By Dylan R. Ragas, Courtesy of Rose Lincoln/Harvard University, and Sophia C. Scott

Steven Pinker and the Fight Over Academia’s Future

Public intellectual and Harvard professor Steven A. Pinker believes that academia needs to be saved from itself. He is prepared to do his part.
By Rebecca E.J. Cadenhead and Miles J. Herszenhorn

On a Friday evening at the end of October, soft chatter and clinking glasses echoed beneath the vaulted ceiling of the Pavillion in the Ronald Reagan building in Washington. Over 100 formally-dressed heterodox academics, conservative think tank staffers, “freethinkers,” and rogue government officials sat at round linen-covered tables, dining on filet mignon, drinking Italian red wine, and listening to a speech by Steven A. Pinker.

Pinker, a celebrity academic and psychology professor at Harvard, wasn’t there in person; instead, his face, set against a background of the Boston skyline, was beamed onto a large screen. He was giving a tribute to John H. McWhorter, a colleague, fellow linguist, English and comparative literature professor at Columbia, and opinion writer for the New York Times.

They’d been invited to the gala by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an organization that promotes, according to its website, “academic excellence, academic freedom, and accountability at America’s colleges and universities.” McWhorter had won their Philip Merrill Award; Pinker gave his introduction.

Steven A. Pinker’s honored John H. McWhorter for winning the Philip Merrill Award in a pre-recorded video tribute.
Steven A. Pinker’s honored John H. McWhorter for winning the Philip Merrill Award in a pre-recorded video tribute. By Miles J. Herszenhorn

The speech started off standardly enough. “John McWhorter’s superhuman record of podcasts, reviews, media appearances, and popular books can make us forget that he’s also a major scholar in linguistics,” Pinker began. He talked for several minutes about McWhorter’s work in the study of Creole linguistics.

“Then, there’s the body of accomplishments that I suspect brings us here tonight,” Pinker said, marking an apparent turn. “In 2015, before anyone had heard of the word ‘woke’ or experienced the ‘Great American Awokening,’ John anticipated this revolution in his eerily prescient essay, ‘Anti-Racism, Our Flawed New Religion.’ And in his latest book, ‘Woke Racism,’ John fearlessly indicts this lamentable return to treating people as interchangeable members of a racial category, rather than as individuals.”

“The Great American Awokening” refers to an idea, popular among conservative intellectuals, that white liberals have become more sympathetic to racial justice movements like Black Lives Matter; sometime around 2016, they suddenly became “woke.”

In the rest of his speech, Pinker praised McWhorter’s “defiance of all shibboleths, dogmas, creeds, and tribes” and defense of intellectual diversity and academic freedom. “Though John has never avowed the orthodoxies of the left, he has also resisted the temptation to find succor and support in the welcoming arms of the right. Politically, John is non-binary — and we all know how good that is,” added Pinker. The crowd of freethinkers laughed in unison.

Earlier that day, ACTA had held a conference in the Reagan building on free speech at college campuses. The speakers were mostly academics whose political opinions have gotten them in hot water; there was Dorian S. Abbot ’04, the University of Chicago geophysicist whose critiques of diversity and inclusion efforts led to his being disinvited from a lecture at MIT; Glenn C. Loury, the Black conservative economist who drew controversy after penning a rebuttal to the Brown University administration’s statement about confronting racial injustice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd; and Erec Smith, a professor at York College of Pennsylvania who recently published a book titled “A Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition: The Semblance of Empowerment.”

From left to right: ACTA President Michael B. Poliakoff, Erec Smith, Joshua T. Katz, and Dorian S. Abbot ’04 pose together during the ACTA conference.
From left to right: ACTA President Michael B. Poliakoff, Erec Smith, Joshua T. Katz, and Dorian S. Abbot ’04 pose together during the ACTA conference. By Miles J. Herszenhorn

This might seem like an odd appearance for Pinker, a scientist and self-described liberal Democrat. In recent years, however, Pinker has become increasingly concerned about the academic environment he inhabits. Universities, he fears, are becoming hostile to open debate and intolerant of new ideas.

Meanwhile, Pinker has faced his own share of controversy, particularly around his willingness to engage in discussions of genetic differences between races and genders. James A. Smith, a lecturer in literature and theory at Royal Holloway, University of London, once wrote that Pinker, along with Jordan B. Peterson, another public intellectual and former Harvard psychology professor, “offer long-term validation to a raft of interrelated reactionary political positions, in a way that the alt right could never dream of doing.” What Pinker sees as a commitment to free speech and the scientific method, his critics see as a feeding into racism, sexism, and the worst parts of the status quo.

In talking to Pinker over the course of several interviews, we wanted to reconcile this apparent contradiction. Yet Pinker, in the end, told us that it wasn’t ideological at all: he wants to defend the ability to discuss ideas, even those he doesn’t believe in himself. “The truth can’t be racist,” he says.

‘He Likes to Win’

Here’s a story Pinker often likes to tell: When he was a teenager, like many kids living in Montreal in the ’60s, he was an anarchist (or, depending on who he’s talking to, mildly interested in the ideas of Bakunin). He’d argue with his parents — the children of survivors of antisemitic pogroms and the Holocaust — that human nature is to cooperate peacefully; his parents, amused, told him that he’d soon learn otherwise.

