Are Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt Racists?
Goebbels was in favor of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favor of free speech.
— Noam Chomsky
Because of the important highlighting of discrimination in society as of George Floyd’s lynching, we are experiencing a somewhat heightened sense of what we think of as injustice and racism in the world. Many things that are not racist are being called racist and many acts that are necessary, such as conversing with those we disagree with, are being called “siding with the Nazis”.
There’s definitely a good component to the heightened awareness of injustice and racism in the world, of course. But along with the good, there is always the bad.
As one of my friends did the other day, some are even calling the mere celebration of Canada Day, racist. I hope that is not the case because that would make more than 30 million Canadians racist since I expect that many of us celebrated Canada Day (and there are 35 million of us). I personally did not celebrate Canada Day because (1) I could not care less and (2) because of the pandemic — I thought social-distancing would be more appropriate.
Apart from the ridiculous accusations of racism, there are definitely good accusations. However, many opportunists will find the ridiculous accusations as fertile ground to gain popularity on social media (as is the case with Candace Owens or Dave Rubin). Indeed, with Candace, I remember seeing her at something over 1 million followers at the beginning of 2020; As of July 2020, she has reached 2.4 million followers on Twitter. Some of that popularity is because of her science-denial with regard to the outbreak of COVID-19; and some of it is due to her denial of systemic racism.
Alongside the Candace and Dave, there are those that jump on the bandwagon of calling out racism in order to gain popularity in their academic fields or professionally. We can safely assume that not every person that is pointing out racism in their fellow humans is doing so out of clear motives and intentions. There are certainly those that do this for the sake of gaining popularity. Although, one hopes that these cases are less common.
With increasing allegations made against almost every person imaginable, we should be readily making choices to slow down our thinking; We should be more hesitant to voice our views; and, most importantly, show that we are able to change our views.
In this article, I will propose a case for why we should do so.
ONE QUICK CAVEAT: I would just like to quickly say that I do believe racism is entrenched within society, making it “systemic”. However, I am also very willing to listen to those I disagree with on this. With that said, I enjoy whenever someone “destroys” a systemic racism denier, as was the case with Dave Chapelle and Candace Owens. I still have to learn how to be more receptive to views I disagree with.
The Suffragette Movement: Paralleles With Today
I recently watched the 2015 film, Suffragette, starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, and Meryl Streep. The movie is based in early 1900s London, recounting the backlash that many women had to deal with for advocating for the right to vote.
In order to gain popularity as a movement, the suffragettes realized they had to use the media to garner followers. More media attention meant more discussion and hopefully, the vote. The discussions that arise due to the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of “peaceful voting” come up when watching the movie. By all accounts, the suicide of one of the actresses bolsters immense media traction which the suffragette movement then harnesses to gain the vote.
I could not help but notice that any character that sympathized with the suffragist movement in the movie was socially ostracized. This is something we are also noticing with current events. Any Trump supporter noticed in public because of their clothing is ridiculed, bashed, and sometimes even assaulted.
Trump may not represent the most decent of men in American society, but certainly, we should not revoke to violence when it comes to those that support him. Not all Trump supporters are evil people in the end. They may confuse us and they may indeed trouble us because of our distaste for anti-immigration, anti-globalization, and sexist remarks; however, they should not lead us to ostracize those that support him.
Indeed, we forget that there is a difference between socially conservative and fiscally conservative voters. Believe it or not, there are arguments made by rather intelligent thinkers against raising the minimum wage. I personally do not find them all that persuasive but economics was never my strong suit. It would be difficult for me to find the economic loop-hole in the view that raising the minimum wage would ultimately be detrimental to the poorest in our societies.
The point that I am attempting to get across here is that things are very difficult especially when it comes to these economic, political, and social issues. We all have our natural biases because of our upbringing and social standings. Thus, we should be open to each other’s views. At least, in the form of being able to listen to one another.
The problem with taboos is mainly in that they are just that, taboos. In Victorian England, it was taboo to be a homosexual or a suffragist, because our wanky morality prevented people to do so.
For the homosexual, as is recounted in the beautiful film, The Imitation Game (2014), starring Benedict Cumberbatch, despite whatever achievements you help society with (in this case, it was hacking the Nazi Enigma code to win the War), you are still prosecuted for your “sins” of being a homosexual. The premise of the “sin” of course is not based in any logical argument, but rather in sloppy slippery slope fallacies, that say that if we allow an “immoral” action in society (such as homosexuality), it will permeate it to the extent that all of society will be destroyed.
For the suffragist, if you are disturbing “family values”, by voting — no joke — you are then ostracized for your “sins”, as was made clear in the film mentioned above.
For the atheist in 1960s America, under Nixon and then Reagan, the same applied. Today, in Pakistan, atheists are similarly told that their morality, or rather “amorality”, will destroy society as we know it. As we have seen in America, that connection is actually less clear than has been previously thought.
