On Tuesday evening, the Canadian-American Harvard cognitive psychologist and author Steven Pinker was presented with Simon Fraser University’s Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy.

The $5,000 prize was established at Simon Fraser University in 1993 to “encourage work that provokes and/or contributes to the understanding of controversy.” Past winners include fat activist Layla Cameron (2018), prostitution abolitionist Cherry Smiley (2014), and AIDS and euthanasia researcher Russel Ogden (1995). 

Some noted that Pinker is hardly a controversial figure: “His positions aren’t wild and crazy”, remarked SFU professor Mark Collard. “So, the ‘Pinker Puzzle’ is that his views are pretty moderate relative to the evidence and/or the views of his colleagues, and yet he’s often framed as controversial.”

However, Pinker acknowledged his inclination towards moderate, middle-of-the-road centrism, and titled his presentation “Who, Me, Controversial?” 

He then made a point to establish himself as a left-leaning Democrat, showcasing a picture of himself with Justin Trudeau (saying he was “sympathetic” to Trudeau), as well as mentioning he was a supporter of Hillary Clinton and financial donor to the Democratic Party. 

He noted he has never been de-platformed or protested, though one writer did call him “The world’s most annoying man”, and another called him an “annoying white male intellectual.”

During his lecture, Pinker touched on the politicization of academia, the moralization of intellectual issues, and some controversies he has been involved in throughout his academic career. The most recent controversy he has been embroiled in is related to his latest book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Pinker argues overall world progress has been made in terms of human health, safety, and happiness – but some counter that he is ignoring current human suffering and inequality.

While discussing free speech and open inquiry, Pinker remarked many university departments contain more Marxists than conservatives, and that from the “Left Pole” of academia, everything that isn’t far-left seems right-wing or reactionary. 

Pinker said he views authoritarian populism as the main ideological threat to progress, and stated open debate is necessary to prevent “perverse backlashes.” He named the far-left as an incubator of the alt-right, noting the left’s rejection of open debate has meant the alt-right can claim to have “the truth” that the left refuses to face. He also pointed out how opposition to capitalism and free markets is entrenched on university campuses, and how this leads some contrarians to adopt a radically libertarian “anarcho-capitalism.”

As Pinker himself emphasized, he is a mild and moderate centrist. His positive opinion of capitalism and his openness to engaging with conservatives are considered controversial only because of today’s far-left campus climate. 

Nora and Ted Sterling, the founders of the Prize for Controversy, stated “We hope, that by providing a substantial reward for creative, unconventional effort, it will contribute to works of this nature gaining both a forum and a degree of respectability.” Pinker already has both a forum and degree of respectability. But, seeing as we could still always use an articulate defence of free speech and open debate, there is no reason to complain about Pinker’s win. 

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