If you have not yet heard about the so called “grievance studies hoax” — which went public in the last couple of months — then you probably soon will. This has dramatically put the spotlight on a particular area of academia which some believe has had and continues to have a profound adverse effect on modern society. Briefly stated, it provides evidence that the body of scholarship produced by that part of academia may be deeply flawed. Much of the scholarship in question is instrumental in motivating and informing contemporary social justice activism, which some see as misguided, divisive, and a threat to freedom and individual liberty.
The grievance studies hoax explained
To briefly explain the hoax — academics James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian spent a year submitting fictitious and intentionally nonsensical academic papers to respected journals in a group of subjects which the hoaxers collectively refer to as “grievance studies”. Not only were many of the hoax papers accepted for publication (or on track for publication) by well regarded journals within these fields, many were even praised for their notable contribution to scholarship. The term “grievance studies” — coined by the hoaxers — refers to a group of variously named subjects which all have a social orientation, such as gender studies, whiteness studies, fat studies, critical race theory, postcolonial studies, and queer theory, to name a few (Lindsay et al. “Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship”).
The papers the hoaxers submitted covered a variety of topics. For example one was a part of Hitler’s Mein Kampf rewritten using feminist terminology, another claimed that dog parks are “rape-condoning spaces and a place of rampant canine rape culture”, and another proposed that white students should be invited to wear chains for the duration of a course as a form of “experiential reparation”. As amusing as the hoax may be, what it demonstrates is severely disturbing. The entire academic world relies on the process of peer review which is a vitally important part of the process of ensuring the integrity of published work — which the hoaxers refer to as the “gold standard” for human knowledge. What the hoax showed — to put it simply — is that the experts who participate in the peer review process in these subjects not only accepted but also praised work which was nonsense according to those who created it. And the work the hoaxers created wasn’t just nonsense – it also included ideas and suggestions which should be deeply troubling to any reasonable person.
Past hoaxes and criticism of grievance studies
This is not the first such hoax — there have been a number in the past, and although this latest hoax is particularly illuminating it reinforces what many have believed for decades. The grievance studies scholarship has been frequently criticized for its rejection of the proven principles of evidence, reasoning, critical thinking and clarity — instead embracing fashionable but heavily criticized ideologies such as postmodernism and Marxism and employing a writing style which resists understanding. The hoaxers themselves reiterate the past concerns: “After having spent a year immersed and becoming recognized experts within these fields, in addition to witnessing the divisive and destructive effects when activists and social media mobs put it to use, we can now state with confidence that it is neither essentially good nor sound”. They go on to say:
“these fields of study do not continue the important and noble liberal work of the civil rights movements; they corrupt it while trading upon their good names to keep pushing a kind of social snake oil onto a public that keeps getting sicker. For us to know anything about injustice in society and be able to show it to those who are unaware or in denial of it, scholarship into it must be rigorous. Currently, it is not, and this enables it, and social justice issues with it, to be dismissed. This is a serious problem of considerable concern, and we must address it.”
If this all sounds too abstract, what it boils down to is this. Some of the scholarship which is most influential in driving change in our culture is based on poorly defined concepts, faulty reasoning, bad statistics, and rejection of science. For example the idea that there is a significant gender pay gap in Western societies — which is a mainstay of the social justice playbook and is taken for granted by mainstream media and possibly most of the population — has been largely debunked by economists and other academics outside of the grievance studies community (Christina Hoff Sommers “The gender pay gap uses bogus statistics”).
Why did this problem happen?
You may find this unbelievable — and wonder how it all happened. The prevailing theory is that these particular academic disciplines have for the past four to five decades been dominated by academics who embrace the above mentioned ideologies, and who out of good intentions are strongly motivated to change the social order. They have passed on their way of looking at the world to students year after year, and have gradually achieved positions of power from which to influence wider academia and society in general. The hoaxers explain the core mind-set:
“This problem is most easily summarized as an overarching (almost or fully sacralized) belief that many common features of experience and society are socially constructed. These constructions are seen as being nearly entirely dependent upon power dynamics between groups of people, often dictated by sex, race, or sexual or gender identification. All kinds of things accepted as having a basis in reality due to evidence are instead believed to have been created by the intentional and unintentional machinations of powerful groups in order to maintain power over marginalized ones. This worldview produces a moral imperative to dismantle these constructions.”
