Last week three academics published a paper in Areo magazine. Their write-up begins ominously enough — “something has gone wrong in the University” — and proceeds to sketch out a familiar picture: The left has taken over and destroyed the humanities, leftists’ work isn’t scientific, it’s politically-motivated, they bully Universities into promoting their agenda, it’s all based on ideology. It’s all turned to shit. You won’t believe what they’ll publish.
Our three heroic protagonists are here to save us: Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian. Three academics concerned only (of course) with the poor state of research in fields that they don’t work in. After a year of work, the blazing success of their counter-offensive may as well had the full scale ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner.
The gambit was simple: They’d write papers of such obvious awfulness that any member of the public would be horrified to even see the titles, and get them published deep in enemy territory. Journals of the hard-core identitarian left. Journals about ‘decolonising’ history. Journals about activist feminism. Journals about poetry therapy. You can hear the world’s eyes narrowing all at once.
Their papers would whip together some hacky understanding of contemporary humanities lingo, a sense of how to gather literature in a topic, and how to torture a cheap political point. Which, to be fair, is as good a method as most of us academics get. Of the papers that got accepted, the two getting the most chortles among the sensible media dad juntas of Twitter are ‘An Ethnography of Breastaurant Masculinity: Themes of Objectification, Sexual Conquest, Male Control, and Masculine Toughness in a Sexually Objectifying Restaurant’ (Translated: “We went to Hooters”) and “Going in Through the Back Door: Challenging Straight Male Homohysteria and Transphobia through Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use.”
It takes only a few seconds for your questions to bubble up. They mention some papers got rejected. They decry the politics of the ‘identitarian’ left but go in hard with a political mission. They use names of the fields they’re targeting interchangeably and confusingly, then they give them a new name: Grievance Studies. But put all that aside, who doesn’t like a good hoax? We love a good hoax! We can even give it a chunky hashtag, #SokalSquared (a reference to the infamous Sokal Affair, the original iteration of “making academic journals look silly by having them publish a silly thing.”)
Three intrepid academics just perpetrated a giant version of the Sokal Hoax, placing scores of fake papers in major academic journals. Call it Sokal Squared.— Yascha Mounk (@Yascha_Mounk) October 3, 2018
The result is hilarious and delightful. It also showcases a serious problem with big parts of academia.
Is there any idea so outlandish that it won't be published in a Critical/PoMo/Identity/"Theory" journal? Helen Plucrose et al. submitted a dozen hoax papers to find out. https://t.co/TTDLuIQN9p via @areomagazine— Steven Pinker (@sapinker) October 3, 2018
I'll say it, bluntly. The grievance study disciplines are fraudulent to the core, intellectually, scientifically and ethically. And the core disciplines of the humanities are disappearing down the same rabbit hole. https://t.co/ltKhYIIlu8— Jordan B Peterson (@jordanbpeterson) October 5, 2018
Those useless left humanities academics have been duped again, it’s another win for rigorous, rational liberalism! Writing for Mother Jones, Kevin Drum begged us not to forget this incredible revelation, and demand change from the academy. In the Atlantic, Yascha Mounk concludes “we can’t ignore the uncomfortable truth these hoaxers have revealed.”
You’d expect a huge range of defensive responses from the humanities academic milieu, but the more looking I did, the more resigned and sad people seemed. The plain fact is, the war against the humanities was won decades ago. In Reagan’s time, conservative student groups monitored left-wing staff for making any anti-American statements in the classroom. Thatcher did the same in the UK. Firings for saying the wrong thing were routine then, and they’re routine now. David Horowitz famously capped off decades of right-wing activism on campuses with the 2006 book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. The conservative Turning Point USA, drawing funding from Republican power structures and donors, follows the same old model; watch for any sign of left politics on campus, put it on a watchlist, deny you did anything wrong. Jordan Peterson famously tried the same move, and denied it was political. How’s that for collective unconscious?
The plain fact is, the war against the humanities was won decades ago.
