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Free Speech, Protests, the “Alt-Right”, and Jordan Peterson

Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist who conducts research in visual cognition, psycholinguistics, and social relations. He grew up in Montreal and earned his BA from McGill and his PhD from Harvard. Currently Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard, he has also taught at Stanford and MIT. He has won numerous prizes for his research, his teaching, and his nine books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and The Sense of Style.


Fall 2019

JPPE: There’s considerable debate over the distinction between free speech and hate speech. How do we know when one meets the other? Is there a responsibility of college campuses or their students to help provide definitions or guidelines for these ideas and which views we believe are of academic merit?


Pinker: There are limits on free speech that are recognized in all societies—even in the most libertarian societies when it comes to free speech—such as the incitement of imminent lawless activity, libel, extortion, and some cases of obscenity. There can be restrictions on the place, time, and manner in which speech is expressed. This is all contained in free speech jurisprudence. Nevertheless, those limits are pretty expansive in the United States, and I think laudably the “default” is the notion that speech is free except for very circumscribed exceptions. 


And that pertains to government strictures on free speech, which is not the same as the discretion that any outlet or platform has regarding who they give a voice to. And of course, a university is not going to invite any drunk on a soapbox in a public park or any ranter on Facebook. There are certain standards of scholarly accuracy and attention to academic literature. 


So I think the issue doesn’t arise in terms of whether a university ought to invite some provocateur who is just not part of the community of scholarly discourse and intellectual argumentation; but rather it arises when there are scholars who clearly do meet that standard but whose opinions just happen to be controversial, yet they can back up what they say with generally accepted academic standards. 


Of course, protests too are a legitimate form of free speech, so there can’t be any objections to protests. Although, there is jurisprudence; there are guidelines among defenders of free speech that you may protest but that you may not shut someone down. That is, there is no heckler’s veto, even though there can be of course protests that don’t disrupt the ability of heterodox views to be expressed. 


JPPE: From what you have observed, do you believe that students are keener to protest speakers than when you were an undergraduate? 


Pinker: I think there is a narrowing. It’s been going on for some time. It was certainly true when I was an undergraduate and that was a long time ago. And so despite some commentary, which blames it on the millennial generation or on generation z, there was plenty of this in my day. There is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which monitors disinvitations and speech codes, and it found that things have gotten a little bit better in 2018 compared to previous years. They’ve only been monitoring it for, I think, 10 or 15 years. Things definitely got worse until last year, but there have been ups and downs. FIRE also monitors de-platforming, which is a disruptive attempt to prevent speakers from speaking once they’re there; they monitor speech codes. My sense is it’s gotten worse, although it definitely existed when I was a student.


JPPE: Did you participate in these kinds of protests?


Pinker: No (laughs).


JPPE: It seems somewhat arbitrary to determine who is of “scholarly merit”. 


Pinker: It’s kind of what academics do all the time. We referee one another’s grant proposals, manuscripts, and tenure cases. There are disputes. There are unclear cases. But there is definitely a difference between a Richard Spencer on the one hand and a Charles Murray or a Heather Mac Donald or Jordan Peterson on the other. 


JPPE: That last name—Jordan Peterson—is someone speaking to a large and predominantly male audience. How do you explain the Jordan Peterson phenomenon? 


Pinker: I agree it’s a puzzle who he is speaking to. I think he symbolizes for young men two things: one of them is an intellectual engagement that transgresses some of the very narrow boundaries in elite universities and in media like the New York Times. While he’s not alt-right or all of the things that people lazily accuse him of, he is not New York Times or Brown University. 


He is clearly an erudite and intelligent person. He was a professor first at Harvard, then at the University of Toronto. He is an extremely knowledgeable political psychologist and expert on psychological personality testing. He stretches the boundaries of what you can say, however, not into the territory of white supremacists or neo-nazis and other kooks and crackpots and nutcases. 


The other thing is that the demographic of young men he speaks to often feel so marginalized by, on the one hand, leftist feminist discourse in universities and, on the other hand, the kind of nihilistic immature culture in advertising, extreme sports, and popular culture, which seems to glorify immaturity, hedonism, and decadence. And I think they realize that someone just saying pretty banal things like “be mature, be responsible for what you say, and clean up after yourself”; that strikes them—caught between these two worlds—as something noble and revelatory. And it can’t be a bad thing that you have a charismatic guy telling young men to be responsible, not to hurt people, and to make their bed. It’s astonishing that it has to be said. But apparently it does. 


JPPE: You said that there were highly literate and highly intelligent people that gravitate to the alt-right. What do you make of the blow-back you received from that statement?

Pinker: The New York Times reported it under an op-ed titled "How Social Media Makes Us Stupid". That was Jesse Singal who wrote that op-ed. For one thing, many people misinterpreted that because their impression of the alt-right is tiki-torch-holding-neo-nazis, whereas the people that call themselves alt-right are not that. I think their views are often quite noxious, and I’ve argued against them. But I know, since some of them are former students that write back to me—I mean Harvard graduates—, that it is a mistake to write them off as tiki-torch-holding-skinheads and neo-nazis. Some of them are smart; they are intelligent, and they feel that there are so many topics that are forbidden in standard university settings. And they feel that mainstream scholars can’t handle the truth and that they feel privy to a kind of forbidden truth, which I argued is dangerous because it means that rather extreme views proliferate in this community without themselves being criticized by opposing views or data that bear on those views. And they can actually blossom in a kind of noxious form if they’re not expressed in an arena in which they can be criticized.

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