Steven Pinker’s alt-right apologia

Blaming radicalization on “suffocating” political correctness, Pinker mimics the movement’s own narratives

Official faculty portrait. ( Rose Lincoln / Harvard University )

Steven Pinker knows what’s causing so many young men to transform into violent misogynistic racists: political correctness run amok.

Earlier today he tweeted:

Of course, this isn’t the first time that the Harvard professor has advanced this particular theory. At Davos last year, he blamed “left-wing orthodoxy” in academia for “stok[ing]” radicalization by declaring certain topics taboo, giving the alt-right “the sense that there were truths the academic establishment could not face up to.”

His prescription is for far-right beliefs to be openly debated and “countered by arguments that put them in perspective.”

Let’s call this what it is: a naive fantasy.

Pinker accepts as dogma Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ famous doctrine that the “solution to bad speech is more speech” despite all evidence to the contrary.

In the 21st Century, there is more speech than ever before. Not only has bad speech failed to disappear—it has proliferated on an unprecedented scale in the form of flat earth, anti-vaxx, QAnon, resurgent anti-semitism and any number of other conspiracies.

It’s painfully obvious that Pinker has never actually tried to put his theory into practice himself. Only a person who hasn’t ever interacted with a white nationalist for any amount of time would think that their beliefs could ever be “reasoned” away in open debate.

How would Pinker counter the often-made white nationalist meme that more than half of Africa is “retarded?” What’s his plan for “putting into perspective” the claim that “white men never rape black women.”

In fact both of these pieces of propaganda have been painstakingly refuted at every level by journalists, activists and academics. Dutch statistician Jelte Wicherts thoroughly demolished the pseudoscience that the aforementioned claims about African IQ are based on, yet the alt-right keeps making them.

Pinker talks about the alt-right’s “isolation,” but what about his own? His facile solutions speak to his cloistered existence as an Ivory Tower academic.

He thinks the entire world operates on academia’s rules, where the person with the best data wins. It’s amusing to imagine Pinker spending hours meticulously countering a five-page alt-right copypasta on Reddit with detailed footnotes in MLA format only to have his opponent respond: “Sorry, I don’t trust your (((sources))).”

Pinker’s views are not only deluded and wrong—they’re dangerous. He’s not a fellow-traveler of the alt-right, as some have claimed, nor is he a sympathizer. He is, however, an apologist.

What he’s doing is apologia in the sense that he is making excuses for the alt-right. He absolves them of agency and responsibility, locating the source of their pathology elsewhere. They are innocents. These “highly literate, highly intelligent” young men were only led astray because the PC Gestapo looked askance at them that one time they tried to start a lively debate about FBI crime stats and Mongoloid cranial measurements out on the Quad.

It’s also apologia in that he’s parroting the same origin story they tell about themselves, i.e. that they were just ordinary, socially awkward boys until the bad lady started saying mean things about the game they liked.

They, in turn, utilize Pinker’s validation of this narrative in their propaganda, ex. one Youtube video containing clips of his Davos Talk is titled “Steven Pinker: How Political Correctness is Redpilling America.”

For someone who is ostensibly a man of science, Pinker badly flubs the basic concept of causation. To establish causation the cause must necessarily precede the effect, and white supremacy predates “political correctness” by about 400 years give or take.

He misunderstands the obvious power dynamic. To the extent that the two feed into one another, it’s hegemonic white supremacy reacting to a challenge from marginalized groups, not the other way around.

Pinker’s premise that the alt-right is “highly literate” and “highly intelligent” and is therefore susceptible to reasoned argument is fatally flawed. When you debate with the far-right, you’re going up against beliefs rooted not in “facts” or “logic” but centuries of conditioning and white supremacist ideology.

Experience points to the right approach: quarantine. Cut off their access to the platforms they depend upon to disseminate their ideas.

They’ll move from Youtube, where they can get views in the hundreds of thousands, to BitChute, where they’ll be lucky to crack 100. Kick them off Twitter, so they have to use Gab. Ban their subreddits so they have to scurry on back to /pol/ with the other cockroaches.

What Pinker is arguing for is disastrous. Instead of limiting the means by which the alt-right’s ideas can spread he proposes we expand them.

He claims that if we shunt them off to the nether-regions of the internet/society, these ideas will fester in isolation. So what? They already are. And to the extent that they exist in the open, any attempts to counter them are futile.

But the bottom line is: To engage with people who think black people are subhuman and trans people are “mentally ill” is tacit acceptance that these ideas are open to debate.

They are not.