It didn’t take long. On Oct. 7, 1969, when Pinker was 15, Montreal’s police went on strike. In his telling, “Within hours, there was looting. There were riots. There was a private security guard who shot a protester, and there was a doctor who shot an intruder in his house.”

“Mom and Dad were right, and their smartass son was wrong,” he says with a smile.

A young Steven Pinker at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto, in 1974.
A young Steven Pinker at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto, in 1974. By Courtesy of Steven A. Pinker

As he writes of this incident in “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature,” his 2002 book that argues that our genes influence our behavior: “This decisive empirical test left my politics in tatters.” He became even more interested in questions of human nature — “What really makes us tick?” — that would foreshadow his entire career.

At least, that’s what he tells us. In the book, there’s a slight change: he writes that he was a “true believer” in anarchism, while in conversation with us, he calls it a “flirtation.”

He’s also brought up this anecdote in the New York Times and the Guardian. The latter pointed out that in his retelling of the strike, Pinker doesn’t mention that the riots weren’t random, but a result of a labor dispute rooted in the Quebec independence movement, which heightened tensions between poorer French Canadians and wealthier English Canadians and also led the police to strike. (In an email to us, Pinker said the cause of the riot is “irrelevant to the point of whether police prevent violence.”)

For a couple of journalists trying to figure out what Pinker was like as a child, this moment felt a little disappointing — it seemed like an anecdote partially crafted to make a specific point to other people, rather than a genuine memory. In retrospect, it probably doesn’t matter. Steven Pinker the person has long since been eclipsed, at least in public, by Steven Pinker the celebrity intellectual. Even if we thought we set out to understand him, we were always going to be confronted by how he appears to others.

Pinker has since come a long way from Montreal West. He met us in his spacious office in William James Hall, which commands sprawling views of Cambridge. Two-thirds of the wall space in his office appeared covered by books, organized by categories indicated by small notes stuck to the wood of the bookshelf. The remaining one-third was taken up by plaques and trophies.

There was a framed photo of Pinker talking to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on his desk, which he calls “one of my proudest possessions.” When asked what other world leaders he’s met, he pulled out a long list that he maintains on his phone.

Steven A. Pinker meets with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the Canadian Parliament building in Ottawa in March 2018.
Steven A. Pinker meets with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the Canadian Parliament building in Ottawa in March 2018. By Courtesy of Steven A. Pinker

At our visits, he was dressed in, as one of his graduate students put it, “jewel tones and cowboy boots” — specifically, a deep purple dress shirt and black, studded Lucchese boots (which he likes because they give him extra height). It’s hard not to stare at his mane of curly, silver hair, which he told the Harvard Gazette he maintains because “every professor should have an affectation, something to amuse students with.” In recent years, he helped found the “Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists.” When a photographer arrived to take his picture for this piece, he immediately took out his phone, turned the camera to selfie mode, and adjusted his curls to his liking.

Afterwards, he gave us a tour, pointing out the awards and decorations he particularly likes. He slid back a panel in the back of his office to reveal a human brain in a clear bucket full of formaldehyde, gifted to him by a medical student. From the corner, he pulled out a giant iron spike, a replica of the same one that impaled Phineas Gage.

He uses both the brain and the spear as props in his undergraduate classes; despite all of his books, projects, and media appearances, Pinker is still a teacher. Next spring, he will head the gigantic undergraduate course PSY 1: “Introduction to Psychological Sciences,” which has enrollment in the hundreds.

It’s hard not to encounter Pinker at all levels of the University. The colleagues we spoke to uniformly described him as actively involved both with students and the administration of his field. Richard J. “Dick” Zeckhauser ’62, a professor of political economy at the Harvard Kennedy School, calls Pinker a “responsible citizen” — someone who will serve on committees, join projects, and give detailed thoughts about graduate students when asked.

“Have you heard of the free rider problem?” Zeckhauser asks us. “I don’t think there are many free riders at this university, but there are a lot of cheap riders. And then there are a few people who are willing to go the extra mile. And Steve is certainly a person who regularly goes the extra mile.”

Steven A. Pinker as a professor at MIT in 1997.
Steven A. Pinker as a professor at MIT in 1997. By Courtesy of Steven A. Pinker

Howard E. Gardner ’65, professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls Pinker a “mensch.” Decades ago, when both he and Pinker were at a conference with James Watson, a scientist who is typically credited with discovering the double helix structure of DNA and who was stripped of his position at the University of Cambridge for his racist remarks, Watson began to pick on Gardner. “Steve just popped up and he gave a wonderful defense,” Gardner remembers. “He said, ‘You need to listen to what Howard is saying. You need to avoid these personal attacks.’ He’s a very good debater.”

Pinker is often willing to defend his colleagues — even when it attracts controversy. In 2012, the University of Miami philosopher Colin McGinn was accused of sexual harassment by a graduate student. When the matter became public, Pinker wrote in an open letter that McGinn was a “brilliant and distinguished scholar” and that if the University of Miami pursued disciplinary action against McGinn for “exchanging sexual banter with a graduate student,” it would “put a chill on communication between faculty and graduate students and on the openness and informality on which scholarship depends.”

