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Pattern of Smears

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Pattern of Smears

A letter accusing a prominent linguist of racism applies familiar tactics. July 14, 2020
The Social Order

An open letter to the Linguistics Society of America calls for the removal of Professor Steven Pinker from the society’s list of fellows. The letter, signed “The Linguistics Community,” included 536 named signatories, most of whom appear to be teachers or students of linguistics.

Reading the letter, I was struck by a sense of déjà vu. It reminded me of some letters written over 60 years ago that my father kept to his dying day. My father was editor of the Chicago Maroon as an undergraduate during the McCarthy Red Scare years. He wrote several columns criticizing various universities for firing tenured faculty for refusing to take loyalty oaths, or for vague and unsubstantiated charges of subversion, without providing them the opportunity to defend themselves in open hearings. The columns were not particularly radical and represented liberal opinion at the time.

A few years later, he got his Ph.D. and first academic job at the University of Washington. He drove his family out to Seattle in an old DeSoto, only to learn that the job offer was withdrawn. One lawyer in the city—a young radical just starting his practice—was willing to take his case, which prevailed in court. My dad wound up getting the job, and the incident did not impair his career, mainly because it occurred in McCarthyism’s waning days.

What my father remembered most vividly, long after he settled with the university, were the letters that he had asked his professors, colleagues, and friends to submit in support of his lawsuit. Reading them years later turned my stomach. These were written by distinguished physicists, intelligent people, mainly liberal, who knew and trusted my father—but would not vouch for him.

My father’s experience was a garden-variety brush with McCarthyism, similar to that of tens of thousands of other Americans, and less consequential than most. There may have been more lasting damage to the dozen people who had to live with bearing false witness against a friend. But at least their timid acquiesce to tyranny was private, remembered only by my father and his family.

The 536 signatories to the Pinker letter are public. I have little doubt that Pinker will survive this episode, and in any event he doesn’t need my defense. My concern is for the letter’s authors.

Like my father’s witnesses, they will have to live with their words; but unlike my father’s witnesses, the world will know them. When respect for due process and rational discussion return to the public sphere, and this letter is universally seen as a resurrection of McCarthy’s tactics, the authors will be indelibly marked by it. It could cause a schism in the field of linguistics, just as Hollywood was divided for decades between those who named names and those who had been blacklisted.

I would have no objection to the letter if it took issue with Pinker’s statements and explained why he was wrong, but the letter contains the classic attributes of a McCarthyite attack. McCarthy was right about his main charge—that many in high government and military positions were actively working for the Soviet Union, and that their fellow elitists were protecting them. The problem was that he and his cronies smeared so many innocent people.

The Pinker letter doesn’t set out a list of clear charges with the expectation that the accused will have an opportunity to present a defense. The conclusion is described as “inevitable” in the second sentence, before any charges have been mentioned. But the charges are too murky to refute. It’s not clear if Pinker is accused of believing false things or being dishonest about things that he knows are true. Is he misguided, or evil? A fool, or a liar? The letter contains legalese such as “let the record show” and “move to dismiss,” language intended to suggest the form of a legal or committee hearing, but it’s a show trial. There is no one to rule or vote on motions.

Guilt by association is a key tactic of this kind of attack, not because it is particularly convincing but because it makes an implicit threat that anyone who disagrees with the letter can be caught up in the smear campaign. Pinker is accused of public support for New York Times columnist David Brooks, of calling Bernard Goetz “mild-mannered,” and of providing expert linguistic support used in Jeffrey Epstein’s trial. The David Brooks reference is baffling; Brooks is no fringe figure. One imagines that Pinker’s reference to Goetz was to his demeanor, not a defense of his actions. However terrible Epstein’s crimes were, he deserved a fair trial, including the right to argue over the meaning of the statute under which he was being prosecuted. The letter presents no evidence that Pinker’s linguistic advice was incorrect. (The authors confuse “testimony” with “testimonial”—either a smear or a lamentable lapse of linguistic competence.) There’s also an incomprehensible reverse guilt-by-association charge: Pinker quoted Harvard professor Lawrence Bobo on racism. But the authors of the letter like Bobo, so they accuse Pinker of “co-opting his academic work.”

