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Friday, October 24, 2008

Steven Pinker on the Canadian Human Rights Commission: an "atrocity"

Stevenpinkersm_2 Renowned Harvard psychologist/linguist (and Canadian) Steven Pinker is a well-known advocate of freedom of speech and expression. He is also author of several New York Times bestselling books, amongst them The Blank Slate, which caused an enormous stir when it was published (check them out on Amazon below).

When I posted his article on curse words, I thought I'd send him a quick email to see just how consistently pro-freedom of expression he really was. I didn't expect much, to be honest, and I sort of thought he would hedge and say that there's something different about so-called "hate speech" as compared to other kinds of speech like regular-old curse words.

So I asked him about the Canadian Human Rights Commissions, and section 13(1) of the Canadian Human Rights Act.

Pinker responded as follows (my emphasis):

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.

Pinker gets it. And you can get his books:

UPDATE: Mark Steyn, who used to write the back page column for the Western Standard back when we were in print, picks up the story here.

So does Kathy Shaidle. Here.

Dr. Dawg, meanwhile, is critical of Pinker over here.

UPDATE2: Toronto-based journalist Denyse O'Leary picks up the story and posts it on the Intelligent Design blog Uncommon Descent, and cross-posts it over on her two other blogs, Post-Darwinist, and Mindful Hack. She writes that she agrees with Pinker, but adds that Pinker is (she says "alas") wrong on two points:

1. The criticized practice does not need to be statistically common. Prosecution of the critic 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.

Posted by P.M. Jaworski on October 24, 2008 in Freedom of expression | Permalink


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Talk like that will get the Human Rights Commission on your back.

Posted by: Zebulon Pike | 2008-10-24 2:55:57 PM

"Take away the right to say F*ck, and you take away the right to say F*ck the government."
Lenny Bruce

See how that works? :)

Posted by: JC | 2008-10-24 6:21:04 PM

Count me absolutely astonished by Pinker's fucking ignorance. He's in good company I guess.

Posted by: hysperia | 2008-10-24 11:12:23 PM

Ignorant people call people ignorant without enumerating what things in their arguments are supposedly ignorant. The practise is wholly narcissistic since its topic is the wisdom of the writer, not the arguments he objects to. There is no reason why the writer's opinion should be considered important since he doesn't make one: therefore the statement is that the writer imagines himself more enlightened than others for no apparent reason. Buying this argument would require a level of self-contempt on the part of the reader that truly is astonishing. Such narcissists need professional help for they are completely out of touch with reality. That's the thing that people agree on when they aren't circling down the drain.

Posted by: pxfragonard | 2008-10-25 6:37:33 PM

Wait, are you telling me there are professors at Harvard that think like that? Maybe there is some small glimmer of hope after all.

Posted by: GuyInCT | 2008-10-25 8:28:34 PM

I'm astonished to discover there is still common sense at Harvard. And for those who think Pinker is dead wrong, if the US elects Obama, they can expect a similar commission, and kiss the remnants of free speech goodbye. We have already seen candidate Obama attempt to use the Justice Dept. and a "truth squad" of Democratic Missouri law enforcement officials to kill speech he finds inconvenient. What do you imagine he'll do as president?

Posted by: Letitia | 2008-10-27 7:29:23 AM

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