Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist and one of the world’s foremost writers on language, mind, and human nature. Currently Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Pinker has also taught at Stanford and MIT. His research on vision, language, and social relations has won prizes from the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, and the American Psychological Association. He has also received eight honorary doctorates, several teaching awards at MIT and Harvard, and numerous prizes for his books The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Better Angels of Our Nature. He is Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and often writes for The New York Times, Time, and other publications. He has been named Humanist of the Year, Prospect magazine’s “The World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals,” Foreign Policy’s “100 Global Thinkers,” and Time magazine’s “The 100 Most Influential People in the World Today.”
Question: What is America’s role in the world?
Pinker: If the United States has some role in spreading the values that we associate with the enlightenment – like tolerance, and reason, and skepticism and so on – then it clearly can’t hold itself as a . . . as exceptional. It can’t say that there’s something uniquely special about the United States because it’s the United States and _________ anyone else to take that seriously. In doing so, that would be immediately contradicting the very idea that it would be nice to spread – namely that no entity is special by virtue of being that entity. It’s got to make its case to other entities that ________ are considered to be equal partners in the conversation. So while I think it’s okay to say for the United States and other liberal democracies to say, “We found a system that works. Here’s why it works. Here’s what’s good about it,” they can’t do it by virtue . . . by saying, “We’re going to impose it because we’re us and we can do that.” Those two ideas are in contradiction. The whole advantage of liberal democracy is that you make your case not because of who you are, but because you’ve got a good case and you can persuade others. And you don’t privilege your own vantage point over theirs.