Pinker on the Worser Angels of our Nature

March 15, 2021 • 12:15 pm

You needn’t tell me that the title is grammatically incorrect; it’s on purpose.  While Steve Pinker is known for documenting material and moral progress in our species over the last five centuries, and analyzing why it’s happened, there’s one area where he’s not so optimistic. And that’s the increasing “illiberalism” on American college campuses.

Pinker’s pessimism, based on events that you’ve seen documented repeatedly on this site, was expressed in a new interview in the Brown Daily Herald, the student newspaper of Brown University. (Brown is known as a “woke school”.)

Click on the screenshot to read.

Much of this you’ve heard before, like the fracases at The Evergreen State College and Middlebury College, but some stuff is new. For example:

A) Pinker dates the beginning of “political correctness and cancel culture” to the publication of Ed Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975, which inspired a lot of pushback from those who thought Wilson’s views on human behavior (i.e., it has a genetic/evolutionary component) were retrograde and right-wing. I was at Harvard at the time and witnessed some of that, though I wasn’t there when a protestor threw a cup of water on Wilson and shouted, “Wilson, you’re all wet!”

B) The “cancellation” trend is increasing. The article cites data from FIRE’s “disinvitation database” showing that the last five years have witnessed a 36% increase in these disinvitations over the five years before that. I’ve also documented that this increase has been accompanied by an rise in the proportion of disinvitations and shouting-down events coming from the Left.  In the earliest data coming from 1998 and the subsequent ten years, there was a roughly equal number of cancel-culture things from the Right and Left, but now they’re heavily from the Left.

C) Pinker gives two reasons for the increase. First, “a backlash on the left against Donald Trump.” That is, people have supposedly realized that Enlightenment ideals have failed to rescue us from tyrants like Trump and his minions, and so resort to “some fairly radical responses.” I don’t think this is all that plausible, for wokeness has not obviously diminished—indeed, it’s increased—since Biden took office. It’s early days, but I see the storm clouds gathering.

His second explanation is that it comes from “several generations of professors having indoctrinated their students in an ideological mixture of postmodernism and Marxist critical theory”, which has now reached the tipping point into college insanity. This seems more likely to me. And then there’s my own theory, which is probably not mine, that the pandemic got a lot of people restive, and they took this out by policing others, as well as by trying to control their environment by gaining power.

One take by Pinker on this mess:

It’s not that every college administrator or professor shares these views, though, Pinker says. But few are daring enough to express their opposition. When faced with an issue of this sort, colleges too often choose flight over fight. Groveling has become the default setting. “It’s rather disturbing to see the people in charge of our institutions of higher learning repeating clichés and slogans,” Pinker said. “For university administrators, (acquiescence) is often the path of least resistance since a small number of noisy student protestors can make a university president’s life miserable.”

Student activists have learned how to game the system. Claims of mental and physical harm are used to advance political agendas. Statues are taken down. Disfavored speaking events are shut down, and those opposing such moves are treated as though they agree with the content of the speech rather than the principle of free speech itself. But it’s mostly a tactic, Pinker says. “It’s not that we have a generation of snowflakes. Although, there may be some of that. But it’s not so much being wounded but it’s the pretext of being wounded,” which is used as a means to exert power and conscript others into conforming to the ideology.

And, contrary to those who say this is a tempest in a teapot, and that the kids will settle down when they get into the “real world,” well, we already know that’s a bogus claim. Newly hatched Wokies are infesting mainstream media, corporations, and academia itself, and bringing their college views with them.

From the article:

The result is that fringe student activists can and do wield an inordinate amount of power on campus. Universities have become political in the extreme, and we should be worried.

“Contrary to the cliché sometimes attributed to Henry Kissinger that ‘academic disputes are so fierce because so little is at stake,’ I think a lot is at stake,” Pinker says. “Not only (because) it’s college graduates who populate and control all of our institutions … but the entire academic ecosystem is at stake.”

