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House ’20: Steven Pinker and who decides how campus culture should be repaired

I am not the target audience for this. I found this thought echoing around my head as I read Andrew Reed's March 12 column "Steven Pinker Wants to Repair Campus Culture." The piece has a pretty veneer and frames itself as hopeful, but concerned. I am not convinced its true purpose is quite so positive.

The essay is a discussion with Steven Pinker, focusing primarily on the recent “wave of illiberalism, particularly on college campuses.” A full and nuanced rebuttal of the article would be the length of a novel, which I’m sure is by design. It is riddled with over-simplifications, misrepresentations and conservative buzzwords that mean very little but have loaded connotations. Anyone familiar with these rhetorical strategies, or indeed with the content Reed discusses, will immediately recognize how the focus of the argument skews reality. This is why I was quickly convinced that the article wasn’t written with my fellow Brown students and me in mind. Instead, it seems aimed at those who already believe that there is an epidemic of political correctness and cancel culture ruining our institutions of higher learning. It says to these people: “You are right, this is an issue you should be focused on, and I can give you more evidence to confirm it.” 

Reed opens with an introduction of Pinker, a “Harvard professor turned celebrity intellectual.” Pinker’s work argues that society is improving on the whole, but he has recently become concerned about cancel culture and censorship. Reed, a staff columnist at an Ivy League newspaper, does not note the irony of his discussion of this topic with a tenured professor who has published 16 books. Clearly, both are able to broadcast their views on prestigious platforms — despite Pinker receiving criticism from members of the Linguistics Society of America, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the general public; as well as becoming embroiled in controversy over connections with Jeffrey Epstein

Pinker claims that illiberalism on college campuses is not new, but that it originated in the ’70s and has gotten steadily worse since. Reed cites several recent examples of cancellation: He writes that “In 2017, Evergreen College in Washington State descended into chaos when a white professor refused to leave campus after a group of activists organized a day without white students and faculty.” Interested to learn more about this clearly outrageous occurrence, I looked at the source he provided. As it turns out, the issue is not quite as Reed has presented it; Evergreen’s “Day of Absence” is an event that has been held for decades, and usually involves students and faculty of color leaving campus while white community members stay behind. In light of Trump’s election and incidents of harassment at Evergreen (including a police officer shooting two Black students in 2015), organizers proposed a reversal of tradition. Of course, controversy followed and one professor publicly opposed white students and faculty being encouraged to leave campus. A video of student protestors later engaging with the professor and calling for him to be fired went viral, and he went on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News to talk about being silenced. The school, student activists and a Black professor were then targeted by the alt-right and were doxxed and threatened. Not only was the event canceled the next year, but so were classes after an anonymous caller claimed he had a weapon and was “going to execute as many people on that campus as I can get a hold of.” Even this description is a simplification, but Reed summarizing the incident as “chaos” conveniently ignores that the people who suffered most were students and activists who already felt unheard and unrecognized.

The other examples Reed employs are similarly not quite as supportive of his argument as they appear: the Middlebury College incident was also complex and student protesters who did not participate in the violence were disproportionately punished. Rather than quashing debate, the incident sparked fierce discussion on the campus; rather than de-platforming Charles Murray, he became the topic of national conversation and was actually invited back to the school for the third time last year. Finally, the Lisa Littman case is far from an example of illiberalism in academia, but rather an incident of rigorous academic critique and revision to create better scholarship. Littman retained her position at the University and her work is still published.

These tactics continue throughout the rest of the piece, where Pinker goes on to claim that college administrators are now part of the problem. He invokes “postmodernism” and “Marxist critical theory,” academic terms which have been co-opted and muddied to the point of uselessness by conservative talking heads, and manages to define the ideologies behind them in a way that is painfully dishonest. These are umbrella terms for complicated and diverse schools of thought, which often contradict each other and cannot be distilled down to statements like "history is a struggle." 

In one particularly amusing quote, Pinker says that nowadays, “the radical student protesters bring in the campus bureaucracy to multiply their own power, something they wouldn’t have been caught dead doing” when he was an undergraduate. Pinker studied for his Bachelor of Arts at McGill from 1973 to 1976 and he may be partially correct — the relationship between student activists and university administrations was certainly strained in the late ’60s and early ’70s. There could be shocking, disproportionate consequences for disruptive advocacy. McGill fired a professor in 1969 for leading protests, and in 1970, four student activists were killed by the Ohio National Guard in what is now referred to as the Kent State Massacre. I hardly think that students and university administrators are allied now (the Middlebury case that Reed references illustrates this), but surely improvements from the antagonistic relationship of 50 years ago make students and faculty safer and therefore benefit open debate. 

 Though I find Reed’s piece to be a disingenuous representation of the culture in higher education, I share his and Pinker’s concerns about narrow viewpoints, and I agree that there is a lot at stake. Who controls the conversation in academia? What are the best ways to make sure that there are diverse viewpoints? In answering these questions, Pinker’s emphasis on cancel culture overblows the issue and distracts from the more pressing problem of accessibility in academia — especially at elite universities like Brown and Harvard — a problem that far more directly restricts campus discourse and narrows the range of acceptable viewpoints. Around 29 percent of Brown students come from private schools — suspiciously higher than the two percent of American students at large who are in the private school system. Almost 20 percent of Brown students are from the top one percent of incomes in the United States, with a whopping 70 percent of students coming from the top 20 percent. When Pinker started his Bachelor of Arts at McGill, Brown had only been fully co-educational for two years. Progress was made during the ’70s because of lawsuits and student activism that forced the school to be more accessible to and supportive of its underrepresented faculty and students.

My time at Brown exposed me to a huge range of ideas and perspectives. These changed how I see the world and taught me how to communicate productively with people who hold different views from mine. It’s clear, however, that there is more work to be done. Though I never felt silenced by my peers, I often felt out of place and insignificant beside the vast wealth and power of the administration. The University was built to serve the needs of white men from private schools. When I see discussions about who deserves a platform, I think about how hard my fellow students with marginalized identities have had — and continue to have — to fight for their voices to be heard. In order to convince their audience to fear the perils of censoring other viewpoints, Pinker and Reed inaccurately describe and fail to contextualize the people and views they critique. The essay is emblematic of how lamentations of cancel culture often work, more effectively than any protest, to silence others.

Anna House ’20 can be reached at anna_house@alumni.brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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