Social taboos are not an argument. If it is taboo, for Terry Crews to say that he prefers to highlight that “all lives matter” rather than specifically that black lives matter, despite the seeming unnecessary societal contribution of this commentary, there really shouldn’t be the vitriolic hatred against Crews that we see on social media, especially Twitter.
Although this is not exactly what Terry Crews said. Among the things that Terry said were:
“So the only Black lives that matter are the ones that agree with you?” On July 6th 2020
“#ALLBLACKLIVESMATTER” On July 6th
“Are all white people bad? No. Are all black people good? No. Knowing this reality- I stand on my decision to unite with good people, no matter the race, creed or ideology. Given the number of threats against this decision- I also decide to die on this hill.” On July 4th
The arguments that Terry presents here are rather straightforward. They are by no means hateful, yet they receive so much hate. Are they ignorant? We can’t know for sure because they leave out so much. That is why we have to listen and be charitable. There is perhaps more to Terry’s views — believe it or not.
In the end, Terry should be allowed a view I personally disagree with. I think that his commentary is not particularly helpful to the movement that is fighting against racism in America
Once again, social taboos are not an argument.
There are many good reasons to think that Terry Crews is misunderstanding the severity of black on black violence or police brutality but we should not be so quick to judge him. Although even these statistics are nuanced. There are many that disagree on them and I am no statistician to have a view, to be honest. In the end, we do not know Terry and we can be certain that his view is more nuanced than whatever he has expressed on social media.
That is perhaps a good enough reason not to express but it is definitely enough to “cancel” him or tell him that he is racist and sympathetic to violence on the American black community.
We need to promote careful thinking and nuanced positions. Of course, that is very difficult to do and maybe impossible on Twitter.
Social taboos are not an argument.
What is most concerning in the way people on social media treat these complex issues is that they promote “fast thinking” versus the deliberate “slow thinking” that we need in order to restore sanity into our politics and everyday lives as Joseph Heath would have us do in his wonderful book Enlightenment 2.0.
The idea behind slow thinking was originally promoted by Daniel Kahneman, the Israeli psychologist and behavioral economist, known for his work on judgment and decision-making, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.
Since then this notion has been discussed widely. Studies conducted by Keith Stanovich show that people with higher IQ are as susceptible as the rest of us to cognitive bias, coining the term “dysrationalia” for those that are able to think rationally but fail to in key moments.
The difference between intelligent people and less intelligent people that have been exposed to cognitive bias is only in that when you tell the more intelligent person they are wrong, they are more likely to show where they made the cognitive mistake.
Intelligence, thus, is not the sole predictor of how often we are correct and how often we take the counsel of our intuitive beliefs over rational judgments. The French cognitive scientists Huge Mercier and Dan Sperber similarly found upon reviewing the literature on motivated reasoning that
“skilled arguers . . . are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views”.
Even the most intelligent are susceptible to the basic errors that uneducated minds make.
Indeed, the central value of an education, Stanovich points out, is to “attempt to develop controlled processing styles that override the fundamental computational bias and thus enable learned rule systems to operate on decoupled presentations”. Stanovich, along with others, thus argues that the “fundamental computational bias” that each one of us applies, without exception, is our first instinctual reaction to cognitive problems. That is why we are often incorrect in our judgments. Our “slow thinking” or rational thinking is reserved for when other options have already been exhausted.
When discussing politics, we should be aware of this. Our intuitions about these issues drive most of our conclusions, unfortunately.
That is not to say that we cannot have a view but rather that our view should be balanced, telling of the fact that we have addressed many different political positions, and that we are ready to change our minds when given the sufficient evidence to do so.
Of course, knowing what that evidence is may be difficult, hence the open mind and the willingness to listen to the opposing view. As the political philosopher and social reformer, John Stuart Mill said a long time ago,
“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion… Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them…he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”
Once again, society is complex. If we are arguing with those we disagree with, how do we expect to make progress in our discussions without representing their side well? I do not expect us to do so. Indeed, research suggests that our inability to talk about race specifically is one of the reasons right-wing populist regimes are popping up across the Globe.
With that out of the way, I wanted to address the accusations against Pinker and Haidt with a brief introduction on who they are.
I am not going to lie; I have benefited from Pinker a lot in the past. His books Better Angels of Our Nature and Blank Slate are among my favorite books (Links will guide you to my reviews on Instagram).
For those not familiar with him, Pinker is a Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, popular science author, and Harvard professor. He has recently come under fire by a group of both undergraduate and graduate students that are members of the Linguistic Society of America. In an open letter, a google doc, they share their animosity to Pinker with the organization. The letter resembles an odd mixture of selective blindness to their own motivations, as many have pointed out.
On the one hand, they call for Pinker’s removal, then they say they are not writing the letter to “cancel” Pinker:
We want to note here that we have no desire to judge Dr. Pinker’s actions in moral terms, 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 contradiction is rather blatant and comes across as selectively blind which would make it rather malicious.
