This is the short letter I published when I announced that I would move away from Areo, a digital magazine that I founded. It’s reprinted on my website for the sake of record. You can read the original by clicking here.
In the Spring of 2016, I took a John Milton poetry class as a part of my MA requirement. I hated a lot of it. Though I constantly wondered what I was doing in there while the class was in session, I did console myself towards the end of the year by reminding myself that I had at least walked away with something: A name.
AreoMagazine’s name was inspired by John Milton’s Areopagitica, a speech the English poet wrote and delivered which condemned pre-publication censorship. (Perhaps now that you know the origins of its name you’ll be less likely to call it “Aero”!) The themes I set out at the onset of this project were loosely related to Milton’s piece of writing. I wrote the following as a mission statement:
“We’re an opinion and analysis digital magazine focused on current affairs — in particular: Humanism, Culture, Politics, Human Rights, Science, and, most importantly, Free Expression.
We believe in the unfettered freedom to explore, think, and challenge ideas and concepts, and we’re intent on taking part in the conversations that will shape our tomorrow.”
And for the last year and a half I worked hard on embodying that statement. I sent emails at odd hours, edited feverishly after a long day’s work and late into the night, and spent my spare time squeezing out ideas for how I could growAreo and its reach. I published well thought out arguments and positions, and I published pieces which, looking back on them, I probably would not consider worthy again. It’s been a learning process for sure and I’ve met some wonderful people along the way.
I started Areo because I was frustrated; I was disappointed at what many outlets deemed to be intelligent criticism when in my view it was just a manifestation of base tribalism. One thing which perplexes me, even today, is that many hold their ideological opponents to higher standards than they hold their own group: It’s ok for us to behave poorly because we’re the good guys!
I thought I could do better. I thought people were in search of something else, a different voice, something that cut through the bullshit. Maybe I was naive (and maybe that’s what a lack of awareness feels like), but in my view you sometimes just have to put yourself out there and do something to make an impact. That something for me was Areo.
But today I’m announcing that I’m stepping away. Areo has consumed me for the past year and a half. And thinking about all the stuff you need to be aware of while running a current affairs magazine is — sometimes — very wearisome. Trying to keep up with the latest in the news cycle and publish positions accordingly is like running a marathon without an end. As soon as you think you’re nearing the 25 mile mark a sign tells you that there’s actually 25 more to run; as soon as one controversy is over another erupts. Some people are cut out for this type of work — they enjoy it. But the longer I’ve spent in this role and running on this track the easier it’s been for me to see that I’m not.
So while I say goodbye, and while I have your attention, I’d like to say a sincere thank you to Helen Pluckrose and Oliver Traldi for helping me with this project for the past 5–6 months. They’ve been a large part of this experience and without them I couldn’t have taken Areo to where it is today.
And then obviously there are all the writers who have written for me. To those who answered my eager emails in the early days of Areo to those who waited patiently while I took days to respond to their simple queries — without your words and skills Areo could not be where it is today.
And finally, of course, you, Areo readers, subscribers, and supporters. Without your eyeballs on your various screens, without your shares, likes, retweets, favorites, comments, and advocacy Areo could not have grown to the modest size it is now. Without you believing in what I was doing and the writers I was publishing I could not have accomplished what I’ve accomplished so far. So, thank you!
What comes next for Areo? Well there’s good news: Helen Pluckrose is taking over as Editor in Chief and Iona Italia is coming on board as an Assistant Editor. I trust you need no introduction to either of them, but if you need a refresher you can read Helen’s work here and Iona’s work here. I really am stepping away from Areo so I won’t have any editorial input. Helen and Iona will be in charge. What happens to Areo is up to them now — and you.
Which leads us to the issue of funding. As you know — or might not know — getting people to pay for content they find online, even when they find that content useful, is not easy. So far over 250 of you have decided to support me through Patreon. Today, I ask you to consider continuing to support Areo through its new Patreon account which Helen will run. I’ve put my money where my mouth is and have already joined as a supporter. I still think Areo’s voice has a place in the world of commentary and analysis writing so I hope you’ll join me in helping Areo to continue its growth under a different steward. You can start supporting Areohere.
What comes next for me? I don’t know. I’m only a minuscule fish in this big game of writers, editors, and publishers and for the most part I’m content with gnawing at the algae and floating around. Perhaps I’ll work on becoming a better writer, perhaps I won’t and I’ll just take a nice long break and just focus on being a normal 25 year old.
