evidence and objectivity in the claims being made. In particular, the laughable claims that people “don’t feel safe” in the presence of people with by liberal standards completely unobjectionable beliefs. I basically agree with what Tyler Cowen wrote.

    “The actual problem is that we have a new bunch of “speech regulators” (not in the legal sense, not usually at least) who are especially humorless and obnoxious and I would say neurotic — in the personality psychology sense of that word. I say let’s complain about the real problem, namely the moral fiber, emotional temperaments, and factual worldviews of the individuals who have arrogated the new speech censorship functions to themselves. ”

  201. Leo Says:

    @liberal_lurker #200:

    Are you sure you’re still talking about the same thing? Even if we all strictly obeyed the whims of the most censorious person on Twitter, and fired people for writing “folks” instead of “folx”, I don’t see how it would threaten capitalism, economic prosperity, representative democracy with universal suffrage, or social services.

    I read your links, but have no idea what Professor Cowen is trying to say, except that he’s very angry and that there exists a group of people he wishes to insult. I also don’t understand what you mean by “the laughable claims that people “don’t feel safe” in the presence of people with by liberal standards completely unobjectionable beliefs”; I thought it might be in reference to the letter about Professor Pinker but it makes no such claims, so I don’t know.

    I’m aware that giving actual examples tends to derail the conversation, but I think we might need them here. In particular, I suspect that if I heard the claims, I would say “yes, these people are in fact dangerous to the claimants” and so there’s no interesting debate about the principles of liberalism (whatever those are), just a boring disagreement about what actions are directly harmful.

  202. sf Says:

    jonathan #195

    Thanks for the link. I had meant to mention an exceptional article –

    that could help bridge the gap between various progressive factions. If someone knows the Mpls situation better, please give some idea if this is really as straight to the point as it seems.

    I had seen the ‘shootings per encounter’ point used frequently by the anti-BLM crowd as a statistical proof that the police shooting problem is not racist. My main aim is just to illustrate how jumping from data to interpretation can be tricky. To rephrase it a bit; there can be both racism in the numerator and in the denominator, so statistical tests likely don’t get any signal on racism from this ratio, just noise.

    It looks like very hard work to sort through the various factors that need to be considered together. When groups resort to desperate tactics, like this petition, then it’s probably just because some are frustrated with scientific argument which is slow-moving and too technical and boring for most people. But the danger to freedom of expression is not coming just from one side of the political spectrum, it is everywhere that political ambitions are in play. (The Corbyn vs Israel dispute is a recent example where very mainstream groups used weak association with, or insensitivity to discrimination, to intimidate political expression, but it’s a long story, see link below for latest episode and work back from there).

  203. Derrick Says:

    Scott I’m a big fan and this is my first comment. I’m a bit concerned that you’re framing these events as a Leftists vs. Academia thing. This feels really inaccurate to me and I suspect this misrepresentation is one of the goals of the “sneer club.”

    None of these things make sense as leftist actions. Leftists do not wield racial justice as a cudgel against the intellectuals of the world. These actions come straight from the fascist right playbook and I think that it’s very important to correctly identify that. Real progressives celebrate the intellectuals that move our society forward – we already identify the act of impeding on that progress as conservatism.

    This isn’t a new phenomenon. The Nazi party were the “National Socialists.” But in fact the Marxists, communists, and socialists were the very first groups of people to be rounded up and sent off to Dachau.

    Turns out progressivism is more popular than clinging on to the past so it’s no surprise that the right would attempt to co-opt and twist popular ideals to advance their agenda.

    It’s important to identify these situations correctly since it seems that they’re seeing quite a bit of success in taking simultaneous shots against the credibility of both intellectualism and the civil rights movement.

  204. fred Says:

    Although debates on cancel culture are fascinating, at some point they do seem like a dangerous distraction from the way more complex and pragmatic issue of school reopenings.

  205. Scott Says:

    Derrick #203: I’m glad to hear you say that the SneerClubbers are not true leftists, the people who now dominate social media and many academic institutions and who enforce cancel culture are not true leftists, etc. I have a lot of sympathy for that position! Unfortunately, I fear that it’s become a minority one. See comment #137, where I suggested the term “Old Leftists” for those leftists who continue to believe in liberal principles.

  206. Michael Says:

    Yay! ICE rescinded the order expelling foreign students:

  207. anonymous Says:

    One of the biggest problems I have against “racism” / “sexism” / “discrimination” other forms of supposed statistical disadvantages which people raise flags against, is that they ignore and criticize thousands of individual decisions which were made by people with a lot more information than the one criticizing that decision has.

    For example, by claiming that the police are racist, they somehow claim that many many times a cop has made a mistake, while the cop making that mistake has much more information about the occurrence than the person claiming the cop made those mistakes – because the person claiming it was racism only knows the person involved is black. It’s a classical example of dunning-krogen effect, and I think it’s arrogant to claim not one cop, but the whole police is continuously making mistakes, and claiming that on the basis of a single data point (blackness of skin) instead of the vast amount of information the cops had at each point they made that mistake.

    Another example is women hiring. I get it that the hiring is statistically bad for women, but blaming the people doing the hiring is, again, claiming thousands of recruiters are making mistakes, when each of these recruiters has much more information about the candidate than just her being a female, while those claiming they made a mistake only have a single data point.

