Pinker writes to Harvard administrators about University’s new free-speech policy

September 26, 2019 • 10:15 am

Yesterday I reported on a new policy of Harvard University that would seem to have inimical effects on free speech: it mandates that Harvard ensure “neutral moderators” for events deemed controversial by the Dean of Students’ office. Further, that Office now requires a month’s notice in advance for controversial speakers as well as “VIPs” and “high profile” speakers. I argued that this would have a chilling effect on speech, likely to make students averse to inviting controversial speakers, who of course are often on the Right.

I wasn’t aware that since 2017, as documented in this article from the Harvard Crimson (click on screenshot), there has been an “Open Campus Initiative” that deliberately invites controversial speakers to campus, though not all of them are conservatives or people espousing anti-“woke” viewpoints.

From the article:

Recently formed, the Open Campus Initiative espouses “support for freedom of thought, speech and association.” So far, the group has invited widely criticized right-wing speakers to campus, though its president Conor Healy ’19 said they hope to host liberal speakers as well.

Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto who claims that gender nonconformity threatens free speech, will come to campus next week.

The group has also invited Charles A. Murray ’65, a conservative political scientist who has drawn criticism for his work alleging intellectual inequality among racial groups, to speak in the fall. Murray drew national attention earlier this year when a campus protest at Middlebury College disrupted his speaking appearance there and briefly turned violent.

But of course students at Harvard have objected to this:

Already, though, students have started to criticize the Open Campus Initiative and its choice to invite Peterson to speak at Harvard, arguing that giving a platform to his stances constitutes hate speech.

“If you substituted any other protected class of people for the trans people he’s talking about, it would be appalling, and the only reason it’s not appaling is because we allow violence against trans people to be normalized,” Lily M. Velona ’18 said.

Peterson has publicly stated that he will not use pronouns other than “he” and “she” and actively opposes Canada Bill C-16, which aims to extend the Canadian Human Rights Code to protect people from discrimination on the basis of “gender identity and gender orientation.”

Helene Lovett ’19 is organizing a group of students to create a response against the event, and although the group has not finalized any plans, they felt the event crossed a line.

“Personally I think a ‘shut it down’ attitude is just going to play right into this rhetoric, but I want to call this out, it’s completely unacceptable,” Lovett said.

After Peterson spoke at University of Toronto campus in October, several transgender and black students reported receiving threatening and hateful messages, which both Lovett and Velona said worries them.

“When you’re inciting violence, whether intentional or not, it’s not just an intellectual debate anymore,” Lovett said.

Here’s more:

Velona said they believed that freedom of speech was one thing and debating transgender people’s humanity was another.

“It normalizes the idea that trans people are less than other humans; it normalizes the idea that we can refuse to acknowledge the personhood, by putting it up for debate, of an incredibly vulnerable group of people.” Velona said.

Well, no, Peterson doesn’t incite violence. His presence may have inspired people to write abusive letters to others, which is an unacceptable act on the writers’ part, but that’s not on Peterson’s head. So many opponents of “hate speech” (and of course Peterson’s speech, whether or not construed as “hate speech” is also legal speech in the US), use instances like these “threatening or hateful messages” as reasons to ban speech. No, Peterson’s appearance at Harvard was not “crossing the line”. Note, too, Lovett and Velona’s claim that Peterson is not participating in an “intellectual debate” because a few miscreants sent hateful messages after his appearance.  That’s another dumb rationale for trying to deplatform Peterson (he wasn’t deplatformed).

Velona also claims that “debating transgender people’s humanity” is NOT an exercise in free speech. Excuse me, but that’s not what Peterson does, and what few people do. I doubt that the Open Campus Initiative would invite people who claimed that transgender people weren’t human. The argument is about pronouns and things like sports participation and bathrooms. None of that, no matter how hateful you construe it, is a denial of anyone’s humanity.