Steve, the eternal optimist, says that there are some solutions. The first one I really like, because it’s the abandonment of my own University’s principles, currently in progress, that will eventually bring us down—maybe to the level of Princeton, but I hope not to the level of Smith:

But there are some slam-dunk moves universities and students can take to improve the culture, Pinker says. The number one priority of each and every campus bureaucracy must be to advance the mission of the university. Administrators must also continuously reiterate “the principles that underlie the existence of the university, namely acquisition of knowledge where knowledge inherently involves humility and skepticism.”

Part of the mission of the University of Chicago is to foster not just the acquisition of knowledge, but the acquisition of the ability to evaluate knowledge and arrive at positions through free and open inquiry. That too requires humility and skepticism. In this view of life, one must cling tenaciously to the principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom.

While I’m not sure how many students at a place like Smith are “unwoke” and appalled by its balkanization, the last sentence below is vitally important. We have to speak up against the dying of the light, no matter how many people hurl insults like “racist” or “bigot” at us. Saying what you feel might not make you popular, but, like atheism, rationality spreads faster the more people are willing to speak out against irrationality.

On the student side, Pinker is optimistic. “I’ve been surprised by how many students are actually appalled by the stifling of debate and the deplatforming of speakers.” But, by and large, these students have watched the battles on campus from a safe distance. “(They) aren’t bringing in the bureaucrats to shut down those they disagree with, they’re not protesting, they’re not setting off fire alarms during lectures,” so we don’t really know how prevalent these views are. But repairing the culture requires that they be more vocal.

Whether these kinds of changes are coming anytime soon, Pinker is unsure. But he rejects the notion that the pendulum will swing back from gravity alone.

“I think it could happen and will happen but only if we make it happen. It won’t happen by itself.”

h/t: Rick


34 thoughts on “Pinker on the Worser Angels of our Nature

  1. If we’re going to hold administrators responsible for cowardice, we need to appreciate what they’re looking at. You push back hard enough, you can get fired. You get fired, and good luck finding another job in the business. Maybe some Christian college where it’s understood that you’ll play the winger.

    1. Not being from academia I will have a slightly different view on all of this. It is serious and could lead to the downfall and ruin of many universities. But we also know that is where most of this new culture is taking place. I have not heard of it influencing the general public or business/industry other than some newspapers. The idea of the employees running the institutions has never caught on well in this country. Hell, even strong unions have become a thing of the past and that is bad. Another thing about this culture of the woke, is that it has no real depth to it. It seems shallow, self serving and self righteous. The whole attitude of it is more like a communistic or very socialistic method. It is performance by fear and that is never good. If this culture continues long enough and becomes the force in academia it will kill itself. Most of human society is not wired for this

      1. Randall, the general erosion of confidence in science is a danger that threatens every aspect of our culture. Quote from the article: The ability of universities to inform the public hinges on their credibility. And college administrators, for the most part, have watched silently as that credibility is destroyed. “I have more than once gotten into arguments with conservatives and libertarians over climate change, where I say, ‘there’s no reason to question our best science that climate change is real,’ and they say ‘why should we believe it just because it’s the scientific consensus?’ Universities are so overrun by the political correctness police that we can’t take anything coming out the of the university at face value — if someone dissented, they’d be canceled.’”

        1. Sorry, I did not know that climate change is not real was part of the left or the wokes. The denial of this has always been big in republican territory and certainly with Trump. Just like 34% of the republicans say they will not get vaccinated but only 5 % of democrats. Anyway the current administration is behind the climate change movement — just how hard they are going to be on this is still to be determined.

          1. Randall, I think you misread Janet. Climate change denial IS Republican turf, but if we are going to refute the deniers with science, we need science to be credible. If the wokes get their way and all university science must enforce the party line, then arguing on the authority of science carries no weight.

      2. “I have not heard of it influencing the general public or business/industry other than some newspapers.”

        … and Big Tech, such as the Google/Damore affair, Twitter’s banning gender-critical feminists, Amazon’s de-listing of a book challenging gender ideology, the destruction of Parler, etc.

  2. And then there’s my own theory, which is probably not mine, that the pandemic got a lot of people restive, …

    My theory (which I probably got from somewhere so is also probably not mine) is that it is a reaction to life nowadays being too benign. After all, on any objective measure of anything important (availability of food, housing, clean water, medical care, absence of war, etc) we in the West are vastly better off than at any time in history.