    I think using statistics to prove racism or victimhood or discrimination is pointless. If you want to criticize someone, you need to criticize his actions, and to criticize his actions you need to understand why he made them, and have a real valid reason why the reasons behind his actions were wrong. If you don’t bother to do that you don’t really seek a change but a confirmation to your own insecurities, while giving unfair advantage only hides the symptoms and not the problem, whatever the problem is.

  208. sf Says:

    anonymous #207

    The proof is in the pudding; if a generalization can be shown to have predictive power then it should be acceptable for scientific use. There will always be problems involving how it fares when the context changes, which is a big problem for social sciences but can also get tricky in the hard sciences.

    But what you propose is an interesting and philosophically radical stance; it denies all possibility of useful generalization in the social sciences. Concepts like “racism”, “sexism” etc. are based on large numbers of diverse experiences though, so your attempt to apply them in and reduce them to a particular individual case risks falling into a self-contradictory exercise. If it would just ignore the implicit input from other cases in a sort of willful blindness, then its not any better than being a victim of the effect you mention.

    Scott #205 #137

    What about the Bernie Sanders movement on the left? It didn’t strike me as being particularly oriented to cancel culture, even if it may have attracted some support from them.

  209. anonymous Says:

    sf #208: Individuals can be racist, I don’t deny that racism exist. I don’t deny it’s possible, in extreme cases, for a majority of a group to be racist. If a statistical study would directly study what people think – and whether they hold racist beliefs – I would find it acceptable. It could be a source for useful generalization in social studies – if that was indeed the case. I don’t deny all generalizations.

    However, when a study only looks at what people do, and then finds statistical correlations, I think it’s incorrect to infer that the source for these correlations is “racism” / “sexism” / “discrimination” in the present (as opposed to momentum of past social structures). Correlation is not causation. The only way for a system to be “racist” is if many individuals hold racist beliefs. “Acting” in a racist way without thinking in a racist way isn’t possible for a whole system, because systems don’t have free will.

    The free will is in the individuals. Systems don’t develop independent free will. Anthropomorphizing systems as if they are individuals obscures the way things work, and they also place an undeserved blame on each individual in the system, because their individual decisions were sound and logical.

  210. liberal_lurker Says:

    Leo #201

    I apologize for the delay in getting back to you.

    “I’m aware that giving actual examples tends to derail the conversation, but I think we might need them here. In particular, I suspect that if I heard the claims, I would say “yes, these people are in fact dangerous to the claimants” and so there’s no interesting debate about the principles of liberalism (whatever those are), just a boring disagreement about what actions are directly harmful.”

    Here is the perfect example of the illiberal mindset.

    In particular the following line which the author wrote in bold.

    “My gender is not up for debate. I am a woman. Any trans discourse that does not proceed from this initial assumption — that trans people are the gender that they say they are — is oppressive, regressive, and harmful.”

  211. Rich Peterson Says:

    Maybe I’m out of my depth here but I want to say a couple things. My main comment is about body cameras for police, which was mentioned in #60(Scott) and replied to in #68(Jordan). Though it’s tangential, I’m sure that commenters here are interested in it: I strongly support police body cameras, even if research shows they don’t reduce police violence. I have many reasons, mostly intertwined. 1) Many or most devices don’t work as well as hoped at first, so let’s keep doing the body cameras devices even though the statistics are neutral on them. There’s lots of tweaks that can be tried in the coming years to make them better. After all, Robert Goddard’s rockets, if he had tried to go to the Moon on them, would have had a 100% failure rate. 2) The reduction in police violence might exist but be too small to see at first, but an improvement of .5%/year would save a lot of lives in a few years, and make us feel safer. 3.) Body cameras could lead to improvement in the pool of police applicants, as the few who want to be police for hurtful or corrupt reasons see less possibility for hurting people when both they and their partners wear body cameras. 4.) The first 3 reasons intertwine and amplify each other….The other minor comment I have is about how the cancel culture seems invincible sometimes, and that is already happening to us from the Right: we feel at least somewhat helpless, at a strategic disadvantage, in the face of cancel culture tactics, because it at least seems to us that the enemy doesn’t play fair. It feels like we’re caught in quicksand, that the more what we say, the more we sink. Well, isn’t that how some of us feel when we watch Fox News, like we’re in rightwing quicksand instead of cancel culture quicksand?

  212. sf Says:

    anonymous #209

    There are a couple of good Sendhil Mullainathan articles that say more, better, than what I could hope to put in a comment here.

    In fact the source of Pinker’s tweet was the former. If one has this context then there is much less risk of misinterpreting the tweet taken in isolation. The problem is that the one-liner tends to get repeated and the background details forgotten.

  213. Leo Says:

    @liberal_lurker #210:

    Is this a general example of an illiberal mindset, or specifically an example of “laughable claims that people “don’t feel safe” in the presence of people with by liberal standards completely unobjectionable beliefs”? That is, are you claiming that the beliefs the author objects to are unobjectionable; or are you claiming that they are harmful but that nonetheless the author should endure the harm rather than try to shut down inquiry?

  214. william e emba Says:

    >Not Convinced #187

    >william e emba #186: “… it’s now documented as a potential career derailing issue.”


    Last December, there was Nature correspondence, with 3 authors and 13 cosigners, that the use of “supremacy” was racist. It was discussed here at the time.

