Friday, October 24, 2008

US cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker defends freedom of expression in Canada

Well, of all people!

Regular blog readers will know that I have rarely been kind to Harvard cognitive scientist Pinker, either at The Mindful Hack or The Post-Darwinist (examples linked), or in The Spiritual Brain.

I find his hard core materialism juvenile - after all these years he still doesn't know that his show left town a while back, as Thomas Wolfe has noted.

All that said, P. M. Jaworski notes at The Shotgun Blog (civil rights lawyer Ezra Levant's online magazine) that Pinker recently said something in defense of intellectual freedom in Canada that makes a lot of sense to me:

I was aware of the Steyn/Maclean's case.

It’s truly shocking that a supposedly democratic government has arrogated to itself the power to censor speech because some judge or bureaucrat thinks it may “expose a person to contempt.” This could outlaw any criticism of a practice that is statistically more common in some groups than others, such as slavery, polygamy, child abuse, ritual torture, gay-bashing, and so on.

It allows haters to decide who gets to say what -- all they have to do is say, “So-and-so’s essay made me show contempt,” and So-and-so gets fined or jailed. And it opens the door to the government banning speech that upsets anyone, anywhere -- as all-important speech is bound to do.

This is an atrocity against the ideal of free speech, and will make Canada a laughing stock among lovers of democracy and enlightenment. (October 24, 2008)
Pinker gets a lot right here - the "human rights" commissions can be used to outlaw criticism of any practice that is "statistically more common in some groups than others."

But he is, alas, mistaken on two points:

1. The criticized practice does not need to be statistically common. Prosecution requires only that the "human rights" commissioner believes that the critic may “expose a person to contempt.” Statistically uncommon practices are more likely to do so.

2. Second, given that many countries have - or are contemplating - similar laws, we are kidding ourselves if we think that Canada - or American university campuses - are making themselves "a laughing stock" by enforcing censorship of opinion.

Many earnest, humourless people who know that they are "victims" or that they represent "victims" will only rest easy when they have permanently shut down all thought that gives them anxiety. As they are not likely to be free of anxiety any time soon, dislodging them will hardly be easy.

Hat tip: Five Feet of Fury
Photo credit: Rebecca Goldstein

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