    Similarly, respect for individual rights, treatment of women, children, of racial minorities, of sexual minorities, etc, is also vastly better than at any other time or place, and is getting close to optimal.

    So it’s like an auto-immune disorder. If an immune system has nothing major to do, it can turn on its own body.

    Thus, cries that disagreement and mere words make people “unsafe” reflect the fact that today’s youth are vastly more physically safe than any generation in history. Ubiquitous cries of “systemic racism” reflect the fact that, actually, today’s Western societies are the least racist of any anywhere or any time. Claims that minority groups are “marginalised” reflect the fact that the concerns of such groups are prioritised as important.

    1. I have this impression too. It’s like people don’t have anything to worry about in their lives or anything better to do. And now that there is no Nazim, dictatorship or a bourgeoisie to fight against, you invent new bad things to fight and keep being the good one.

      1. I have that same sense. Radical sensory deprivation leads to hallucinations; the mind has to have something tangible to work on and creates phantasms for the purpose if real stimuli are withheld. The current state of our culture, with this hypervulnerablity—corresponding to nothing real in the actual world the academic Woketariat are dealing with—strikes me as being creepily parallel.

    2. Indeed. In places that are genuinely racist you wouldn’t get all this discussion of racism, it would just be normal.

      Of course all sorts of bigotries still exist, but most of them are viewed as socially unacceptable and “not the done thing” to an extent unique (AFAICS) in human history.

  3. “…the pretext of being wounded, which is used as a means to exert power and conscript others into conforming”. That is an excellent capsule summary of wokery.

    As to the underlying psychology, we should add a misplaced and largely ignorant vein of nostalgia. The Critical Race Theory propagandists are transparently nostalgic for the Black Panther Party, for the aggressive postures of Stokely Carmichael, and so on. In another department, a Lefty website a few years ago featured a fawning piece about the long-ago Weathermen, including a predictably reverent interview with David Gilbert in his upstate New York prison. There it is:nostalgia for the idiocies of the Weather Underground. The entire attitude reminds me of a legend from the 60s-70s: the story that failed Sociology grad students at the University of Toronto organized a demonstration to protest against the absence of anything to protest against.

  4. I think another things is the lack of basic knowledge of history and civics. The increased of emphasis on math and English standardized tests (No Child Left Behind in 2002) led to to schools de-emphasizing history, government and science. My kids learned virtually no social studies until their AP classes.

    Many recent college graduates are mostly ignorant about the founding of the US and the meaning of the constitution. This has allowed progressives to make up false history and government (1619 Project, hate speech vs. freedom of speech and the supposed lack of progress on civil rights) without millennials have the background to understand the distortion.

    Ignorance can lead to blind acceptance.

  5. I think Pinker is spot on noting that the rise – even just the very possibility – of Trump has caused the less grounded on the left to panic and discount the longer-term gains of basic liberalism. I see and hear this dynamic all the time. And it does not surprise me to see the Biden administration to bring along some of that. After all, some of those “progressives” did help him get elected, so it’s not bad politics in the short term. It may temporarily give more cache to the “woke,” but if you look at the actual Biden policies they are largely in line with basic liberal ideas, as are the majority of his staff. Sure, there are some exceptions (the Title IX situation), but I give Biden credit for overall common sense and am willing to wait on this point before casting judgement. If the policies are successful they will provide more evidence that basic liberalism works.

    The voices of liberal moderation are growing louder and more numerous, and there is now daily push back on woke excesses. Let’s keep it up!

  6. There are lessons to be learned from the President of Swarthmore, Valerie Smith. The Woke in the form of the Black Affinity Caucus, presented a manifesto and demands as well as calling for a student strike to address their grievances. They demanded a town hall open to all students and faculty and invited President Smith to a “recorded session”. President Smith told them she would be open to engaging with the student body but declined their invitation because she felt this anonymous group of students were incapable of nuanced discussions and told them to get back to their studies. In other words, she told them to pound salt. As a result of her hard line efforts, this protest effort immediately collapsed and life at Swarthmore seems to have returned to normal. The fact that President Smith is African American may well play a roll here. However, it would be interesting to see what would happen if some of the Leadership of other vaunted institutions took a hard line as well. John McWhorter calls it performance art, he’s not wrong.

