We just spent a year writing and publishing calculatedly terrible papers in academic journals that look at aspects of identity – gender studies, fat studies, feminist geography, masculinity studies, sex and sexuality studies, feminist philosophy, feminist epistemology. This is not some obscure academic squabble. This is about something that affects us all. This is about culture.
Nearly all of us see symptoms of the problem. We see an increasing disregard for evidence and objectivity in favour of emotionally resonant narratives. We are becoming accustomed to the idea that people with different identities (eg female, homosexual, black) have different knowledges and experiences that only they can speak to authoritatively. We see an authoritarian focus on language as being dangerous and in need of careful regulation as something that inflicts harm and violence. We see the proliferation of terms like “toxic masculinity”, “white fragility”, and “microaggressions”, and we know we must avoid being tarred with those brushes.
Few people know the genesis of these ideas. They came from academic papers. They came from articles very much like ours.
Of 20 papers we submitted, seven were accepted, six we deemed unworkable and a further seven were in various stages of the submission process when the project was discovered.
Our papers claim that dog parks are rape-condoning spaces and that by observing the reactions of dog-owners to “unwanted humping” among dogs, we can determine that a human rape culture is deeply ingrained in men who could benefit from being trained like dogs. They investigate why heterosexual men enjoy the company of attractive and scantily-clad female servers in a restaurant and conclude it’s so they can live out fantasies of patriarchal domination. They ponder why heterosexual men rarely self-penetrate their anuses with sex-toys and advocate doing so in order to become less transphobic and more feminist.
Do you see a pattern? Although the papers we wrote scanned many subdisciplines of identity-based studies, by far the greatest uptake was of the ones which argued (on purely theoretical, subjective, and unfalsifiable grounds) that heterosexual masculinity is toxic, abusive, and thoroughly problematic. This perfectly comports with the rhetoric coming from feminist journals as aptly demonstrated by Suzanna Danuta Walters, editor-in-chief of the storied feminist journal Signs, when she asked the world in the Washington Post, why can’t we hate men?
In addition to the problematic nature of men’s attraction to women, we also published a rambling poetic exploration of feminist spirituality generated largely from a teenage angst generator which we hypothesised would be acceptable as an alternative, female “way of knowing”. That paper was purely silliness, and the journal a minor one. We took our experimentation with the idea that we could make anything at all fit some kind of popular “theory” to the limits when we successfully published a section of Mein Kampf as intersectional feminism. We denied objective knowledge about morbid obesity too: we argued this serious health problem represents a body just as legitimately built as a finely honed muscular one. We see the impact of this dangerous narrative in activism to prevent the provision of health advice around body-weight.
This is not scholarship. In simplest terms, this is the explicit replacement of rigorous evidence-based research and reasoned argument with appeals to lived experience and a neurotic focus on the power of language to create social reality. This originated with post-modernists like Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jacques Derrida, and was made explicitly political by a new generation of scholars who applied it in the fields we’ve called “grievance studies”. In our flagship paper (rather cheekily named “When The Joke Is On You”), we took this attitude as far as it would go and (ironically) applied it to ourselves and our own project. Our argument: all satire of “Social Justice” scholarship is illegitimate and merely an attempt to selfishly preserve privilege. The reviewers of Hypatia informed us that this constituted “an excellent addition to feminist philosophy”.
While this is deeply troubling, the problem is not confined to the academy. These ideas are produced and legitimised in academia and given the status of knowledge via publication in peer-reviewed journals. This affords them power to influence education, activism, media, culture, and policy. One could think of this as a kind of “idea laundering’” through the university, in which opinions and prejudices can be validated by scholarly journals and come out looking like legitimate knowledge. The trouble is if this scholarship cannot be trusted, the consequences affect all of us – particularly those groups it purports to help.
We did this project because we think it matters. It matters that we study issues of identity, and it matters how we study them. It matters that scholarship is rigorous and non-ideological. Social justice cannot be advanced by shoddy, unsubstantiated truth claims and ideologically-biased agendas. It therefore matters that we put finding truths, whatever they are, ahead of ideology, however well-intended. We need solutions that work, and this is more likely if they are firmly tethered to reality.
These disciplines and the institutions that support them need to be reformed. However, more importantly, we, the people outside the academy and yet affected by its knowledge production, have to be aware of the problems with the scholarship, educational methods, and activism that depend upon these fields. What needs to change is the presumption that this work speaks for the people it claims to, including liberals, women, and racial and sexual minorities. It does not, and risking being called bigoted for pointing this out is worth it.
Helen Pluckrose is the editor of Aero Magazine, to which James A. Lindsay is also a contributor. You can read a full account of the experiment on the site here.