  215. liberal_lurker Says:

    Leo #213

    Some of the beliefs are completely unobjectionable by liberal standards and others are in my opinion unobjectionable but I can imagine others would disagree. However, even for those beliefs that some could plausibly believe are harmful it is not plausible to believe that academic philosophical discussion of those beliefs puts the author as an academic in any danger.

    An example of a completely unobjectionable belief would be that philosophical discussion of particular topics does not require a particular set of fixed assumptions from which all discourse must accept as true. The author’s demand that all discussion of transgender issues should be required to assume certain things is analogous to a devout philosopher demanding that all discussion of religious topics begin with the assumption that god exists. Consider the harm that believers would suffer if exposed to ideas that could shatter their entire world view! It could cause a crisis of faith, it could make them realize their entire life is a lie, it could even cause a mental breakdown….

    An example of a “laughable” claim of not feeling safe is the reaction of a transgender journalist at Vox in response to another journalist at Vox signing the Harper’s letter. Here is the letter she sent to superiors at Vox and published on twitter.

    and here is an example of some of the “reasoning” for objecting to the content of the letter

  216. Vaarsuvius Says:

    I think it is constructive when dealing with these very emotionally charged topics to imagine a generalisation of these principles to subjects of much less debateable scientific fact (debateability here being unrelated to veracity). If it is loudly proclaimed that nobody can be punished for an opinion, what if tomorrow the “honoured professor” of so and so scientific society came out as “flat-earth adjacent”? Or, for something closer to the present, loudly decided that climate change wasn’t real, or that vaccines were the real killers? These are all very real “political positions” that we often forget are possible for someone to take, just as geocentrism was a viable political position in the days of Galileo and Copernicus. Does the principle still hold true, in that case?

  217. fred Says:

    Rich Peterson #211

    “The reduction in police violence might exist but be too small to see at first, but an improvement of .5%/year would save a lot of lives in a few years, and make us feel safer.”

    A lot of lives compared to what?
    Existing data on actual unjustified police violence is pretty limited.
    Also, by definition most police encounters are violent. When cops are called to respond to some domestic violence, how do you think it’s ending most of the time? The cops just defuse the situation with words of wisdom?
    In every encounter a cop has to assume that a gun is involved. And it’s indeed the case that a gun is always involved: the cop’s own gun. At any moment his/her own gun could be turned against him/herself or innocents. That’s not going to change unless we take guns away from cops. Given the gigantic numbers of illegal guns out there, it’s probably never going to happen.

    Also “feeling safe” is a very subjective thing.
    Ask any of those victims if they now feel safe walking in NYC:
    I could pull hundreds of similar videos.

  218. Doug Says:

    #209: However, when a study only looks at what people do, and then finds statistical correlations, I think it’s incorrect to infer that the source for these correlations is “racism” / “sexism” / “discrimination” in the present (as opposed to momentum of past social structures). Correlation is not causation.

    It’s true! All stats can do is rule out the null hypothesis. So either our criminal just system is a racist structure, or perhaps minorities are just more likely to deserve mass incarceration and violent oppression. A question of interpretation, eh? You get to choose whether you want to recognize a racist system in action, or you get to be a racist. The math only forces you to pick a side; we are not within one standard deviation of equal justice under law.

  219. Michael Says:

    @Leo 213:

    ” . . . are you claiming that the beliefs the author objects to are unobjectionable; or are you claiming that they are harmful but that nonetheless the author should endure the harm rather than try to shut down inquiry?”

    Either would be fine, would it not?

  220. Not Convinced Says:

    Scott, several states have now passed laws which bar contractors unless they promise to never boycott anything Israeli (see, e.g., .) In your home state of Texas, this has been going on for some time and has resulted in firings, including a school worker who refused to sign a pledge to not boycott *a specific foreign country* (

    Can you explain why none of these egregious *actual* cancellations resulted in a breathless blog post from you, explaining how this means the impending doom of Enlightenment values and how we should all join forces to fight it?

    Can you explain why your public concern was only triggered when elite scientists with huge platforms (like Scott A and Steven P) were potentially threatened?

    Why the enormous disparity in emphasis?

    There is an obvious explanation, of course: *in principle* you are opposed to all forms of cancellation, but *in practice* you are really only strongly bothered if the targets are people with whom you largely agree and/or who belong to your broad class of relatively powerful elites.

    Is there another, better explanation?

    Related question: how do you feel about Bari Weiss and her life’s work on “cancellation”? Victim? Perpetrator? Both?

  221. Nick Says:

    fred #217

    > Existing data on actual unjustified police violence is pretty limited.

    No shit the data is limited. Cops don’t want data collected, because they want to avoid accountability.

    > When cops are called to respond to some domestic violence, how do you think it’s ending most of the time? The cops just defuse the situation with words of wisdom?

    Tony Timpa called emergency services without reporting any kind of crime at all, and the cops showed up and choked him to death for no reason. Maybe some “words of wisdom” would have led to a different outcome.

  222. Scott Says:

    Not Convinced #220: For the record, I strongly oppose the anti-BDS laws, just like I oppose legal efforts to enshrine BDS. The Texas anti-BDS law even significantly inconvenienced me and (ironically) my Israeli wife, preventing us from getting reimbursed for AirBnBs for academic travel, until AirBnB changed its policies with regard to Israel.

