Steven Pinker and Sam Harris at the Dolby Theatre

On March 14, I went to see the launch event of Sam Harris’s Waking Up Book Club, where he and Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker shared the stage at the Dolby Theatre to discuss Pinker’s new book Enlightenment Now and a range of philosophical topics. Among the things they touched on were science, humanism, politics, and artificial intelligence.

About halfway into their conversation, Sam prompted Pinker to speak about the rise of the alt-right. In his response, Pinker first clarified that his conception of the alt-right did not center on what has become the prevailing caricature of that identity — that is, the khaki-wearing, torch-bearing, pseudo-warmongering, male white supremacist who rallied at public demonstrations all throughout 2016 and 2017. Rather, he described the alt-right a product of something more subtle and surreptitious. In my best attempt to summarize his words, he described it as a group of people (albeit still overwhelmingly white and male) who emerged organically as a reaction to political correctness and left-wing taboos making it impossible — or at the very least inconvenient — to explore certain topics through conversation and free expression.

Unfortunately, I can’t remember if Sam or Pinker highlighted any specific taboos or such topics, but I imagine something akin to Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve was the assumed context here. If, for example, a research study were to yield results attesting to racial differences in intelligence among humans, its exposure in academia would be short-lived, since — as the argument goes — leftist and politically correct attitudes on university campuses have turned the classroom into a place that is hostile to broaching such subjects and discussing them openly. Presumably, an open discussion on any of these topics would be of a kind that raises challenges against gender equality, racial equality, and other positions sympathetic to protected classes.

Pinker went on to say that without a space where debates of this sort were welcome, those who found themselves privy to this roiling body of everything from research findings to half-baked ideas withdrew from the usual channels and carried their conversations into hidden forums, where they could share and exchange with other like-minded people. These groups suddenly saw themselves as the beneficiaries of information that began to take on a privileged and secretive character, given its taboo status in other places. Speaking generally, there is something empowering about holding secrets, and it’s this sense of power, derived from enjoying a monopoly on certain knowledge, that drove its bearers to take shape as a collective force.

If this phenomenon is at all what was operative in the formation of the alt-right, then it should be taken as an example that reaffirms the primacy of free speech and the challenges inherent in its implementation. If it’s the case that would-be alt-righters met any resistance to expressing their ideas in the usual academic and political forums, it likely was not in the form of formal, prohibited-speech rules or legislation (at least in the US). Rather, the resistance they met likely took the form of accusations of bigotry or racism, which, true or not, will handily shut down any conversation before it even starts.

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