“I fear for the future of the humanities,” said scholar Helen Pluckrose. As should any reasonable individual.
Pluckrose and her colleagues Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay spent the last year deliberately writing fake research papers – making absurd conclusions backed by shoddy scholarship wrapped in fashionable jargon – and submitting them to prestigious peer-reviewed journals in disciplines including cultural studies, gender studies and queer studies. An alarming seven of their articles were accepted and equally as many are in the midst of the peer-review process. One such paper, arguing that dog-humping incidents can be taken as evidence of rape culture, was officially honored as excellent scholarship and placed in the 25th anniversary edition of “Gender, Place and Culture,” a journal which in recent months published works from professors at UCLA, Penn State and the University of Manchester, among many others.
What inspired them to do this? In the late 1990s, Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, successfully submitted a paper to an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies, arguing that “quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct.” His motive was to test whether a leading North American journal would publish an article “liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.” What came to be known as the Sokal Affair sparked debates regarding the influence of postmodern philosophy on social disciplines. Postmodern discourse is so meaningless, some argued, that not even “experts” can distinguish between people who make sincere claims and those who compose deliberate gibberish. Many years later, Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian engineered Sokal Squared – the original hoax on a much larger scale. The results are disturbing, to say the least.
What is postmodern theory? And how did it result in this ideological corruption of the humanities? Simply put, postmodernism sees the culture as a web of perpetually competing identities. As Pluckrose explained, “We see in Foucault the most extreme expression of cultural relativism read through structures of power in which shared humanity and individuality are almost entirely absent. Instead, people are constructed by their position in relation to dominant cultural ideas either as oppressors or oppressed.” A key tenet of postmodernism is intersectionality, the idea that human interaction arises not from an individual’s behavior but entirely due to the social group to which he or she belongs, although this is probably not what the scholar who came up with the idea, Kimberlé Crenshaw, intended for it to become.
This form of thinking, as journalist Chloé S. Valdary pointed out, has led to the condemnation of what some refer to as “whiteness,” a pathology that has come to serve as a stand-in for everything from exploitation to abuse to colonization to anything that is bad and malicious in human history. Writer Sarah Haider elaborated, “Just as ‘whiteness’ is often used in the place of what was formerly known as ‘white privilege,’ ‘white’ is increasingly used as a dog-whistle for ‘white supremacist.’ The focus of the derision shifts from the sin (supremacy/privilege) to the sinner (whites).”
Under this garb of intersectionality, nefarious ideas are being peddled into the mainstream. One of the papers written by Pluckrose et. al advocated for college professors to enact forms of “experiential reparations,” to redress the “privilege” of white students, telling them to stay silent in class, or even binding them to the floor in chains. As professor Yascha Mounk pointed out, “This demonstrates the extent to which these disciplines are willing to license discrimination to serve ostensibly progressive goals.”
Another pernicious tenet of postmodern theory is the abandonment of objective science and reason, a Lyotardian privileging of “lived experience” over empirical evidence. Foucauldian critics believe that “all knowledge, being socially constructed, has no objective validity.” What results is the rise of movements like #ScienceMustFall led by progressive students in South Africa, which argues that science – a “product of Western modernity” – should be scrapped in favor of black magic. In a world where anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers continue to persist, the legitimization of such anti-scientific ideologies is seriously harmful.
So deeply is postmodern thought ingrained in certain disciplines of the humanities that they can’t help but view the world from any other lens. What has resultingly emerged is a mono-culture of thought where only certain conclusions are acceptable, and dissenters dare not speak up. I’ve sat in an English class at the University of Massachusetts and witnessed in silence the reduction of “Pride and Prejudice” to “a poster child for misogyny” and that of “The Catcher in the Rye” to “the rantings of a privileged white male.” In such classrooms, there prevails an underlying atmosphere that outlaws disagreement, an unspoken dictum that certain ideas are beyond critique.
Liberalism and the principles of Enlightenment which form the backbone of American universities are being forgotten. Universities must reflect upon the scholarship being conducted in these “grievance studies” departments and reboot the conversations away from the deliberate problematization of every minute aspect of culture toward a more rigorous, open-minded approach. It is imperative that we do so since the alternative, of which Sokal Squared gave us a meager glimpse, is detrimental. Take it from someone who grew up in an education system where points were docked for not quoting the textbook verbatim. I came to the United States because I wanted to spend my formative university years rigorously thinking, not mindlessly memorizing, exploring and challenging ideas, not regurgitating stale grievances.
Bhavya Pant is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]