    On the other hand, rules around government contracting raise all sorts of issues that go beyond intellectual exchange. For example, presumably you and I would both want to prohibit governments from contracting with any companies that boycotted Blacks or women or gays … agreed? OK, but companies that boycott Israelis—because they’re Israelis, and regardless of their views about Netanyahu or the West Bank—are fine? What would you think of a company that boycotted Jews, unless (let’s say) they renounced the State of Israel?

    On reflection, I’m fine with drawing a line that US government contractors are allowed to discriminate against Israelis even if they’re not allowed to discriminate against other groups. Partly, though, that’s because I don’t want even the appearance that the anti-BDS position (i.e., my position) requires government coercion and can’t hold its own intellectually. In any case, if there are to be such policies, then it seems like a complete no-brainer to me to exempt companies that only boycott the settlements rather than the State of Israel itself. (Though note that such boycotts have sometimes had the ironic effect of hurting the Palestinians who work at joint Israeli/Palestinian companies.)

    On the third hand … I’m not the ACLU (or at least the old ACLU), with a remit to fight for anyone whose liberties are infringed no matter how reprehensible they are. I’m just a blogger who writes when the urge or muse or procrastination strikes … and who’s willing to defend having written what he wrote but not having not written what he didn’t write.

    And yes, Scott Alexander and Steven Pinker are both thinkers who enlarged my intellectual horizons, challenged me with their arguments, and moved me with their command of the English sentence … in both cases, even before they became my friends. If they can be cancelled, then that is deeply personal for me, because it means (among other things) that I can be cancelled, that just about anyone with an unusual thought in their head can be cancelled, that there’s no longer any line or limit. If cancelling neo-Nazis is at the top of a slippery slope, then cancelling Scott Alexander and Steven Pinker is all the way at the bottom of the slope. It represents the point at which the revolutionaries have moved on from cutting off the heads of their oppressors, and are now cutting off the head of Lavoisier (of whom Lagrange said, “It took them only an instant to cut off this head, and one hundred years might not suffice to reproduce its like”).

    In a liberal society, the reason why you tolerate the ignorant, the wrong, and the reprehensible—and it’s an excellent reason!—is that if you fail to, then eventually even the greatest geniuses won’t be tolerated. Alas, if we’ve reached the point where even Pinker and Alexander are becoming personae non grata, then the opponents of tolerance have breached the periphery and are now storming the fort. So damned if those of us who love their work won’t make a last stand! I plead guilty to your charge.

  223. Michael Says:

    @Scott#222- I think the argument is that there’s a difference between boycotting countries and boycotting people whose ancestors came from those countries. Many people would have no problem boycotting Maoist China but would definitely have a problem with discrimination against Chinese Americans unless they denounced Mao. Of course, obviously boycotting academic institutions is different from boycotting individual academics.

  224. anonymous Says:

    Not Convinced #220: I would argue that BDS itself is a form of cancel culture, taken to an extreme. An attempt to cancel a whole country. Is it OK to cancel someone as a response to his own cancellation campaign? Damn yes it is. The law isn’t against criticizing Israel, it’s against boycotting a.k.a cancelling Israel. If we reached a point where companies start boycotting each other over various absurd political things, I wouldn’t mind laws that would limit these kind of cancel culture further.

    The difference between boycotting and cancel culture and free speech, is that cancel culture and boycotts attempt to trample and hurt people with real actions, as a response to disliking their opinion, while free speech and anti cancel culture believe that resolving conflicts should be done by communication and arguing. They will also think the solution to the Israeli problem is similar – a conversation between the two sides leading to a resolution, not forced resolution compelled by sanctions and boycotts. BDS and cancel culture both don’t believe in convincing the other side but by forcing them into submission. If more laws would come that would prevent CEOs using their companies as a political battering ram, I would be all in for it.

  225. Not Convinced Says:

    Scott #222: your analogies are not just bad analogies; they are almost opposites. First, a fitting analogy to banning people who support BDS is not banning people who support boycotting gays (the state of Israel is not a person, companies from Israel are not people, “Israeli” is not a sexual orientation or an ethnicity, etc.) A far more appropriate analogy would be banning people who support boycotting states like Ghana where being gay is illegal and gay people are persecuted. The *closest* analogy would be banning people who boycotted Apartheid South Africa. Presumably you would be firmly against such a ban. Of course, US elites were firmly in South Africa’s camp when this was happening, another aspect in which this is a much closer analogy than anything you have suggested.

    Setting aside all that, your understanding of these laws is completely wrong. The crucial thing you have missed is that people *are* allowed to boycott *any other country* and its companies, including even the United States itself! In all these instances that I’m aware of, the laws *only* required that *Israel* could not be boycotted. This is absolutely essential to understanding why this is purely politically motivated “cancellation” and not some noble attempt at preventing discrimination.

    Your conclusions are presumably a consequence of this major misunderstanding, so you should probably revisit them.

    Finally, no: I don’t agree that Scott A and Steven P are at the “good” end of some imaginary slope of opinion or thought. They are very powerful individuals (compared to the rest of us) with huge platforms and influence, and it’s not at all clear to me that their public positions are good in some absolute sense. (Better than neo-Nazis sure, but that’s not much of a standard.) For example, Steven P’s schtick that everything is great and getting better is imo (a.) fundamentally false and (b.) a big megaphone in support of the status quo trend in which a small number of people amass more and more political power and control over everyone and everything on the planet.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean that I think Steven P should be cancelled any more than the countless people who are too weak to fight anti-BDS cancellation. Of course, one of these categories is actually threatened and the other is not.

