Steven Pinker, Political Correctness, and the Urge To Censor

One of the highlights of 2012 for me was that I got to sit down and interview Harvard psychology professor and bestselling author Steven Pinker. During the course of our conversation, we discussed his books, the role dissent plays in society, the special importance of free speech on campus, and the origins of political correctness. Professor Pinker is the author of The Blank Slate, The Better Angels of our Nature, and The Stuff of Thought, a member of FIRE’s Board of Advisors, and one of my favorite authors.

In this video, Pinker notes the irony that campuses, which rely on the open exchange of ideas more than any other institution, often restrict speech more aggressively than society at large. Pinker describes how the urge to censor is related to the “psychology of taboo,” a topic he expanded upon back in 2010 when he, along with Harvey Silverglate and me, accepted an award on FIRE’s behalf from Boston’s Ford Hall Forum.

Do you agree with Pinker that the urge to censor is related to the “psychology of taboo?” Or, for that matter, do you think we have a natural instinct to censor?

(Also, for fun, check out what Pinker had to say about my book.)

  1. Barkha Herman

    Hey Greg -

    I wonder what Pinker would say about the call for gun bans following the Newtown shootings?

    Pinker is often who I turn to when I am told of the inevitable doom and gloom and the imminent end of society.  

    I do think that there is something to the “taboo” idea. 

    For example, if you want to discuss abortion for instance, many on the left will assume that you are a woman hater and there is no other life involved; where as many on the right will bring in biblical sin.  Either one is the end of the discussion.

    Or the person who thought you represented the KKK when you bring up freedom of speech on campus…

    The assumption is that the debate is “settled” and there is nothing to talks about.

  2. Greg Lukianoff
    C

    Thanks again, Barkha for following my posts. Not to answer a video blog with another video BUT Jonathan Rauch is my favorite living philosopher of free speech and he explains in his book, Kindly Inquisitors,  that one of the rule of an open society is that, essentially, no debate is ever truly over: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cITDCwKzGBM

  3. Leslie Watkins

    It’s great having you visit, Greg! Thanks for posting this interview. Steven Pinker is really engaging, and yes I imagine that the desire to censor might very well be related to the psychology of taboo. But my sense is that it’s more a part of what I call the us/them gene. This apparent urge to identify with one group and at the same time close ranks around the other group. I have a sense that the polarization of Americans today is quite like the struggle between Catholics and Protestants five centuries ago. Between North and South in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Now, between Democrats and Republicans. The university—I say this as someone who has worked in a university press environment for almost a quarter century—is no longer a place of scholarship in the deepest sense. Critique has replaced criticism; activism, analysis. In other words, the issue seems psychological but is playing out more as a social manifestation. A thought, anyway.

  4. Mark Lewis

    Greg – what a treat. Congrats!

    Taking the heat off. The Leftist critique of America (finding everything wrong with it) seems to be in support  of some overall goodness. “We need to fix this bad thing so we can have more good things.”  How do you think Pinker would answer this question: What is the difference between those who say: 1. Things are broken, look at how broken they are, we need to fix them.

    and

    2. Things are both good and bad (always). Let’s make them better, even as we recognize how they are already good.

    What is the stuff of thought that leads to this unconstrained/constrained focus of attention?

  5. The Mugwump

    I think Pinker misses a more pedestrian explanation.  College professors tend to be the self-proclaimed, social and intellectual elites.  It rubs them raw that they don’t get the compensation or adulation due them compared with businessmen, entertainers, and other base occupations.  If academics had any self-introspection, they would realize that their real motivation is simply to dominate others.  It’s a completely human if somewhat ignoble tendency.  Since words and ideas are their stock in trade, they seek to dominate the way people think.  Like everything else produced in “elite” circles, it’s all about power, domination, and control.

  6. Barkha Herman

    As an immigrant I find the “taboos” strange.

    I remember asking an African american co worker about her “perm” (this was the 80s and little did I know that she was wearing a wig), and first I got chided, but then I learnt a lot (more than other non African american women who did not ask), and the we became very good friends.

    My husband, a white male, claims that my packaging helps – I am a woman of Indian origin, that he would never be able to get away with the questions I ask.  

    I find that sad.  

    For all it’s diversity, the United States can be islands of people, separated by misguided norms of “politeness”.

  7. Greg Lukianoff
    C

    Hey Mark, great question, and I am not sure to the precise answer, but I think one of the great points he makes in his book is that an exaggerated sense of how bad things are and a gloomy sense that things are, in fact, always getting worse leads not to action, in many cases, but a sense of resignation, even apathy. The kind of excessive gloominess I hear from my academic friends does often seem to turn into an excuse for inaction. What Steve is saying is there are things we are doing right (like rule of law, respecting people’s rights, defending free speech, etc) and we need to look at those so we keep doing them!

  8. Greg Lukianoff
    C

    Awesome point. I have a section in the book about how campuses make the “Us v. Them” problem worse. Very well said. 