In my first few weeks of high school in Australia, I remember a classmate messaging me something inflammatory on MSN Messenger (the equivalent of AOL for Americans). Though I don’t recall the exact phrasing of it, I know it was akin to: “Go read the Koran you….” The message was particularly strange because it came from someone who pretended to be friendly towards me in our interactions during lunch breaks.
This is the transcript of my comments at the Post-Truth Initiative, which was hosted by the University of Sydney. I delivered them on November 20th, 2017 during a segment focusing on Truth and Power. Square brackets include clarifying context.
Power is often ill-defined when it relates to the truth. Some strains of philosophy and their intellectual offspring huddle together to claim that power controls the production of our discourse. That is, those in power have a monopoly on what a society considers true.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson, Audible, (March 31, 2015).
A fair few people know the case of Jonah Lehrer, a once popular up and coming author who populated best-seller lists with his pop psychology explainer books. Lehrer fell from grace to disgrace after journalist Michael Moynihan discovered that he had fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in his supremely popular Imagine: How Creativity Works. After a seven month whirlwind of events including Lehrer’s loss of status, credibility, and a growing infamy, Lehrer was offered the opportunity to speak at the Knight Foundation’s annual Media Learning Seminar for journalists. There, he decided, would be a good time to apologize for his misdeeds — which also included columns for the New Yorker in which he had recycled his language and words.
We find ourselves living in an age where free speech is considered by many as a concept that only right-wingers care about. “You think free speech is important?” I’m asked. When I respond, “Yes,” eyebrows are raised, shoulders tilt away, and through the forehead of my interlocutors I envision some panicked calculations in their minds: Is he a bigot or a Dinesh D’Souza 2.0? Maybe he’s not hateful or right-wing, he just doesn’t know how it’s used to disempower minorities. And then I’m left thinking: How did it come to be that free speech is seen in the mainstream as only a concept conservatives, demagogues, and right-wingers champion — and one no sane liberal or even left-leaning person could defend?
I first realized how good we are at pushing away the insignificance of our existence while creating a PowerPoint at 2:30 a.m. in a second-floor office in New York City with my colleague. I paused and mentioned to her then: “Is this what you want to be doing?” hinting, vaguely, at some grand philosophical questions. In a delirium of coffees and Turkish food and half a day of screen time, she smiled at me — and turned back to her computer. Why are you thinking about this stuff? her face had conveyed.
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker, Viking Penguin, (2002) 434 pages.
On Twitter, I once saw a cultural anthropologist refer to Steven Pinker’s toenails as “magical” when accosting an evolutionary psychologist who had angered him. Some time later, on another scroll session, I saw a sociologist and gender/ masculinity/ post-colonial theorist very politely say to another professor: “Hi Diana, I remember discussing my view that Evolutionary Psychology was more of a cult than a serious field of study. I was too generous then.”
Finding the exchanges quite funny, I began to ponder why many disciplines have such a disregard and contempt for the new sciences and its practitioners. Is it concern about the mainlining of racism and sexism from the academy into our culture, noble goals to be sure, or something else? It just so happened that I was halfway into Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate when I encountered these Twitter battles. Needless to say for those who’ve read the book, the exchanges reflected familiar patterns.
I know I’m behind the curve, Pinker’s book has been out for 15 years now and has probably been usurped by many other works that have tackled the same areas. So this is not really a conventional review, there have been many of those since the book was published. It is rather a small recap of a few ideas Steven Pinker laid out and how they are still relevant.
The book is, after a 60 or so tedious pages of more biological and neurological level explanations of the reasons humans have innate characteristics — denoting innate traits as probabilistic, importantly, not deterministic — an assault on ideas many people still hold in this world: The Blank Slate (The mind has no innate traits), The Noble Savage (society corrupts people; we are born pure, unselfish), and The Ghost in the Machine (a soul which exists independently of our biology). After showing these beliefs are not true, Pinker meticulously lays out why they were promulgated through the academy and have seeped into the mainstream and why many continue to cling onto them when most evidence points to the contrary.