    In the end, BDS is just one example among many of how this “cancellation” thing is very far from new, except that some glancing blows are now landing against people who were too powerful to be totally immune before. I understand how the cases of Scott A and Steven P could affect you very personally, but that’s not a good reason to make dramatic claims about the “end of Enlightenment values” with little to nothing to justify them.

  226. Boaz Barak Says:

    I didn’t read most of the comments but just wanted to respond to Scott #222. As far as I know, no one is “cancelling” Pinker nor Alexander. For the former, there was an unsuccessful petition to the Linguistic Society of America to rescind some honor, which (from a cursory look) seemed to be mostly signed by junior researchers. For the latter, there was an argument whether the New York times should print his (not secret – moderately easy to Google – but not public either) last name.

    To be clear, I think that the New York Times printing Alexander’s last name would have been the wrong thing to do, but it’s not “cancelling” him. (I don’t know that much about Pinker’s scholarship nor about the LSA, so I don’t have such a strong opinion about this petition, except that I think that the bar for withdrawing an honor should be high and Pinker is no Fisher.)

    Generally, this discussion seems to propose some equivalency where the right is led by Trump and the left is led by some linguistic graduate students that want to cancel Stephen Pinker. But Trump is the president of the United States and supported by 90% of Republicans. The democratic nominee for president is Joe Biden, and neither he, nor any of the other candidates (as far as I know) is a strong proponent for “cancel culture”, whatever that means.

    Most of the left is responding to this pandemic by trying to extend unemployment insurance, protect teachers and students, and support scientists and common sense public safety measures. In any normal circumstances the right would have done the same thing, just as the country came together after 9/11.

  227. Not Convinced Says:

    anonymous #224: come on, that’s lazy. Look, I can do it too: the Israeli occupation is a worse form of cancellation than BDS, because BDS just refuses to buy stuff whereas the Israeli occupation takes people’s land and/or kills them. We can do this all day.

    The point of these discussions is not how you feel about the individual political positions. It’s about whether cancellation is a new phenomenon, and whether the rule “people shouldn’t be cancelled for their political views” is being applied universally or just against people we disagree with.

  228. Jelmer Renema Says:

    The historical parallel doesn’t hold up – Lavoisier’s beheading had nothing to do with his scientific or intellectual activities. He was a member of the hated college of tax farmers, and was guillotined along with his colleagues. Given that one of the causes of the French revolution was the inequitable tax system, in the eyes of the revolutionaries he would have been an oppressor, and quite a prominent one too.

  229. anonymous Says:

    Not Convinced #227: They absolutely shouldn’t be cancelled for views alone. Actions on the other hand, like boycotting, discriminating, refusing service, are not just political views. The line is pretty obvious. You can talk all you want, you can even say antisemitic things (in my opinion). Your free speech rights and your protection stops when you take these words and translate them into action.

    When you say Israel should be destroyed, or whatever insane things you think, it’s a saying. I wouldn’t like what you say and I would strongly oppose and argue you in every occasion but I wouldn’t cancel you, because then you would stay silent and think the same things and I would have no opportunity to change your opinion.

    But when you start boycotting, discriminating, treating Jews badly, then the tolerance stops and you can and should be cancelled. Free speech is meant for the discussion to stay in words, and not actions. You lost your right to use it without consequences when you took actions.

  230. fred Says:

    Not Convinced #225

    “They are very powerful individuals (compared to the rest of us) with huge platforms and influence […] For example, Steven P’s schtick that everything is great and getting better is imo (a.) fundamentally false and (b.) a big megaphone in support of the status quo trend in which a small number of people amass more and more political power and control over everyone and everything on the planet.”

    Again your own personal twisted definition of the word “power”, as a way to justify all this.

    The same justification would apply to the Dalai Lama:
    He has a truly massive platform, hence he’s probably orders of magnitude more “powerful” than Pinker or A. Scott.
    And he’s also unabashedly optimistic, and by definition the Buddhist view on dissatisfaction/suffering is that acceptance it is the key to happiness, basically contentment in the status quo:
    [warning: very triggering sentences ahead, read at your own risk]

    “Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.”

    “There is a saying in Tibetan, ‘Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.'”

    “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

    “A truly compassionate attitude toward others does not change even if they behave negatively or hurt you.”

    “Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can.”

    “Silence is sometimes the best answer”

    “Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.”
    “Choose to be optimistic, it feels better.”

  231. fred Says:

    anonymous #229

    while I would tend to agree with you, it’s not that obvious that “opinions” are harmless, as opposed to actions.
    When does an opinion comes into existence?
    Even if your brain never thought a particular opinion, it still has the potential of holding that opinion within itself.
    Opinions themselves evolve based on our knowledge of the world – if I were to ask you whether you think the Hutu or the Tutsi were more at fault for the Rwandan genocide, you wouldn’t know what to say (imagine if the person asking you this would cancel you based on your answer). But after living in Rwanda for 10 years, you probably would have a more definite opinion about it. So our judgment of the opinions of others ought to take this into account – i.e. one’s opinion is obviously from one’s point of view, so is it entirely fair to blame anyone for how limited his point of view is?

