A gang of anti-liberal cancel culturalists came for Harvard linguist Steven Pinker in the form of an open letter to the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) calling for his removal as one of the LSA's distinguished fellows and as a listed linguistics media expert. Why should Pinker be "canceled" by the group? Because, the writers allege, Pinker "has a history of speaking over genuine grievances and downplaying injustices, frequently by misrepresenting facts, and at the exact moments when Black and Brown people are mobilizing against systemic racism and for crucial changes." Interestingly, while the letter claims that Pinker's nefarious behavior is taking place at the "exact moments" of anti-racist mobilization, most of the allegedly egregious instances it cites occurred years earlier.
The letter, which lists nearly 600 signatories, cites six instances of when Pinker purportedly engaged in "a pattern of drowning out the voices of people suffering from racist and sexist violence." Let's take a brief look at each assertion.
As mentioned above, though the letter claims Pinker's nefarious behavior is taking place at the "exact moments" of anti-racist mobilization, the first censure cites a 2015 tweet in which Pinker declares that the "police don't shoot blacks disproportionately." In support of that claim, Pinker links to a 2015 New York Times op-ed by Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan in which he reports the findings of his research on racial discrimination and policing. Mullainathan forthrightly states, "Police killings are a race problem: African-Americans are being killed disproportionately and by a wide margin." But his crucial point is that that is because black citizens have a disproportionate number of encounters with police. Given that any encounter with police could turn violent, Mullainathan's data suggest that police are no more likely to shoot black citizens per encounter than they are to shoot white citizens. The causes for those extra encounters are rooted in structural social and economic problems, not least of which are poverty and the drug war. Pinker agrees that "the racial bias came into the formation of crime prone neighborhoods. Not in the behavior of the police once they're actually in a confronting a suspect."
The LSA member scolds' second attempt at indicting Pinker of downplaying violence and injustice cites the fact that that the police had shot and killed nearly 1,000 people in 2017. Pinker is blamed for referencing a 2017 New York Times op-ed that suggested a way to reduce that terrible toll of killings by police: "Police kill too many people, black & white," tweeted Pinker. "Focus on race distracts from solving problem, as we do w plane crashes." Basically Pinker was endorsing the idea that to reduce police killings, each shooting episode should undergo in-depth independent forensic investigation the way that teams from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) examine airplane crashes. Just as NTSB investigations try to figure out how to prevent future crashes, the goal of independent investigations of police shootings should be to devise new policing procedures that aim to minimize the chances of violence occurring between citizens and cops.
According to his critics, Pinker's 2017 tweet citing the Times op-ed supposedly amounts to an "all lives matter trope." In an interview with Reason Pinker agrees that "uttering it as a retort to the statement Black Lives Matter would seem to downplay the victimization of African Americans," but insists that he has never repeated that slogan in any context. Pinker points out that all lives matter to researchers on the topic of police violence because "you're literally committing logical blunder if you hold a belief that police are more likely to shoot unarmed African Americans and you don't count up all the people that the police shoot."
For their third example of Pinker's alleged penchant for downplaying injustices, the letter's writers object to a passage from his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined in which he noted that "in 1984 Bernhard Goetz, a mild-mannered engineer, became a folk hero for shooting four young muggers in a New York subway car." Referring to Goetz as "mild-mannered" purportedly illustrates Pinker's "tendency to downplay very real violence." Pinker responds, "I was repeating the common characterization" of Goetz at the time in many news outlets. Indeed, it was.
For example, a 1985 New York Times article referred to Goetz as "mild-mannered" while also reporting that he had now become known as the "'Death Wish Vigilante,' folk hero of millions and for the moment, perhaps, the most talked-about man in the country." The New York Times was not alone in referring to Goetz as mild-mannered. So did articles published in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Time magazine, and many other publications. Pinker mentions Goetz as an anecdote to illustrate his data about how fears occasioned by rising violent crime rates in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s had adversely affected the psychological, social, and economic well-being of the residents of many of America's largest cities. "It was totally disingenuous to use that adjective as an insinuation that I thought that it was okay for a vigilante to shoot some muggers. It's quite obvious from the context that I do not think that it was okay, but I was trying to give people a vignette of what it was like to live in American cities at the time."
In their fourth point of indictment, the letter-writers focused on the 2014 rampage killing by a male student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in which the murderer posted a clearly misogynistic rant. The virulence of the manifesto provoked some commentary asserting in the U.S. that the "expectation that violent misogyny in young men is normal and expected." The LSA critics say Pinker downplayed "the actual murder to six women as well as systems of misogyny," via a 2014 tweet in which he declared, "The idea that the UCSB murders are a part of a pattern of hatred against women is statistically obtuse." When the letter-writers accuse people of bad faith, they should be more careful to get at least their basic facts right: In this case, the shooter/stabber killed four male students and two female students, not six female students.
"I think to credit rampage shooters as part of a system [of misogyny] is statistically obtuse," says Pinker. He points out that rampage shootings are responsible for a tiny fraction of homicides and consequently he is "opposed to over-interpreting rampage shooters" as evidence that the patriarchy endorses the idea that "innocent women should be murdered by shooters" and is "a rather poor way to understand cultural trends." In fact, a 2019 review of the motivations of mass shooters in the U.S. found that misogyny was the leading factor in only one case—the Santa Barbara rampage. Pinker notes the cultural trends with respect to violence against women in the U.S. are happily the opposite implied by the letter-writers. "In general, the trend for domestic violence is downward," he says. "It's a triumph of the women's movement that fewer wives and domestic partners are killed and there is less spousal and girlfriend abuse."