I know of the omission of biological reasons for human behavior in some parts of the humanities and social sciences, but a large chunk of my wonder at this book was in discovering how bona fide scientists (or “radical scientists” as Pinker calls them) were responsible for ignoring and obfuscating the results from the new sciences and the mistreatment of its participants. For example, Stephen Jay Gould whom I considered a stalwart of popular science, took part in a campaign with Richard Lewontin to discredit E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology by lumping Wilson in with eugenicists and social darwinists. Pinker also tells us of the anthropologist Margaret Mead — the same person who said something as uplifting as “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” — consciously neglecting the effects of genes on human behavior and denigrating the proponents of the new sciences, but telling her daughter in private that she credited her own intellectual talents to her genes. The protests, slanders, and libels Pinker reports by activists and scholars that were heaped onto individuals who dared to explore the roots of human nature are, read a decade and a half later, as disturbing as they are prophetic.
What was the impetus for these actions from otherwise educated individuals and (radical) scientists? One can speculate. A charitable understanding is because they feared (and their disciples today fear) perpetuating inequality. Pinker wrote on this point:
“To acknowledge human nature, many think, is to endorse racism, sexism, war, greed, genocide, nihilism, reactionary politics, and neglect of children and the disadvantaged.”
And, because, as Pinker puts it after informing his reader that the new sciences picked the worst decades to come into fruition:
“Rather than detach the moral doctrines from the scientific ones, which would ensure that the clock would not be turned back no matter what came out of the lab and field, many intellectuals, including some of the world’s most famous scientists, made every effort to connect the two.”
This is a tricky area and frankly I’m surprised that Pinker’s name has remained untainted after the publication of his ideas. Acknowledging human nature today, from sex differences, violence, mating, human potential, and genocide seems like a sure path towards slurs of “academic racist/sexist,” and the belief that you’re trying to justify inequality. But I suppose his reputation is a testament to how careful he was in rebutting every fallacy and gut reaction that one might have from accepting human nature — and showing us that rejecting it can actually lead to policies and concepts which further propagate suffering.
I did share some concerns with the radical scientists, though: If nurture is nearly not as responsible for human behavior as people assume, doesn’t this leave us with a deterministic view of society — where we accept violence and warfare as intrinsic to humanity? People deserve to be wherever they end up? And won’t this view lead to nefarious and ill-gotten pseudo-justifications of superiority and a dangerous slippery-slope?
But Pinker handles these knee-jerk reactions by showing that industrial-scale atrocities can occur from believing we are Blank Slates as well. They are not the domain of one ideology; as Pinker notes: “though both Nazi and Marxist ideologies led to industrial-scale killing, their biological and psychological theories were opposites.”
Take the Nazis: A leader gains power and implements a plan to decimate an entire population whom he believes is conspiring against his people, and because he considers his “race” to be genetically superior. One might pause here, perhaps like the radical scientists and their followers did, and ask: “Well, isn’t it better to believe and enforce that we are all the same? To deter these things from ever happening again?” Pinker then offers his rebuttal: Mao and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, who exterminated far more than Hitler did, explicitly endorsed the Blank Slate view of humanity. Believing that all individuals are born equal in tendencies, traits, and talents leaves an adherent of this view to wonder why is it exactly that some do better than others. Class, hidden wealth, cheating, scheming, etcetera are all answers offered in response. Those who were believed to be bourgeoisie carried a permanent stigma in post-revolutionary regimes and were persecuted for being “rich peasants” and privileged.
This is why non-communist intellectuals, the educated classes, and the bourgeoisie were so severely targeted — and often sent to the Killing Fields. Because of the belief that they were reaping privileges not afforded to their countrymen. According to historian Paul Johnson writing on the Khmer Rouge in Modern Times: A History of the World From the 1920s to the Year 2000,
“There was to be ‘total social revolution.’ Everything about the past was ‘anathema and must be destroyed.’ It was necessary to ‘psychologically reconstruct individual members of society.’ It entailed ‘stripping away, through terror and other means, the traditional bases, structures and forces which have shaped and guided an individual’s life’ and then rebuilding him according to party doctrines by substituting a new series of values.’”
To Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge’s system, society had been corrupted and had to be rebuilt. Consider their slogan implying that it is learned culture that infects us — and that we are born pure (the Noble Savage):
“Only the newborn baby is spotless.”