    About the difference between an opinion and an action, expressing an opinion is in itself an action. Even thinking internally an opinion is an action, even if very subtle, e.g. it could appear during an RMI scan of your brain. Speaking an opinion is an action (our vocal cords vibrate, air waves travel and reach the ear drums of others, creating signals in their brain)… at the extreme this leads to the concept of words being acts of (micro)aggression.
    So the way your opinions are expressed/extracted matter too.
    Forcibly extracting a bad opinion from someone who’s never acted on it is different than that same person standing every day in Times Square for 10 years and shouting it to thousands of people.
    Expressing an opinion too forcefully can become harassment.
    While opinion may not include your own actions, they may potentially entice others to take action. Imagine a person being particularly mentally vulnerable, having some deep depression and suicidal tendencies, and someone tells them “I agree with you, in my opinion you really should kill yourself”. If I’m not mistaken some teenagers have been convicted for doing this.

    It all shows that the transition between opinion and action is not binary.

  232. fred Says:

    In the end, everything humanity has ever achieved was based on some idea – every single invention and concept around us is the result of an interrupted long chain of ideas involving tens of thousands of generations. No generation alone can take sole credit and blame for anything.

    The entirety of humanity as of 120 years ago has now been totally replaced, yet all their ideas have survived, living in our brains, and those ideas are molding us and will be our legacy after another 120 years.

    As individuals, we are just temporary vessels through which ideas propagate, mutate, and interfere with one another (constructively or destructively). It’s all a huge chess game of ideas.

  233. Not Convinced Says:

    anonymous #229: have you even briefly thought about what your general principle would mean if it was applied to the other side? For example, according to your principle, Israel *should* be cancelled because it “took actions” against Palestinians. In fact, the argument would be stronger in that case because Israel’s actions are indisputably far more violent and severe than those of BDS.

    Personally, I don’t agree that Israel should be “cancelled.” I also disagree with the general principle you proposed (in part) because it leads to that conclusion.

    As far as the stuff about discrimination or whatever: yea, Scott tried to falsely raise this spectre too. As I said above: feel free to look up what the anti-BDS laws and pledges actually say. You are free to discriminate against anyone *except* the Israeli state and Israeli companies. In particular, the pledges say nothing about ethnicities, so you are free to be a rabid anti-Semitic Holocaust denier who boycotts every known ethnicity and sexual orientation, provided you don’t boycott Israel. That should make it clear what is actually being protected. I leave it to the reader to decide why, despite this obvious fact, people still try to associate this with ethnic discrimination.

    In the end, my problem with Scott’s original post is that there’s very little (that I can see) to justify the outrage. Cancellation isn’t new except in the name, and Twitter being obsessed with it this week is not evidence that it is new. The final call-to-arms (“ask yourself now: what is my personal break-point for speaking up?”) just doesn’t make sense, and comes across as really tone-deaf. There have been many far worse, actually successful cancellations in the past. Why would a hilariously bad and completely failed campaign to take a few titles away from a famous Harvard prof bring anyone closer to a break-point? If anything, this campaign resulted in Pinker having an even larger platform and more widespread support. So what are we supposed to be worried about?

    Don’t get me wrong, “cancellation” *is* a real problem and has been for a long time. But this ain’t it.

  234. AliceToBob Says:

    @ Boaz #226

    “As far as I know, no one is “cancelling” Pinker nor Alexander.”

    You can argue about the degree of cancellation or try to pin down the exact meaning of that term. Nevertheless, there have been and continue to be obvious attempts to curtail the ability of these thinkers–like Alexander, Pinker, Hsu, Murray, B. Weinstein, and even our host here–to express their thoughts.

    That curtailment strikes a lot of people as wrong and significant enough to be *the* issue to vote on. I know that I’ll be throwing my support behind Trump this fall for this reason alone.

    Because Scott is correct in diagnosing that, at least in many minds, rightly or wrongly this kind of behavior maps to the “left”. And it’s close enough to “cancellation” that the semantic wrangling doesn’t matter to those that find it wrong.

    Has Biden said “I’m against cancel culture. What is happening to [insert Pinker or whoever] is wrong”? Because that would be a step in the right direction, and I’d like to vote for Biden, if my conscience would let me. It would mean certain family members would feel less threatened about losing their visa status. But leaders on the left only seem to support, or at best leave unaddressed, cancel-culture-adjacent weapons like implicit bias, institutional and systemic racism, and “hate speech”.

    So, yeah, let’s spend the next several months trumpeting support for BLM, defunding the police, reparations, and pulling down statues. And let’s argue the semantics of “is it canceling or not?”. And then wrap up by telling people that “re-electing Trump will only make the SJWs increase their bullying behavior”. Maybe it’ll work.

  235. Not Convinced Says:

    fred #230: Pinker *is* relatively powerful, and nobody in their right mind would deny that. Yes, power means different things in different contexts, but there’s nothing “twisted” about observing that Pinker’s position and fame are a form of power. This power is very real: large speaking engagements which allow him to influence public opinion, big book deals, plenty of money (which also grants power,) contacts with powerful people, etc. This power is also why he was able to easily resist this cancellation attempt. Whether he should have that power is a different question (maybe he’s brilliant and it’s *good* that he has it; that depends on how you see him) but it is *undeniable* that *he has it*. So I don’t know what you’re talking about.

    I was also not trying to “use that” to “justify all this.” As I already said above, I disagree with the attempted cancellation of Pinker. So here again I have no idea what you mean.

    As with your “comrade” accusations above, this is just a waste of time.