  7. I expect the ‘woke era’ will likely cause a bunch of Colleges and Universities to crash and burn, and change some rankings. But I don’t expect it to do any serious damage to ‘the system.’ If Pinker is right and there’s a silent majority who generally disapproves of the excesses of the left, they may not say anything while their school goes down the tubes…but their younger brothers and sisters, considering which Universities to go to, will “vote with their feet.” Schools that advertise their woke cred might draw in activist liberal kids, but the kid who doesn’t want to be an activist? Just wants to study X? Or doesn’t agree with what the school is advertising? They and their dollars are going to go elsewhere. And popularity and rankings will change.

    No, I don’t think Harvard will topple or anything like that. I do however think schools like Smith are going to take a hit to their rep which they may regret 4-5 years from now.

  8. Part of the solution is reducing the bloated administrative sector, which has helped make American higher education so expensive. The administrators kowtow to the woke to protect their own economic privilege, while the loudest voices among woke students tend to be from universities that are nesting grounds for the ruling class. We need a larger and more prosperous middle class, and we also need more investment in community colleges and vocational schools, to undercut the prestige of the Ivy League.

  9. Pinker is right to emphasize the importance of a commitment to the academic mission including academic freedom and open mindedness. And most crucially, open debate. Open debate is a time honored tool for resisting oppression, and the would be cancelers of “misguided” speech cannot be seen to go against it. Else these would be emporers will be revealed to wear no clothes.

  10. “Postmodern Marxist” still makes little sense to me.

    It cannot be both true that this woke culture is influential also in politics, but also Marxist or very “left wing”. The reason is obvious. Hardly any traces of leftism can be detected in US politics and that for (at least) half a century.

    What would be a “normal” left influence on US politics? Some tiny bit of development would be expected, especially as destitution, unemployment, homelessness, un- and underinsured numbers grew during the pandenic, and after Trump, and while now a third of all gofundme campaigns are to cover medical bills.

    I would expect some correction of obscene handouts for corporations, some correction of Reaganite politics of golden showers trickling down on average Americans and so on. America has one of the worst labour situations in all of the developed nations.

    All this should be more pronounced provided that the US is the richest nation in all of history. With so much money being thrown around, it would seem a few pennies would fall down; there would be some benefits of being an American citizen. That is hardly the case.

    And yet, the leftism in the Democrat party is best described as homeopathic. This party worked overtime to prevent Bernie Sanders, to pick their right-most candidates from its roster even at risk of losing to Trump, twice. The party cannot even pass a minimum wage of 15$ an hour by 2025. Either the “woke” takeover is not Marxist, or there is no takeover.

    As critical race theory, diversity and intersectionality mumbo jumbo gain more and more influence, and as there is no interest in anything that has to do with class, poverity, income equality, or labour improvements, it appears to me that Old Marx is namedropped more as a boogeyman.

    It’s unclear by now what this is meant to say: are miniscule improvements for the lower rungs of society such vehemently opposed that even a penny more in their pockets is genuinely thought to be tantamount to Communism? Or is it that constant repetition, and propaganda have made woke culture synonymous with left wing. More radical wokism becomes “very left” and “very left” is also associated with Marxism? In any way, it’s not what I expect from Steven Pinker, if he indeed said it (it’s not clear in the article).

    1. Marxists, after they saw their traditional ‘market’ for their ideology decline, sought new groups they could ‘sell’ class struggle. Anyone, it could be LGTB people, blacks, immigrants, women, qualifies. In most cases there are real issues, but framing it as class struggle like Marxists tend to do, promoters particular outcomes like for instance cancel culture, and make other outcomes less likely, like for instance, rational debate. In any case, conservatives are not particularly helpful either, as many of them do not prefer rational debate either.

      1. Not very plausible to me. Sure, Marx had a large beard, but that doesn’t mean everybody with a beard was influenced by him, and even if they were, it would matter if his inspiration was specific enough. Anyone capable of growing a beard can come up with one.