After more details emerged about the case, including emails showing that McGinn had suggested that he and the graduate student have sex, McGinn resigned and Pinker revised his opinion. In 2013, Pinker told the New York Times: “There’s no doubt he behaved badly.” He added, “The outcome was too severe, but there definitely should have been consequences.”

In 2019, Pinker was criticized after BuzzFeed News revealed that he’d aided the legal defense of Jeffrey Epstein in 2006. Pinker told BuzzFeed that his involvement was “a favor to a friend and colleague” — Epstein’s lawyer, Alan Dershowitz — and that he didn’t know who the client was, nor the exact details of the case, before he helped Dershowitz analyze the exact meaning of a federal law concerning the use of the internet to entice a minor into prostitution. “Knowing what I know now I do regret writing the letter,” Pinker told BuzzFeed News.

Gardner, reflecting on some of these moments, conceded that they may not have been wise, but “they came out of a desire to help a friend.” Still, on Pinker’s tendency to get himself into trouble, he also adds, “There must be a certain aspect of Steve that likes the combat. I think he likes to debate because he likes to win.”

‘Esteem For the Truth’

Pinker’s office is filled with copies of his own books. His older publications, as well as some selected foreign translations, line a shelf above his computer. On a back table, there are dozens of copies of the Japanese translation of his 12th and latest book, “Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters.”

In our conversation, Pinker often brings up “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature,” which, even two decades after its release, illustrates core aspects of his thinking today.

The book argues that our individual behaviors — our intelligence, our sociability, our tendencies toward violence — are rooted in our genes, not just the environment in which we are raised. This proposition, Pinker writes, has long been considered toxic in the media and academia because of fears that it might provide support for misogyny or racism; emphasizing the role of biology in human behavior might lead some to conclude that all differences between humans are biological.

Steven A. Pinker working on his thesis in his Cambridge apartment in 1979.
Steven A. Pinker working on his thesis in his Cambridge apartment in 1979. By Courtesy of Steven A. Pinker

The book is often less a defense of the underlying idea than an expression of irritation at the ways Pinker believes, accurately or not, it has been perceived. (Louis Menand wrote in the New Yorker that the book is “devoted to bashing away at the Lockean-Rousseauian-Cartesian scarecrow that Pinker has created.”)

Pinker calls the “refusal to acknowledge human nature” among academics akin to “Victorians’ embarrassment about sex, only worse,” and a “corrupting influence” on intellectual discourse. Academics who emphasize environment over everything else, he says, don’t actually believe what they’re saying — instead, they parrot “fantastical beliefs” as “proof of one’s piety.”

Worse still, scientists who express a belief that genes may play a large role in behavior “have been picketed, shouted down, subjected to searing invective in the press, even denounced in Congress” simply for “invoking nurture and nature, not nurture alone.” Pinker cites several authors who have been victimized by this treatment, the most infamous of whom are Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles A. Murray ’65, who argue that IQ differences between Black and white people may be genetic in their book “The Bell Curve.” Pinker, to be clear, writes that he disagrees with their conclusions — yet a failure to even consider their ideas, he maintains, will ultimately erode “esteem for the truth” and undermine “claims to credibility in the eyes of the public.”

“The Blank Slate” does not tackle racial differences head-on, though in 2006 Pinker published a favorable review of a scientific paper which argued that Ashkenazi Jews may have evolved to have higher IQs than other racial and ethnic groups. A 2018 piece in the Guardian titled “The Unwelcome Revival of Race Science” argued that Pinker didn’t mention that although Ashkenazi Jews, on average, score well on IQ tests today, a century ago they scored below the average American.

Pinker tells us he’s previously written that “it is an empirical bit of evidence that there can be changes in measured IQ, especially when it comes to familiarity with the language in which the tests are administered.” (He didn’t include this fact in his review of the paper on Ashkenazi intelligence, though even if he had, it doesn’t appear to undercut an assertion that Ashkenazis are more intelligent than other groups because of their genes.)

Pinker’s insistence that many academics, intent on moral purity, won’t entertain hard data has been a constant in his later works. In 2011, he published “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” compiling statistics from history, political science, and sociology to argue that violence has declined over time, thanks to the moderating influences of our modern institutions. These are claims that have left some academics unsatisfied; they are not convinced by his argument that, given the catastrophes of the 20th century, violence is actually declining, nor whether this decline would even matter if people are just as unhappy as they used to be. As Gardner puts it, “He’ll say, ‘there are fewer people who died of X in 1950 than in 1900,’ and I’ll say, ‘Yes, that’s great. But if they’re miserable, is that really an achievement?’”

Pinker has rebuttals for each of these points. Critics of his analyses of declines in violence, he has written, either didn’t read the book carefully enough or are “unfamiliar with the relevant literatures.” He refers us to a graph that indicates that global happiness has increased, according to the World Values Survey. On the whole, as Pinker wrote in a response to the criticism of the book in the journal “Sociology,” the arguments that he makes “are empirical, though the facts on which those arguments are based are bound to gore some oxen of the hard left, critical theory, and various forms of post-X-ism.”

