Pinker, Free Speech and Academic Integrity

I have taken a break from blog posting recently because I tend to post when there is a conference or workshop or event that provokes excitement and self expression. Lately, with the corona crisis there have been no workshops to attend in person, and there is absolutely no point blogging a conference that is digitally available to all anyway!

I also have to confess that I joined twitter last year (only academic followees) and have been down many rabbit holes because of that which may have used up some of my time (lets be honest. most of my waking spare moments).

I am posting now because the Pinker letter thing has exploded and it turns out sometimes it is best to say your thing calmly, after editing, than to fire off  a series of tweets or respond in a piecemeal way to the facebook posts of others.  I am not a member of the LSA, and I think in many ways, the USA is  a social and even academic microcosm unto itself that requires subtlety and understanding and `on-the-ground’-ness to negotiate properly.  I do not think that my voice is the democratically relevant one in this fight, and my US academic colleagues have the responsibility and the burden here.   Here in Europe,  things are different in ways that vary massively from country to country, but it is also true that because of the influence of the US (for better or for worse) in our sociopolitical world and the world of linguistic academia, we are all in some sense affected and involved. So here is my two cents.

The issue in this particular case  boils down to democratic representation. Remember that?  That was the thing we had in politics before global capital and vested interests gutted our choices and hollowed out the heart of democracy. It was what we had before it became impossible to get simple facts out into the common public discourse, or to deny obvious falsehoods,  because the media are controlled and turned into instruments of tribalism with no accountability.   But still, democratic representation still exists right? On the lower and less policitized levels of nerdy groups and clubs, or even mid level academic societies, where we can decide who our steering committees are, and who we trust to make organizational decisions etc. etc.  Right?

I waver between being  despondent about the state of sociopolitics today and recklessly revolutionarily hopeful.  I think that we have been crushed by the neoliberal status quo for the past 50 years or so, so that often people can no longer  muster the social outrage appropriate to the kinds of inroads in opportunities and equality that have be meted out to us under the flag of global capitalism, to which there are genuine and viable alternatives. The recent debacle of the Trump presidency and its latest corona mismanagement, and the phenomenal and  diverse upsurge of political activism in wake of the George Floyd murder means that progressive ideas (especially among the young) are on the rise. But let there be no mistake about it. This has come despite the consistent and powerful forces of the political and financial elites who have thrown their whole might behind silencing these voices. They talk about cancel culture, they talk about fake news, they talk about conspiracies, and they consistently accuse the left of fascism and intolerance and repressing free speech. But this is their playbook, not ours. And the way public discourse works, it is IMPOSSIBLE to prove even that climate change is real, let alone that the current political system is the one that has silenced and is still silencing dissent.  But ask anyone of colour, anyone who supports Palestinian rights, anyone who believes in socialism, or who believes in disinvesting from fossil fuels completely, or indigenous rights (the list could go on) and look at how hard it is to get that message out. And compare that to the dominant voices in the mainstream media.  I believe in free speech, like the majority progressives. And in accepting the consequences of one’s positions, and in open discourse and disagreement.  Famous heavyweight intellectuals waving the free speech flag to censure non renowned linguists for writing a 4 page letter to a nerdy academic institution frankly dismays me.

The Pinker battle is precisely about who gets to speak for us (as an academic discipline) in the mainstream media. It is about democratic representation. We say as a field in other contexts that we need to be better at communicating and being involved in public discourse.  Language is hugely relevant to our lives as social and political beings, so we are important here.  SP has a loud and dominant voice in the current climate anyway, because of his many books and contacts, but he has also been granted a platform by the leading academic body of the field in the US (the LSA)  to speak for us on issues of general linguistics (one of two names on the General list for media contact!).   So my question is,  suppose the next generation of young linguists (500 of them, or so) who have been engaging in public discourse as part of their beginning careers, suppose they feel that SP does not speak for them ? Suppose they are constantly dismayed, ashamed and feel their intellectual positions undermined by the things he says on twitter, or in the mainstream media?   What do they, as members of an academic institution do?  What do they do?  What is allowed to them in this context?    Mind you, this is not to change the world, or eradicate systemic racism or save the planet or chip away at the smug unassailability of global capitalist logic—-its  just one simple thing:  to figure out a way so that their small corner of academic where they live and work is sound and good, and whose intellectual integrity they can be proud of and get behind.   They write a letter to their executive council saying, hey guys,  a lot of us think this dude does not actually represent our ideals, can we take him off that damn media list now already.

Now even if you don’t at all get it that SP is this bad,  (but read the articles and quotes over an extended period of time and make your mind up for yourself), at least recognise that a large number of young and passionate linguists whose work and integrity you respect felt moved to sign that letter, even though some of the argumentation might not have been ideal, and even though they were torn about academic freedom issues.  They signed it and they are not hooligans with baseball bats destroying all that is good and sacred. They were trying to have a say.  We should trust them and look carefully at that media list again, and try to figure out ways of having a system in place so that democratic representation is respected.  After all, we want our institutions to reflect the reviews of its members, and they deserve to have an institution that represents them.

The letter writers are not cancel culture vultures seeking to stifle free speech as a part of a progressive agenda gone mad (which is how I am reading some of the reactions). They were just trying to have a say.  (How hard it is to break through the clamour of the already established voices and privileged positions!  The problem with the world today is not that neoliberalism is having a problem getting its message out.)

The future of our field, and indeed of our planet is with our young ones.  We should listen to them, and trust that they do have our values of free speech and academic integrity. They are changing the field towards better support for:  female linguists, early career linguists, linguists of colour, LGBTQ non-binary linguists, indigenous language issues etc. etc, in ways which are driven by them not the old guard or us middle aged fuddy duddies.  Long overdue. We should listen to them if we are the ones who happen to have the power,  not completely onesidedly,  but as part of a respectful open discussion.  I for one believe that if we create an academic community that meets their standards, it will be a good and fine thing.  The LSA should take this letter as an opportunity to make some changes, and put in place some mechanisms for change and updating more generally.


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