There is seemingly no academic field—not even in the sciences—that’s immune from being forced to board the social-justice juggernaut. The latest is organic chemistry, and I found out about it from the letter below that just appeared in Science (click on screenshot). The letter is by Melissa McCartney, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology and the STEM Transformation Institute at Florida International University.
So of course I had to look up the original article in the Journal of Chemical Education, which is free online (click on screenshot, pdf here). The authors teach organic chemistry at Reed College in Oregon, a private liberal arts school that is among the five or six wokest colleges in America (think The Evergreen State College format). Do be mindful of that when you read about the student approbation for infusing social justice into the second semester of the class.
There are several ways they infuse social justice into the class, one of which seems harmless. The others, however, hijack the class to teach the students not only the social history of organic compounds, but to clearly impart to them an ideology based on Critical Theory. The introduction shows the social motivations for the class:
Without engagement with equity issues, the standard curriculum produces students who may lack civic mindedness in their approach to science. We believe that young scientists should be invited to contemplate their work with a “systems thinking approach” and consider chemistry’s potential impacts beyond intention. Unfortunately, progressive discourse regarding these shortcomings in chemistry curricula is often overlooked, perhaps due to the misperception that science is somehow intrinsically “good”.
There’s nothing wrong with mentioning the social impact of various chemical compounds, but there is something wrong with using the class to foster “progressive discourse”, which in this case means Critical Theory discourse. Not only does that constitute a form of propaganda for the teachers’ political views, but it also takes time away from learning chemistry itself. It’s clear from the article that the “social justice” implications aren’t just mentioned tangentially, but occupy 5-10% of the course, and will occupy more in the future.
The motivation continues:
In contrast to the dogma that science is “good”, chemists have historically produced compounds that are harmful to both humans and the environment. Examples of these harms are widespread and disproportionately affect economically disadvantaged areas. For example, over 30 years ago, an accident at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, was responsible for releasing poisonous gases into the local environment and atmosphere.(4) Reports described the release as containing 30–40 tons of methyl isocyanate and other toxic chemicals. Nearly 4000 residents of the surrounding tenements were killed immediately. For the remaining residents, the full long-term health consequences of the chemical exposure, including premature death, are still unknown.(5) Assessing the true costs of accidents such as the Bhopal disaster requires a full systems thinking evaluation. What were the early and late effects of exposure? What are the impacts of indirect contact? How have the toxic materials migrated and persisted in the local environment? Have these reactive compounds been transformed into other chemical entities with a new set of impacts and effects?
Seriously? The people who devised the synthesis of these compounds, and even that of Zyklon B (hydrogen cyanide), coopted to to kill Jews in Nazi concentration camps, didn’t aim to create harm (it was created to be used as a pesticide, which began in California in the 1880s). Harm was either due to the acts of bad people, a byproduct of the chemical’s poor storage, as in Bhopal, or an unintended consequence of drugs (the side effects of birth-control pills). Teaching this way gives the impression to students that science is “bad”, a general attitude of both postmodernism and Critical Theory, which dislike science because of its ability to find real truths.
But science itself isn’t “bad”: it is people who decide to use it in a bad way, or, when there are unintended side effects, it’s simply bad luck. Should they teach about the construction of gas chambers in architecture class to show that architecture is not “good”? Almost every discipline could be demonized in this way. Genetics could show that that science is bad by discussing how it was misused by the Soviet agronomist and charlatan Lysenko to derail Russian agriculture, which led to the starvation of millions.
And below is the goal of the professors: enhancing “equity”, which is proportional representation, not equal opportunity:
We aimed to briefly highlight how organic chemicals can be an instrument for enhancing equity, simultaneously stimulating awareness of the injustices and injuries that can be promoted by the misuse of chemicals.
How do they infuse social justice into Reed’s organic chemistry class? They talk about molecules that have social import—usually having a bad effect on minorities. These include birth control pills (has led to “serious environmental contamination”), antiretroviral drugs, and THC, active ingredient of marijuana. But whenever you can insert social justice, even if it’s not relevant to learning organic chemistry itself, they do. Here are the lessons they impart:
For antiretroviral drugs:
In a recent study, 35% of the countries with available data reported having a majority of people (over 50%) with “discriminatory attitudes” toward those living with HIV. This prejudice persists despite the fact that current antiretroviral therapy is able to suppress viral loads to undetectable and below transmittable levels. The stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV leads to marginalization (social, economic, and legal), which in turn can cause poor social, emotional, and physical well-being. These negative impacts on general well-being are correlated with lack of treatment.
The dark side of the cannabanoids is that they have been used to systematically incarcerate African-Americans. During the “War on Drugs” in the 1980s, drug-related arrests rose 126%. African-Americans account for 35% of drug arrests, 55% of convictions, and 74% of people sent to prison for drug possession crimes. The incarceration rate is 13 times higher than that of other races, despite African-Americans only comprising 13% of regular drug users. Furthermore, there are collateral consequences to drug arrests. Many states will suspend the driver’s licenses of offenders for at least six months, irrespective of if a car was involved in the crime.
If this has anything at all to do with chemistry, it defies me. And I’m absolutely positive that Reed students have the chance to learn this kind of material in many other classes. What the professors are doing here is using chemistry as a convenient excuse to discuss oppression and marginalization.
Now the okay part of using these particular molecules is that they can be enlisted to demonstrate real principles in organic chemistry, but of course other molecules may do that, and do it even better. Here’s one innocuous quiz question that follows the social-justice indoctrination (they could hardly ask about social justice itself on chemistry tests). It’s about an antiretroviral drug used to treat AIDS:
Finally, surveys of students at the end of the course show that many or most of them think that it’s important to learn about the social justice impacts of chemical compounds, that so this material makes them “into more responsible scientists”, makes the material more relevant, and keeps the students engaged. Of course, using other molecules can create the same relevance (e.g., caffeine, penicillin, alcohol), but those molecules can’t be used to teach social justice.
And of course the Critical Theory material helps the students learn exactly what social justice is—at least, the conception that their professors hold:
We were interested to find that in the first lecture a majority of the class felt familiar with social justice as a concept; 75% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Social justice is a familiar concept.” However, only half of the class (53%) agreed or strongly agreed with, “I can write a definition of ‘social justice’.” We were very pleased to find that after exposure to only three lectures with social justice content, 91% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “learning about the social justice impacts of chemical compounds is important.” Similarly, 91% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “teaching students about the social justice impacts of chemicals could make them into more responsible scientists.” Furthermore, a majority of students (76%) agreed or strongly agreed that the discussion of social justice themes made the material more relevant to them (15% neutral).
Note that there is no “control” class in which socially important molecules like antibiotics or caffeine are used instead of ones that can be tied to oppression. More important, there is no assessment of whether students exposed to this kind of political material turn into better organic chemists or learn the course material better. All we have is the self-report of students who are mostly self-selected, by going to Reed, to be on the “progressive Left.”
But wait! The social-justice bit is going to expand:
In the future, we hope to address other timely issues such as the use of ethanol as biofuel, which was intended as an environmentally friendly alternative, but instead increased the risk of air pollution deaths relative to gasoline by 9% in Los Angeles. An entire class could be dedicated to addressing the impact of another supposedly sustainable biofuel, palm oil. While palm oil production has driven economic growth in Central and South America, “the methane produced by a typical palm oil lagoon has the same annual climate impact as driving 22,000 passenger cars.” We also would like to include a systems thinking approach to evaluating medications, as many of them can have harmful effects on animals and the environment upon excretion from the body.
