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«Tolerance is a human achievement»
Steven Pinker, fotografiert von Selina Seiler.

«Tolerance is a human achievement»

It takes no effort to tolerate those who agree with you. Real tolerance should apply to those views you especially dislike. These days universities are a hotbed of bigotry. But Steven Pinker wants to change that.

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If we look at universities, those within woke circles seem to embrace tolerance, they push inclusivity and diversity. On the other hand, these same circles are enforcing cancel culture and suppress unpopular opinions. How do you explain this paradox?

It’s easy to tolerate people just like you, people in your culture or subculture. We are in a situation in which everyone is tolerant towards people in their own social circle, and that’s the problem. These people ought to make the rational mental leap that, even though it doesn’t make any sense to them and they think it’s wrong, other people still have the right to live, they still have the right to express their opinions.


How do you see the universities these days, especially given the topic of woke?

Things are not so good, and I speak as an employee of Harvard University, perhaps the most famous university in the world. Harvard was just recently rated in last place among 248 American universities by an organization in the United States that I support, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). FIRE ranks universities in terms of their attitudes towards students, whether students think it’s okay to use violence to shut down what they consider to be a dangerous speaker. They also analyze whether the campus engages in intellectual repression, such as disinviting controversial speakers, or removing people from courses if there is controversial content in them. Harvard University received a score of 0.


What a terrible result.

Well, I’m part of a group of Harvard professors that is pushing back against this. We have founded a new Council on Academic Freedom that is going to be active in supporting people who have been cancelled, in applying policies the university already has for academic freedom but everyone has forgotten about. To begin with, we would like to have the university adopt what are called the Kalven principles. These principles demand that a university should not issue public statements on controversies and issues of the day. It means that if there is a killing, a war, a police shooting, universities should not issue a statement on their official opinion. Now, this has been especially in the news in the last month due to Israel, because Harvard – among many other universities – has a long history of issuing such statements. In the case of George Floyd, an African American killed by a white policeman in Minneapolis, universities all issued a statement on how horrendous this was. But then, when 1400 Jews were massacred by Hamas, the universities were silent. In the case of Harvard, the President issued a statement, not really mentioning the 1’400 Jews, but just saying that he was against violence on both sides. She was severely criticized, came up with the second statement, and was criticized for that. She then came up with a third statement. We on the council think that presidents could stay out of trouble and could promote academic freedom and tolerance if the university were the forum for discussion, debate, deliberation, but did not itself take one side or another.


Is it new that suddenly everyone expects from everyone else to have a moral statement on so many things?

This trend began during the era of the Vietnam War, because the Kalven principles came out of the University of Chicago in 1967. So it was already an issue back then, and that was 55 years ago. Still, this trend has increased.


To speak more generally of tolerance, is it inherent in human nature or a human achievement?

Tolerance is a human achievement. The natural reaction is to regard the people who disagree with me as dangerous, as foolish, and to think they should be suppressed for the common good. Tolerance – the idea that even if I disagree with someone, they have a right to express their opinions, let alone to exist and not be killed – is an achievement of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution. There are predecessors of this in ancient Greece, of course, but it is not a natural principle. Tolerance is a constant struggle, like Sisyphus constantly having to push that rock up the hill.


In 2018, you called identity politics an enemy of reason and Enlightenment values. Why?

There have been experiments which show that political identity interferes with reasoning. For example, if you tell people in the United States that a specific policy, for example on health care, is from the Democratic Party, then people on the left will say it’s a great policy, a great way to save money and make people healthier. People on the right, however, respond that it’s a terrible policy, a waste of money and that people will get sicker as a consequence of it. Then you present the same policy to different people, but you just change the source and say it came from the Republican Party. In that case, the reactions switch according to political identity. Even people who are mathematically sophisticated, will commit basic statistical errors when it comes to studies they think support their cause. Also, there are laboratory studies that confirm the impression of people who read the news that polarization gets in the way of rationality.


We have, as a society, achieved immense progress in terms of individual liberties and living conditions thanks to the values of the Enlightenment. But it would seem that the Left does not properly acknowledge this immense progress of these last 200 years. Why not?

As I like to say: Progressives hate progress. I should add that there is a stream of a kind of reactionary conservatism that also hates progress, so it’s not just the Left.


