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Richard Dawkins interviews John McWhorter on linguistics and “woke racism” – Why Evolution Is True

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Here Richard Dawkins interviews linguist and author John McWhorter, a person familiar to readers of this site. And most of the 54-minute discussion is about linguistics.

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It’s refreshing to hear McWhorter’s enthusiasm for linguistics, and this bit of the discussion goes from the start of the interview until about 37 minutes in. It’s sad that McWhorter has, by his own admission, been more or less drummed out of the fraternity of academic linguists because of his heterodox views on racism. I’m sure, based on this interview alone, that he was a terrific teacher.

At any rate, McWhorter explains why he began studying linguistics (it involves Hebrew), how many times he thinks language originated (McWhorter thinks just once, though he’s not convinced that this is supported by the existence of a “universal grammar” or universal “recursion”: subordinate phrases embedded within phrases). Rather, McWhorter is convinced of a single origin of language by parsimony alone. As to when it originated, McWhorter makes rather unconvincing arguments (criticized by Richard) that Homo erectus could use syntactic language; he’s on more solid ground when he thinks that Africans, because of evidence of their mental sophistication, used language around 300,000 years ago.

They discuss evidence that the FOXP2 gene was implicated in origin of language, and McWhorter is accurate in saying that this theory hasn’t worked out, though he believes, along with Steve Pinker, that the ability to use syntactic language is encoded in our genome.

The discussion of “woke racism” (the title of McWhorter’s well known book, which was originally “The Elect”) begins at 36:40.  Dawkins moves the discussion into why McWhorter considers woke racism a “religion”, even though there are no supernatural beings involved. I’m not particularly concerned whether one conceives of progressive racial activism as an ideology or a religion, for it seems a semantic question. To me the more interesting questions are the characteristics of the movement (Does it promote irrationality? Is it disconnected from reality? Does it promote “safe spaces”, which McWhorter sees as a religious concept?)

The discussion moves to the question of why you are considered black (or claim you are black) if you have any black ancestors, which leads to McWhorter’s assertion that we have to go beyond race as a personal identity.

The discussion finishes with McWhorter pushing back on the “defenestration” of figures like Thomas Jefferson because they were either slaveholders or didn’t denigrate slavery. He sees this demonization as “pernicious for education”, although he agrees that some extreme versions of racism (e.g., Woodrow Wilson) warrants taking down statues or erasing names. And what, he muses, will demonize us to our descendants.

It’s a very good discussion, I think, and shows McWhorter’s passion, eloquence, and thoughtfulness.

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Since McWhorter mentions Jamaican patois as a form of English that isn’t recognizable as English, I wanted to hear some of it, so I’ve put the video showing such patois below.

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h/t: Williams Garcia

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