Steven Pinker on Taboos, Political Correctness, and Dissent


Several months back, it was my great pleasure to sit down and interview Harvard psychology professor and bestselling author Steven Pinker about his books, the crucial role dissent plays in keeping society sane, the special importance of free speech on campus, and the origins of political correctness. Professor Pinker is the author of The Blank Slate, The Better Angels of our Nature, and The Stuff of Thought. He is also a member of FIRE’s Board of Advisors and, thanks to his boldness, insight, and elegant prose, one of my favorite authors.

In his most recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Professor Pinker discusses several FIRE cases. In this video he notes the irony that campuses, which rely on the open exchange of ideas more than any other institution, often restrict speech more aggressively than society at large. Pinker describes how the urge to censor is related to the “psychology of taboo,” a topic he expanded upon back in 2010 when he, along with Harvey Silverglate and me, accepted an award on FIRE’s behalf from Boston’s Ford Hall Forum. 

Written By: Greg Lukianoff
continue to source article at


  1. He’s up there with the best of them when it comes to the exposition of science.

  2. I think he’s talking about a US phenomenon that results from treating adults like children. I would wager the US has a maturity gap retardation of between 3-4 years (perhaps more) compared to Commonwealth countries and Europe at large.

  3. While I obviously agree that all speech should be free, within the traditional limits of “fighting words” or incitement to name a few, I observe a backlash to Political Correctness that may be more disgusting and frightening than the complacency that Mr. Pinker notes. As regards women, in particular, the revolting language favored by Rush Limbaugh is not peculiar to that man, but indicative of a hideous stream of anti-female sentiment that issues from every corner of our culture. Look at billboards, TV programs, movies, and internet sites dedicated to the idea that if a woman does not have the the proper physical attributes and brain capacity (zero) then she is a castrating “femi-nazi.” The other main backlash has been a resurgence of the idea that there exists a relative “truth” and that criticizing someone’s beliefs judgmental and therefore wrong. The deluge of mealy-mouthed platitudes and utter nonsense that this has inspired reminds me of elevator-doors of blood from “The Shining.” And I feel like Shelly Duvall.

  4. I do not think “backlash” is the correct way to view the Limbaugh incident. He himself faced a lot of backlash for his comments. I think it would be more accurate to characterize his views and comments as the convulsive death-rattle of a certain view of women. A view that still exists, to be sure, but is dying out here in the west. I dont think Limbaugh would have faced the heat that he faced if he had done that broadcast 30 years ago, and certainly he would have been just fine 50 years ago.

  5. Another great piece by Pinker. I am very interested in the subject of the censoring of dissent as it is a factor in the splintering of movement.

  6. When you go to continue the essay what is you want us to look at?  Just the video?  or some essay?

  7. I’m well into Prof Pinker’s  ‘How The Mind Works’, having read his  ‘The Stuff Of Thought’.
    It’s good to see another piece of his enlightening, and more current, thinking here. He explains his ideas so well, especially for an old, slow Commodore 64 processor like mine.

    His words in the first 17 seconds explains some, especially when in public, religious intransigence. Even more so where weakening faith is severely punished – what a vicious circle for so many humans. I am so lucky to have lived in places and times where I was free enough to think and act rationally.

    I keep exploring and learning amazing things – – – isn’t nature, science and reality wonderful.

  8. I’m glad to see RDnet focusing a bit on the religion-ish phenomenon of political correctness, or as I like to call it: The Matrix.

  9. Yes, there is a little bit more in my article which you can see at:

    Or I can just include it here as well:

    “During the interview, I got to ask him why a book like Better Angels, which delivers the positive argument that violence has declined over human history and especially since 1945, could be considered politically incorrect. Check out his answer to this and many more questions in our new video “Steven Pinker on Taboos, Political Correctness, & Dissent.” (And check out what Pinker had to say about my forthcoming book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate.)”

    Professor Dawkins is also in the book by the way, because the Oklahoma legislature tried to investigate a Oklahoma State U after he spoke there. Quite a case, that was.

  10. Sorry, that’s the version we have. Maybe we will do a longer one, but as it stands it’s often hard to get people to watch videos longer than 5 minutes! I know, I know, that’s sad.

  11. It’s great to see RDFRS linking to FIRE.

    Students, above all sectors of society, need to understand free speech.


  12. I am reading Pinker’s book The Better Angels of our Nature: Why violence has declined.  It is a heavy book in the sense of kilograms. It is 800 pages of fairly small type. It starts out with hair-raising stories of the middle ages and how incredibly cruel and obnoxious we were.  It sets out to prove our notions of life back then have been preposterously sugar-coated.  In a way he is like the kid in school who liked to gross everyone out with ghastly stories. 

    One of things I look for in a book is to read something I don’t already know.  This book is packed that way.

  13. roedygreen,

    I read the book when it came out. The 800 pages flew by very quickly because I couldn’t put it down.  I went to the book signing and I can tell you that plenty of people in the audience couldn’t wrap their minds around his explanation of how bad things really used to be. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt in that it was a large amount of information about this subject that was dumped on them in the space of a one hour book talk.  The question and answer segment at the end was revealing of the fact that plenty of people just don’t have any idea how our species lived just 500, or 5000 years ago.  I give Pinker much credit for being extremely patient and unruffleable. 

    A woman sitting near me piped up with her opinion that in fact, society was on a steep decline in terms of manners and etiquette based on the level of rudeness she observes in social interaction on a daily basis. I thought at the time that she is completely oblivious to the historical problems that women have faced and still do face in other societies even now.  Pinker couldn’t take the time to address this with the time he would really need but I wish I could’ve explained to her that if she and I were to go back in time 5000 – 10000 years, instead of sitting at a nice polite book signing in a  quaint old bookstore on the edge of Harvard U., we would have been huddled around the campfire consoling ourselves over the rapes, beatings, kidnappings, etc that would have happened to us and other females in those days.

    I need to skim through that book before I go to see Pinker speak at Harvard again (link above)

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