  236. Confused Says:

    – To note at the beginning, I don’t agree with the letter’s intent and probably wouldn’t have signed it.

    On top of some of the above criticisms of the post, it seems like the society that you’re advocating for is one in which there is actually less free speech for the average person. As a young professor in a field fairly close to yours, to me this reads as a implicit threat to anyone who is willing to wage criticism – and finds said critical sentiments to be widely held enough to compile 500 signatories for an open letter – of someone as famous and influential as Pinker. The parallel here would be someone who appears on television, twitter, and the Amazon bestseller list to give his/her takes on global events as a representative of the quantum computing community; such a person, has a certain responsibility to the the people in their own field. If they then used that position to weigh in on political issues – unrelated to our field – in a way that I found offensive or even racist, this post tells me that if I tried to speak out against my rep, there will be trouble; people with much bigger platforms than me will write ‘hair on fire’ blogs, label me as an unwilling or willing co-conspirator with the notorious “they”, and finally assign my letter intent that the letter itself explicitly denies. I will then receive an onslaught of online threats. I’m sure this is not the intent of your post, I’m sure you don’t wish for the letter’s writers to receive death threats for writing a letter, but it does happen when people try to speak out like this, and the writers of the Pinker letter are certainly not the only “theys” who receive this kind of treatment.

    After reading your post, then going back and closely reading the ‘open letter’ again, I’ve noticed rhetorical strategies that are similar to those I knew growing up in a southern culture, highly influenced by 90s conservative media. The first is that if you read your description of the letter, you get a synopsis that creates a highly emotional “‘they’ are coming for us” reaction, which I certainly did not feel at all when engaging with the actual content of the letter. Further, you speak of “they” as if it is some strategic entity cynically performing a power move for power’s sake. Finally, you ascribe motivations to the writers of the letter that are explicitly denied – I think very believably – by the writers themselves; this is under the guise of ‘we all know what they’re up to’, when it’s actually not obvious at all that they are acting in bad faith.

    These are all techniques that I recognize from anti-evolution, anti-global warming, etc… arguments:

    – “They” (scientists) are trying to push the idea of evolution on us, not because they think evolution is true (they don’t), but because they are trying to push an anti-God narrative where secularism and socialism reign supreme.

    – “They” (scientists in cahoots with liberals) are pushing the idea of ‘global warming’ because they want to control every car you drive, how you throw away your garbage, etc… because liberals like power, and believe the government should control you.

    The implicit threat here is: “A small fraction of us are going to speak on behalf of our community, on a whole range of issues not necessarily related to our field. If you take issue with how we do this, then we will use the above tactics to smear you.” I feel as though, you don’t fully appreciate the power you wage here, being as successful as you are and having the blog that everyone in quantum reads. This has it’s own chilling effect. I’m even feeling it now as I write this – you’re much more famous than me with much more influence; what if “they” included some of your graduate students – they probably aren’t going to tell you if they are. Their speech has, effectively, been silenced.

    It seems most likely that these are, in fact, NOT nefarious actors striving to exercise their anti-Enlightenment sentiment against Pinker. It seems like they simply were a group of academics and graduate students who didn’t like Pinker (being one of two household names in Linguistics) publicly weighing into political matters on their behalf, in a way that they genuinely found problematic. Not a single political entity, but a heterogeneous group of people who don’t like being represented by Pinker – a small minority of which (unreasonably) thought Pinker should be banned from Linguistics – who wished to express their sentiments in a tangible way. Even if they are wrong (which here they probably are), how are you not advocating for a world where THEY are silenced for the sake of a much more powerful, established person? Why is it that Stephen Pinker must not have his words turned upside down and misconstrued into something more nefarious than what he meant, but necessary for understanding what the 500 people that signed the letter “really” meant. Why can Pinker be wrong and not them?

    Further, publicly exaggerating the threat of SJWs on college campuses, is certainly not a strategy that will make Trump less likely to win in 2020.

  237. Scott Says:

    Confused #236: I’d almost agree with your argument, except for one false presupposition that the entire thing rests on. Namely, Pinker doesn’t “speak for” other linguists. He speaks only for himself. Just like Don Knuth doesn’t speak for me, Terry Tao doesn’t speak for mathematicians, Richard Dawkins doesn’t speak for biologists, and I don’t speak for any other quantum complexity theorists, any more than when I started this blog as an unknown postdoc in 2005. (I might tell you that some view of mine is a consensus among my colleagues, but I might also tell you that it isn’t one.) The alternative is to say that any academic whose writing earns them an audience, no longer gets to express any controversial opinion about anything, lest they “speak for” any colleague who might disagree with them.

    The signatories to that letter were trying to strong-arm a professional society into curtailing an individual’s freedom to express calm, liberal, middle-of-the-road opinions while remaining a member in good standing of his academic field. I passionately oppose that. And there’s no symmetry to the situation: I’ve never once signed such a petition against any of the many academics whose political views I disagree with, and I can’t imagine doing so.

  238. Nick Says:

    People in Portland are getting abducted off the streets by armed men in masks and camo fatigues. They aren’t wearing any identifying insignia and their vans are unmarked, so they could be anyone. Maybe it’s an SJW Twitter mob???

  239. Scott Says:

    Boaz Barak #226: I completely agree that, from a “global” standpoint, defeating Trump is a vastly more important goal than defending intellectual freedom from left-wing cancel culture! Even if one took a maximalist view, much more even than I do, of how much the latter is a threat.

