Steven Pinker, an experimental psychologist and prominent public intellectual, has written an important letter concerning the latest controversy over Israel at Harvard University, where he is based. Such controversies are notuncommon there.
First, some background. SodaStream, an Israeli company that makes a popular home carbonation system, has been an object of the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel because it operates a factory on the West Bank and may therefore be said to profit from “the occupation.” Defenders of the company argue that the factory is located in “a suburb of Jerusalem that Palestinian Authority leaders acknowledge will remain part of Israel in any negotiated resolution of the conflict,” and that SodaStream pays “high wages and provides excellent working conditions” for Palestinians who, for the most part, have opposed the boycott. Full disclosure: I think the boycott is ridiculous, especially now that SodaStream has already announced its plans to close down the factory.
In a move that surprised almost everyone, Harvard University’s Dining Services appeared to take sides in this dispute last week, not only agreeing to stop purchasing from SodaStream in the future but also, more strangely, to remove the SodaStream label from the systems they already have. As Rachel Sandow, a pro-boycott leader involved in the negotiations explained, “These machines can be seen as a microaggression to Palestinian students and their families and like the University doesn’t care about Palestinian human rights.” This decision took place after meetings, attended by students, professors, and administrators to respond to complaints from the Palestinian Solidarity Committee and the Islamic Society. Although there were evidently students who opposed the boycott present, several Jewish and pro-Israel groups on campus, including Hillel, say they were “left out of the decision-making process.” Indeed, Provost Alan Garber said that he and President Drew Faust knew nothing about the decision until they read about it in the Harvard Crimson. Garber affirmed that “Harvard University’s procurement decisions should not and will not be driven by individuals’ views of highly contested matters of political controversy,” and it now seems certain that the decision will be reversed.
Pinker’s letter, to Garber, was written between the Crimson story and Garber’s announcement. What he says in it is, in a way, not very remarkable. “I believe we share the conviction that a university is a forum in which ideas are to be studied.” Universities “have no mandate to ratify the beliefs of a subset of its constitutents.” Moreover, universities should not be in the business of protecting students from “so-called ‘microaggression,’ when they are exposed to beliefs that are different from theirs, or when the university does not accede to demands that it prosecute their moral and political crusades.” Finally, inamuch as “Middle East politics above all is a subject on which thoughtful people disagree [,] it is certainly not one on which a university should decree the correct position.”
It is more remarkable that Pinker needs to state such bedrock principles at all, yet they have become controversial in the humanities, where the boycott movement is relatively popular and where appeals to academic freedom and discussion are sometimes viewed as an impediment to social justice work. As Steven Salaita proclaimed concerning the former, before he decided he really needed it: we “should focus on the development and maintenance of just labor conditions and the disengagement of our institutions from the exercise of state violence. Academic freedom is important insofar as it protects our ability to do this work. When it doesn’t offer such protection, then it becomes just another high-minded slogan.”
Pinker recently engaged in a dispute with literary critic, Leon Wieseltier, concerning the relationship between the sciences and the humanities. But Pinker’s letter reminds us of what scientists and old fashioned humanists still have in common. As Wieseltier, who otherwise emphasizes the distance between the sciences and the humanities puts it, people like him and Pinker share a devotion to “skepticism, open debate, formal precision (though not of the mathematical kind), and—at the higher reaches of humanistic labor—even empirical tests.” Pinker recognizes that these standards of scholarship and teaching are all threatened by the attempt to harness the universities to political causes. Those who care about the future of our colleges and universities must hope that more scientists, who have largely stayed on the sidelines as their colleagues in the humanities and soft social sciences have looked to politicize the university, will take the kind of stand that Pinker has.