• Jacqueline Leighton

So I chose Noam Chomsky for a reason

Updated: Jul 5, 2021

The development video of the month is none other than the great Noam Chomsky. He is a linguist and has contributed more consequentially to the discipline psychology than many others who are in fact psychologists. I normally introduce Chomsky in graduate seminars as one of individuals who essentially changed the course of psychology by challenging some of the logical tenets of behaviourism. It is not necessarily the case that "he brought down behaviourism" but he did present a logical argument for why key aspects of behaviourism simply did not make sense. Back in the day, this logical argument resonated with many and alongside other contextual variables, began to erode the iron grip that behaviourists had over the study of human beings. Incredible how logic works that way. In any case, the famous paper was published in 1959 in the journal Language.

The reason why this particular Chomsky video - The Responsibility of Intellectuals - is so relevant to us today is precisely because he discusses the responsibility to think critically, question authority (if you can), and engage your logical capacities! We all have such abilities but especially academics given our academic freedom, we have a responsibility to challenge and question dogma. Dogma does not simply emanate from the lips of government officials but it can also emanate from the media, and of course other academics and university administrators, many of whom may wish to toe the line. If some of these individuals truly believe what they are supporting, then as Chomsky would recommend, they should not be afraid to answer questions or engage in debate about the underlying logic of their ideas.

As the world evaluates how governments, medical authorities and pundits have presented, discussed and handled the pandemic crisis, including the many actions taken against children (with respect to school shutdowns) and others in vulnerable of positions, I watch how intellectuals at universities (i.e., the academic classes) will respond. For the past 15 months, it has appeared to me that anything uttered that questioned the party line from governments and other pundits was met with rebuke. This is not to say that how this societal problem was handled by governments and health officials was necessarily bad, but it is interesting to watch how smart people with questions can be silenced in the name of the "public good." For example, I do not think one has to be virologist to ask for data about whether the efficacy of a lockdown is working as intended. I do not want to enter an era of group think. We need to be mindful to tolerate different perspectives and welcome questions even when those perspectives contrast our own. Logic and good data should still be the criteria by which we judge the soundness of arguments and positions that affect us all. Hopefully reminding ourselves of Chomsky will help us realize that academics are in a privileged position to voice questions and dissenting thoughts. In fact, it is part of our societal responsibility.