Postmodern Conservative

Steven Pinker vs. Microaggression

My admiration for Harvard’s Steven Pinker continues to get less grudging.  It goes without saying that I side with the ultimately much more deeply scientific Leon Kass against Pinker’s evolutionary reductionism or scientism.

Still, I thought Pinker was right in opposing the suddenly fashionable thought that what’s wrong with Harvard and other Ivies is that those  institutions don’t facilitate students in their construction of their personal souls or whatever. Harvard hires specialists in various academic fields; they are chosen according to their potential for making contributions in said fields, not for their skill or competency in soul development. Students, Pinker claims, should work on their souls, if they believe they have them, on their own time.

Well, someone might say, I thought you were all about the soul. As part of higher education, I am only if professors really do have the confidence and the competence to see why philosophy, theology, literature, and even natural science are rigorous academic pursuits with the whole truth in mind about who we are as natural, personal, relational beings with distinctive excellences, joys, miseries, flaws, perversities, and responsibilities. That kind of professor is not going to be common at Harvard or our other elite schools soon. Meanwhile, there is a lot to learn from evolutionary psychologists, among others. Amateur — and usually self-induglent or emo/ideological — toying with the “affective” side of student development is a waste of time and money. Of course I think there’s both too much scientism and too much relativism on campus, but I still side with the scientists who take seriously their self-correcting method of inquiry.

Pinker is getting more vocal and resolute about speaking out against everything at Harvard that trivializes, infantilizes, or plain represses intellectual life on campus. Here’s a noble and eloquent excerpt from a letter he wrote yesterday about Israel BDS (boycott, divest, sanctions) movement at Harvard, where the presence of a SodaStream sparkling-water machine made by an Israeli-based company is alleged to be a “microaggression” that has to be purged from the university community.

Equally foreign to the mission of a university is the idea that students are to be protected from “discomfort” or so-called “microaggression” when they are exposed to beliefs that differ from theirs, or when the university does not accede to demands that it prosecute their moral and political crusades. Discomfort is another word for tolerance. It is the price we pay for living in a democracy and participating in the open exchange of ideas.

Middle East politics above all is a subject on which thoughtful people disagree; it is certainly not one on which a university should decree the correct position. While I am sympathetic with many of the students’ objections to the current policies of the Israeli government, I object even more strongly to the policies of the governments of countries such as Russia, India, Pakistan, China, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. In a world filled with governments with deplorable policies, it is pernicious for a university to single out one of them for opprobrium.

Pinker’s objection, of course, is to suppressing reasonable political disagreement because some students are uncomfortable with it. Any good class is full of “microaggressions” that aren’t perceived as such. Words aren’t merely weapons to secure power and advantage — or so we must believe if we take higher education seriously. The soft combat — the dialectic — called conversation, which is central to higher education, is with the truth in mind. The “correct position,” in principle, is the goal of an open-minded conversation, which proceeds on the premise that each side — all sides — has some good reasons but still is more confident about what it believes it knows than is reasonable.

Takeaway: Sparkling water never hurt anyone.

Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...


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