The seething venom from the powerful right-wing for anybody that looks like they own a paperback by a French philosopher is not really aimed at the campus itself, though. Like the very public mocking of ‘safe spaces’ (did you know these basically don’t exist?) or turning one tiny student union experimenting with alternative clapping techniques into a crisis, the real campus is just a staging ground for the war that’s raging over the fantasy of the long-dead University. Milo Yiannopoulos has to be invited to burp out the n-word at your school, you see — otherwise that’s censorship. The adjunct professor who protested the demolition of Palestinian homes? Yeah, we bricked her up in her office. Don’t ask again.
Universities have been able to close down most of the programs specializing in what we used to call ‘high theory’ (a better term than Grievance Studies, I’d say), even when they were well-run and popular. Even when they made money. It became suspiciously cool, suspiciously fast for humanities academics to admit they hated reading the classics of left-wing cultural studies. It’s no exaggeration to say most now don’t do it at all — or it’s treated as a vestigial limb. Many of us now working in these places will readily admit — some things have survived to be genuinely better. Fewer cult movements around feverish writers, and more tactical work around big social needs. Great.
But so, so much is vastly worse. Waves of very political budget cuts, very political interference, and workplace regulation regimes that chase away talented people and keep the academy distant, disempowered, and limp. Academic journals are a industrial model of publication run by huge indifferent corporations mostly using the free labor of grad students. For some, you pay hundreds to publish yourself. Or you pay hundreds to have your work in public.
Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian will tell you that the crisis in the humanities they’ve ginned up is very current and real, but things get real curious when you scratch the surface. Jason Wilson’s piece in the Guardian from March outlines how the right-wing outrage machine draws in media hucksters and funds right-wing campus activists alike. In that piece, Boghossian is quoted as saying that the target of his hoaxes is “all disciplines infected by postmodernism, and women’s studies and gender studies in particular.” That’s right — hoaxes, plural. Last year, Boghossian and Lindsay employed the same tactic with a fake paper that argued the penis is less of a physical organ than it is something “a social construct isomorphic to performative toxic masculinity.”
Sensing a theme yet? Their long-running, multi-year media circus, based upon a deeply-held well... grievance, resonates with the broadly-held suspicions that some of the stuff that happens on campus is a bit crap — and anything remotely feminist comes first. Because looking around at the world in late 2018, gender doesn’t seem to be any kind of problem for anybody.
But — and I say this confidently — nobody in the humanities actually reads journals the way they do in science. You search journal databases by keywords. You read one paper from a new journal issue. You use what works. You skip over the paper that’s obviously rushed. You know that, in many areas, much more effort goes into book chapters. You know that some journals barely peer-review at all. This includes science journals, where hoaxes have also been perpetrated.
The hoaxers know all of this very well; they’re anything but stupid. The goal is plainly obvious: They don’t want these fields to exist. They want them off campus. One of the weirdest and most telling parts of their manifesto lament the influence of Robin DiAngelo’s ‘white fragility’ concept which has moved from academic work, into several books, and has found its way into street protests and activist movements. They warn against doing useless work, but definitely don’t make popular work either.
Besides, if there’s a crisis in the humanities, everything else is on fire. Science’s emerging ‘replication crisis’ — the inability for many academic scientific results to be repeated — is monstrous in scope and consequence. Huge chunks of economics work are bought and paid for to support the status quo. The hits keep on coming.
uh oh! pic.twitter.com/rT7wnS6VOh— 🎃Anthony Scary-mucci🎃 (@itsbirdemic) October 4, 2018
The humanities are still a real ten-ton headache for the right. Despite the vanity of the few surviving true believers, the real threat is from each year’s incoming students. They want to study pop culture, they want to study film, they want to study videogames (God forbid), they still want to study literature and poetry and paint — and yes, they want to study gender. More than many inclined to left activism on campus even know. Students want answers in a disintegrating world. They want what ideas about race and class and gender can provide. Amongst it all, they often want something punchy and threatening — something useful.