Would you call yourself a progressive or a liberal?

The words are so ambiguous, but the answer is yes and yes, in the technical meanings of the words ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive.’ I do believe in liberalism in the sense of individual freedom, that states and governments are social contracts that exist to protect the interests of individuals. I believe that there are universal human rights, that both freedom and freedom of speech are a primary right. All this can be called liberal. I’m progressive in the sense that I think that progress is possible. We ought to improve society, improve the world, look for flaws and problems and make them better. On the other hand, the words ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ both have connotations today that don’t just mean ‘to be in favor of freedom or in favor of progress.’ ‘Liberal’ has different meanings in the United States and Europe. What people in Europe often call ‘liberal’ might be called libertarian in the United States, so being in favor of minimum regulation in the workplace, minimum taxation, together with civil liberties, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. In the United States ‘liberalism’ often means leftism. Likewise, progressivism, especially the United States, even more than ‘liberal,’ tends to be a left-wing position.


The Enlightenment offers a secular morality. Still, the absence of religion in our Western world seems to leave many people feeling lost and in search of spirituality. Can a secular worldview offer spirituality?

If it’s spirituality in the sense of believing in supernatural beings, ghosts, spirits, saints, gods, heaven and hell: that’s religion. We can do without that kind of spirituality. If spirituality is meant to mean a sense of awe, wonder, appreciation of mystery, and the calm one gets from works of art or contemplation, from meditation, that would be a valuable thing. It would be good if we had the promotion of art forms, of voluntary associations that allow people to appreciate such things. One of the healthy things religion delivers is the community: times and places where people get together, make friends, make contacts, with their kids, to meet each other. Churches and synagogues had that role, and as people keep abandoning this, because they just can’t go along with the god stuff, they’re also losing out on the community.


Coming back to progress, human ingenuity is the ultimate resource. So with enough of it, we can overcome every major problem facing humanity. Will AI help us with that?

Since the 1950s computers have taken over tasks that the human mind has trouble with, such as looking up information, doing calculations etc., AI is a continuation of that process. There are many things that the human mind can’t do very well, like integrating information from multiple sources to come to a decision. I think there’s enormous scope for artificial intelligence to improve human decision-making. No human can read all the papers on a given topic or digest all the scientific literature. There are a lot of jobs that are dangerous or boring. If we had robots that replaced humans for this, it would be a benefit to humanity.

Steven Pinker, fotografiert von Selina Seiler.

Did you try out Chat GPT as a tool to help you work?

Oh, everyone’s tried out Chat GPT, and so have I. The problem is that it makes stuff up. If Chat GPT gives me a result, maybe it is true, maybe it isn’t.


Are there differences between artificial and natural human intelligence?

Chat GPT and other large language models absorb statistical patterns out of massive amounts of text. I’ve argued that there is a human capability that Chat GPT approximates but doesn’t get exactly. We have ideas, statements, propositions, we know that there are people, there are places, things, actions, times. Chat GPT doesn’t have that, believe it or not. It just has associations. Things that tend to appear together, it will reproduce – whether or not they actually occurred. That’s why the large language models are so vulnerable to what are called ‘hallucinations.’ They mash together things that often occur in proximity in the same text, but don’t necessarily correspond to any particular fact. There could be an artificial intelligence that is like the human mind which has statistical associations, but also has propositions facts, ideas about people, places, things, events, and times. This could potentially bring both the advantages of large language models, i.e. an awareness of massive amounts of information and patterning, and also not make these factual blunders.


Yuval Noah Harari calls money the pinnacle of human tolerance since it does not ask about religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation.

That is an idea from the Enlightenment where many philosophers extolled commerce. For one thing, they were opposing the royal monopolies and charters of the day. They were also spreading the idea that is sometimes called doux commerce, gentle commerce. It says that commerce is a pacifying force because countries engaged in trade find it easier to buy things than to steal them. War is expensive, people get killed. If you just go buy stuff, why bother invading? One does not kill one’s customers. Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, many of the Enlightenment philosphes, extolled this.


So, trade prevents war?