Perhaps they might want to talk about the positive social effects of organic chemistry as well! Why is that left out? Because they want to show the students the bad effects of science, not the good ones. And few fields have had a more positive effect on human well being than organic chemistry.
While I have no objection in talking tangentially about molecules important to people in their everyday lives, this is not what’s going on here. Rather, the lessons are used to impart the Critical Theory view of hierarchical oppression to students. I have no doubt that almost any academic subject can be hijacked in this way. But is that how we should be teaching our students? Not only infusing everything with politics, but a particular view of politics?
That’s a provocative headline, but it’s not my view, since social justice warriors don’t seem to me especially slanted towards women. But it seems to be the view, published in Areo magazine (click on screenshot below) of one Freya India Ager, described as “recently graduated from King’s College London with a degree in Political Science. She is now an independent writer interested in politics, psychology and culture.”
The “toxic femininity” term stems, of course, from its opposite: “toxic masculinity”, often been held responsible for many of the world’s ills. I don’t particularly like the term since it implies that all male traits are “toxic,” and as a male I naturally bridle at this accusation. Yet I can’t deny that there are evolved biological differences between the sexes, and that some evolved traits in males may be detrimental to society. Aggression and male-male competition may be two of them. Those traits leads to fights, wars, and, in my own university classroom, a tendency of men to dominate discussions, often talking over women. Every woman has experienced that.
Another is a desire for promiscuous sexuality, which leads to higher rates of adultery in males as well as mistreatment of women. And, in fact, as I write this, I can’t think of any obvious “masculine” traits that are good ones, save, perhaps, a prescriptivity when it comes to solving problems.
On the other hand, male prescriptivity can be detrimental. Every man knows that when a woman comes to you with a problem, often they want you to listen and sympathize rather than solve that problem. That I see as part of the feminine trait of having greater empathy. And I find that salubrious, which is why a large proportion of my best friends are women. Sometimes you just want to talk and experience human connection, for if the answer to a problem were obvious, you would have thought of it already.
In the end, our shared “human” traits, which are present in both sexes to some degree (but not necessarily to the same degree), can be good ones: altruism, kindness, sociality, and so on. Maybe humor—if you believe Hitchens that men are funnier than women. But, truth be told, are there any typically “male” traits that you’d would want to see more of in women?
Ager, however, sees “feminine” traits—including empathy—as sometimes deleterious, especially when, as she sees it, they help ground “social justice culture”. And those traits she sees as the malign influence of “toxic femininity”.
Here’s Ager’s thesis:
But if we are going to describe toxic masculinity as the negative manifestation of male traits, some of our societal problems must be the negative expression of female traits.
Characteristics more common to one sex than the other certainly exist. Individuals vary, but men are predominately more aggressive, for example, and women are generally more empathetic. If a man or woman suffers from a psychopathology, these differences can manifest in distinct forms of antisocial behaviour.
We don’t speak of toxic femininity—and I don’t believe we should—but if we were to imagine the worst manifestation of typically female attributes, I think it would look a lot like today’s social justice culture.
. . .History bears testimony to the danger of demonising groups of people based on their immutable characteristics. Not only did this way of thinking lead to historical sexism against women (and continues to do so across the world), it also motivates anti-male attitudes today, giving rise to venomous trends like kill all men and men are trash.
I do not wish to argue that society is infected with toxic femininity, nor that all purveyors of social justice culture are female. Instead, I hope to add nuance to the discussion of toxic masculinity by showing that the line of reasoning many modern social justice leftists adopt and the methods they favour to bring about social progress correlate with typically female psychopathologies.
Looking at three key elements of social justice culture, I argue that our current zeitgeist—which normalises cancelling others, praises emotional reasoning and overvalues safety—aligns strongly with traits that are, in the aggregate, more predominant among women than among men.
And here are the aspects of SJW culture that she sees as more predominant in women than in men. That, of course, doesn’t mean that SJW culture itself comes from women; only that the aspects of SJW culture are, says Ager, found more often in the female than in male “nature”. I’ve indented her own quotes; my comments are flush left.
Cancel Culture. I’ve heard from women many times that if I think men dissing other men is bad, well, I should hear how women talk about each other! I can’t speak to the truth of that, but this is what Ager says:
This is generally a female approach to antisocial behaviour. Rather than violent confrontation, women tend to engage in reputation destruction and social exclusion, seeking to destroy the status of their rivals rather than physically defeat them.
Several studies have suggested an evolutionary basis for this. In Stockley and Campbell’s interdisciplinary study of female competition and aggression, they suggest that females are wired to survive, compete for preferred mates and reproduce. They therefore target rivals through lower risk, indirect competitive strategies, such as:
refusal to cooperate with them, destruction of their reputation (so that others will also refuse cooperation) and, ultimately, exclusion from the group. Indirect aggression (the use of pejorative gossip and social exclusion) is women’s preferred aggressive tactic. Because harm is delivered circuitously and because it is executed simultaneously by several members of the community, it is a low-risk strategy.
Ager says that this happens in chimpanzees as well, with females “ousting newcomers or low-ranking community females.”
Lived experience. This refers to the SJW tendency to dwell on personal experience rather than data, leading to the denigration of objective truth. And this, says Ager, is an outgrowth of greater female empathy, which she sees as an evolved trait. She also argues that “women are more open to negative experiences,” which itself leads to higher degrees of neuroticism. But I think she’s on shaky ground when she connects this with social justice culture:
Sex differences in neuroticism are actually larger in cultures with greater socio-political gender equity, not smaller as would be expected if sex differences were purely the result of socialisation into traditional gender roles.
A range of evolutionary theories could explain this, including the hypothesis that “Women may be more sensitive to all the emotions of others because of their need (more than men) to attach with their children, or women may be especially responsive to negative emotions only because of the need to react to fitness threats more than men do.”
This isn’t to say that all women are more emotional or neurotic than men, or that stability and rationality are distinctively male traits. But, as a whole, women tilt more toward negative emotional reasoning, a cognitive distortion endemic to the modern social justice movement.
Safetyism, the increasing desire to protect yourself and others of your tribe from emotional damage. We’ve encountered this before:
In their bookThe Coddling of the American Mind, social psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff sound the alarm about the rise of safetyism in the US, particularly on university campuses. Safetyism, as they describe it, is “the cult of safety—an obsession with eliminating threats (both real and imagined) to the point at which people become unwilling to make reasonable trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns.”
Safetyism lies at the heart of social justice culture, giving rise to concepts like safe spaces, trigger warnings, hate speech and microaggressions. Haidt and Lukianoff argue that this ethos is leaving younger generations more fragile than ever, dramatically increasing their levels of anxiety, depression and suicide by positioning them as helpless victims.
Now Ager doesn’t want to demonize either sex, for that’s not productive—no more productive than talking about “toxic whiteness” or “toxic blackness.” As she says,
Healthy discourse should not pit the genders against each other or present women as morally superior, but recognise that we’re all fallible, and need to work together to eradicate all kinds of issues from sexual assault to safetyism.
Toxicity resides in individuals, not in groups. Certain traits may be more likely to exist in one sex than the other due to the average psychological differences between them, but what matters, ultimately, is how each individual behaves. In the end, all human virtues can become vices and the sooner we accept this, the sooner we can all progress.
And I agree: it’s much more useful—and less divisive—to work on problems as “social issues,” without worrying whether they’re “male” or “female” problems. So why did Ager write this piece? The only reason I can guess is because she’s fed up with men being tarred with the trait of “toxic masculinity”, and wrote this article as if to say, “See, we can also play this game with femininity.”
