JLF2022: Steven Pinker On The Scarcity Of Rationality And Repercussions Of Cancel Culture

American author Steven Pinker, in an engaging session at Jaipur Literature Festival, opened up about his latest work Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters. In conversation with Mihir S. Sharma, Pinker talked about how this book is a sort of homecoming for him. “Rationality, in many ways, is a return to my home turf. I am trained as a cognitive psychologist. So my specialty is how the mind works and by extension what is human nature. It is not just about what we think but also about what are our motives and emotions. This was my career,” he said.

The author revealed that through his works he tried finding answers to questions about human rational and how it differs from place to place. “After I wrote a book called language instinct arguing that language is a human instinct, it raised the question that what are the other human instincts. That in turn raised the question that if there is such a thing like human nature, if the mind comes into the world with some innate structure and organization given to it by evolution, does it have political implications,” he explained.

Pinker’s bestselling works on human progress has helped him understand the world as it is today. He says human rationality is a gift that should not be suppressed to keep emotional considerations intact. “I tie the book back to progress because the third part of the subtitle of the book is ‘why it matters’. Well, one of the reasons that rationality matters is that it is human rationality that is responsible for most of our progress. Progress doesn’t happen just like that. There is no magical force in the universe that makes life better. Contrarily, the laws of nature tends to make life worse, to the extent that we have reduced famine and disease. Today, we have reduced war because of rationality,” he added.

Pinker’s latest work Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters.

In the modern world, for a psychologist, the question of cancel culture and censorship is a fascinating one. Pinker says these authoritarian actions come from a feeling of infallibility.

“There is institutional censorship that cancels controversial writers or speakers in many countries. The implicit rational for silencing people is they should not be allowed to spread misinformation. They should not say things that are incorrect and harmful. The problem is that people who are doing the censoring or cancelling others, have to assume that they are infallible. They are so sure about their opinion that they will use group force to shut people up and remove opposing views from their platforms,” he warned.

“The problem is that we are all humans and our reasoning is always subjective to flaws and biases. The biggest bias is to assume that we are not biased but somebody else is. The very act of suppressing speech is indefensible because it presupposes that the person doing the censoring has a pipeline to the truth and is divinely inspired. That is not the way our species finds the truth. The only way to get to the truth is open debate and evaluation of ideas,” Pinker explained.

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