        Trying to unite some group (thought to be disadvantaged) is a super generic idea. What is specifically Marxist about it? The point stands, the usefulness as a description for specific ideas is vastly overshadowed by Marx as a term to scare right wingers.

        1. Sure, this is a generic idea. For that reason one might engage in rational debate to find possible causes and solutions. The point here is that there is a ‘Frankfurt School’, and that the left has changed its focus from workers to these other groups.

          But then again, these issues are hard to resolve. For instance, women still often get paid less for the same job, while they are trying to achieve equality for more than a century. It might reveal a deeper biological truth, for instance that men tend to be more competitive and negotiate more about their wages or that they don’t get pregnant and have more time to focus on their careers.

          If you look at BLM, for instance, there is a broader issue of police violence that is narrowed down to racism. Framing it like this keeps certain causes and solutions out of sight. Conservatives are eager to point out that there is a lot of crime and violence in black communities and then they ignore the police violence. If you frame it like that, you also exclude certain causes and solutions.

          1. That’s yet another issue.

            1) The woke are ignoring class altogether, or are even outright disdainful of those who are concerned with it.
            2) Their high priestess Robin DiAngelo even says that class or income equality etc distract from (so-called) “race”.
            3) wokies don’t consider themselves Marxist.
            4) their identity politics also has nothing to do with class.
            5) They didn’t change their tune. They are usually younger people who did not start out as old leftist, who threw the old ideas away in favour of critical race theory.
            6) Marxist and socialist (e.g. WSWS) are opposed to wokeness.
            7) The Woke favoured Clinton strongly, and are (still) vocally opposed to Sanders. Sanders is not even a Marxist, but Clinton is not even on the political left in any way.

            The error lies with the ludicrous US party system that considers non-Republicans as “left” and non-Democrats as “right”. This is really forming a narrative into which Americans then shoehorn in the Woke as on the left. In reality, the diversity stuff is home at international mega corporations, plays into their marketing also to reach foreign markets, and it doesn‘t harm the US elites in any way.

            1. There are different ways of looking at it. Woke is often labelled ‘cultural marxism’ by the right, and for the reasons I mentioned above. The focus shift in the left from working class to disadvantaged groups did not take place only in the US. The Frankfurt School was at the basis of this shift.

              Identity politics is a broader concept. Nationalism is also identity politics. And the US political system doesn’t help. The two parties have become hostage of their own extremists (Trumpism and Wokism). This works out much more destabilising than in Europe where you have multi-party systems that seek coalitions to govern.

              Trump, Sanders and Woke might have had their own parties if there had been proportional representation and there might have been a coalition of moderate parties running the government.

              Your perspective is that of a traditional socialist who does not accept that Wokism is a form of Marxism. And I don’t really care. It is a way of looking at it. And the right tries to frame the debate by calling this ‘cultural marxism’. That is not my intention. The link to Marxism is in the Frankfurt School.

              1. The Frankfurt School poses a similar problem as with Marx in this narrative. Nobody on Twitter has read Adorno or Horkheimer and their concerns have very little to do with “intersectionality” or US “race” history. Further, they were critical of postmodernism. It’s just a paranoid conspiracy theory.

                What, exactly, does it add to the understanding to drop Marx or Frankfurt School? It only seems to cater to right wing conspiracy theories, anti- semitic conspiracy theories, and as a McCarthy-Era Cold War rallying cry.

                I haven’t seen anything where, upon reading “Marx” I had a single insight about this movement.

              2. What people post on twatter can hardly be more than just brainfarts. So what is your argument?

                Claiming it to be a paranoid conspiracy theory is just another attempt at framing. Just throw in the anti-Semitism allegation, and there you are: cancel culture.

                I am not a scholar nor do I pretend to know much about the subject. I only have some basic understanding. Usually I begin with Wikipedia and there it already is plain and simple:


                The relation between Marx and Marxists can be as remote as the relation between Jesus and Christians. Your imagination simply falls short.