The main point of his article is to outline a set of ideas and behaviors that he calls “scientific fascism”, which appear to involve the use of data, reason, and logic in a way that attacks Graham’s favorite ideas about social justice. It’s the combination of “scientific” and “fascism” that intrigued me.
Click on the screenshot to read:
Graham gives a definition of scientific fascism that guarantees that it will fulfill the secret mission of its adherents:
I offer this definition of scientific fascism:
“Scientific fascism is a body of ideas characterized by the desire to erase the unique experiences of minority groups, obedience to a narrow view of science, and a dismissal of people who disagree as being devoid of reason or intelligence.”
. . . . and as part of the definition he includes these behaviors practiced by “scientific fascists”:
The scientific fascist adopts as their tools of choice science and reason. The purpose of using these tools is only ever to mount an attack on the ideas underpinning social justice activities. These ideas include “lived experiences”, “safe spaces”, “white fragility”, “heteronormativity”, “systemic racism”, “toxic masculinity” and “microaggressions”, to name a few. This is one of the qualities that separates scientific fascism from scientism. Scientism is an extreme belief in science. [JAC: no it’s not!] Scientific fascists, on the other hand, are using science and reason for the political goal of pushing back social justice activism.
Now of course science and reason can be used to criticize any ideology or idea, be it Critical Studies, other aspects of social justice, liberalism as a whole, the ideology of Republicans, Communism, and so on. But Graham uses the term “scientific fascist” only for those who use science and reason to attack social justice—and his conception of it—which already shows that the two words of his mantra “scientific fascist” have been construed more narrowly.
But he’s dead wrong in his second quote, for the purpose of using “science” and “reason” is NOT “only ever” to mount an attack on social justice, or to try to “maintain social inequalities and erase the experiences of minority groups from public discourse.” But you could, of course, use science to see if safe spaces work, or if there is such a a thing as implicit bias, but somehow I don’t think Graham would favor that kind of science. He’d rather use “lived experience”—those people who say that they require safe spaces and have been victims of unconscious bias.
By Graham’s definition, then, scientific fascists are identified by what they do, not by the fact that they use reason and science in an authoritarian way (whatever that is; how can data be non-authoritarian?). Ergo Graham is not being profound when he says stuff like this:
At the risk of belaboring the point, the scientific fascist is only ever interested in using science to push back against social justice ideas. Within academia, knowledge production is varied. Professors in history, law, business, and theology, just to name a few, use many different approaches to producing knowledge within their field. Scientific fascists are not interested in those fields unless they attempt to speak to the experiences of minority groups.
Well, we can argue about whether business, law and theology are “ways of knowledge production”, unless they use scientific (i.e., empirical) methods. But under Graham’s definition, someone who criticizes theology and its dictates for being irrational and nonscientific is not a “scientific fascist” unless she is going after social justice aspects of theology, like God’s supposed dictates.
The above gives us a hint of how Graham says is the best way to counter scientific fascists: use LIVED EXPERIENCE. We all know the fallacies of generalizing from anecdotes—through anecdotes, multiplied through, say, a scientific poll, can become data. But Graham doesn’t talk about that. Rather, he’s referring to someone who uses their “lived experience” to produce knowledge by generalizing from it.
So what do “scientific fascists” say? Graham has a little list. Here are some examples of how we (I suppose I’m one of them) use science to attack social justice. We supposedly make statements like these:
“…the desire to erase the unique experiences of minority groups…”
“I believe in the Englightenment [sic] principles of individual liberty.”
“Why must you always put people in groups. I am an INDIVIDUAL!”
“What kind of ‘lived experiences’ do trans folks have? What is an experience if not lived?”
“All Lives Matter”
Only the first statement has anything to do with science, but none of these statements involve using science to do down social justice. They are statements of preference that do not involved data. Let’s throw these in the circular file and move on to how we supposedly misuse science:
“…obedience to a narrow view science…”
“Sociologists are a bunch of left-wing communists, and you cannot trust their research.”
“Critical scholarship is a cancer in our society and must be removed from our universities.”
“These studies departments — women’s studies, queer studies, black studies — they produce no real knowledge.”
“Critical theory is unfalsifiable.”
The first and second statements are not science, construed either narrowly or broadly, but are slurs, that don’t involve data. (I suppose you could test whether sociologists are all “left wing communists”!)
The third statement is one that can be debated so long as you define what you mean by “knowledge”. I would claim that, in general, Critical Studies departments aren’t usually in the business of producing knowledge (though some practitioners are), but are in the business of pushing an ideology and burnishing people’s self image.
The last statement, too, is worth debating, because perhaps Critical Theory, unlike the structure of DNA, evolution, or the cause of malaria, might indeed be unfalsifiable. I have yet to hear an adherent to Critical Studies outline what could falsify it. But in truth, although these statements may be made by scientists who are used to a certain level of rigor in their experiments and conclusions, they do not stem from science itself.
And this is how we supposedly use science to “erase” minorities and our purported opponents (by the way, if you see the word “race” or “harm” in a screed, head for the hills):
“…and a dismissal of people who disagree as being devoid of reason or intelligence.”
“Ibram Kendi is a low IQ individual.”
“Here are the fallacies in this claim.”
“Black folk are being told there is racism by liberal elites (but there really isn’t).”
“The woke are irrational and illogical.”
Good Lord! First of all, you’d have to be a low IQ individual yourself to claim that Ibram Kendi is a “low IQ individual.” You may not like his ideas, but you can’t take issue with the fact that the guy is smart.
The second claim is indeed a use of reason and logic to attack an argument. There’s nothing wrong with it, nor does it dismiss people as being devoid of reason or intelligence. In fact, the statement itself is a use of reason and intelligence to address an argument, not to impugn anyone.
I don’t quite get the third statement. One may argue about whether “structural racism” is pervasive (and argue, based on its definition, whether it is), but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who says that there is no racism. The data even show it, reflected in the differential rate of traffic stops by police, which, since the black/white difference narrows at twilight, is surely based on anti-black racism.
As for the last statement, well, it may be true in some instances—indeed, like this article itself, which attacks science and reason not for their supposed lack of value, but because they’re supposedly a tool of racism.
After reading this article—and I draw to a close, for discussing it involves too much “emotional labor”—I realized that it has nothing to do with science at all. It is an attack on those who use reason and logic to go after the social-justice ideas that Dr. Graham embraces. The word “fascist” is in there simply as a pejorative: someone who argues against those who want to restrict immigration, and who uses the same kind of authoritarianism and data would not, I suspect, be called by Graham a “scientific fascist”.
You might entertain yourself by thinking of related names that characterize people like Graham, but in the interest of reducing my peevishness, I’ll refrain.
Actually, the word “kerfuffle” may not be appropriate here, as this is a pretty serious conflict between, on the one hand, a professor who takes issue with his department’s policies about diversity and inclusion, and, on the other, students and alumni, who, outraged by the professor’s opinion, have taken steps, in a letter/petition, to get the professor severely punished for expressing his views on YouTube.
The whole issue is concisely summarized by my law-school colleague Brian Leiter on his website Leiter Reports (click on the screenshot):
The (associate) professor is Dr. Dorian Abbot in our Department of Geophysical Sciences, who posted four YouTube videos, with slides, taking issue with some initiatives about diversity and inclusion. His talks emphasized the need for a meritocracy rather than “quotas” of minority applicants, and as well as asserting that it’s not the business of universities to promote social justice. Unfortunately, although I watched the videos earlier, Abbot has taken them down, though his slides are still online (see the first sentence of Leiter’s excerpt below). Here’s one slide that was guaranteed to cause problems for him:
Here’s another of Abbot’s slides. (The “Holdomor” refers to the Soviet genocide by famine of the kulaks (rich peasants) in 1932-1933 in Ukraine.
