What Pinker’s case makes clear to me is that that we in the media have been careless in the ways we characterize this debate.
It’s past time we stopped attaching labels such as “liberal” or “progressive” to a movement that is anything but.
Let me say up front that I don’t know Pinker and that I’m only glancingly familiar with his work. He seems to revel in being an intellectual provocateur, and some of the ideas he has entertained over the years — most notably about how the genetic dispositions of women may account for their lack of representation in the sciences — strike me as a little nutty.
At issue here, though, are a bunch of handpicked tweets, dating to 2014, in which Pinker linked to pieces challenging the orthodoxy of social justice advocates.
In one tweet, from 2015, he referred to data suggesting that police might not shoot black citizens disproportionately, compared with the general population. In 2017, he tweeted that the focus on racial disparity might distract from solving the problem of police incompetence.
More recently, again citing research, Pinker had the temerity to suggest that “under-policing” might well be as dangerous to black neighborhoods as “over-policing.” He has also used the terms “urban crime” and “urban violence,” which his incensed brethren denounce as “dogwhistle” terms that reinforce racial stereotypes.
All of this, the linguists’ letter claims, adds up to “a pattern of downplaying the very real violence of systemic racism and sexism,” among other things.
Having spent the early part of my career covering crime during the crack epidemic, I’m sympathetic to the idea that police play a vital role in protecting residents of high-crime neighborhoods (where, I might add, one seldom notices the presence of linguistics professors).
I’d also reject the bizarre suggestion that the factual phrase “urban crime” amounts to some kind of George Wallace-style racial incitement.
But whether I agree with anything Pinker says — whether any of us do, really — is beside the point. What struck me most, reading about the coordinated attack on his integrity, is something Pinker said in his own defense.
“I have a mind-set that the world is a complex place we are trying to understand,” he said. “There is an inherent value to free speech, because no one knows the solution to problems a priori.”
That’s such a familiar sentiment, I thought. Where have I heard it before?
And then I remembered: Oh, right, it’s what we used to call liberalism.
Liberals are supposed to believe that the freedom to dissent is an essential part of a functioning democracy. More points of view lead to a better grasp of complex problems. Liberals believe that the price of that freedom is the tolerance of ideas we may find self-evidently wrong, or even odious.
Some of us viscerally remember when American liberalism was defined by the American Civil Liberties Union’s courageous defense of Nazis marching in Skokie, Ill. Real liberalism says you can’t discredit an argument without recognizing its right to be heard.
But this cultural leftism that has been emboldened in the Trump moment — call it wokeism, I guess — espouses the opposite. Maybe it’s a generational divide — maybe if you didn’t grow up in the Cold War, the bright line between tolerance and tyranny doesn’t seem quite so relevant.
The new leftism holds that free speech is often a tool of oppression, an elitist principle wielded by white men whose speech counts for more than everybody else’s. Ezra Klein, the founder of Vox, recently echoed this argument, tweeting: “A lot of debates that sell themselves as being about free speech are actually about power.”
I’m not sure any Soviet-era autocrat could have made the case against liberal democracy more succinctly than that.
We in the media should make sure all sides of this debate are heard. But when we allow the cultural left to refer to itself as a “liberal” or “progressive” movement, we do a profound disservice to generations of political activists who stood up for a decidedly different set of principles. Those words get their meaning from a century of tolerance and dissent.
Which is something you’d think linguists, of all people, would understand.