Erudite Demons and their Discontents


The LSA letter (which can be read here) asks for Steven Pinker to be removed as a fellow and taken off the media list. This (no matter what your stance) bold move has caused quite the series of wails and hand-wringing from linguists, cranks, and crank linguists. It’s made them big mad. Why? Well, free speech of course. You’re taking Pinker out of context. You’re a Stalinist and  a Communist if you advocate this. THE HORROR.

At this point the LSA Letter has been done to death and there’s no need to expand upon it. LSA has responded in the normal fashion, poorly but nonetheless aware. My prediction is that this will go exactly nowhere; however, it’s opened up a discussion that should’ve been had a long time ago (an irony, you’ll see). That discussion focuses on who linguists let represent us as a field, but more widely I think it brings to light the way that we have escaped having to grapple with the plague that is reactionary politics. Perhaps it isn’t as overt or perhaps linguists are just too wary of controversy over non-linguistic topics. Who knows. I’m also not going to get into it because currently I’m not a member! It turns out keeping up your dues can be difficult on a student budget. I would love to say I am boycotting them now, but that would undermine my contention that what is at stake here is a rejection of material reality.

The two Public Linguists™ I am going to talk about here share a similar theme in their non-linguistic, pop-cultural work. You see, I came across this whole thing on Twitter, when Dr. John McWhorter posted the following:

He got mad enough to use naughty words when linking to known angry rationalist Jerry Coyne:

Similarly when linguist Dr. Barbara Partee commented on the Letter, McWhorter tweeted that there is a “danger” in it:

The common theme here is one of immediate indignation and a panic over the perceived trampling of “free speech” and the excesses of SJWs and a political correctness “movement.” This is evident in the pieces linked above by McWhorter:

Jerry Coyne, a relic of the New Atheist era, writes:

And, indeed, the letter is worthy of Stalinism in its distortion of the facts in trying to damage the career of an opponent. At least they don’t call for Pinker to be shot in the cellars of the Lubyanka!

Partee writes:

I seem to be in a small minority, but I feel quite strongly about it. I may be influenced in part by my husband’s opinions, which derive from his growing up in Communist Russia.

A pair of truly ridiculous and dramatic statements in response to the Letter. I don’t even find them insulting more than I find them funny.

Even more funny (and frankly a real 2020™ occurrence tbh) is Noam Chomsky himself weighing in on this in the best way he can: through an email to somebody

In that response, Chomsky (supposedly) did not sign the letter because it was “a group of students” and “meat for the right,” which loves to rail against “cancel culture.” Indeed, apparently the MIT Language Lab (no doubt just Dr. Ted Gibson) apparently thinks this whole thing stinks of “cancelling”:

This seems to be the crux of the issue. You see, the thing that Steven Pinker and John McWhorter share is the same kind of consternation that the likes of Milo Yiannopoulis, Ben Shapiro, Kaitlin “Poop Girl” Bennett, and Charlie Kirk share, i.e. that the “SJWs and PC elitists” are ruining “free speech,” especially in the realm of academia, campuses, and intellectual life in general. This has more recently culminated in this idea that SJW libs are “cancelling” everyone and that we now have a veritable “cancel culture.” Pinker loves this kinda stuff. He employs this language all the time. Take the following blurb, for instance, which links to an article from the reactionary publication Quillette:

Yes indeed this is a great representation of “the first insight of linguistics” from the Big Linguist Man™ himself, wringing his hands over those rascal SJWs and their destruction of all meaning and Western Culture™. This is how I would like my field represented, of course. Interestingly, however,

[t]hanks to the automatic nature of speech perception, an expletive kidnaps our attention and forces us to consider its unpleasant connotations. That makes all of us vulnerable to a mental assault whenever we are in earshot of other speakers, as if we were strapped to a chair and could be given a punch or a shock at any time.

You heard it here folks. Words aren’t magical, they are simply “conventions” (which invoke responses). I’ll let you work that one out yourself. Back to the point, Pinker is not shy to call out this “SJW cancel culture” on campuses and in the media. After all, “highly literate, highly intelligent people” get “radicalized” to the alt-right, for instance, because they hear “true statements that have never been voiced on college campuses.” It’s no doubt that these SJWs are causing the very shift to the right that they rail against in their attempts to sanitize everything!

McWhorter follows the same kind of shtick. If you’re not sufficiently “leftist,” as he said, you’re gonna get mega-cancelled by Orthodox SJWs. This isn’t anything particularly new, as he has trotted out similar ideas in the past. That’s why there’s a danger in this whole LSA Letter business! It’s too bad that this is largely bullshit. And I mean that, precisely, it’s a misunderstanding and perhaps even purposeful misconstrual of what can be readily observed as a revolt from below. There’s nothing about this that is “censorship” in the way that all those who I have quoted are spilling their ink fighting against. What power is there in the attempts to challenge the damaging ideas put out by some of the most powerful writers of our field and in popular media?