It seems true that critics of “Better Angels” come from those who are dissatisfied with the status quo. Meanwhile, it garnered positive attention from the global elite. By Pinker’s own account, this was the book that unlocked invitations to conferences, events, and appearances that put him in contact with world leaders. He maintains a well-publicized intellectual partnership with Bill Gates, who has called Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress” his “new favorite book of all time.” At a time when both the left and the right are increasingly critical of institutions, Pinker is making the case for the value of what we have now.

Steven A. Pinker testing a young child in his office at MIT in 1990, where he worked as a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.
Steven A. Pinker testing a young child in his office at MIT in 1990, where he worked as a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. By Courtesy of Steven A. Pinker

Pinker wrote “The Blank Slate” and “Better Angels” at the tail-end of national concerns around “political correctness.” Today, those concerns have found a new life in “cancel culture” and “wokeness” — the fear that demands for universities to become more inclusive of race, gender, class, and sexuality have resulted in the silencing of dissent.

“Cancel culture is absolutely real,” Pinker told Penguin Books in 2021; low-level university employees are being fired for “trivial breaches of decorum,” a sign of a “regime of intimidation that puts people on notice that if they voice an unpopular opinion, their job could be on the line.”

To Pinker, this suppression of discussion risks the stunting of intellectual progress. His more recent books, “Enlightenment Now” — which extolls the virtues of the Western Enlightenment in promoting progress — and “Rationality” — both a guide for how to be rational and an argument for why rationality should be important to us in the first place — seem influenced by these concerns.

Pinker’s overarching response is that his critics, particularly in academia, are simply too attached to their worldview to accept his data-driven good news: In the conservative online publication Quillette, he wrote that they “resent the incursion of science, data, and quantification into territories traditionally fenced off and claimed by them.”

A more arch version of this can be found in “Enlightenment Now”: “Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressive’ really hate progress.”

‘The Enemy of My Enemy’

One of the first academics to be canceled, Pinker says, was E. O. Wilson. Wilson was a biologist and professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard. Today, he is known for two things: his award-winning work on biodiversity and his public branding as a racist.

In 1975, Wilson published a book called “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis,” which argues that behaviors result from genes — “very much in the strain of work that I wrote about on human nature,” Pinker says — and stepped into a debate about scientific racism. In his book, Wilson writes that there should be a “discipline of anthropological genetics” to explore whether cultural differences are biological. This was read as an endorsement of genetic determinism; “Sociobiology” was criticized by Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, among others. According to the New York Times, at a 1978 discussion partly about the book, members of the International Committee Against Racism entered the room carrying “anti-sociobiology placards (at least one displaying a swastika), seized the dais, and dumped a pitcher of ice water on Mr. Wilson’s head, chanting, ‘Wilson, you’re all wet!’”. To Pinker, who currently serves on the E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation’s board of advisers, this moment was indicative of “restrictions on academic freedom” which have only intensified since.

Wilson, whose career was never derailed by the protests against him, died in 2021. A few months later, a biologist at Howard University discovered that for decades, Wilson had corresponded with J. Philippe Rushton, a psychologist known for his insistence that Black people possess inferior intelligence. Wilson defended Rushton against censure for his racism on multiple occasions and privately wrote that he couldn’t speak up for him even more forcefully because of a “leftward revival of McCarthyism” in universities.

Without mentioning himself, Pinker tells us that there is “a long list” of academics who have been canceled or almost canceled: Amy L. Wax, who was denounced by students and alumni at the University of Pennsylvania for arguing that racial disparities exist because some minorities do not embrace “the bourgeois cultural script” that “the upper-middle class still largely observes”; Laura Kipnis, who was criticized for defending a colleague accused of sexual harassment; and Dorian Abbot, whose lecture at MIT was canceled after students took issue with his critical views on diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings. These incidents, Pinker says, have become more frequent over the last four years.

Dorian S. Abbot ’04 (left) and Joshua T. Katz (right) share a laugh during the ACTA conference in Washington D.C.
Dorian S. Abbot ’04 (left) and Joshua T. Katz (right) share a laugh during the ACTA conference in Washington D.C. By Miles J. Herszenhorn

Sometimes, Pinker speaks up on their behalf. In 2010, he sent a letter of support to a Harvard Law School student who was forced “into a groveling apology” after sending emails that, in his account to us, simply attempted to “discuss race differences” — “not even advocating for anything herself.”

Pinker is referring to Stephanie N. Grace, a third-year law student who was denounced after she emailed fellow students that she did not “rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent.”

“Everyone wants someone to take 100 white infants and 100 African American ones and raise them in Disney utopia and prove once and for all that we are all equal on every dimension,” Grace wrote, but she was “not 100% convinced that this is the case.”

Pinker himself has received criticism for what detractors see as a coziness with racists. A 2017 Politico Magazine article cited Pinker’s “The Blank Slate” as one of the books that inspired the American alt-right movement which helped propel former President Donald J. Trump to the White House in 2016. The book was praised by Steve E. Sailer, a journalist labeled a white supremacist by the Southern Poverty Law Center who frequently claims that Black people are less intelligent than white people.

