Dr. Dawg

Professors with opinions

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Peter Jaworski over at the Shotgun blog draws my attention to this.

By coincidence, earlier this week I was exposing my introductory anthropology section to the notions of prestige and status, or what Pierre Bourdieu calls "cultural capital." One's standing in the community, all by itself, can be a means to gain power, wealth, and sway. One's words gain a certain authority, just because of who he or she is. So former hockey players become "recognized" as experts on the Middle East, former disc jockeys on demographics, and rock stars on world hunger.

Again by coincidence, the Ottawa
Citizen's Dan Gardner held forth just today on what he calls "celebrity intellectuals." His target in this case was Margaret Atwood. He's a little unfair to her, in my opinion, but he's nailed the notion of cultural capital.

And now we have Steven Pinker, Harvard psychologist and linguist, author of The Blank Slate--and instant expert on the Canadian Human Rights Act.

Here's what he had to say to Jaworksi, in an email exchange:

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.

Now, we've seen this kind of pot-pourri of ignorance and indignation appear on countless blogs, but the authors will never be taken seriously except by others like themselves. Somehow, though, we are expected to sit up and take notice (and certainly some will) when a man who made his name in the field of linguistics and neo-evolutionary theory holds forth on any subject at all--even ones of which he knows next to nothing.

To begin with, Section 13 (1), the subject of his ire, states:

13. (1) It is a discriminatory practice for a person or a group of persons acting in concert to communicate telephonically or to cause to be so communicated, repeatedly, in whole or in part by means of the facilities of a telecommunication undertaking within the legislative authority of Parliament, any matter that is likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt by reason of the fact that that person or those persons are identifiable on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination.

Note that it does not say that practices per se (ritual murder, slavery, etc.) are protected. Pinker made that up, or is being highly disingenuous, or doesn't know any better. Those and other practices are routinely criticized, even reviled, in Canada--as they should be. What is illegal is to expose a person or persons to contempt based upon their membership in a group that is protected from discrimination under the law. And, as we have seen with the recent dismissal of complaints against Maclean's magazine and Ezra Levant, the bar remains high.

Nor can "haters" use the "devil made me do it defence" to get a writer into trouble with the law. That ploy has been tried by sexual criminals ("porn made me commit the crime"), but there are no registered acquittals anywhere in North America on such grounds, nor have the writers of porn been held vicariously liable for the deviant acts of consumers.

And the florid rhetoric of Pinker's last paragraph will be familar to anyone who has read the logorrheic rants of Ezra Levant.

The acquisition of cultural capital is a fact of life. But just as we need to be critical of the misuse of economic capital, so too should we be sceptical of the misuse of prestige and status. Pinker's awareness of the law appears to be minimal, and his arguments against it are amateurish. Knowledge of linguistics clearly doesn't automatically translate into expertise in philately, baseball, paleontology--or public policy. Why should we pay any more attention to Steven Pinker than to a common-or-garden blogger?

UPDATE: (October 25) The benighted "Intelligent Design" theorist Denyse O'Leary weighs in. I imagine that Professor Pinker, were he aware of this, would be heartily embarrassed. Or perhaps not, since her grasp of the Canadian Human Rights Act and the workings of the CHRC and CHRT appears to be just as feeble as his own.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on October 24, 2008 6:59 PM.

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