    Having said that, when I think about what I, personally can do to contribute to Trump’s defeat, showing people that there are academics and progressives in the US who still stand proudly for freedom of thought—i.e. that it’s not a binary choice between the “canceling SJW snowflakes” and Trump, which (if you recall) was Trump’s entire case for re-election in his speech at Mount Rushmore—well, that seems like one of the more important things I could do! And I hope others will join me.

  240. AliceToBob Says:

    @ Scott, #238
    “…from a “global” standpoint, defeating Trump is a vastly more important goal than defending intellectual freedom from left-wing cancel culture!”

    Why is that the order of your priorities?

  241. Confused Says:

    Pinker certainly speaks for other linguists, whether he wants to or not. The vessel in which he earned his audience was, at least initially, through his success in the linguistics community. Through this, and his subsequent popular books, he then became the most famous linguist alive, aside from Chomsky. If you are the most famous person in your field, and famous for reasons associated with that field, people view you as a representative for that field.

    For example, Richard Dawkins does speak for the biology community as well as the atheist community; at any point he’s perfectly free to say/believe that he doesn’t speak for said communities, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s the person the public thinks of when they think atheist or biologist. When Dawkins communicates to the public, he effectively *is* speaking for his fields, since whatever he says is what people think of when they think of them. Dawkins does not have a choice as to whether or not to represent these communities; if he chose to act in a way that is influenced by his belief that he does not represent atheists, his neglect of that responsibility could reasonably prompt a society of atheists to denounce him.

    Pinker’s representation of the linguistics community is similar, which is why the content of the letter, *unsuccessfully* requesting his name taken off two lists at LSA was reasonable speech, whether or not it was correct in its arguments. It is important to note, his career is in no way, and, more importantly, couldn’t have been ruined by this letter. If the signatories were able to “strong-arm LSA”, which they were not – instead culminating in a banal statement from LSA – then Pinker’s career would have remained virtually identical as it was before; the only difference being that this one organization he is a part of would no longer list him as a “distinguished fellow” and a “media expert”. It seems like the only substantive result here would be LSA agreeing to something pretty close to the statement “Pinker does not speak for other linguists”, which, ironically, would make my presupposition false. In the absence of any action taken as a result of this letter, and the triviality of the explicitly requested action, it still seems like you are arguing for a world where people like Pinker are immune from collective criticism from those whom he represents.

  242. Confused Says:

    ^Scott #237:

  243. Scott Says:

    Nick #238: A liberal take might be, people in Portland are getting abducted off the streets in unmarked vans by armed federal agents, and hundreds of leftist academics are protesting against Steven Pinker tweeting articles from the New York Times? 🙂

  244. Scott Says:

    Not Convinced #225: This will be my last volley, since I’ve been trying to think more about research and less about culture war, but very briefly … I agree with you in firmly opposing the anti-BDS laws! And I hope you’ll take yes for an answer. 🙂 If you also opposed the letter against Pinker, then the actual distance between us might be less than this exchange would make it seem.

    But Israel is an outlier in many respects, not just with regard to anti-BDS laws. As far as I know, it’s the only country on earth for which it’s been an almost mainstream, respectable position for generations that the entire country should be cancelled, erased from existence. It’s the only country explicitly founded on the principle of “Never Again,” and also the only country (not China, Saudi Arabia, or even North Korea) with 40+ UN resolutions condemning it. And while I do think that the Republicans deserve to be condemned for ignoring the suffering of the Palestinians, and for allying themselves with the “Israeli Trumpists” (Netanyahu and the settler movement) … still, too-great zeal about preventing the second Holocaust that Israel’s neighbors have often luridly threatened, probably wouldn’t even crack the top 50 on my list of things to condemn Republicans for.

  245. Boaz Barak Says:

    Scott, I believe we are in agreement on the relative importance of these issues.

    Generally I’m surprised by the connection between this discussion and the presidential election. The president of the United States has many powers: he coordinates the nation’s response to emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic. He controls agencies such as the CDC, FDA, ICE and many more. But he does not has any power on who gets to be a fellow of the linguistic society of America or who gets invited to this or that university seminar. People are of course free to vote to whomever they want and for whatever reason they see fit, but voting for Trump because of your disapproval of some academic bodies’ decisions is like voting for Biden because you believe strongly that STOC’s proceedings should be single column

  246. asdc Says:

    Of topic: an article by John Preskill about the relationship between QC and quantum gravity.

  247. gentzen Says:

    Scott #244: Since you’ve been trying to think more about research and less about culture war (and want to close this thread soon), I have to take my last occasion to express my appreciation for your non-research efforts. (Which I wanted to express since some time, but somehow it was never the perfect fit.) It is not just your effort to write the blog posts themselves, but also your efforts in moderating the comments and in taking part in the discussions in the comments. Those discussions are exemplary of how I would have imagined “free speech” in my dreams. People share their honest views here, even so they know that their views might not be widely shared among the audience of this blog. And most of the views expressed here do get at least some honest feedback.

    What I have learned from those discussions has impacted my behavior from time to time. I guess it also impacts the behavior of other readers of this blog sometimes. People in this thread have negatively accused you of having a platform. However, one can also see this positively: You managed to build a platform over the years, you did get a bit more mature in political matters over the years too, then recent events pushed you to get more into politics, and you did get more into politics and started to have some impact.