Negative Responses to TOL

This post serves as an appendix to Who speaks for us? Lessons from the Pinker letter.

Content Warning: This appendix contains explicit and implicit references to acts of violence and to historical authoritarian regimes.


On July 1, 2020, an open letter was drafted.
On July 3, 2020, it was circulated for signatures.
Within hours, it was highlighted by detractors with hundreds of thousands of followers.

In the following days and weeks, both the letter's anonymous authors and its public supporters received a wide range of responses.
Some of these responses were quite negative, and enough were considered harmful that a group of linguists who were not signatories to the open letter wrote a second letter, privately on Facebook, to "express [their] strongest possible disapproval" of the "torrent of on-line abuse and contempt launched at the writers and signers of the letter on social media, including unsolicited emails sent to signers by people they do not know."

After hearing about this "torrent of on-line abuse", we posted on both Twitter and Facebook, soliciting examples of any negative feedback that signatories or supporters had received or seen posted online that they would care to anonymously share with us.

This post serves as an illustration of just a small amount of the examples that were sent to us or that were able posted publicly online, examples of the reactions that signatories and supporters (and others) received.
Some of it may be surprising, some will not be.
Some of it may be extreme, some is not.

For further context, analysis, and discussion, see <link to paper>.

As a rule, the names of posters and the names of linguists who shared messages they received have been obscured.
Each image is accompanied by a quotation of the text they contain.
The original spelling is intact, all is [sic]; any changes are in square brackets.
Red underlining added.

From sources who have identified themselves as linguists:

Public comments on Barbara Partee's response (both publicly on Facebook and on Medium)

"Thank you, Barbara for saving the decency of our field. I don't think one's opinion on this matter should have anything to do with what one thinks of Pinker's Research. As you point out, it's very difficult to sustain the reading of the tweets endorsed by the letter writers. I'm deeply, deeply disturbed by the fact that so few of our colleagues caught up with this. A sad testament to the scholarship and future of this discipline."

"Fully agree. This was quite shocking and disappointing to see some of the colleague's names listed in the open letter to the LSA. I hope that more of the signatures are fake…"

"Thank you Barbara, for being a voice of reason in this shameful affair. As I have noted elsewhere, the letter serves no purpose other than to present me with a list of people (some of whom I still like) who longer merit my respect. I'm sad for that, but hope that some of them might one day come to regret having signed it."

"I'm also sad that some of my good friends signed this letter, if, indeed they did."

"Thanks for posting this Barbara. I'm neither American nor a member of the LSA, but I look on with horror as the burgeoning cancel culture seems to be trying to emulate the worst excesses of the former USSR and other similar regimes.
"I do think however that it's important to separate the general issue of freedom of speech from the specifics of what Pinker may or may not have said (or subtly implied by means of "dog whistles"). I would argue that even if (pace your detailed arguments) Pinker were indeed guilty of having said all the nasty things he is being accused of, the correct response would be not to silence him but rather to counter his statements with reasoned argumentation. I.e. more speech not less."

An account from the letter writers

"When [a prominent linguist] discovered he was falsely signed, he initially asked us to take him off the list as he considered the letter, which we were happy to do. (we were, of course, just as surprised and upset as he was that trolls started signing as actual linguists! We probably should've anticipated that). But, then [he] emailed again, three hours later, more angrily (again, that's reasonable), and cc'd the LSA leadership and Steven Pinker. Then, he asked us to identify ourselves to him (others had been doing this, including [another linguist] on Facebook). Since Pinker was cc'd, we assumed [the first linguist] would share our names with Steven Pinker too (at which point SP would probably tweet our names and throw us to the trolls). Some of the editors took [his] email to be a real, if accidental, threat. It's likely [he] didn't realize the level and number of violent threats we received, so he didn't realize that our anonymity is not just a matter of "honor" or transparency, losing it would have genuine emotional and physical repercussions for us, on top of potential career repercussions."

An email sent directly to a letter signatory

"You joined a lynch mob (and an ignorant one at that - although I suppose being ignorant is a lynch-pin of being in a lynch mob). I would have quite similar feelings (though more intense) were I to discover than one of my colleagues was a member of Aryan Nations of Nation of Islam. I will not "take a look" at anything in support of this witch-hunt-y exercise. You have the right to whatever you wish, but I will not (and need not) respect any part of this. That you cannot see this thing for what it is make me sad, only because I thought more of you prior. Don't worry about it. I still like you. You're a nice guy. I just don't respect you."

DM received re: an email sent directly to a non-signatory linguist

"In response to your tweet, I just thought I'd let you know that I did not sign the letter but I follow lots of people who have and indeed some the initiators of the letter. This was enough for a professor at my university to phone me (he very rarely does this) to ask whether I knew these people and to make clear that he strongly opposes this "cancel culture" (his words). Later on, he also DMed me this tweet: without any comment. So even without having signed the letter, the pressure is quite clear. The power structures are such that I am entirely dependent on this man for my future career so essentially I now feel that I cannot voice my opinion on this matter, and I'm guessing on other similar matters. I admire the ECR who have signed the letter. They are a lot braver than me."