Given all this, I should hope the question of “Why is this book still relevant?” begins to answer itself. Ideas related to the Blank Slate are still pushed out in our popular culture, media, and even policy. From parenting, to the results of sex-differences in life, to violence, Pinker points out that many notions that society holds as true are contrasted by discoveries in fields such as behavioral genetics. From his preface:
“I first had the idea of writing this book when I started a collection of astonishing claims from pundits and social critics about the malleability of the human psyche: that little boys quarrel and fight because they are encouraged to do so; that children enjoy sweets because parents use them as a reward for eating vegetables; that teenagers compete in looks and fashion from spelling bees and academic prizes; that men think the goal of sex is an orgasm because of the way the were socialized. The problem is not just that these claims are preposterous but that the writers did not acknowledge they were saying things that common sense might call into question. This is the mentality of a cult, in which fantastical beliefs are flaunted as proof of one’s piety.”
Today, if one looks around, similar beliefs which abrogate our shared human nature and attribute our actions to culture, socialization, and society are plenty. The belief that only by representing men and women in equal parts in all fields can we cure sexism. The belief that it is our society which shapes what we find attractive. The belief that good parenting can control nearly all facets of how a child turns out. The belief that violence is learned. The belief that image and media representations construct our reality (and the only way to break that control is to fight back with representation).
The chapter titled “The Arts” was particularly refreshing. I have walked through both the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Louvre in Paris. Only one of these museums left me questioning if I just could not see the merits of its exhibits, or if I simply wasn’t appreciative enough of the theory or artistic intent behind the pieces.
I note my visits not to brag but to mention that I wish I’d read Pinker’s words, “The postmodernists equating of images with thoughts has not only made a hash of several scholarly disciplines but has laid waste to the world of contemporary art,” before I’d taken a stroll inside the MOMA. Change images and what is represented, and change thoughts, some artistic movements think. But Pinker offers this as a contrast:
“Once we recognize what modernism and postmodernism have done to the elite arts and humanities, the reasons for their decline and fall become all too obvious. The movements are based on a false theory of human psychology, the Blank Slate. They fail to apply their most vaunted ability — stripping away pretense — to themselves. And the take they fun out of art!”
I can hear the savants cringing already. But what Pinker points out is that human beings have specific, universal (and not culturally) limited tastes for what we consider admirable. No amount of theory explaining why and how hegemonic power structures dictate what society controls as “beauty” is apt for describing why I or many others find some modern art… bland.
It strikes me as troubling that there are still those of us who are willing to believe that it is mostly culture and society which shape the individual — and that by focusing only on fixing our systems can we alleviate human suffering. On the contrary, we need a fuller understanding of human nature in all its details. What is more concerning is that this book came out 15 years ago and yet we are still bogged down in the conversations that Pinker spent a considerable time in rebutting (the Penguin version is about 430 pages of text).
Though long (and old), The Blank Slate is important reading for anyone who does not want to live in a fantasy world. One where the only engine powering human behavior is society while millions of years of evolution are discounted because they at times offer some truths that are often misconstrued as inconvenient. Human nature and our behavior are wondrous and fascinating subjects, and we cannot get to their core if we reject vast amounts of replicable findings about their genetic and evolutionary components.
In 1979, after the Islamic Revolution of Iran, more than a hundred thousand woman took to the streets to protest the compulsory veiling that was to be enforced under the new Khomeini regime.Mothers, nurses, and students — women from all walks of life — gathered to voice their displeasure at the new policy. But the protests were marred by violence. A group of devout men opposed the stance of the objectors and proceeded to stab some of its female participants after they refused to stand down.
How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions by Francis Wheen, Harper Perennial, (2004) 312 pages.
Post-truth, post-fact, post-reality. You don’t need a lengthy introduction on the state of the world. You just need to take a look around: A man who wavers between imbecile and potential despot sits in the highest office of the land; the far-left in the academy enjoys titillating itself with concepts of postmodernity; the GOP engages in a demagogic post-truthiness, while its black sheep of a relation (first name “alt”) is busy sending the mainstream media into tizzies by co-opting “OK” signs as white supremacist on 4chan, making memes, and blaming Jews for everything.
I am a minority and I prohibit you from culturally appropriating my native culture. I was born in India, thus, I prohibit you from stealing my culture, eating any foods that are representative of that region and engaging in mypractices. But wait I have a reason. I have several: Since the British colonized, destroyed, and brutalized us for centuries, since they stole our dishes, customs, and foods and there is a long history of oppression of my people, you should respect our perpetual marginalization. And you brazenly engaging in my traditions subverts the struggles of those actually ingrained in them — like me.