Voltaire wrote about how you go to a bank or a clearing house, and there you find the Jew next to the Arab next to the Protestant who’s next to the Catholic, and what do they care? They’re engaging in trade. How many gods they have is irrelevant. There is also some evidence that countries which engage in more trade are less likely to go to war. Now, that of course depends on them prioritizing well-being, esteeming affluence above other values like greatness, grandeur, national glory, or scripture. A possible exception that proves the rule is that Russia has been willing to undergo some financial hardship by being cut off from world trade in order to satisfy the dream of Greater Russia. So there’s no guarantee that commerce will bring about peace and tolerance, but it is a force that pushes in that direction.


There are many people these days shouting ‘Allahu Akbar!’ on the streets of Europe. They want to put Sharia law above the ideals of the Enlightenment. Has Angela Merkel’s so-called ‘welcome culture’ of 2015 failed?

I don’t think it should be against the law to say ‘Allahu Akbar.’ And I don’t think Sharia law should be implemented. But I do not see that there’s any danger of that happening in any European country. But if it’s proposed in a local region, there should be very strong arguments against it. If there’s incitement to violence, if it’s ‘Kill the Jews!’, then that could be illegal, just like a threat can be; that is a noted exception to free speech. In terms of immigration, and Merkel’s policy, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to keep in mind the effects of a large influx of people from a particular culture that would have an enclave which could change the character of the society that welcomes them. Now, in general I believe immigration is good, I’m a grandchild of immigrants and economists say immigration makes everyone better off. But, like all things, multiple considerations have to be weighed. If something is good, there are still tradeoffs, and they have to be taken into account.


What do you think of groups like «Queers for Palestine», who oppose the state of Israel and everything it does in Gaza? How can their support for a terrorist group that represses homosexuals be understood?

‘Queers for Palestine’ has been rightly ridiculed. It is the ultimate absurdity, because a queer person in Palestine would not last long. It underscores the insanity of a lot of the critical, social justice, intersectional woke movement. It is intellectually incoherent. It is a kind of tribalism where the tribes are defined by victim groups and oppressor groups. This ideology, which has infiltrated a lot of academia, is responsible for a number of the monstrous developments that we’ve seen in the last month. Queers for Palestine has to be the most idiotic.


You are very clear on all these topics, but others who share the same values of Enlightenment get more pushback than you. I’m thinking of people like Sam Harris, Douglas Murray or Jordan Peterson. Why is that?

I choose my controversies. I don’t just jump on every controversy that someone invites me into. Jordan Peterson, for instance, has some extra baggage. I respect his pushback against some of the excesses of political correctness. Yet, he also has his embrace of Jung and Nietzsche. He is not an Enlightenment humanist. He also takes on needless things. He went on a rant about Sports Illustrated having a fat woman in a swimsuit. Why get upset about that? It’s marketing genius on the part of Sports Illustrated because everyone then talks about it. So there are extra battles that Peterson fights that I think are unnecessary.  As for Sam Harries, he was much clearer and much more adamant about some of the inherent problems with radical Islam in an era in which everyone wanted to stay away from it. And he got a lot of enemies when he was arguing against religion in general and for being very blunt about some of the violent tendencies in orthodox Islam. Harris’ views are not extreme, but he is fearless.


Our intellectual culture has changed somewhat because many people listen to podcasts and don’t read so much. Do you listen to podcasts?

It has changed, the culture is much more auditory-visual. There is indeed explosion of podcasts, and I get far more invitations to appear on them than I can accept. I rarely listen to podcasts because unless they are transcribed, it is not a very efficient use of time, since speech is slower than reading. I’m absolutely in favor of reading.


Which new intellectuals on the scene you pay attention to do like, which ones do you read?

There are a lot of quite brilliant young people that are in new outlets like Persuasion, a magazine begotten by Yascha Mounk. Quillette magazine features a lot of new writers. I have found that a number of recent PhD graduates have decided not to go into academia because they can’t say what they want there. So they start stuff, Substacks, blogs, podcasts, and try to earn a living in other ways.


If there will be a contest to win the title of the most intolerant group in the world, who would you name a winner?

We’ve got so many contenders. Well, would I rather be at Harvard University which came in last place on that ranking than in Iran, or Putin’s Russia, or geez, China, or Saudi Arabia. So as bad as universities are, as bad as Harvard is, there’s much worse. I have to keep things in perspective. It’s a tie between Islamic dictatorships, the Russian dictatorship and the Chinese one.

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