Renowned professor of psychology at Harvard and a prolific writer, Steven Pinker is the author of several prize-winning books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Better Angels of Our Nature. This week Pinker releases a new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. I chatted over email with Professor Pinker and asked him some questions on his new book and contemporary politics.
Advisory Board Writings
For all their disagreements, the left and the right concur on one thing: The world is getting worse. Whether the decline is visible in inequality, racism and pollution, or in terrorism, crime and moral decay, both sides see profound failings in modernity and a deepening crisis in the West. They look back to various golden ages when America was great, blue-collar workers thrived in unionized jobs, and people found meaning in religion, family, community and nature.
What happens when a university lets a select group decide what constitutes “hate speech” for an entire campus? The answer at San Francisco State University is censorship of any opinions the group doesn’t like. This example is instructive for the larger societal debate on hate speech.
Concrete barriers were erected and a security perimeter was created around six buildings, all reinforced by hundreds of police officers. Weapons, backpacks, helmets, and masks were forbidden. This was not some distant capital in a war zone. This was the University of California at Berkeley last night.
I grew up in Newport News during the tumultuous years of the 1950s and later graduated from both the College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia. Like millions of others, I have watched the horrific events in Charlottesville and its aftermath during these past three weeks and, as one with Virginia roots, have paid particular attention to the debate that has raged over how the past is to be remembered. As a historian raised during a period of racial crisis in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, I perceive models of leadership from those years that are seared in my soul and that I believe should not be forgotten. They are illuminating and instructive for us today.
I grew up as an Orthodox Jewish boy born in 1947 in Newport News, Virginia. I was aware from my earliest years that Newport News had welcomed my immigrant grandparents and their children from the ravages of Eastern Europe when they first arrived in Tidewater during the early years of the 20th century. My grandmother was grateful her entire life to Virginia for the shelter it provided.
For the past few decades, we have witnessed the rise of anti-Semitism from the left. From Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the United Kingdom to college campuses across America, the phenomenon is real, and it is dangerous. Yet, all too often, some Jews — both individuals and organizations — who inhabit the liberal or left end of the spectrum have tried to explain it away with the classic “yes/but” rationalization: “Yes, it’s wrong, but if only Israel would… then the anti-Semitism would disappear.” Maybe their fear of losing their left-wing bona fides blinded them to the fact that the only proper response to prejudice of any kind — anti-Semitism included — is unambiguous condemnation.
Over the past few months, a series of student protests has erupted across the United States on campuses such as Amherst, Dartmouth, Ithaca, the University of Missouri and Yale. While the specific spark of each protest has differed, their substance has been of like mind: Students are contending that their administrations have neglected an obligation to address bigotry, discrimination and intolerance, and specifically racism. Pressured to respond to such concerns, some universities have taken steps to discourage or proscribe “hateful” or “hurtful” speech. In other cases, faculty and administrators have been forced out, speakers have been disinvited and buildings have been renamed. Further complicating matters are questions about the First Amendment rights of religious minorities and new tensions between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students and organizations. For some, today’s is an era of intellectual intolerance and so-called political correctness, of illiberal censorship of opposing or unpopular opinion. Others paint a different picture, one in which marginalized voices that have been silenced for too long are finally being heard and accommodated. So: Is free speech threatened on college campuses? Moment asks an array of scholars, university administrators and students to weigh in. This print symposium is an expanded version of a March 2016 live symposium produced in partnership with the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute.
The great rabbinic scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel once remarked that “mankind will not perish for want of information but for want of appreciation.” Too often we in the Jewish community fail to appreciate what dedicated Jewish professionals and organizations accomplish every day. We tear down those who should be our heroes. A good example of this is the episodic acrimony toward Hillel International and the executive directors who serve Jewish students on more than 500 university campuses. They have dedicated their lives to the education of Jewish students and to helping them maintain their Jewish identity and religion. The detractors say what they please with little appreciation of the critical role that campus Hillels play – and often with no accurate information. Rabbi Heschel would not be pleased. The risk of failing to respond is the demoralization of the very professionals on whom the students are so dependent.