This stuff is guaranteed to anger those who see social-justice work, at present, as one of the most pressings things a university can do in its official capacity. Further, criticizing identity politics, when they’re the predominant kinds of politics on campus, is just not on. The backlash against Abbot was strong and severe (and probably predictable), and is summarized by Leiter below.
Have a look especially at the letter to Abbot’s department from 162 people affiliated with the University of Chicago and Geophysical Sciences (their names are unfortunately blacked out, though I think signers should make their names public). The letter demands all kinds of accounting and punishments for what Abbot did. These including giving Abbot’s graduate and undergraduate students a way to opt out of his mentorship and teaching, making a departmental statement that Abbot’s videos were “unsubstantiated, inappropriate, and harmful to department members and climate” (the exact “harm” that occurred isn’t specified), and measures like this:
[The department should] Implement accountability measures to address patterns of bigoted behaviour in both the department’s hiring/promotion/tenure process and teaching opportunities. For example, faculty who persistently engage in bigoted behaviour should be prevented from taking on teaching roles, new graduate students/post-docs/staff, and committee responsibilities.
Below is part of Leiter’s post about the issue, and I have to say that I agree with much of it. I don’t agree with everything Abbot said on his videos or in his slides (as I’ve repeatedly said, I favor some form of affirmative action in hiring professors or accepting graduate students), but neither do I agree that Abbot, for exercising his free speech as a professor, and raising issues that do deserve some discussion, should be demonized and punished in this way.
My preferred response, were I a student or faculty member who took issue with Abbot’s claims, would be counterspeech: rebutting them. The anger evinced in the letter to his department seems to me a huge overreaction, but in line with many responses to “anti-woke” stuff on college campuses. But of course the letter-writers have every right to say what they want about Abbot and demand that he be punished. I don’t think he should suffer demonization in this way, as it represents a chilling of speech: if you oppose the au courant ideology, you will be attacked big time, and who wants to undergo that?
I recommend you look at the links. From Leiter, and note that there’s a petition supporting Abbot’s freedom of speech that you can sign:
You can see the slides that formed the basis for his presentations to his colleagues here, here, here, and here; his own account of events is here. I agree with some of what he has to say, and disagree with other parts. But his views are not “hateful,” “harmful” or out of place in a university that values free discussion on important issues.
For dissenting from “diversity” orthodoxy, Professor Abbot has now been subjected to a disgraceful public denunciation by postdocs and graduate students in Geology (and other UChicago science departments (complete with fictitious claims about “aggression” and “safety”). The public version of the letter omits the names of the benighted grad students and postdocs. But some faculty and postdocs have gone public with their delusional responses: for example, Assistant Professor Graham Slater’s Twitter thread is here (do review the actual slides to see how unhinged this take is), and the reaction of a geology postdoc at Chicago, Michael Henson (also here).
There is now a petition in support of Professor Abbott here which I encourage readers to sign.
Leiter adds this:
There’s very little extramural speech that ought to have any bearing on hiring or promotion decisions in universities, but open contempt like that above for academic freedom and lawful expression–which are foundational to the academic enterprise–probably should count against someone. (We’ve touched on this issue before.) If people like Slater and Hanson carry on like this now, what kind of damage will they do to their departments and disciplines once they have tenure?
I don’t like anyone being punished or demonized for exercising freedom of speech, but the people who will suffer from this are not those who came out against Abbot, but Abbot himself. Perhaps he didn’t realize what a beehive he was entering with his YouTube videos, for much of the country is simply unaware of social-justice conflicts. But freedom of speech is paramount, and if people don’t like what Abbot said, they can avoid him, leave his mentorship (but not his classes, I think!), or criticize him. And that’s as far as it should go. We needn’t call for his head on a platter.
I’ve now finished Pluckrose’s and Lindsay’s new book, and can recommend it to readers (it has a pretty good position on Amazon though it won’t come out till August 25). Click on screenshot to go to the Amazon site:
It’s more academic than I imagined and less of a screed against Social Justice (which they capitalize to indicate the woke version against classical “liberal” social justice), but I found that emphasis refreshing. While casting aspersions on the value of “Social Justice”, they spend much more time drawing out its roots in Postmodernism, which transformed itself into what they call “Theory”: the postmodern philosophy of activism that has two tenets. Their characterization of “modern” postmodernism involve these propositions (quoted from p. 31 of their book):
The postmodern knowledge principle. Radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism.
The postmodern political principle. A belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.
We can dismiss the first one for reasons I’ve discussed before; the second is the basis for all “Social Justice” activism.
Their schema involves four “themes” of postmodernism: the blurring of boundaries, the power of language, cultural relativism, and the loss of the individual and the universal. The last principle involves a vision of society as a mixture of identity groups competing for power: a zero-sum jockeying to oppress others, with cis white males currently on top.
And this last idea, the replacement of the universal and the individual with competing groups, made me think (the book is good at promoting thought), and then realize why, when I was such a big advocate of the goals of the Civil Rights movement of the Sixties—at least instantiated by Martin Luther King and his followers—I am much more dubious about today’s Civil Rights movement as embodied in the Black Lives Matter program. Although I abhor the use of violence to attain any political goal, and there’s a lot of tacit endorsement or ignoring of demonstrators’ violence in the modern movement (I’m not exculpating the police here), in contrast with the foundational nonviolence of Dr. King, that’s not the main reason I am less enthusiastic about the current wave of antiracism. Yes, the goal of both movements was equality, but the modern movement comes with an emphasis on group identities that I see as repellant and ultimately divisive.
The passage below from Cynical Theories (p. 261) was sort of an epiphany for me, and I’ve copied it out:
. . . the critical approach to Social Justice encourages tribalism and hostility by its aggressively divisive approach. Whereas the Civil Right Movements worked so well because they used a universalist approach—everybody should have equal rights—that appealed to human intuitions of fairness and empathy, Social Justice uses a simplistic identity politics approach which ascribes collective blame to dominant groups—white people are racist, men are sexist, and straight people are homophobic. This explicitly goes against the established liberal value of not judging people by their race, gender, or sexuality, and it is incredibly naive to expect it not to produce a counter-revival of old right-wing identity politics. Arguments that it is acceptable to be prejudices against white people, men, straight, or cisgender people because of historical power imbalances do not work well with human intuitions of reciprocity.
If a majority feels threatened by a vocal minority with institutional power, it is likely to try to change those institutions, and not merely because of paranoid fears about losing dominance and privilege once had. If it becomes socially acceptable to speak of “whiteness” and call for punishment of anyone who can be interpreted as expressing “anti-blackness,” this will be experienced as unfair by white people. If it becomes acceptable to pathologize masculinity and speak hatefully of men while being hypersensitive to anything that can be called “misogyny,” almost half the population (as well as much of the other half who loves them), is likely to take this badly. If cisgender people, who are 99.5 percent of the population, are accused of transphobia for simply existing, failing to use the correct terminology, allowing genitals to influence their dating preferences, or even having non-queer Theory beliefs about gender, this is likely to result in much unfair antagonism against trans people (most of whom do not believe in this either).
As a classical liberal (or so I see myself), I have an instinctive revulsion towards the practice of dividing society up into competing groups and demonizing them on an oppression scale. Yes, of course we need to work towards equity, for the residual effects of slavery and bigotry are still bloody obvious in society. Dr. King’s tactics went a long way toward rectifying inequalities: who can deny that minorities are better off now than, say, in 1960?