In 2017, during a discussion about political correctness at universities, Pinker argued that a lack of ideological diversity on college campuses leads to “often highly literate, highly intelligent” young people gravitating to the alt-right. After the panel, journalist Benjamin Norton wrote on Twitter that “Steven Pinker has long been a darling of the white supremacist ‘alt-right.’ And he returns the favor.”

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Pinker says when asked why some on the right have embraced his work, while stressing that any allegations that he had defended racists were “untrue.” He continues, “The fact that I haven’t been sucked into the academic hard left makes some on the right think that I must be more sympathetic to the right.”

He insists: “I’m not conservative — not that there’s anything wrong with it.” Between 2008 and 2022, Pinker (who says he loathes Donald Trump) donated over $70,000 to Democratic candidates and organizations. “I think I was the second-leading donor to the Democratic Party among FAS faculty,” Pinker says, referring to a 2015 article in The Crimson which listed him among the top three Harvard faculty members who donate the most to Democratic Party candidates.

Pinker calls himself a classic liberal “in the sense of John Stuart Mill” who also believes in “the principles of liberal democracy.” He shares many views with the Democratic Party today: human activity is responsible for climate change, pollution and workplace safety ought to be regulated, society requires a system for income redistribution. Still, he thinks that one of the liberal values he holds dear — the right to free speech — is now a “radical position, oddly enough.”

It is this issue, which Pinker is passionate about, that sometimes separates him from the left and brings him into an alliance with the right. He is currently on the advisory board of several nonpartisan organizations that are devoted to issues of free speech, particularly on college campuses; there is the Academic Freedom Alliance, the Campus Freedom Network, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

He is an occasional contributor to Quillette, a popular, conservative-leaning online magazine whose motto is “Free Thought Lives.” According to a 2018 Politico profile, “Quillette prides itself on publishing ‘dangerous’ ideas other outlets won’t touch.” (“I continue to be impressed that Quillette publishes heterodox but intellectually serious and non-inflammatory pieces [about] ideas that have become near-taboo in academic and intellectual discourse,” Pinker told Politico.)

In 2021, Pinker joined the board of advisers of the University of Austin, which often goes by the acronym UATX. UATX is a new private liberal arts institution “committed to freedom of inquiry,” according to its website. Its founding trustees include contrarian journalist Bari Weiss and historian Niall Ferguson, and its board of advisers currently includes former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers. Pano Kanelos, UATX’s president, told the Austin American Statesman that the UATX is necessary because universities “no longer have an incentive to create an environment where intellectual dissent is protected and fashionable opinions are scrutinized.”

The University of Austin has been subject to a host of criticism since its founding — it has often been pilloried for lacking accreditation to provide degrees and having no full-time students. Given the project’s arch-conservative membership, some wondered whether it might become an echo chamber in itself. In the New Republic, Aaron R. Hanlon, associate professor of English at Colby College, called it “a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.”

In a November 2021 interview with The Crimson, Pinker seemed enthusiastic about UATX. “Too many of the country’s universities are stuck in the same rut, and that rut includes exorbitant tuition, a mushrooming bureaucracy, a bizarre set of admissions criteria, and increasing political homogeneity, including repression of speech and ideas,” he said.

But Pinker’s relationship with UATX abruptly ended on Nov. 15, 2021 — just one week after the announcement of the university’s founding — when he announced he would leave its board of advisers.

At the time, Pinker wasn’t willing to elaborate on his decision; nearly a year later, he’s more forthcoming. Ultimately, he says, UATX confused free speech with the political right. “The University of Austin was kind of stacked with right-wingers, not even necessarily free speech advocates — some of them were actually opposed to free speech,” Pinker tells us.

He was also concerned that UATX’s “entire faculty and board of advisors were people who had been canceled.”

“A viable university can’t be the university of the canceled, the department of politically incorrect, or the faculty of the un-woke,” he says. “I don’t think universities should be committed to some doctrine, like left-wing political correctness, but that doesn’t mean that un-left-wing, un-political correctness, un-wokeness is a coherent basis of a university.”

From left to right: Joshua T. Katz, Solveig L. Gold, and Dorian S. Abbot ’04 sit at a table during the American Council of Trustees and Alumni gala in Washington D.C.
From left to right: Joshua T. Katz, Solveig L. Gold, and Dorian S. Abbot ’04 sit at a table during the American Council of Trustees and Alumni gala in Washington D.C. By Miles J. Herszenhorn

‘We Need Bravery’

Back at the ACTA conference in Washington D.C., conversations revolved around a fear for academia’s future. The guest list included members of the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, and the Republican National Lawyers Association, along with others who invariably referred to themselves as “original” and “free” thinkers. Speakers and panelists, many of whom had claimed to have experienced cancel culture themselves, expressed concerns about the impact diversity, equity and inclusion training, Ibram X. Kendi’s brand of antiracism, race-conscious admissions practices, safe spaces on university campuses, and woke ideology would have on education.