The first substantive charge, as opposed to smear, is that Pinker has not acknowledged or addressed the role of linguistics in the “reproduction” of racism. Regardless of what “reproducing” racism means, as opposed to “promoting” or “defending” it, the authors don’t accuse Pinker of believing the field of linguistics is on balance on the right side in the fight against racism—only of not saying loudly and clearly enough that it’s on the wrong side. This is another McCarthyite tactic. It’s not enough to be innocent; you must broadcast your support and denounce others.

The next charge is that Pinker “has a tendency to move in the proximity” of “scientific racism.” Indirect charges were another feature of Red Scare smears. The letter provides no specific quotes, no definition of what separates legitimate scientific inquiry into the effect of genetics on human behavior from racism. If you’re going to throw someone out of your linguistics society, tell him what he said that offended you, and ask him what he meant first. Don’t claim “tendencies” to “move in in the proximity” of ill-defined concepts without specific evidence.

Pinker tweeted, “Police don’t shoot blacks disproportionately.” He then linked to a New York Times article that broadly supports his statement. As most people know, black people are shot by police out of proportion to the number of black people in the population, but not clearly out of proportion to the number of black people arrested—or other measures of number of contacts with police. I suspect that Pinker agrees with everyone on these facts. Red-baiters take a literally accurate quote and attribute to it something that the writer clearly didn’t mean, creating an issue where no real disagreement exists. Even if Pinker really believes that black people are shot by police in proportion to black people in the population, then he is incorrect about the numbers—but why would that mistake disqualify him from a linguistics society?

The letter replaces actual quotes from Pinker with offensive things that his accusers pretend he has written. Pinker tweeted that we should focus on reducing all police killings, not on the race of the people killed. The letter labels this tweet an “all lives matter trope.” Pinker does not use a trope; his tweet is literal. We’re told that the tweet is “eerily reminiscent of a ‘both-sides’ rhetoric.” Pinker is attacked for the authors’ own mental associations rather than what he wrote. Ironically, the authors assert in their condemnation of Pinker that “nearly 1,000 people died at the hands of the police” in 2017. But that figure includes every person killed by the police, not just black people; the authors use the larger figure to condemn Pinker for minimizing the problem, but in so doing they repeat his apparent sin.

Pinker denies that Elliot Rodger’s 2014 Isla Vista killings were part of a pattern of hatred against women. The letter claims that Rodger killed six women, but in fact he killed five men (including himself) and two women. I’m not sure if Pinker meant that Rodger was too crazy to have rational motives for his actions, or that hatred of woman was just one of his many grievances, or that one dramatic incident is not useful evidence about broad social issues. The letter accuses Pinker of “undermining those who stand up against violence while downplaying the actual murder of six women as well as systems of mysogyny (sic).” The leap from disagreement over a factual issue to an allegation of opposing justice and supporting violence is a smear.

Pinker is accused of using “urban crime/violence” twice as dog whistles, apparently for referring on Twitter to “expert on urban crime, Ron Brunson,” and “Patrick Sharkey, researcher on urban violence.” These phrases, say the letter, “essentialize Black people as lesser-than, and, often, as criminals.” But describing people as experts in the fields of urban violence or urban crime carries no such connotation. It merely means that they study violence or crime in cities.

Joseph McCarthy himself was prominent only from 1950 to 1954, but the Red Scare he came to personify ran for a decade, from the late 1940s to the late 1950s, with roots in the primarily Democrat-run House Committee on Un-American Activities. Many lives and careers were ruined, and public discourse was poisoned. But the longest-lasting damage was to individual relationships. Those who named names could be forever alienated from those who refused and took the consequences. Those, like my father, who counted on support—or at least simple honesty—from their friends, colleagues, and teachers learned a bitter lesson. Those who stood by while their friends were destroyed had to live with that guilt for the rest of their lives.

Police reform and other consequences from the recent protests will come in one form or another. Public attention will move on to other issues, and passions will cool. Things said in anger will be forgotten, or at least forgiven. But the effect of smears like the Pinker letter may endure for much longer. We made this mistake 70 years ago, and the memory of its painful lessons has helped keep such behavior in check for two generations. It grieves me now to see the tendency reappearing.

Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images for Ozy Media

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