Original posts regarding the open letter to the LSA

Since I have switched over my website, I received a request to make my previous blog posts regarding the open letter to the LSA from Summer 2020. Here is both my initial post entitled “Thoughts on the open letter to the LSA” from July 8th, 2020, followed by a second post entitled “A response to a journalist” from July 27th, 2020.

Thoughts on the open letter to the LSA (first posted July 8th, 2020)

I do not agree with the positions that Dr. Steven Pinker has repeatedly and publicly taken. He has shown an inability to listen, learn, and place facts in their proper context. He has, without a reasonable claim to ignorance, minimized the violence imposed by racist systems. Violence that has transformed with equal malice from slavery, to segregation, to police brutality and mass incarceration; from treaties, to genocide, to reservations, to forced assimilation and termination. This violence has not been recognized or repaired with the same systematicity with which it is has been inflicted.

Being a public figure within linguistics, Dr. Pinker has done damage to our collective reputations. I understand the petition to remove him from the media contact list of the LSA. I do not wish to be represented by him either. I understand the desire to revoke his fellowship status. I do not wish to honor him either. He has violated the stated morals of the LSA as well as my own.

Why have I not signed the letter? In short, I agree with the moral stance, but disagree with the method. I agree with the characterization of Dr. Pinker’s statements that the letter puts forward. I think that the LSA should carefully review their choice to direct the media his way and evaluate whether he should continue to be honored with fellowship status. But I think any action taken must be backed up by the power granted through a measured and transparent due process. That is what I believe is right for all people, regardless of the situation. I will not equivocate on what I think is right, but I believe that justice is a process rather than an event. I do not feel that the letter and the conversation it has spawned makes room for a process of justice.

As a result, I have serious doubts that progress will be made as a result of the rebuke as it is currently unfolding. It has made Dr. Pinker exactly what he wants to be: a martyr and a victim. It has played into his hand. For someone like Dr. Pinker, I think the best course of action is for each of us to boost voices other than his. To craft counterarguments. To represent who we are as linguists with our own thoughts. Our arguments are bound to be stronger. The evidence is in our favor. Alas, we will likely not convince him or those like him to see the world in a different way, but at least we can hope to change the minds of those who may be on the fence about what to make of this moment and our history.

I think that the open letter was created from a well-intentioned place. I imagine the writers agonizing over their words (just as I am right now) and looking for a way to make a difference within the field. The vitriol with which the letter has been received in many circles has been appalling. I have been saddened to see some members of the field retreat to a defense of Dr. Pinker, rather than an acceptance of what his statements represent and promote. I have also been dismayed by the way in which some who are promoting the letter have attacked those who reasonably dissent or have chosen not to sign.

I hope that we can be better as a field and as a society. That we can get to the point where recognition and reparations for the wide range of historical and present injustices are made. For the moment, I hope to spark thoughtful conversation. To learn by revealing my thoughts and experience, and listening to what is reflected back. I expect that I am misguided in some way that I cannot yet see, but I have tried my best given what I know. I like to think that most of you are doing the same.

A response to a journalist (first posted July 27th, 2020)

I believe that there is a rather general misunderstanding about what it means to restrict free speech. Dr. Pinker currently has complete freedom to express his views and opinions. He has done so on his personal twitter account, in interviews with the media, in the books that he has published, and (I am sure) in the courses that he teaches. What he does not have freedom from is being criticized for his views. Being criticized does not constitute a restriction of free speech.

Furthermore, Dr. Pinker does not have an inherent right to represent the field of linguistics. The Linguistic Society of America (LSA) and its membership get to choose who they promote as a public figure within the field. As an organization, the LSA (and its membership) also get to choose who is honored, and reserves the right to revoke such honors if they choose to. Neither of these are matters of free speech or the first amendment. It is a question of how organizations with some amount of promotional power choose to exercise that power. If Dr. Pinker is ultimately removed from the media list (which has since been entirely taken down), he will not have lost any rights whatsoever. He will have simply lost the honor of being considered a recommended media representative for the LSA. That said, I do believe any action must be done with extreme caution and within the powers vested by due process and carefully constructed codes of conduct. That was the point of my blog post.

More broadly, I do think that there needs to be some degree of tolerance for people holding racist views in ignorance. Every single person in America (and beyond) has been subject to insidious racist ideologies, and can unknowingly perpetuate these systems. As a society, we need to make space for those who are willing to learn to grow. But with this, we must also raise the question of who is responsible for this growth and teaching. It is exhausting for black and indigenous people to continually have to reveal the ways, big and small, that systematic racism has impacted their lives. It is the responsibility of people who have benefited from these systems to do the work of understanding and growing. Furthermore, we must do this in the context of truth and reconciliation. There needs to be an extremely detailed and transparent process of acknowledgment and reparation. For people to feel heard, and for people to listen. To comment specifically, Dr. Pinker has not (publicly) shown that he is able to take in criticism without getting unreasonable and defensive. He is not holding up his end of truth and reconciliation. I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt, but it is conditioned on him first acknowledging that his statements have been misguided and harmful.

I think the motivation for the original letter is to meet the demands of anti-racism. To do something within the field of linguistics about the endemic racism that infiltrates every aspect of our society. It seems that the LSA is taking a rightfully measured approach. My hope is for our field to continue trying to be a part of dismantling racist systems in a way that also constructs something better.

Christopher M. Hammerly
Christopher M. Hammerly
Postdoctoral Fellow

My research interests include syntax and morphology, particularly the interface between our grammatical knowledge and processing abilities.