Two years ago, the faculty advisor to the Open Campus Initiative was Harry R. Lewis, former Dean of the College. Now, however, it’s Steve Pinker. And Pinker, exercised by Harvard’s new free-speech code, objected in a letter he just sent to six Harvard administrators. I reproduce the letter with permission, and have eliminated the names and email addresses of the administrators:

From: Pinker, Steven

To: [Six administrators with names redacted]
Subject: DSO policy on controversial VIP speakers

Dear [Names redacted],

As a faculty advisor to our students’ Open Campus Initiative, and a “controversial” “VIP” speaker myself, I’d like to express my opposition to the new DSO policy requiring student organizations to provide a one-month advance notice and a DSO-selected “neutral” moderator for such speakers. As such I endorse the Crimson’s editorial of September24 on this policy. Though I applaud the guide’s stated commitment to free speech, and policies to prevent disruption and violence at campus events, the vague policy would have the effect of stigmatizing and interfering with the efforts of our students to expose our community to new ideas (since all new ideas are “controversial,” and many are proposed by “VIP” speakers) and thereby advance their (and our) education. I suggest that any such guideline should be precisely and narrowly stated to prevent disruptions, and not grant arbitrary powers to the DSO control and interfere with our students’ efforts to bring speakers to Harvard.


Steven Pinker
Johnstone Family Professor
Dept. of Psychology
Harvard University

I agree with this, of course, and will be writing my own letters. I don’t mind giving links to the two people I’ll write to: Harvard’s President Lawrence Bacow (his own talk at Harvard was disrupted just this year), and the Dean of Students Rakesh Khurana. If you’re a Harvard alum and want to keep speech on campus fully free, by all means write to them as well (alums get special attention: it’s Harvard, Jake!).

14 thoughts on “Pinker writes to Harvard administrators about University’s new free-speech policy

    1. Why shouldn’t Peterson have been invited? He doesn’t incite violence or come anywhere close to doing so – unless, of course you accept the snowflake principle that any opinion you disagree with is “violence”.

    2. I enjoy and learn from Peterson. Why shouldn’t Harvard students? Why shouldn’t he have been invited? He has interesting views.

        1. I am not a fan of Jung, but still, what’s wrong with listening to someone who incorporats historical theory into his philosophy? I’m not too concerned about the censure unless he’s accused of some sort of misconduct or dangerous practice. Inviting a speaker does not imply endorsement.

  1. As a faculty advisor to our students’ Open Campus Initiative, and a “controversial” “VIP” speaker myself…

    Now there’s an opening sentence with clout!

    It will be interesting to see if this new policy stays.

  2. “…the only reason it’s not appaling is because we allow violence against trans people to be normalized,”

    “It normalizes the idea that trans people are less than other humans; it normalizes the idea that we can refuse to acknowledge the personhood,

    Cripes, the catastrophizing and equivocation of this type of language. It’s just so galling and irresponsible.

    Meanwhile, on the home front, it turns out my 17 year old son is now taking a “Social Justice” course at school (an elective of his own choosing)!

    My son is a wonderful, sensitive, caring person so his urge to be sensitive to the experience of other people is not surprising (and I encourage it).

    But he’s making his way through this giant tome called “Readings for Diversity And Social Justice” which seems to be full of all the stuff we decry here – separating everything in to race, privilege power structure, intersectionality, the whole shebang. He was learning about his “culture and privilege” and about micro-aggressions. Race, it says, is a construct that doesn’t exist outside the artificial nexus of power structures of oppressed and oppressors (i.e. if you weren’t being oppressed the concept of “race” would not exist).

    Wonderful. I’m simultaneously trying to deprogram him of this nonsense while he’s learning it…wonder how that will go.

    (That doesn’t mean btw my railing against social justice in front of him. Rather, my son often asks for my take on whatever new thing he has ‘learned’ in the course from the book, and I try to always emphasize that I share the sentiment and goals of social justice, anti-racism and inclusion, but try to give a more nuanced perspective, teasing apart the various concepts this book is conflating – e.g. that criticizing someone’s culture/religion is de facto an act of ‘racism.’)