              3. It cannot be irrelevant what the people in the movement say to describe the movement. You have to get hold of the thing you want to describe, and stick to it. You cannot, when convenient, mean the Twitter Woke Army and their Cancel Culture, and then some body of academical work in sociology that is relevant there.

                In reality, and I must have written this in comments here at WEIT a dozens times, we have not even a decent name for this ideology that exploded into social media. Woke is just the latest term in a long list of attempts to name the thing. The beliefs are even more elusive. It is much more an authoritarian syncretism that emerged around the US Democrat party, whipped into shape by opposition to Republicanism, and influences by 1990s postmodernism and antiracism. Even the core idea of “intersectionality” on the social media streets is almost unrecognisable from “mapping the margins”.

                The few things one can hold of is the woke ideology as some critical race theory, thus a self-styled critical theory. But proposing a critical theory is not enough to assign meaningful authorship to Marx, Horkheimer, Adorno, Weber and so on, especially when the content of the critical race theory does not align with Frankfurt School, or Marx versions, or is even opposed to their aims.

                Consider: secularism is on the rise in the USA. Fascist ideologies can be considered social Darwinian. Darwin is a household name in biology. Are we at risk that, because of rising secularism, are we threatened by “cultural Darwinism”? This sounds like rubbish, doesn’t it?

              4. We can assume that Jesus never intended the Crusades to happen, unless you believe that Jesus is God. But if there had been no Jesus, there would have been no Crusades. Of course there probably would have been other religious wars instead.

                The same is true for Critical Theory and woke. Perhaps someone else might have come up with woke if there had been no Frankfurt School, but in the way history played out, one can say that Critical Theory stands at the basis of woke. To say the Frankfurt School intended this to happen in order to destroy Western civilisation, is a paranoid conspiracy theory.

                In fact the Frankfurt School tried to improve Western civilisation. And I also believe these thoughts from the Frankfurt School to be at the basis of the shift in the left towards emancipating disadvantaged groups. The extremist version of this is woke. That is the link I believe it to be rather obvious. Sanders is more like a traditional socialist who didn’t make that shift.

  11. Wokeness can be awful, but what worries me most about college is its cost. It’s gotten very expensive and a lot of the degrees do not translate into a career. 30 years ago a liberal arts degree might provide a great social experience and if a job did or did not follow from it, the cost was relatively cheap. There was more of a buffer in the past for decisions that were not financially fruitful. Now, the cost can be crippling. There might even be a significant relation between wokeness and very high student debt. If you have someone with high student loans and not many prospects looming in the distance, it kinda makes sense that their political ideas are getting more extreme. The fallout from the ever increasing student debt burden is going to present some difficult to solve problems. It is getting more and more political. Think about how much bigger an issue student debt forgiveness is today than when President Obama won in 2008.

    1. For most jobs, there are better alternatives to the college pipeline when it comes to skill-acquisition and employers will probably pick up on this eventually (assuming every job doesn’t get automated away.) It’s the erosion of credibility in the associated research institutions that’s much harder to fix.

  12. Certain strains of wokeness are bad, for a variety of reasons, but if I had to choose one area of human behavior that deflates my optimism, wokeness would not be it. The behavior and world-view of the political right has undergone a precipitous moral deterioration recently. 50% of Republican men say they will refuse the COVID vaccine. Vaccine doubt and outright vilification is constantly on display at right-wing media outlets. Q disciples have been sent to congress. January 6th. More than half of all Republicans are still, today, promulgating the lie that Biden/Democrats stole the election. I could go on. This is dangerous, immoral stuff. In my opinion these things pose a greater threat than wokeness. These are the things about which I am not optimistic.

  13. I’m compelled to share this book I just started reading – even though it may be way off with regard to this specific post – as it pertains to the relationships between young adults and authority figures :

    The Collapse of Parenting
    Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D.

    I cannot give a concise review, as I am still reading it, but the idea is that enculturation in the modern era – certainly in the United States – is no longer the role of the parents. The ways this happens are complicated but the consequence is clear (as Sax argues), children value the opinion of same-age peers more than their parents – the attitude being “ingratitude seasoned with contempt.”(reference in book). It seems to me this helps understand a bit of where the kids today are coming from, as authority figures are involved.

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