John H. McWhorter is the 2022 recipient of the Philip Merrill Award.
John H. McWhorter is the 2022 recipient of the Philip Merrill Award. By Miles J. Herszenhorn

Kendi, in particular, came up frequently. ACTA seemed convinced that in universities today, anyone who does not adhere to Kendi’s antiracist agenda will face immediate backlash, leading to a suppression of “diversity of thought.” “That’s what creates a spiral of silence,” Pinker tells us. “If you’re accused of being racist for questioning an orthodoxy, everyone is going to pretend to believe that orthodoxy.”

“I haven’t read his book, but I read an excerpt of the book,” Pinker says of “How to Be an Antiracist.” “He has a right to make his arguments, and other people should have a right to disagree with the arguments. The problem being is the regime that is being imposed is that disagreeing is itself a punishable form of racism — which is lunatic, but sadly it has become almost the law of the land.”

On college campuses like Harvard’s — where a survey of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences earlier this year found that 80 percent of faculty identify as liberal — it is not hard to find yourself branded a right-winger or a conservative, according to Pinker.

“When you’re at the North Pole, all directions are south,” he says. “Academia is at the Left Pole, the mythical spot from which all directions are right.”

Ultimately, Pinker is afraid that the Awokening of academia will delegitimize universities. Enforcing antiracism, he suggests, particularly by prohibiting certain kinds of speech or disinviting speakers, will do more harm than good.

But the ACTA attendees were ready to push back. John McWhorter, taking the stage to accept his award, said that “All of us here are ready to march on and fight this slow but necessary fight.”

“We need bravery,” McWhorter told the audience. “We need a kind of bravery that can stand up against this professionalized incuriosity and ceaseless virtue signaling.”

John H. McWhorter gives his acceptance speech on October 21, 2022, at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni gala in Washington D.C.
John H. McWhorter gives his acceptance speech on October 21, 2022, at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni gala in Washington D.C. By Miles J. Herszenhorn

McWhorter didn’t elaborate on what this means in practice. But outside of ACTA, on Twitter, Substack, and in real life, there is an increasingly organized group of people willing to defend academics and intellectuals from cancellation.

A paradigmatic example may be Dorian Abbot. Abbot, a University of Chicago geophysicist who was a speaker at an ACTA panel earlier in the day, says that he was canceled for the first time in 2020. Without a support network, he was blindsided. “There was a letter of denunciation against me and all this Twitter stuff,” he says. “I realized that there were people who were playing a game that I didn’t even know was going on.”

A year later, he says he was canceled again, this time when his planned lecture at MIT was axed.

From left to right: Jonathan Rauch, Dorian S. Abbot ’04, John Chisholm, Amna Khalid, and Glenn Loury discuss diversity in academia at the ACTA conference.
From left to right: Jonathan Rauch, Dorian S. Abbot ’04, John Chisholm, Amna Khalid, and Glenn Loury discuss diversity in academia at the ACTA conference. By Miles J. Herszenhorn

But in 2021, Abbot was ready. “You have to have a game plan,” he says. “When that happened, I told Bari Weiss, I wrote an article for her. Then I went and told exactly, honestly what happened to anyone who asked — anyone who wanted to talk to me.”

Weiss, a former Wall Street Journal and New York Times Op-Ed columnist who is mostly known for her writings about culture war topics, has almost half a million followers on Twitter. She appears deeply connected to other journalists and academics concerned about cancel culture, and she elevated Abbott’s story to national status. The MIT incident was reported in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the New York Post, among others.

Those critical of Abbott now found themselves on the other side of the backlash. In reference to the MIT incident, Phoebe A. Cohen, a geoscientist at Williams College told the New York Times that “this idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated.” She later wrote in Inside Higher Ed that she experienced “a deluge of attacks on Twitter,” “violent and insulting emails,” and had her “character and intelligence questioned in The New York Post, conservative online magazines and multiple additional New York Times columns and newsletters,” because of her comment.

Steven A. Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University.
Steven A. Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. By Josie W. Chen

Pinker seems to have anticipated such a response in “Rationality,” which begins with a warning in the second person. There are a lot of people, Pinker writes, who are getting fed up with the illiberalism of modern debate — so much so that they might soon “join the game you are playing and counter you with force rather than argument.”

Who exactly the “you” here is supposed to refer to is left unstated, though one can probably guess: the woke left, members of the Twitterati, oversensitive college students, and cautious university administrators.

These people might soon be in for a rude awakening, Pinker warns: “When you are the one who is canceled, it will be too late to claim that your views should be taken seriously because of their merits.”

‘A Rude Awakening’

In retrospect, the letter was obviously going to go viral.

On July 1, 2020, an anonymous group of linguists wrote an open letter addressed to the Linguistic Society of America asking for Steven Pinker to be stripped of his distinguished fellow title and removed from the society’s list of media advisers. Pinker, they argued, violated the LSA’s recently-issued statement on racial justice; they proffered six public statements and tweets as evidence.

In four of the six tweets highlighted in the open letter, Pinker retweeted articles from the New York Times and the Washington Post . In one such tweet, Pinker linked to a 2017 opinion article in the New York Times with the headline “Why Are Police Officers More Dangerous Than Airplanes?” and wrote: “Police kill too many people, black & white. Focus on race distracts from solving problem, as we do w [with] plane crashes.” In another tweet, Pinker highlighted a Washington Post article about the role of the police in preventing violence and wrote: “Don’t abolish the police.”