Pinker is right. A 2019 Congressional Research Report noted, "From 1993 to 2017, the rate of serious intimate partner violence victimization declined by 70% for females, from 5.7 victimizations per 1,000 females aged 12 and older in 1993 to 1.7 per 1,000 in 2017."
As their fifth allegation, Pinker's critics charge him with choosing to "publicly co-opt the academic work of a Black social scientist to further his deflationary agenda." Pinker's misdeed was a June 2020 tweet in which he characterizes a recent interview with his colleague Lawrence Bobo, a Harvard sociologist, as one in which Bobo "reflects (w cautious optimism) on race relations in the context of police killings of black men." The article to which Pinker links explicitly characterizes the interview as one in which Bobo "dissects police killings of black men and the history and cognitive forces behind racial bigotry and violence, and why he sees signs of hope." Pinker includes graphs displaying data from Bobo's research showing the decline in overt racism over time among white people in America.
With respect to the claim that Pinker seeks to "publicly co-opt" the work of a colleague, Pinker responds, "Yeah, in the new Orwellian vocabulary citation is now appropriation." He adds, "Bobo, my colleague and my dean, has presented data showing that fortunately overt racism has been in decline." He does further note, "It's a legitimate question whether the answers to the questions in the General Social Survey where Bobo got his data simply reflect the disappearance of overt racism and that the underlying attitudes are as racist as they ever were." However, Pinker points to such evidence as declining Google searches for racist jokes that suggest that private racist attitudes are also ebbing. "As someone who frequently cites data on improvement, I'm used to this understanding that a reduction is not synonymous with disappearance," he says. "Something can be better, not perfect; something evil can be reduced but not eliminated." Still, Pinker argues that the decline in overt racism is "something we should celebrate because it means for the civil rights movement that the attempts to eradicate racism have not been a waste of time."
In their sixth charge against Pinker, his opponents accuse him of racist "dogwhistling," which they define as "a deniable speech act 'that sends one message to an outgroup while at the same time sending a second (often taboo, controversial, or inflammatory) message to an ingroup.'" Pinker's purported dogwhistles involved using the words "urban violence" and "urban crime" in two tweets citing two different Washington Post op-eds by two different sociologists who argue that defunding the police would pose problems. In the minds of those who seek to remove him from the LSA, those phrases are coded racist references in support of "views that essentialize Black people as lesser-than, and, often, as criminals." As evidence of Pinker's dogwhistling, the letter writers point out that neither commentator used those exact phrases in their op-eds.
Princeton sociologist Patrick Sharkey did state, "Violence is the fundamental challenge for cities: Nothing works if public space is unsafe." Let's see, urban is an adjective generally defined as relating to a city or of a city. As it happens, Sharkey, author of the book Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence, wrote a 2018 New York Times op-ed entitled, "Two Lessons of the Urban Crime Decline" in which he argued (as he did in the Post op-ed) that community organizations working with the police could play a vital role in "combating urban violence."
In his Post op-ed on the dangers of under-policing, Northeastern University criminologist Rod Brunson references longstanding complaints about ineffective policing by the "residents distressed urban neighborhoods." He also pointed to the recent focus on "the dangers of police abuses for African Americans and other people of color, especially in lower-income neighborhoods," further observing that the sort of violent crimes that the police have the greatest difficulty in solving "primarily cluster in the same communities." Interestingly, Brunson is co-author of a 2019 article, "Race, Place, and Effective Policing" in the Annual Review of Sociology which notes, "Poor analyses and inappropriate descriptions of urban violent crime problems can lead to the adoption of problematic policing policies and programs that exacerbate racial disparities in the criminal justice system and diminish confidence and trust in its institutions." Are Sharkey and Brunson dogwhistling too?
It apparently never occurred to the zealous letter-writers that instead of dogwhistling, Pinker might merely be using shorthand phrases on Twitter to alert readers to op-eds that he thinks shed light on contemporary questions about race and policing. "Dogwhistling is an intriguing exegetical technique in which you can claim that anyone says anything because you can easily hear the alleged dogwhistles that aren't in the actual literal contents of what the person says," observes Pinker. "I think that you could replace dogwhistle with auditory hallucination and the accusation would be exactly the same."
So what motivated the letter-writers to launch their righteous attack on Pinker? "It is part of a larger movement to try to accuse as many people as possible of various forms of prejudice and bigotry in the belief that is the way to make the world a better place," argues Pinker. His critics are embracing a mindset that "does not see the world as having complex problems that we ought to understand better, the better to diagnose and treat, but rather as a kind of warfare between powerful elites and oppressed masses."
"In this mindset," he notes, "analysis, debate and evidence are just tools of propaganda exercised by those in power and that what has to happen is not a deeper understanding of social problems but a wresting of power from elites and redistributing it to disenfranchised."
Pinker believes he was targeted as part of a larger movement "seeking monsters to destroy." That is practitioners of what has been called "Offense Archaeology" go after prominent people by "trolling through tweets and through statements seeking to find evidence—however tortured—that there are signs of prejudice behind them."
He adds, "It's also part of these new exegetical tools that woke culture has deployed where disagreement is now labeled 'silencing' and 'drowning out' and 'harm.' Now the false ascription of belief is now the detection of 'dogwhistles'—an intriguing tool of hermeneutics in which you can accuse anyone of saying anything even if they didn't say it because you can always hear the dogwhistle if you yourself are a canine with hypersonic hearing."
On July 8, the LSA's executive committee issued a letter to Pinker affirming that the group "is committed to intellectual freedom and professional responsibility. It is not the mission of the Society to control the opinions of its members, nor their expression. Inclusion and civility are crucial to productive scholarly work. And inclusion means hearing (not necessarily accepting) all points of view, even those that may be objectionable to some."
Round one to Pinker, but the woke culture war against liberalism is far from over.
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