Still, I fear that division and identity politics won’t be so efficacious—for reasons outlined by the authors above. (They also discuss the “negative stereotypes” created by Theory, including the infantilization of women and the “soft bigotry” against blacks as instantiated by the “white culture” posters at the National Museum of African American History & Culture and the patronizing tone of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragilitycriticized by John McWhorter in his review of the book.)
And I resent any movement that makes the untestable claim that all white people not only have benefited from “privilege”, but are imbued with often unconscious bigotry. Or that males are inherently misogynistic, and we inhabit a “rape culture.” You wouldn’t hear Dr. King making divisive claims like that, for his appeal was to unity: to universal sentiments that were not personal attacks but irresistible appeals to justice.
Now many of us (Including to some extent me) have been cowed by Social Justice advocates into silence, for who wants to be labeled a bigot, a sexist, or a transphobe? Further, I constantly hear that we’re wasting our time on criticizing our own side: that we have bigger fish to fry, including a large smelly one named Trump. Why don’t I just become like HuffPost and write about the odiousness of Trump all the time? But divisiveness is just want Trump wants; he uses it all the time to try to promote his moribund campaign for President. More important, when the Democrats win in the fall, and the college students have moved on to grasp the levers of power in the media and government, I don’t want to face fighting an Authoritarianism of the Left, with its cancel culture, demands, and policing of speech. To prevent that, we need to start pushing back now on the extreme Left.
So I was heartened by Pluckrose and Lindsay’s final couple of pages in which they promote not only open criticism of the pernicious and authoritarian form of Social Justice, but put forth positive principles of classical liberalism. You can, and should, read that for yourself. I’ll quote only one more paragraph:
The solution is liberalism, both political (universal liberalism is an antidote to the postmodern political principle) and in terms of knowledge production (Jonathan Rauch’s “liberal science” is the remedy for the postmodern knowledge principle). You don’t need to become an expert on Jonathan Rauch’s work, or on John Stuart Mill, or on any of the great liberal thinkers. Nor do you need to become well versed in Theory and Social Justice scholarship, so that you can confidently refute it. But you do need to have a little bit of courage to stand up to something with a lot of power. You need to recognize Theory when you see it, and side with the liberal responses to it—which might be no more complicated than saying, “No, that’s your ideological belief, and I don’t have to go along with it.”
This book will help you recognize Theory when you see it, and then you’ll start seeing it everywhere: in the New York Times, in the Washington Post, in the petulant acts of cancel culture, and on most every college campus in America.
The Woke are after Pinker again, and if he’s called a racist and misogynist, as he is in this latest attempt to demonize him, then nobody is safe. After all, Pinker is a liberal Democrat who’s donated a lot of dosh to the Democratic Party, and relentlessly preaches a message of moral, material, and “well-being” progress that’s been attained through reason and adherence to Enlightenment values. But that sermon alone is enough to render him an Unperson, for the Woke prize narrative and “lived experience” over data, denigrate reason, and absolutely despise the Enlightenment.
The link to the document in question, “Open Letter to the Linguistic Society of America,” was tweeted yesterday by Pinker’s fellow linguist John McWhorter, who clearly dislikes the letter. 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!
After I read the letter and decided to respond to it, I contacted Steve, asking him questions, and he gave me permission to quote some of his answers, which were sent in an email. (Steve, by the way, has never asked me to defend him; I do so in this case because of the mendacity of the letter.)
An organization dedicated to linguistic analysis must punish a leading, brilliant scholar @sapinker because in the wake of George Floyd's murder, his politics aren't sufficiently leftist? Folks, it's time to stand this gospel down. https://t.co/OrkHiLrMJ5
The letter, on Google Documents, is accumulating signatories—up to 432 the last time I looked. You can access it in McWhorter’s tweet above, or by clicking on the letter’s first paragraph below:
Many of the signatories are grad students and undergrads, members of the Linguistics Society of America (LSA), which may explain why the vast amount of criticism leveled at Pinker comes from his social media, all tweets from Twitter. The letter shows no familiarity with Pinker’s work, and takes statements out of context in a way that, with the merest checking, are seen to be represented duplicitously. In the end, the authors confect a mess of links that, the signatories say, indict Pinker of racism, misogyny, and blindness to questions of social justice. As the authors say:
Though no doubt related, we set aside questions of Dr. Pinker’s tendency to movein the proximity of what The Guardian called a revival of “scientific racism”, his public support for David Brooks (who has been argued to be a proponent of “gender essentialism”), his expert testimonial in favor of Jeffrey Epstein (which Dr. Pinker now regrets), or his dubious past stances on rape and feminism. Nor are we concerned with Dr. Pinker’s academic contributions as a linguist, psychologist and cognitive scientist. Instead, we aim to show here Dr. Pinker as a public figure has a pattern of drowning out the voices of people suffering from racist and sexist violence, in particular in the immediate aftermath of violent acts and/or protests against the systems that created them.
In truth, Pinker as a public figure is hard to distinguish from Pinker the academic, for in both academia and in public he conveys the same message, one of progress (albeit with setbacks) and material and moral improvement, always using data to support this upward-bending arc of morality. And in both spheres he emphasizes the importance of secularism and reason as the best—indeed, the only—way to attain this progress. After indicting Pinker based on five tweets and a single word in one of his books, the signatories call for him to be stripped of his honors as a distinguished LSA Fellow and as one of the LSA’s media experts.
So what is the evidence that Pinker is a miscreant and a racist? I’ll go through the six accusations and try not to be tedious.
The first is about blacks being shot disproportionately to their numbers in the population, which, as I’ve written about recently, happens to be true. Emphases in the numbered bits is mine:
1.)In 2015, Dr. Pinker tweeted “Police don’t shoot blacks disproportionately”, linking to a New York Times article by Sendhil Mullainathan.
Let the record show that Dr. Pinker draws this conclusion from an article that contains the following quote: “The data is unequivocal. Police killings are a race problem: African-Americans are being killed disproportionately and by a wide margin.” (original emphasis) We believe this shows that Dr. Pinker is willing to make dishonest claims in order to obfuscate the role of systemic racism in police violence.
Actually, Pinker’s tweet was an accurate summary of the article. Have a look at the quote in its entirety, reading on after the first extracted sentence.
The data is unequivocal. Police killings are a race problem: African-Americans are being killed disproportionately and by a wide margin. And police bias may be responsible. But this data does not prove that biased police officers are more likely to shoot blacks in any given encounter.
Instead, there is another possibility: It is simply that — for reasons that may well include police bias — African-Americans have a very large number of encounters with police officers. Every police encounter contains a risk: The officer might be poorly trained, might act with malice or simply make a mistake, and civilians might do something that is perceived as a threat. The omnipresence of guns exaggerates all these risks.
Such risks exist for people of any race — after all, many people killed by police officers were not black. But having more encounters with police officers, even with officers entirely free of racial bias, can create a greater risk of a fatal shooting.
Arrest data lets us measure this possibility. For the entire country, 28.9 percent of arrestees were African-American. This number is not very different from the 31.8 percent of police-shooting victims who were African-Americans. If police discrimination were a big factor in the actual killings, we would have expected a larger gap between the arrest rate and the police-killing rate.
This in turn suggests that removing police racial bias will have little effect on the killing rate. Suppose each arrest creates an equal risk of shooting for both African-Americans and whites. In that case, with the current arrest rate, 28.9 percent of all those killed by police officers would still be African-American. This is only slightly smaller than the 31.8 percent of killings we actually see, and it is much greater than the 13.2 percent level of African-Americans in the overall population.
