When The New Yorker quoted Sharkey, it used the phrase urban crime too. Rod Brunson has used the term urban crime in his published writing. Nothing in either of Pinker’s straightforward tweets essentializes Black people or “signals” or implies that Black people are lesser than, and the phrase urban crime is not at all suspect when identifying scholars who specifically study and publish on crime in cities. As Pinker himself later observed, “Dog-whistling is an intriguing exegetical technique in which you can claim that anyone says anything, because you can easily hear the alleged dog-whistles that aren’t in the actual literal contents of what the person says.”
No one engaged in public life could be confident of avoiding speech that might be deemed problematic by the standards used in the Pinker letter. I have not addressed every complaint it raises. A few are in the realm of legitimate criticism. Had I edited his book Better Angels, I’d have advised Pinker against describing Bernie Goetz, who shot four men on the New York City subway in 1984, as “mild-mannered.” But one needn’t side with Pinker or against his detractors on every particular to disapprove of the signatories’ methods: poring over years of individual tweets, asserting uncharitable interpretations of those they highlight, assigning guilt by association, and imposing multiple orthodoxies that are incompatible with academic freedom. (They also made factual errors, as noted by Mother Jones.)
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Why did hundreds of academics sign the letter and endeavor to have Pinker removed from the Linguistic Society of America’s list of “distinguished academic fellows and media experts”? The explanation they offered is hard to accept. “Often, fellows are seen as the first line of academic linguistic authority, and trustworthy sources of linguistic knowledge,” they wrote. “Lay people and members of the press reach out to fellows and media experts for official statements. We feel that fellows therefore have a responsibility that comes with the honor, credibility, and visibility allotted them by their distinguished appointment.” But Pinker’s prestige doesn’t come from the list. And his visibility to members of the press and the public far exceeds that of the list.
Shaun Cammack, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, argued that, despite their stated aims, the signatories were sending a message to less powerful scholars:
This letter wasn’t really about Pinker at all. In fact, it has a very specific function—to dissuade lesser-known academics and students from questioning the ideological consensus. The letter says, in not so few words: “It doesn’t matter if you’re Steven f***ing Pinker. If you don’t agree with our ideological prescriptions, you don’t belong here.”
The letter is really directed towards you—the unknown academic, the young linguist, the graduate student. And in this particular goal of dissuading dissent, it will undoubtedly be successful … You are not Steven Pinker, and Noam Chomksy and others probably aren’t going to come to your defence when you get sanctioned for expressing the wrong opinion. Not because they don’t believe in free speech, but because they won’t even be aware of your case. There will be no articles lambasting and criticising the cancellers. Your cancellation will be a blip on the radar and the academic world will chug along without you.
Charleen Adams, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health who holds a master’s degree in applied linguistics, called the letter’s demands “reactive and authoritarian,” and likened it to a performative ritual by a mob seeking purification. The Columbia University linguistics professor John McWhorter, an Atlantic contributor, wrote on Twitter, “An organization dedicated to linguistic analysis must punish a leading, brilliant scholar because in the wake of George Floyd's murder, his politics aren't sufficiently leftist? Folks, it’s time to stand this gospel down.”