In the same way, Chomsky is mistaken, though his is a mistake of time and place. He came up in a time when the shoe was on the other foot. He is correct that the right loves this kind of culture war “SJW” freedom of speech nonsense. But the right wing doesn’t love it because they are ardent defenders of ideas and debate; they love it because it allows their ideas to be amplified and unchallenged in the name of “balance” and public debate in the “marketplace of ideas.” It just is not the case that the right are being genuine about free speech, especially when their last shit-the-bed tantrum about “campus free speech” was largely fake. This is where Pinker, McWhorter, Chomksy et al. are wrong. They are grasping on to a wholly liberal idealism about how ideas function and are discussed in our society. This idea necessarily cedes to the right wing that they are legitimate and that they deserve a stage alongside everyone else.

This is an idealism that runs rampant through the above-mentioned writers. Pinker is obsessed with Enlightenment values and analytic, rational optimism, even though his scholarship and attention to these ideas is riddled with errors and a naive, baseless optimism. This whole thing is presented as a battle of wills between two powerful groups. Harper’s Magazine published a letter precisely on this, signed by many of the people I am mentioning who refused to sign the LSA Letter. It’s a letter that has been thoroughly lambasted for its vagueness, and for good reason. In fact, for better reasons that those getting Big Mad about the LSA Letter. Its inspiration and main signatories, like David Frum, JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie, and Jonathan Haidt (to highlight a few) are not people whose speech and ability to engage in “open debate” is being challenged. Pinker’s speech was not being threatened by the LSA Letter, despite what McWhorter, Partee, Chomsky, and Gibson think. He, and they, can continue doing whatever they want. The Harper letter, and the hand-wringing from Pinker and McWhorter, is the reaction to challenge. It is a wail of despair that perhaps their ideas will face some criticism and scrutiny in a way that makes them look like assholes, even if by accident.

It’s this idealism that allows the trafficking in of old, harmful viewpoints, as in Pinker’s advocacy of the “Ashkenazi genius” story, opening the doors again to race science proper. It’s this same idealism that ignores material conditions of oppression and change, as in McWhorter’s bizarre insistence of a “victimhood mentality” of Black people in America. And yet, we are to believe that these people are being censored and “cancelled” simply because they are being challenged for their baseless, idealist notions of society and intellectualism? Is this why McWhorter gets to butt in on “Latinx” in The Atlantic, based on really nothing other than a poll from the libertarian crank machine Reason? Or that “cultural appropriation” is just silly and we should forget about it? How about Pinker insisting that the Southern Poverty Law Center is an illiberal, no-longer-to-be-respected institution that is “McArthyite”? Come on. I’m certainly not that naive and I hope you aren’t either.

Remember when I said that I didn’t pay my LSA dues this year and am not an active member? There’s a material reality to that. Simply, I don’t have the cash as a student living on a stipend just above the poverty line. That’s what shapes that decision more than the idealistic notion of supporting a good organization (hopefully that is what it would be, anyway) or even holding that my individual withdrawal is somehow a statement. A silly example, maybe, but hopefully simple enough to get across the point that Pinker and McWhorter are operating under a liberal idealism of free speech as a marketplace of ideas with no consequence. That the power of institutions and the interests of the powerful, the hateful, and the cruel won’t come to bear on how that marketplace is created and run. A theme of “free speech” in the face of this so-called “cancel culture” would be admirable if it weren’t for the simple fact that the former is the actual danger. It’s the linguists upholding the hegemonic interests of those in power that are reactionary, the traffickers and cart bearers of right-wing thought rooted in racism, sexism, and the immiseration of the poor. Not a ragtag bundle of academics who are too busy, too poor, and too removed from mainstream media to sufficiently present their ideas. But this is not real to Pinker and McWhorter. Progress has marched along by sheer chance, not by conditions that forced action. It’s this kind of liberalism that cedes the moment at all times, negotiating away the position before it’s ever at the table. It is precisely this kind of thinking that sees the current moment, sees the economic and social conditions we are in, and lectures and condescends about the need to temper ourselves and to not be too hasty or demanding. Time will work itself out, and we are along for the ride, so there is no use in fighting. After all, we have ideals and grand, abstract moral proclamations that will eventually win out, West Wing style. Nevermind those who oppose you and their power. Good vibes will win out at the end of the day.

It’s time to stop carrying water for these people. It’s time to stop letting them decide what is and is not allowed to be challenged. It should be clear from all this that the “erudite demons at the gate” are on the other side, and those of us interested in “standing down this gospel” and rectifying the injustices of our time are the ones looking in.

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