    Leslie Watkins: It’s great having you visit, Greg! Thanks for posting this interview. Steven Pinker is really engaging, and yes I imagine that the desire to censor might very well be related to the psychology of taboo. But my sense is that it’s more a part of what I call the us/them gene. This apparent urge to identify with one group and at the same time close ranks around the other group. I have a sense that the polarization of Americans today is quite like the struggle between Catholics and Protestants five centuries ago. Between North and South in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Now, between Democrats and Republicans. The university—I say this as someone who has worked in a university press environment for almost a quarter century—is no longer a place of scholarship in the deepest sense. Critique has replaced criticism; activism, analysis. In other words, the issue seems psychological but is playing out more as a social manifestation. A thought, anyway. · 41 minutes ago

  9. Bryan G. Stephens

    I think the core issue is one of existential threat from ideas. Almost all of us will feel uncomfortable when our belief system is challenged. We feel threatened, as if we ourselves are being attacked. Most of us would just as soon not have the feeling. 

    I find that most people, when asking questions are not seeking information, but instead are seeking affirmation. If someone asks me if it is raining, they want to know the answer. If they ask me who I voted for, most likely they want me to say the same person they did. I agree and the person can feel good about their vote. (Unless they want an argument, in which case they still are not seeking information). If I disagree, then they get upset because now I have introduced dissonance.

    Things can get bad fast, if they respond to the threat with an argument. Now, I marshal all my resources to defend my position. They feel attacked at a base level, I feel attacked back, because we are now going at each others’ beliefs. Hurt feelings abound.

    If you goal is to avoid hurt feelings, then you cannot have those discussions.

  10. Greg Lukianoff
    C

    These comments are just plain terrific today. Thanks for this Bryan. I think the siren call of conformation bias is worsened by our increased physical isolation from those we disagree with (Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort is great on this) and by the so-called “Daily Me.” I think it is one of the many dangers of a comfortable society. 

    Bryan G. Stephens: I think the core issue is one of existential threat from ideas. Almost all of us will feel uncomfortable when our belief system is challenged. We feel threatened, as if we ourselves are being attacked. Most of us would just as soon not have the feeling. 

    I find that most people, when asking questions are not seeking information, but instead are seeking affirmation…

  11. Greg Lukianoff
    C

    Also, I did not mention it in this post, but all royalties from the sale of Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship & the End of American Debate go to FIRE (and even a little more if you use this link: http://fir.ee/M7g3Hi )

  12. el75

    Greg, in the review video you linked to at the bottom, you mentioned someone being fined for reading a book with the wrong cover. What incident does that refer to? (don’t worry, answering this question will not stop me from ordering your book!)

  13. Z in MT

    This reminds me of a comment that Harry Shearer made in the Uncommon Knowledge episode with Rob Long.

    Paraphrasing, he said “There is a law of conservation for taboo.”

    What he was referring to was how politically correct things that could be discussed and joked about in the ’70′s (like All in the Family) could never make it onto television today, while raunchy jokes that go over today would never make it on to TV in the ’70′s.

    Maybe the law of conservation of taboo is concentrating taboo onto campuses, because there is so much less taboo now in the larger society?

  14. Keith Doherty

    Yes!  Thomas Sowell speaks very eloquently about this topic, in print and in interviews (w/ Peter Robinson on Uncommon Knowledge). Greg, have you by chance read “Intellectuals and Society”?

    ~Paules: I think Pinker misses a more pedestrian explanation.  College professors tend to be the self-proclaimed, social and intellectual elites.  It rubs them raw that they don’t get the compensation or adulation due them compared with businessmen, entertainers, and other base occupations.  If academics had any self-introspection, they would realize that their real motivation is simply to dominate others.  It’s a completely human if somewhat ignoble tendency.  Since words and ideas are their stock in trade, they seek to dominate the way people think.  Like everything else produced in “elite” circles, it’s all about power, domination, and control. · 5 hours ago

  15. Greg Lukianoff
    C

    Thanks Keith, I haven’t read it but it is now on the list.

  16. Mark Lewis
    I will second the incredible value that Intellectuals and Society is. It is an integration and extension of his trilogy on culture: A Conflict of Visions The Vision of the Annointed The Quest for Cosmic Justice using modern politics as the example set.

    It’s like getting 4 books in one! :-)

    After you have read it, you can’t help but think that if it were mandatory reading for college sophomores, we would graduate an entirely different set of seniors. 

  17. Greg Lukianoff
    C

    Oh yes, that is a crazy case. You can watch the student explain it in his own words, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ZHnB3jyrHI&list=UUC4leKu2BwJZpv9jaUXpC4w&index=33

    Also, we did an interview with him more recently for this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yS6IA93o79s&list=UUC4leKu2BwJZpv9jaUXpC4w&index=14

    And you can also read about it in my book and here: http://thefire.org/case/760