The signatories, not Pinker, stand guilty of dishonest quote-mining. I would argue that the cherry-picking here is intellectually dishonest—and deliberate.
2.)In 2017, when nearly 1000 people died at the hands of the police, the issue of anti-black police violence in particular was again widely discussed in the media. Dr. Pinker moved to dismiss the genuine concerns about the disproportionate killings of Black people at the hands of law enforcement by employing an “all lives matter” trope (we refer to Degen, Leigh, Waldon & Mengesha 2020 for a linguistic explanation of the trope’s harmful effects) that is eerily reminiscent of a “both-sides” rhetoric, all while explicitly claiming that a focus on race is a distraction. Once again, this clearly demonstrates Dr. Pinker’s willingness to dismiss and downplay racist violence, regardless of any evidence.
Police kill too many people, black & white. Focus on race distracts from solving problem, as we do w plane crashes. https://t.co/fUxJipp3Fr
In light of the recent police killings of blacks, I’m pretty sure that this tweet would look worse today than it did in 2017. But the article Pinker is referring to is about general improvements in police departments, not ways to make cops less racist. It does note that there’s racism in police killings, but says that the fix, as Pinker notes, comes from general improvements in policing (along the lines of general improvements in airline safety), not by focusing on racism itself:
Police violence is tangled up with racism and systemic injustice. We desperately need to do more to address that, foremost by shoring up the criminal-justice system so that it holds police officers accountable when they kill. But it’s also true that deadly mistakes are going to happen when police officers engage in millions of potentially dangerous procedures a year. What aviation teaches us is that it should be possible to “accident proof” police work, if only we are willing to admit when mistakes are made.
. . . The routine traffic stop, like the one that killed Mr. Bell’s son, is especially in need of redesign because it contains so many potential failure points that cause confusion and violence. In the computer science department at the University of Florida, a team of students — all African-American women — have developed a technology that they hope might make these encounters far safer.
. . .How can we fix this system that puts civilians and the police officers who stop them at risk? The obvious solution is to take the officers — and their guns — out of the picture whenever possible.
The technology developed by the African-American women has nothing to do with race, but limns general principles that should be followed in all traffic stops. Now I doubt Steve would, given the recent events and protests, post the same tweet today, but his summary of the article is not at all an “all lives matter” trope. Remember, there’s still no good evidence that the killing of black men by police reflects “systemic racism” in police department, and that needs to be investigated, but in the meantime perhaps some general tactical changes should be considered as well.
I asked Steve to respond to the claim that this is an “all lives matter trope.” Here’s what he emailed back (quoted with permission):
Linguists, of all people, should understand the difference between a trope or collocation, such as the slogan “All lives matter,” and the proposition that all lives matter. (Is someone prepared to argue that some lives don’t matter?) And linguists, of all people, should understand the difference between a turn in the context of a conversational exchange and a sentence that expresses an idea. It’s true that if someone were to retort “All lives matter” in direct response to “Black lives matter,’ they’d be making a statement that downplays the racism and other harms suffered by African Americans. But that is different from asking questions about whom police kill, being open to evidence on the answer, and seeking to reduce the number of innocent people killed by the police of all races. The fact is that Mullainathan and four other research reports have found the same thing: while there’s strong evidence that African Americans are disproportionately harassed, frisked, and manhandled by the police (so racism among the police is a genuine problem), there’s no evidence that they are killed more, holding rates of dangerous encounters constant. (References below.) As Mullainathan notes, this doesn’t downplay racism, but it pinpoints its effects: in drug laws, poverty, housing segregation, and other contributors to being in dangerous situations, but not on in the behavior of police in lethal encounters. And it has implications for how to reduce police killings, which is what we should all care about: it explains the finding that race-specific like training police in implicit bias and hiring more minority police have no effect, while across-the-board measures such as de-escalation training, demilitarization, changing police culture, and increasing accountability do have an effect.
Fryer, R. G. (2016). An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Papers(22099), 1-63.
Fryer, R. G. (forthcoming). Reconciling Results on Racial Differences in Police Shootings. American Economic Review (Papers and Proceedings).
Goff, P. A., Lloyd, T., Geller, A., Raphael, S., & Glaser, J. (2016). The science of justice: Race, arrests, and police use of force. Los Angeles: Center for Policing Equity, UCLA, Table 7.
Johnson, D. J., Tress, T., Burkel, N., Taylor, C., & Cesario, J. (2019). Officer characteristics and racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(32), 15877-15882. doi:10.1073/pnas.1903856116
Johnson, D. J., & Cesario, J. (2020). Reply to Knox and Mummolo and Schimmack and Carlsson: Controlling for crime and population rates. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(3), 1264-1265. doi:10.1073/pnas.1920184117
Miller, T. R., Lawrence, B. A., Carlson, N. N., Hendrie, D., Randall, S., Rockett, I. R. H., & Spicer, R. S. (2016). Perils of police action: a cautionary tale from US data sets. Injury Prevention. doi:10.1136/injuryprev-2016-042023
Of course the signatories credit themselves with the ultrasonic ability to discern “dog whistles” in arguments that displease them, a license to throw standards of accurate citation out the window and accuse anyone of saying anything.
Back to the letter:
3.) Pinker (2011:107) provides another example of Dr. Pinker downplaying actual violence in a casual manner: “[I]n 1984, Bernhard Goetz, a mild-mannered engineer, became a folk hero for shooting four young muggers in a New York subway car.”—Bernhard Goetz shot four Black teenagers for saying “Give me five dollars.” (whether it was an attempted mugging is disputed). Goetz, Pinker’s mild-mannered engineer, described the situation after the first four shots as follows: “I immediately looked at the first two to make sure they were ‘taken care of,’ and then attempted to shoot Cabey again in the stomach, but the gun was empty.” 18 months prior, the same “mild-mannered engineer” had said “The only way we’re going to clean up this street is to get rid of the sp*cs and n*****s”, according to his neighbor. Once again, the language Dr. Pinker employs in calling this person “mild-mannered” illustrates his tendency to downplay very real violence.
After I’d read Accusation #1 and this one, and saw the way the letter was distorting what Pinker said, I decided to write Steve and say that I was going to write something about the letter. I began by asking for the whole Goetz passage from The Better Angels of Our Nature (which you can see at the letter’s link) so I could embed it here. Steve sent it, along with these words:
The Goetz description was, of course, just a way to convey the atmosphere of New York in the high-crime 79s and 80s for those who didn’t live through it — just as the atmosphere was later depicted in The Joker. To depict this as sympathetic to a vigilante shooter is one of the many post-truth ascriptions in the piece.
Here’s the entire passage from Better Angels:
The flood of violence from the 1960s through the 1980s reshaped American culture, the political scene, and everyday life. Mugger jokes became a staple of comedians, with mentions of Central Park getting an instant laugh as a well-known death trap. New Yorkers imprisoned themselves in their apartments with batteries of latches and deadbolts, including the popular “police lock,” a steel bar with one end anchored in the floor and the other propped up against the door. The section of downtown Boston not far from where I now live was called the Combat Zone because of its endemic muggings and stabbings. Urbanites quit other American cities in droves, leaving burned-out cores surrounded by rings of suburbs, exurbs, and gated communities. Books, movies and television series used intractable urban violence as their backdrop, including Little Murders, Taxi Driver, The Warriors, Escape from New York, Fort Apache the Bronx,Hill Street Blues, and Bonfire of the Vanities. Women enrolled in self-defense courses to learn how to walk with a defiant gait, to use their keys, pencils, and spike heels as weapons, and to execute karate chops or jujitsu throws to overpower an attacker, role-played by a volunteer in a Michelin-man-tire suit. Red-bereted Guardian Angels patrolled the parks and the mass transit system, and in 1984 Bernhard Goetz, a mild-mannered engineer, became a folk hero for shooting four young muggers in a New York subway car. A fear of crime helped elect decades of conservative politicians, including Richard Nixon in 1968 with his “Law and Order” platform (overshadowing the Vietnam War as a campaign issue); George H. W. Bush in 1988 with his insinuation that Michael Dukakis, as governor of Massachusetts, had approved a prison furlough program that had released a rapist; and many senators and congressmen who promised to “get tough on crime.” Though the popular reaction was overblown—far more people are killed every year in car accidents than in homicides, especially among those who don’t get into arguments with young men in bars—the sense that violent crime had multiplied was not a figment of their imaginations.
