Steven Pinker and the Debate Over “Cancel Culture”

The raging debate about “cancel culture” is less about tolerance and civil discourse than it is a quarrel of brands.
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As if they didn’t have enough to handle in a world beset by a variety of concurrent crises, US intellectuals find themselves embroiled in a new existential struggle. On top of a persistent pandemic, an economy out of control and a war to tear down or defend patriotic statues that reflect a moribund political order, the new clash focuses not on deeds or even ideas but on words.

In marketing terms, “cancel culture” is more a trend than a struggle. Though the name is a recent invention, the idea is far from new. It functions like a dormant virus that has thrived for decades at the core of a less recent feature of US culture: political correctness (PC). It emerges regularly in campaigns of shaming and social excommunication. It predates PC itself. In 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne published a novel that analyses the phenomenon, “The Scarlet Letter.” Hawthorne’s story is set in the early decades of New England’s colonial society, in the first half of the 17th century.


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Cancel culture relies on two parallel phenomena: the belief in absolute moral principles formulated as rigid behavioral rules and the resulting psychological reaction known as victimization. Both are clearly at play in the new debate. The energy released on both sides — by the inquisitors and the martyrs — feeds a cycle of recrimination that becomes self-perpetuating.

Among the current examples, one case prominently in the news is that of evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, one of the 152 signatories of the letter. The Australian newspaper reports that Pinker “has claimed he is the target of an ‘Orwellian’ attack on his reputation.” The attack came from the Linguistics Society of America (LSA) when it proposed rescinding his honorary fellowship on the grounds that he had repeatedly demonstrated an attitude toward race that the association deemed inconsistent with their collective values.

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Orwellian:

An insulting term available for use by successful and often powerful intellectuals in the face of criticism, which permits them to cast the critics as an all-powerful despotic and suppressive enemy wielding unfounded accusations and insults, in stark contrast with the impeccable and fully justified reasoning of the maligned (but still powerful) victim

Contextual Note

In a telephone conversation with the author of the article in The Australian, Pinker complained, “It’s utterly ludicrous, it’s Orwellian and reveals the mindset that there has to be utter conformity and unanimity, and that even broaching a difference of opinion is treated as ‘drowning out.’” Pinker, who has written best-selling books about language, continued: “This is one of the examples of the kind of Orwellian language that has infused the cancel culture where disagreeing is called punching down or silencing or drowning out. It’s a warped mindset, but it’s becoming common.”

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For all his linguistic savvy, Pinker’s words as well as his ideas seem somewhat confused. By “Orwellian language,” he presumably refers to what the novelist George Orwell termed “newspeak” in his novel, “1984.” But Orwell’s satirical account of newspeak represented a crude form of what another signatory of the Harper’s letter, Noam Chomsky, analyzed on a much deeper and subtler level in his book, “Manufacturing Consent.” It is easy and natural for a communist dictatorship to peremptorily create and impose its newspeak. In a capitalistic democracy, the powers that be must invent and manage more sophisticated methods for modeling language and thought. Both are effective in their way, as they serve to consolidate the power of those who own and control the platforms. Pinker’s platform at Harvard and in the literary world far surpasses LSA’s.

Pinker seems even more confused about the ideas he evokes. He complains twice about “drowning out.” Perhaps he equates criticism or disagreement with waterboarding. LSA may have been somewhat arbitrary in its interpretation of the evidence it cites, but it is doing little more than highlighting the fact that Pinker’s philosophy now seems to be irreconcilably incompatible with its own. This cannot be called “canceling” the person. The LSA simply acknowledges that the marriage was no longer working. Does Pinker no longer believe in the right to divorce?

Why has what is now called cancel culture become such a hot topic in the US? The answer may be hidden in the background culture. Only in a society that transforms all human activity into a form of competition can a controversy of this type become so inflated. The duty of competition imposes on everyone the tool that obligatorily accompanies it: branding. Daily life, even daily intellectual life, becomes a war of brands. The LSA has in no way caused personal or financial harm to Pinker, which most people see as the downside and true symptom of cancel culture. Instead, the LSA has quietly called into question Pinker’s brand. That’s what criticism does. Pinker’s reaction is that of any corporate executive. He sees it as a threat to his market share.

In a probing account of the controversy spawned by the Harper’s letter, American journalist Glenn Greenwald points out that criticism and shaming are not only not new phenomena, but they contribute positively to productive debate. He notices that people with authority, power and access to a platform — like Pinker himself — tend not just to dominate the conversation but feel themselves entitled to do so. Like any corporate executive, their job is to invest in and manage their brand. This makes them hypersensitive to criticism.

Greenwald counsels two corrective measures: passionate engagement in contradictory debate, but always accompanied by intellectual humility. Be passionate, he tells us. But be aware that your message or some part of it may, in the light of new evidence, be wrong.

Branding has no time for humility. Where the spirit of competition reigns, humility is nothing less than suicide.

Historical Note

The term Orwellian came into the English language thanks to the popularity of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984.” In it, Orwell painted the picture of a sinister totalitarian society ruled over by a government adept at modifying the meaning of words to make oppression seem like friendly assistance. The government called itself Big Brother, a prime example of its strategically invented vocabulary, newspeak. The meaning of terms morphed into their opposite. The term Orwellian now applies to the methods used by a powerful authority to constrain and control powerless citizens’ thought and behavior.

Does Steven Pinker really see the Linguistics Society of America as the equivalent of Big Brother? Is he casting himself in the role of one of its powerless subjects whose survival depends on conforming to Big Brother’s prescribed thought and behavior? If that is what he is suggesting, he is both hallucinating about the LSA’s power while at the same time misusing the term “Orwellian,” an unforgivable sin for the author of several books on language. Pinker has been and remains a respected member of the Big Brotherhood.

Glancing at a famous line attributed to Mark Twain, Tim Smith-Laing, writing for The Telegraph, sums up the Pinker drama: “Reports of Steven Pinker’s cancellation have been greatly exaggerated.” The author points out that not only are Pinker’s reputation and livelihood secure but, over the past two weeks, he has been “providing interviews and soundbites about the affair to media on both sides of the Atlantic.” The hero and martyr has in one fell swoop put his invented Big Brother, LSA, back in its place.

Unassailable as he is, Pinker’s cultural standing remains deeply ambiguous. His Sergeant Pepper-like belief that, thanks to capitalist technocracy, “it’s getting better all the time,” has exposed him to justified criticism and sometimes ridicule on the part of many serious commentators. As for racial theory, Pinker has described Ashkenazi Jews as a race of superior intelligence, which may, incidentally, explain his willingness to associate with Jeffrey Epstein and his close friendship with Alan Dershowitz that included playing a role in forgiving and forgetting their crimes.

Orwell was a subtle political thinker and percussive writer who died in 1950, shortly after the publication of “1984.” In that novel and “Animal Farm,” Orwell focused on eviscerating the culture of the communists, with whom he had sympathized before deciding to expose the flaws in the increasingly brutal system they had engineered. Had he lived, Orwell may have enjoyed satirizing the system of manufactured consent that was just emerging thanks to an objective alliance between the nascent military-industrial complex and Madison Avenue. The term Orwellian might then have evolved a slightly different meaning in the English language.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Click here to read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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