On July 3, the linguists emailed the letter to a small group of academics who might be sympathetic to their cause, inviting them to sign on. At some point that day, the letter was posted on Twitter. By the time the letter had hit around 60 signatories, it started to gain traction, and not in the way the letter-writers intended.

Later that same day, Claire Lehmann (the founding editor of the conservative-leaning publication Quillette, to which Pinker sometimes contributes) tweeted a link to the letter to her 300,000 followers with the addendum: “Sixty-six linguists have signed this pathetic letter. The accusations are as strong as a piece of warm lettuce.”

Lehmann was followed the next day by a slew of enraged tweets from a hodgepodge of established linguists, right-wing commentators, and friends of Pinker. Joe Henrich, a professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard, wrote that the letter “calls for the silencing and demotion” of Pinker. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, remarked that it was “unfair.”

McWhorter, then the public relations chair of the LSA, tweeted about the letter several times over a three-day period. He called it an “attempt to defenestrate” Pinker, and its authors “erudite demons at the gates.”

Meanwhile, the letter was picking up steam; the list of signatories grew to hundreds of names. At least two of these names, Ray Jackendoff and Michel F. DeGraff, both prominent professors of linguistics, appear to have been added without the knowledge of Jackendoff and DeGraff themselves. Supporters of the letter speculated that the names had been added by trolls who wanted to impugn the letter’s credibility; detractors argued that it was evidence of the letter’s dishonesty.

On July 5, two days after it began to circulate, Pinker tweeted about the letter: “Some wondered [if] this open letter to the Linguistics Soc of America demanding they rescind my Fellow status is a satire of woke outrage culture, w its hallucinated ‘dog whistles,’ fury over tweets of NYT & WaPo op-eds, and obvious forged signatures … But it’s real, suggesting that Cancel Culture has entered its decadent phase. Don’t blame the LSA (at least not yet): they haven’t canceled me, & probably won’t. Don’t blame established linguists: I recognize only one name among the signatories.”

The latter point was often emphasized in the days following the publication of the letter; most of the signatories are not established linguists. A later analysis of the letter by Itamar Kastner, a lecturer in linguistics at the University of Edinburgh who signed the letter, showed that 42 percent of signatories were students, 14 percent held non-tenure track positions, and only 20 percent were tenured professors. Still, as Kastner pointed out, this is similar to the membership of the LSA itself; in 2019, 32 percent of LSA members were students.

The apparent fact that a plurality of signatories were young, or just starting out in the field, seemed to make the open letter to the LSA an example of the sensitivity and cancel culture that Pinker has been fighting against.

The open letter received attention from national and international media; it was covered by the New York Times, the Times (London), the Telegraph, Psychology Today, and the National Review, among others. A commentator in the Atlantic wrote that it would have a “chilling effect” on academic discourse. Meanwhile, a columnist in Mother Jones called it “dishonest” and “factually flawed.” A later analysis of the open letter from a small group of signatories found mentions of the letter in 60 different media outlets.

Ultimately, the LSA did not take any action against Pinker. By the end of that week, after significant backlash online and in the media, the libertarian outlet Reason published an article with the headline, “Steven Pinker Beats Cancel Culture Attack.”

This was a lot for a letter that was never meant to escape the field of linguistics. Many of the signatories observed the online reaction in shock; “I was watching it unfold and didn’t really understand what was happening,” says Caitlin Green, who signed the letter. The goals of the letter were “heartbreakingly modest,” says Jessica Rett, professor of linguistics at UCLA; trying to strip Pinker of his distinguished fellow status and remove him from the list of the LSA’s media advisors wasn’t a cancellation attempt so much as an effort to make sure that the LSA adhered to its own stated values. “It doesn’t make sense for you to write a statement about racial injustice for your society if it doesn’t have any teeth,” Rett says.

Pinker dismissed the notion that the LSA letter’s goals were modest and not a cancellation attempt as “bovine biosolids,” in an emailed statement.

“The LSA has no policy that its Fellows are forbidden to cite peer-reviewed social science research, or to express opinions that are grounded in evidence and probably true,” he writes. “The goal of the letter was to send a message to academics that disagreement with woke orthodoxy will not be tolerated but result in professional punishment.”

Later, a group of letter signers, including Green and Rett, wrote another letter in response to coverage of the letter in the media and online called “Who Speaks For Us.” Todd Snider, a co-author and postdoctoral fellow at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf, said that the title came from one of the goals of the letter itself: “Organization members were saying ‘Hey, maybe he shouldn’t speak on our behalf.’ It’s not that he shouldn’t speak.”

Still, Snider thinks that the letter was inevitably going to receive criticism. “I think that many of the people reacting negatively to the letter were on the lookout for PC police,” he says. “We just want our professional organization to treat him slightly differently, not kick him out. Just take them off a list of experts and the list of distinguished fellows. No matter how explicit they were, people who are inclined to hear any sort of criticism as cancellation were going to hear it because they’re listening for it.”