Now if you think that this passage excuses Bernie Goetz for the shooting, and does so by using “mild-mannered” as an adjective, I feel sorry for you. Pinker’s doing here what he said he was doing: depicting the anti-crime atmosphere present at that time in New York City. Only someone desperately looking for reasons to be offended would glom onto this as evidence of racism. In fact, in 1985 the Washington Post called Goetz “the unassuming, apparently mild-mannered passenger who struck with force” . You can find the same adjective in other places. Complaint dismissed.
4.) In 2014, a student murdered six women at UC Santa Barbara after posting a video online that detailed his misogynistic reasons. Ignoring the perpetrator’s own hate speech, Dr. Pinker called the idea that such a murder could be part of a sexist pattern “statistically obtuse”, once again undermining those who stand up against violence while downplaying the actual murder of six women as well as systems of mysogyny.
Here’s the “incriminating” tweet:
The idea that the UCSB murders are part of a pattern of hatred against women is statistically obtuse | http://t.co/ZbWuSVLy6p
First, a correction: the 2014 Isla Vista killings by Eliot Rodger involved four male victims and two female victims, not six women. But that aside, Rodger did leave a misogynistic manifesto and a YouTube video clearly saying that he wanted to exact revenge on women for rejecting him, and whom he hated for that.
I couldn’t find the statistically obtuse link, and asked Steve about it, and he didn’t remember it either. But his point was clearly not to say that this murder wasn’t motivated by hatred of women, but to question whether it was part of a general pattern of hatred of women. That’s a different issue. I’ll quote Steve again, with his permission:
I don’t remember what it initially pointed to, but I’ve often argued that reading social trends into rampage shootings and suicide terrorists is statistically obtuse and politically harmful. It’s obtuse because vastly more people are killed in day-to-day homicides, to say nothing of accidents; news watchers who think they are common are victims of the Availability Bias, mistaking saturation media coverage of horrific isolated events for major social trends. Every victim of a murder is an unspeakable tragedy, but in trying to reduce violence, we should focus foremost on the phenomena that harm people in the largest numbers.
It’s possible — I don’t remember — that I mentioned data showing that uxoricide (the killing of women by husbands and romantic partners) has been in decline.
Focusing on rampage shooters and suicide terrorists is harmful because it gives these embittered losers exactly what they are seeking—notoriety and political importance—thereby incentivizing more of them. Also, the overreactions to these two smaller kinds of violence can have dangerous side effects, from traumatizing schoolchildren with pointless active shooter drills, to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The legal scholar Adam Lankford is the one who’s written most compellingly about the drive of rampage shooters to “make a difference,” if only posthumously — a good reason not to grant undue importance to their vile final acts.
Again, Pinker’s attempt to make a general point is parsed for wording (do they even know what “statistically obtuse” means?) to argue that Steve is a misogynist. Steve added, “The difference between understanding the world through media-driven events versus data-based trends is of course very much my thing.”
First, “co-opting” is a loaded word for the simple act of citation, both in Pinker’s books and in his tweet below, citation that shows a decline in racist attitudes among white people over time. This involves answers to questions—not actions like murders—but attitudes must surely be seen as manifestations of “racism”.
On the one hand, I am greatly heartened by the level of mobilization and civil protests. That it has touched so many people and brought out so many tens of thousands of individuals to express their concern, their outrage, their condemnation of the police actions in this case and their demand for change and for justice, I find all that greatly encouraging. It is, at the same moment, very disappointing that some folks have taken this as an opportunity to try to bring chaos and violence to these occasions of otherwise high-minded civil protest. And I’m disappointed by those occasions where in law enforcement, individuals and agencies, have acted in ways that have provoked or antagonized otherwise peaceful protest actions.
It’s a complex and fraught moment that we’re in. And one of the most profoundly disappointing aspects of the current context is the lack of wise and sensible voices and leadership on the national stage to set the right tone, to heal the nation, and to reassure us all that we’re going to be on a path to a better, more just society.
. . .We had all thought, of course, that we made phenomenal strides. We inhabit an era in which there are certainly more rank-and-file minority police officers than ever before, more African American and minority and female police chiefs and leaders. But inhabiting a world where the poor and our deeply poor communities are still heavily disproportionately people of color, where we had a war on drugs that was racially biased in both its origins and its profoundly troubling execution over many years, that has bred a level of distrust and antagonism between police and black communities that should worry us all. There’s clearly an enormous amount of work to be done to undo those circumstances and to heal those wounds.
And if the following isn’t a statement by Bobo that justifies Pinker’s characterization above, I don’t know what is, for while indicting Trumpism for fomenting racism, Bobo does indeed say he is “guardedly optimistic”, even using the phrase “higher angels of our nature”. (My emphasis.)
The last three years have brought one moment of shock and awe after the other, as acts on a national and international stage from our leadership that one would have thought unimaginable play out each and every day under a blanket of security provided by a U.S. Senate that appears to have lost all sense of spine and justice and decency. I don’t know where this is. I think we’re in a deeply troubling moment. But I am going to remain guardedly optimistic that hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, the higher angels of our nature win out in what is a really frightening coalescence of circumstances.
Finally, Steve went into more detail about that tweet:
The intro to the tweet was context: introducing Larry Bobo and my connection to his research. It was followed by the transition “Here he ….”, so there was no implication that this interview was specifically about that research. Still, I’d argue that it’s hardly a coincidence that a social scientist who has documented racial progress in the past (including in a 2009 article entitled “A change has come: Race, politics, and the path to the Obama presidency”) would express guarded optimism that it can continue. After all, if 65 years of the civil rights movement had yielded no improvements in race relations, why should we bother continuing the fight?
Now, one can legitimately ask (as Bobo does) whether responses to the General Social Survey are honest or are biased by social desirability. I address this in Enlightenment Now by looking for signs of implicit racism in Google search data (it’s declined), and more recently, have cited new data from my colleagues Tessa Charlesworth and Mahzarin Banaji (in Psychological Science last year) that implicit racial bias as measured by Banaji’s Implicit Association Test has declined as well.
I’ve become used to incomprehension and outrage over data on signs of progress. People mentally auto-correct the claim that something bad has declined with the claim that it has disappeared. And they misinterpret evidence for progress as downplaying the important of activism. But of course progress in the past had to have had a cause, and often it was the work of past activists that pushed the curves down — all the more reason to continue it today.
I also asked Steve for the references to Bobo’s research showing “the decline of overt racism in the U.S.” Here they are:
Bobo, L. D. 2001. Racial attitudes and relations at the close of the twentieth century. In N. J. Smelser, W. J. Wilson, & F. Mitchell, eds., America becoming: Racial trends and their consequences. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.
Bobo, L. D., & Dawson, M. C. 2009. A change has come: Race, politics, and the path to the Obama presidency. Du Bois Review, 6, 1–14.