All the claims that were made against Pinker have been beautifully rebutted elsewhere. I encourage you to read those if you are not persuaded.
The pattern among these calls of “racism” is interesting and should be highlighted which is why I was encouraged to write this blog post. The theme is that the argument is based in straw-manning a view, or rather criticizing something that is not what the proponent suggested at all. In this case, Pinker’s “racism” was taken from a few tweets (that were misinterpreted) and one phrase from one of his books. That could be enough to settle whether someone is racist or not if the tweets suggested even a shred of racism, however, they clearly do not.
Perhaps Pinker could have shared more sympathy with the BLM movement, but not doing so is not a sign of racism. Indeed, not doing so does not even suggest that you do not show sympathy with the BLM movement in the same way that not tweeting about Yemen right now, which is experiencing one of the largest crises in the world today, does not suggest that you are morally ambivalent to Yemen.
Truths are very difficult to establish; we need to allow each other the space to breathe and to express our views in their entirety. In the end, words are limited and we should readily admit that we are not capable of expressing what and how we think properly.
How to Present an Argument You Disagree With
It very well may be that Pinker is a bad scientist. I am by no means good enough of a scientist to be able to discern that. I benefit from what I think is his educated view on many issues. His length and the cogent arguments that are proposed in them suggest to me that he is a very worthy authority on whatever he tackles in his books. Although some disagree.
When you disagree, I believe it is important to represent the argument you disagree with (in this case, Pinker’s) to the best of your abilities, as Mill would have us do. Otherwise, it does not come across as persuasive.
This view was more recently infamously proposed by the American philosopher, Donald Davidson, who said that we should always attempt to represent the opposing argument in a way that the other side would agree with. If we would do so successfully, we have the potential to gain respect and establish common ground with the person we disagree with.
We need more of this in society.
Has anyone done so successfully, you might ask?
And yes! I would like to think so. For example, it was brilliantly done by Oliver Thorn, the host of Philosophy Tube, a Youtube channel devoted to philosophical questions, in his video-commentary of Jordan Peterson. In that video, he also criticizes the moral argument of intellectual Sam Harris in his book, The Moral Landscape, whom I have also benefited from. However, the way he presents the argument is so well that even as a fan, I cannot object.
I encourage you to watch the video to see how to disagree with an argument. The video in and of itself can be seen as satire, but it is tastefully done so I do not really take issue with it.
There are good ways to disagree with others. It is never by name-calling, victimizing, and generalizing. It is always by being nuanced and generous.
Another intellectual that has been hit by unsubstantiated allegations of racism and “IQ” superiority complex, whatever you call it, is Jonathan Haidt, the American social psychologist, popular author, and self-proclaimed “intuitionist”.
These claims were less popular and the traction they gained on Twitter limited. Nonetheless, the theme was the same: “this intellectual is racist because of a slide and a couple of notes I’ve made on him.” However, a more careful reading of the intellectual in question would perhaps change your mind. In this case, that could not be more clear.
In fact, whenever I hear Haidt speak, I hear a careful thinker that is attempting to, in the words of one writer in The Atlantic, “trying to heal America’s divisions”:
“When we look at the stories of moral beauty versus moral depravity, it certainly seems like there are far more stories of moral beauty out there than moral depravity,” Haidt said. “So what I think is happening is that the most politically active Americans are just incorporating this into their preexisting culture war, but most Americans seem to be having a surge of common sentiment, of prosocial feeling. We are all going through similar experiences at the same time, which has hardly ever happened before. So I’m still hopeful.”
It is hard to think of a more balanced thinker today. Perhaps Stephen Fry would be among them? But, indeed, it is hard to come up with them.
Haidt is accused of racism because he discussed IQ differences in a few slides and an article where he says that the science is yet to be established but may be one day.
In reality, Haidt himself is an ethnic minority and has repeatedly and his work if anything allows for deradicalizing and deescalating the real racists out there. He defends the prevalence of male privilege and is also promoting the harms that social media is causing to children. His focus is multi-faceted, interesting, and his voice always gentle and balanced with those he disagrees with. Indeed, his analysis of what is happening in America today under Trump with the outbreak of the coronavirus is immaculately balanced. He is bridging gaps between parties that are increasingly polarized.
I would like to end this post with the words of Stephen West, host of the popular philosophy podcast, Philosophize This! :
We live on an island surrounded by a sea of ignorance. As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.
Hopefully, we all garner that humility in our own lives to reduce the polarization that is preventing civil discourse in society.
You may disagree with Pinker or Haidt. If you do, make sure you present their argument well, in a way that they would agree with. Only then, can we see civility and sanity in our everyday lives.
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I write to keep you thinking and to keep me thankful and reflective. Cheers and until next time,