    1. This stuff is evil. The obvious thrust of it is to dress up extreme conformity and assimilationism as if it were tolerance. It’s basically ruthless corporatism pretending to be leftism, and in that sense almost a mirror image of how the corporate right hijacked evangelical Christianity.

      It works the way Ayn Rand novels do, by conjuring up a weird alternate reality where the promoted ideology appears to make sense. The reason Rand’s Objectivism, Woke-ism, religious cults etc. appeal most strongly to young people is that they’ve had little direct exposure to the world at large and aren’t as well positioned to identify all the fudging that’s being being done to set up the illusion. I actually recommend reading Ayn Rand, as excruciating an experience as that is, just to see how this sort of con works. (I’d recommend L. Ron Hubbard too but I’m not that cruel.) Rand is actually quite mild compared to the elaborately constructed intellectual rat**** that is Woke-ism but the overall approach is basically the same.

      I’m mostly immune because I grew up in urban Canada in the 1990s and had some direct exposure to a functioning progressive multiculturalism. It had its own problems and had had something of reactionary tinge in prior decades (the novel The Outside Chance of Maximillian Glick explored that in some detail) and certainly had strong “white guilt” undertones of its own, but it wasn’t cruel and suffocating the way Woke-ism is. Canada was like a weak-tea Episcopalianism where Woke-ism is closer to the Moonies or Scientology.

      What makes Woke-ism so horrible is that it systematically back-stops the very oppressive power structures it supposedly decries. “Cancel culture” is basically a scam to sell progressives on the idea of at-will employment, which is the very thing that makes it possible for workplace to exert so much control over employees that it’s able to impose conformity to the majority culture in the first place. The idea that such a thing could possibly be mitigated by elaborately policing “microagression” is insane. It’s like asking the passengers on a nosediving plane to go outside and push.

  3. “Velona said they believed that freedom of speech was one thing and debating transgender people’s humanity was another.”

    They know they are in the wrong. That’s why they don’t report things honestly, that’s why they take a debate about whether “trans women are women”, or about pronouns, and pretend that it’s about denying a person’s humanity.

    Even a blunt statement: “trans women are men” would not be doing that, because calling someone a man is calling them a human (I don’t think that even Woke-speak has got as far as suggesting that white males are untermensch, though maybe that’s the next step?).

  4. “The group has also invited Charles A. Murray ’65, a conservative political scientist who has drawn criticism for his work alleging intellectual inequality among racial groups, to speak in the fall”. This passage shows ignorance on the writer’s part. It is not controversial to claim cognitive differences between groups. This is widely accepted between those who study the subject. If even such facts have become controversial, I can’t imagine how people are going to have conversations about cognitive inequality.

  5. Tablet magazine has just discussed Robert Boyers’ new book “The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, the Academy, and the Hunt for Political Heresies”. As the article reports: “Boyers, gadfly that he is, has bailed out of the left’s neo-Stalinist uniformity of opinion, which sees dissent as a source of infection that might injure vulnerable victim groups, for whom the enforcers of correct opinion speak like the Lorax, in the Dr. Seuss book, who unironically proclaimed “My name is the Lorax. I speak for the trees.” ”

    Later on, the article notes: “statistics I’ve quoted come from an article by George Packer, who reports on the new bias training required of all New York City school employees. The training program declares that “Perfectionism,” “Individualism,” and “Objectivity” are forms of “White Supremacy Culture,” and urges teachers to disrupt these insidious values. Any thinking person will see instantly that New York City’s bias training flatly contradicts what we require public schools to do.”

    The article can be read at: .

  6. It’s like a weird parody of 1984 to hear people proclaiming that free speech must be shelved indefinitely for safety reasons, due to the ‘violence’ all around us… on serene college campuses in areas with incredibly low crime rates. Even Orwell thought one would need an actual war to make this argument, geez. I wonder if he would be strangely impressed with the “words are violence” twist.

    At any rate. Hopefully cooler heads prevail on this one.

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