From sources who have not identified themselves as linguists:

Responses to Claire Lehmann's original tweet

"Please list the 66 linguists and let's have some fun."
"They are going to you all off
One by one"

Emails sent directly to the letter writers

"The people who typed this text and who are doing this are disgusting cultists. All data shows that black are not killed more than white people when accounting for variables. A murder spree against six people is also not evidence of something specific going on in society, in that case you useless tools would say black people are overwhelmely racist against white people, since black people killing white people is about as common as white people killing white people. Are you as fucking useless at linguistics as you are at basic facts? No wonder you're jealous imbeciles in that case."

"You fucking racist asshats are on a crusade. Listen fuck face, first off you have no proof that it was racism that killed George and secondly black Americans males live in da hood and shoot the sit outta brothas walking their own children to school. Americas violence story is black on black, then black on white. We need to get your bitch asses on front street so we can deal proper with your racists lies. We do more than cancel your culture of racism, we bring my brothas who are the victims of brotha violence you're too much of a coward bitch to talk about cuz it aint got no boogyman when it's black on black and we going to publicly unhorse you in the most vile and humiliating way. Step up bitch cuz it's motherfucking gangsta time ~ we coming for you!!! Where you at bitches cuz we taking more than your job and reputation, we taking you down to China town for a last supper."

"Look at that list of over 600 libtard snowflakes.
"Fucking pussies you are!"
[attached: "nope, still don't feel guilty about being white…. thanks" meme]

Public comments on Barbara Partee's response (both publicly on Facebook and on Medium)

"There is much more to be said about the Salem Witch Trial campaign against Steven Pinker that is circulating on the internet. Many of us look forward to an exchange of views on the issues raised by Professor Pinker and his detractors in an appropriate venue. Professor Partee cuts through the obfuscation by explaining how this discussion might be organized: Professor Pinker "has done nothing that is inconsistent with the LSA's principles." This is the correct starting point from which to proceed."

"It is not enough to simply identify that this letter and its signatories were wrong in their accusations. There needs to be deterrence to prevent this type of thing from happening again in the future. For example: Write a public letter asking the LSA to deny membership to all signatories who do not sign a public letter retracting their accusations against Pinker, and explaining in detail why each of their accusations was incorrect. This will help prevent this dangerously irrational mob mentality from growing even larger, and set a precedent for others who are considering doing something similar in other fields. Note that these are mostly graduate students. Their generation is young and will have great influence in the future."

Public comments on Jerry Coyne's response

"What is utterly unsurprising in the Goebbelsian petition is the signatories themselves. Hundreds of unremarkable PHd candidates, activists and other low-status academic types. Our university machine is churning out too many unexceptional graduates (in areas precisely like linguistics) who cannot find productive/well paid work in their fields, so resort to bullying and greivance mongering to feel validated. Genuflecting to an impossible ideal of moral correctitude is also a way to advance themselves in their wildly left-leaning institutions. This is hateful, self-serving, political posturing. Nothing more. Fortunately they've ousted themselves - and we have their names - for when the pendulum swings the other way."
"Well written and explained. Also, now we have a new list of deplorable's that will never gain a single citation from myself"

"Just an idea, but if all of the signatories of the open letter are so eager to denounce people, might it be a reasonable idea to keep their list in mind and for other academics etc. to be wary of working with such people - 1) so they don't get "knifed" for some supposedly offensive remark, 2) because the ridiculousness of the claims in the open letter do not speak well of the signatories' intellectual capabilities, and mainly 3) to dissuade people from making public denunciations?"

An email sent directly to a letter signatory

"If one is going to join in attacking a colleague, one should at least make sure it is done skillfully. The petition you signed against Steve Pinker is execrably researched, reasoned, and composed. Did you read the primary sources?
What an embarrassment it is to see the name "Yale University" on this petition. I hope that your colleagues never judge you as harshly and unfairly as you have judged Steve."

Posted on social media in response to Hadas Kotek

"That's you that is"

"so go ahead, sign your name to a manipulative, lying letter. make everyone know that youre another anti science none thinking person who doesnt even check sources."

"Bullshit. You should be ashamed of yourself."

"Bs. Not signing."
"yep, they take a quote from the nytime article about the data on police use of force, and completely leave off the end wher eit says the data shows its not racially biased. whole list of idiots signed their name to a lie and let the world know they cant even go read an article."

"Shame on you Hadas"

"he has a history of citing statistical facts to refute poor arguments made by illiterate activists. i don't even like pinker but anyone that signs this letter is mentally useless"

"Ok nazi"

"Fuck off."

"You're a piece of shit and you should be ashamed of yourself. I can't wait for this cancel culture bullshit to turn around back on you."

"You people are despicable.
"Defending freedom of inquiry and thought should be what you are doing. One day, they will come for your sorry asses when the whims of the day shift course.
"And nobody will feel sorry for you."

Other responses on social media

"In response to my tweet about the letter, someone who I don't know replied with a comment that mentioned some facts about actions in my past that they somehow dug up and appeared to disapprove of, and implied that they could act on them to 'cancel' me. I took this to be a threat from someone who took the time to research me beyond what is easily publicly available, which was alarming."

"How disappointing to find the name of a University of Alabama man on this list of intellectual Nazis."

( Made with Carrd )