Of course, the letter didn’t strictly confine itself to the ways in which Pinker may not have lived up to the LSA’s statement on racial justice. The fourth paragraph begins: “Though no doubt related, we set aside questions of Dr. Pinker’s tendency to move in the proximity of what The Guardian called a revival of “scientific racism”, his public support for David Brooks (who has been argued to be a proponent of “gender essentialism”), his expert testimonial in favor of Jeffrey Epstein (which Dr. Pinker now regrets), or his dubious past stances on rape and feminism.”

Presumably, one would not even bring up such instances if one truly wanted them to be “set aside.” The part of the letter that isn’t explicitly stated — but that most people who read it can pick up on — is that the letter writers do seem to make some sort of moral judgment about Pinker himself; it’s hard to cite multiple instances of someone’s racial insensitivity without implying that they’re racist. If you already think that Pinker is racist, it seems that you’re likely to support the letter; if you don’t (or don’t particularly care either way), then you’re likely to oppose it.

This is what seems to be the focus of many negative reactions to the letter — to make a moral judgment against one’s personal character seems to be at the center of what it is to cancel someone. Yet cancellation also implies consequences, tangible negative effects. Though someone may have tried to cancel Pinker, they certainly didn’t succeed.

Some of the letter signatories, however, do say that their lives were negatively affected by the letter. They say that they’ve had conversations with other linguists that indicate they will be taken less seriously because they signed the letter — one received an email afterwards from a colleague that said, “Don’t worry about it. I still like you. You’re a nice guy. I just don’t respect you.” Several express worries that their decision to sign the letter will impact their future job prospects.

Moreover, in the days and weeks after the letter circulated, the signatories began to receive an onslaught of online harassment, much of which has been documented by the authors of “Who Speaks For Us.” On Twitter, Facebook, and blog posts, they were called “disgusting cultists,” a “lynch mob,” leaders of a “Salem Witch Trial campaign,” “Goebbelsian,” and attempting to “emulate the worst excesses of the former USSR and other similar regimes.” One commenter wrote that it would “be a reasonable idea to keep their list in mind and for other academics etc. to be wary of working with such people.” In another instance, a signatory received an email that said: “Are you as fucking useless at linguistics as you are at basic facts? No wonder you’re jealous imbeciles in that case.”

There were also more serious comments. One read: “They are going to pick you all off, one by one.”

‘We Often Don’t Know What the Majority Thinks’

By the time we reached our last interview, we still were not entirely sure what to make of Steven Pinker. Most of his professional work, he wrote to us later, concerns “research, writing, and teaching about language and the human mind,” not “defending freedom of thought or making controversial statements” — and still, his public persona hardly seems confined to psychology. As students at the university where he teaches, we certainly knew about his scientific work, but we were also aware of the controversy he has engendered.

Steven A. Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, lectures undergraduates in Memorial Hall.
Steven A. Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, lectures undergraduates in Memorial Hall. By Courtesy of Steven A. Pinker

Pinker, it seems, eventually did not know what to make of us, either. In our final interview, it became necessary to ask Pinker to respond to his harshest critics — what he made of being called a scientific racist, a sexist, and a defender of others who are racist and sexist — which prompted him to send us an email reiterating, on the latter point, “this is untrue.”

On the whole, Pinker is remarkably accessible to students — he responds to all of our messages within a matter of minutes. “Any professor who said no at a request to meet with students would be derelict in their duties,” he tells us. Most of the interactions that students have with him will be in the context of the coursework he teaches. And yet, his persona in the culture wars looms.

We arrived at his office for the first time while he was at the end of a conversation with a few members of the Harvard Salient, all dressed in suits. The Salient, which was restarted by undergraduates late last year, is an archly conserative publication known among undergraduates for dropping copies of its quarterly issues in front of almost every dorm room on campus. It publishes with a goal of “dispelling intellectual laziness, exposing conventional untruths, and reviving serious debate on Harvard’s campus and beyond.” One article in of its recent issues, “The Shibboleths of Woke Capital,” seems reminiscent of Pinker’s talks about free speech.

Pinker told us that he was meeting with the Salient at their request. They told him they were reluctant to reach out to many professors, but he encouraged them to try. “We often don’t know what the majority thinks,” he says.

When we walk in, we notice that they’ve left a colorful pile of past issues on Pinker’s desk. The issues, which tackle “woke ideology” and the virtues of conservatism, are untouched by our next visit. A month later, Pinker tells us he still has not read the Salient, but he has met with some of their members since then.

Ultimately, Pinker wants Harvard to change. It is not a “repressive monoculture” just yet, but one gets the sense from talking to Pinker that it may be heading in that direction. “I speak to people, not just colleagues, but a lot of students, who are kind of fed up at being told to shut up and ‘you can’t think that, you can’t say that,’” he tells us.

One also gets the sense that Pinker would like, in some way, to use his influence in the university to move it in a different direction. He has, for years, been vocal about moving public opinion toward what he calls free discourse: “I have the greatest hope of mobilizing that sentiment among the undergraduates,” he says.

Maybe this is why he is talking to us. Maybe, through listening and transmitting what he is saying to the student body, we will help save Harvard from itself, too.

— Magazine writer Rebecca E. J. Cadenhead can be reached at

— Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.

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