Steven Pinker on How Taboos on What We Let Ourselves Think and Say Can Steer Us Wrong

Steven Pinker, in The Stuff of Thought, pp. 435, writes:

We can also be diverted from the brightly lit world of reality by the emotions infusing our language. The automatic punch of emotionally laced words can fool us into thinking that the words have magical powers rather than being arbitrary conventions. And the taboos on thinking and speaking that shield our personal relationships from the mutual knowledge that might break their spell can leave us incapacitated as we try to deal with problems at the unprecedented scale of a modern society. Scientific findings that seem to challenge authority or threaten social solidarity, from Copernican astronomy to evolutionary biology, have been shushed as if they were social faux pas, or condemned as if they were personal betrayals. And problems screaming for technical fixes, such as the American Social Security system, remain third rails that would electrocute any politician who touched them. Opponents can frame any solution as “putting a price on the welfare of our elderly citizens” (or our children, or our veterans), activating a taboo mentality that has a place in our dealings with family and friends but not in making policy for a nation of three hundred million people.