Schuman, H., Steeh, C., & Bobo, L. D. 1997. Racial attitudes in America: Trends and interpretations. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Finally, the last indictment:
6.) On June 14th 2020, Dr. Pinker uses the dogwhistle “urban crime/violence” in two public tweets (neither of his sources used the term). A dogwhistle is a deniable speech act “that sends one message to an outgroup while at the same time sending a second (often taboo, controversial, or inflammatory) message to an ingroup”, according to recent and notable semantic/pragmatic work by linguistic researchers Robert Henderson & Elin McCready [1,2,3]. “Urban”, as a dogwhistle, signals covert and, crucially, deniable support of views that essentialize Black people as lesser-than, and, often, as criminals. Its parallel “inner-city”, is in fact one of the prototypical examples used as an illustration of the phenomenon by Henderson & McCready in several of the linked works.
The two tweets at issue:
Another expert on urban Crime, Ron Brunson, points out: Protests focus on over-policing. But under-policing is also deadly. https://t.co/BvuoYDBPaH
Umm. . both Patrick Sharkey at Princeton and Rod Brunson at Northeastern Universityare indeed experts in urban crime, and have taught and written extensively about it. If there’s a “dogwhistle” here, blame Brunson and Sharkey, not Pinker. But there is no dogwhistle save the use of that phrase by the Woke to provoke cries of racism from their peers.
In the end, we have an indictment based on five tweets and the phrase “mild-mannered” in one of Pinker’s books, all of which distort or mischaracterize what Pinker was saying. That five social-media tweets and one word can lead to such a severe indictment (see below) is a sign of how far the termites have dined. I’m really steamed when a group of misguided zealots tries to damage someone’s career, and does so dishonestly.
The end of this pathetic letter:
We want to note here that we have no desire to judge Dr. Pinker’s actions in moral terms [JAC: oh for chrissake, of course they do!], or claim to know what his aims are. Nor do we seek to “cancel” Dr. Pinker, or to bar him from participating in the linguistics and LSA communities (though many of our signatories may well believe that doing so would be the right course of action). We do, however, believe that the examples introduced above establish that Dr. Pinker’s public actions constitute a pattern of downplaying the very real violence of systemic racism and sexism, and, moreover, a pattern that is not above deceitfulness, misrepresentation, or the employment of dogwhistles. In light of the fact that Dr. Pinker is read widely beyond the linguistics community, this behavior is particularly harmful, not merely for the perception of linguistics by the general public, but for movements against the systems of racism and sexism, and for linguists affected by these violent systems.
The people who are deceitful and who misrepresent the facts are the signatories of this screed, not Pinker. File this letter in the circular file. I hope that the LSA doesn’t take it seriously, but if they do, the organization should be mocked and derided.
h/t: Many people sent me this letter; thanks to all.
Frankly, I’m surprised that the New York Times, which is increasingly irritating me with its paeans to wokeness, published the article below, for it’s sensitive, progressive, and yet doesn’t fall for the kind of nonsense that passes for “promoting social justice on the Internet”. I’m referring to keyboard warriors who think they’re changing society when they damn a display of kimonos, excoriate white people for wearing dreadlocks or hoop earrings, harass a College (Oberlin!) for serving “inauthentically” cooked General Tso’s chicken, and generally spend their time criticizing society in a way that accomplishes nothing save flaunting their goodness and purity.
Grania instilled that lesson in me. When we’d discuss things like The Big Kimono War at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, she’d ask me, “What, exactly, do the protestors think they’re accomplishing?” When you hear the issue framed that way, you have to realize that the answer is this: “nothing.” And yes, the Kimono Wars accomplished exactly nothing except allow a few offended people to let off steam while pissing off nearly everyone else.
And so it often goes, though of course not always. Sometimes there are protests that are necessary, progressive, and productive. One is against female genital mutilation and its advocates, a serious issue that still needs addressing in the U.S. (more on that this week). Another is the pro-choice movement, with committed people escorting others to clinics and fighting against regressive legislation.
But the unproductive raging infuses much of call-out culture, which black feminist Loretta Ross sees as social-media culture that is harsh, divisive, and—the best definition I’ve seen—a way to garner personal therapy by going after other people’s missteps. Or so says Ross in the article, which you can read by clicking on the screenshot:
Ross has done a lot of social-justice work, fighting racism, staring a movement (Prisoners Against Rape) in which convicted rapists campaign against sexual assault, and working for feminism. In other words, she’s walked the walk. And what she sees today is a culture in which there’s talking but no walking (my emphasis):
I wonder if contemporary social movements have absorbed the most useful lessons from the past about how to hold each other accountable while doing extremely difficult and risky social justice work. Can we avoid individualizing oppression and not use the movement as our personal therapy space? Thus, even as an incest and hate crime survivor, I have to recognize that not every flirtatious man is a potential rapist, nor every racially challenged white person is a Trump supporter.
We’re a polarized country, divided by white supremacy, patriarchy, racism against immigrants and increasingly vitriolic ways to disrespect one another. Are we evolving or devolving in our ability to handle conflicts? Frankly, I expect people of all political persuasions to call me out — productively and unproductively — for my critique of this culture. It’s not a partisan issue.
The heart of the matter is, there is a much more effective way to build social justice movements. They happen in person, in real life. Of course so many brilliant and effective social justice activists know this already. “People don’t understand that organizing isn’t going online and cussing people out or going to a protest and calling something out,” Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, wrote in “How We Fight White Supremacy,”
It is the individualizing of oppression, and its use as personal therapy, that I see as Ross’s most trenchant insight. Compare the anti-racism of the sixties with that of today; today’s concentrates a lot more on personal victimization and demands to “not be erased as a person”. There is less call for love and more call for hatred. In other words, we have widespread attempts to achieve social justice through the relation of personal grievance. For in that way you gain points, respect, and, yes, love. But social justice should be about changing society, not feeling better about yourself.
It’s not that call-outs are never appropriate; they sometimes are, as Ross notes below. But in general they’re divisive and anger people rather than bringing them together, or at least in fostering respectful discussion, which, in combination with the ballot box, is the only way to change society. Ross:
These types of experiences cause me to wonder whether today’s call-out culture unifies or splinters social justice work, because it’s not advancing us, either with allies or opponents. Similarly problematic is the “cancel culture,” where people attempt to expunge anyone with whom they do not perfectly agree, rather than remain focused on those who profit from discrimination and injustice.
Call-outs are justified to challenge provocateurs who deliberately hurt others, or for powerful people beyond our reach. Effectively criticizing such people is an important tactic for achieving justice. But most public shaming is horizontal and done by those who believe they have greater integrity or more sophisticated analyses. They become the self-appointed guardians of political purity.
Call-outs make people fearful of being targeted. People avoid meaningful conversations when hypervigilant perfectionists point out apparent mistakes, feeding the cannibalistic maw of the cancel culture. Shaming people for when they “woke up” presupposes rigid political standards for acceptable discourse and enlists others to pile on. Sometimes it’s just ruthless hazing.
Amen, sister! What’s the solution? I’ll let you read it for yourself, but it’s what Ross calls “calling-in”: not always going public with shaming, acting with love, and trying to build coalitions, as Ross did with the convicted rapists. As she says, it’s not tone policing but engaging in “debates with words and actions of healing and restoration, and without the self-indulgence of drama.” That, in fact, exactly characterizes the movement and words of Martin Luther King, Jr., an expert in calling-in.
At any rate, for once the New York Times has a good piece on social justice by someone who actually achieved social justice. And I’d like to meet Ross and shake her hand.