I still find it deeply ironic that Noam Chomsky signed the Harper's Magazine letter

In all of the blowback with the Harper’s Magazine letter on free speech last year, no one pointed out the deep irony that Noam Chomsky was a signatory. And yet, understanding a bit about the history of Chomskyan linguistics, and why it is a limited view of language, illuminates a crucial part of cancel culture.

Noam Chomsky first made waves as a linguist when he published Syntactic Structures in 1957. This manuscript and his follow on work were all highly theoretical attempts at deconstructing language through sentence generation. Linguistics call this branch of the study syntax. Chomsky remains an influential linguist because his technical precision gave a framework that early artificial intelligence (AI) researchers could implement in the late 1950s. 

But linguists who aren’t involved in computer science typically chide Chomsky for his singular focus on sentence structure to the detriment of two other branches. The progressive George Lakoff famously debated Chomsky throughout the 1960s and 1970s for side stepping the meaning imbued in language, or what researchers call semantics. But for the current debates over cancel culture, what truly matters is the third major area of language study, known as pragmatics. This branch deals with language as it is used in conversation, and thus includes a long line of work exploring the rules of conversation.

With this in mind, read again the core grievance of the Harper’s Magazine letter: “But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.” In other words, the defining feature of cancel culture is the perception that the rules of the game are uncertain and could change instantaneously.

The rule, attack the idea, not the person, is giving way to a new standard, you are who you surround yourself with.

Here’s an example: Stephen Hsu recently stepped down as senior vice president for research and innovation at Michigan State after a petition successfully ousted him. That letter, which has more than 800 signatures, described Hsu as “an open racist and eugenicist” and accused him of using his podcast “to praise and promote individuals who themselves traffic in Holocaust denial and antisemitism.” 

On his blog, Hsu corrected the record, “I do not endorse claims of genetic group differences. In fact I urge great caution in this area.” He continued, “The blog posts under attack, dating back over a decade, are almost all discussions of published scientific papers by leading scholars in Psychology, Neuroscience, Genomics, Machine Learning, and other fields.” Attacking the idea is now an attack on the person. 

This rule flip could also be seen in reactions to the letter itself. In a now taken down tweet, Vox writer Emily VanDerWerff decried her colleague for signing on, saying “As a trans woman who very much values her position at Vox and the support the publication has given her through the emotional and physical turmoil of transition, I was deeply saddened to see Matt Yglesias’s signature on the Harper’s Weekly letter.” 

She continued, “But the letter, signed as it is by several prominent anti-trans voices and containing as many dog whistles towards anti-trans positions as it does, ideally would not have been signed by anybody at Vox, much less one of the most prominent people at our publication.”   

Also on that Harper’s Magazine letter was Dr. Deirdre McCloskey, a libertarian-leaning professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a trans woman. Her story is well documented. In her transition in the 1990s, she converted to Anglicanism, became a convert to free market economics, and was instrumental in the founding of a new discipline bridging economics and rhetoric. 

Auntie D, as she always asked to be called, taught me about pragmatics a decade ago. I’d like to think she’d have a laugh seeing Chomsky signed. At the very least everyone can agree that irony is no reason to get cancelled.

First published Jan 20, 2021