Over the decades a large body of academic work (and the journals responsible for publishing the work) has been generated within these disciplines — largely isolated from mainstream academic fields such as the so-called “hard” sciences. In effect this has created an echo-chamber. Papers are written, reviewed and published by people who tend to share the same social ideology and desire to change the world. According to hoaxer James Lindsay, hypotheses seem to be treated as accepted conclusions without first going through the rigorous scientific process of experimentation and proof, and these unsubstantiated conclusions then become “knowledge” via peer review and publication. Evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein has referred to this process of converting ideas into knowledge as “idea laundering”.
Students quickly learn that they can receive high marks and praise simply by pointing out a new form of oppression, and they embrace catchy but highly questionable slogans such as “language constructs reality”. Statistics are re-interpreted and inconvenient scientific findings are ignored or down-played. Students in these subjects are encouraged to cite sources within the field, they are rewarded for alignment with the ideology and actively discouraged from deviating from it or referring to external sources (Janice Fiamengo “Womens Studies Must Die” — TFF Episode 31″). Students who succumb to this indoctrination carry the ideology out into the world and those who resist are shunned or opt out. When those who leave the grievance community speak out, it is reminiscent in some ways of the stories from those who have left cults.
Reaction to this latest hoax
Reaction from the academic world to this latest hoax has been mixed. Many have expressed their support of the project either privately or publicly. But some others have pushed back — accusing the hoaxers of deception or wasting the time of peer reviewers. We can expect more from inside the field to push back — particularly those who have built lengthy careers in these disciplines. For them the magnitude of their personal and professional investment in these fields will likely render them unable or unwilling to agree that there is a problem. We should not be surprised if many people “double-down”; deny there is a problem, insist that in spite of the hoax the body of work is correct and the problems they point out are real, or focus on accusing the hoaxers of wrong-doing. In another essay I discuss a number of these criticisms and argue that they do not stack up. The hoax provides evidence that there is a problem with at least some of the work in the upper echelons of the fields concerned — and this should be taken very seriously given the amount of influence this area of academia has on modern society.
Why this matters so much now
The situation is not news to many in academia — it is an “in joke” among many and there is even a web site which will generate meaningless parodies of postmodern writing such as this:
“If one examines capitalist theory, one is faced with a choice: either reject
posttextual nihilism or conclude that the collective is capable of truth. It
could be said that the main theme of the works of Gibson is the role of the
writer as artist. Foucault’s model of capitalist neoconceptualist theory states
that narrativity is meaningless. ” (Communications From Elsewhere)
It could be argued that those who produce work of this kind have failed in their duty to uphold academic principles, have misused the money and betrayed the trust given to them by students, parents and society at large. So you might ask — if many knew about this — why has nothing been done?
I expect there are multiple reasons, but one is likely to be a belief that the problem was not serious, even though there are some in academia who have for years been trying to warn us of the dangers of some of these ideas. The grievance studies scholarship to a large extent informs and motivates the contemporary social justice movement, and an increasing number of people are now coming to believe that the social justice movement may be doing more harm than good. Many people now accuse most of the mainstream media throughout the Western world of having a bias which follows the social justice narrative and suppresses or distorts the views of those who are critical of it, unsurprising given the procession of young journalists graduating from university courses heavily influenced by the grievance studies subjects. The story is the same in popular entertainment, education and public policy, and the corporate world is scrambling to embrace social justice ideology at every level from board room to shop floor. Major social media companies have been implicated in attempts to influence elections and public perceptions along ideological lines, and some now monitor and regularly ban critics of orthodoxy or cut off their sources of income — based on subjective judgements, using vague and often incoherent conceptualizations of words like “hate”, “phobia”, “harm” and “offense”. Likewise countries are beginning to pass laws to limit speech, compel speech (preferred gender pronouns), and monitor, detain or imprison people for “hate” and “phobia”. Public debate is being stifled as topic after topic is being declared “extreme”, taboo, or even illegal. Blasphemy laws are making a come-back. These changes reflect the oppression and victim narrative coming from the grievance studies ideologies and have all the hall-marks of a new religion.
The effects are not just broadly social, economic and political — the cost to individuals is mounting up day by day. Well respected, highly accomplished, and kind hearted academics “who want nothing but the best for their students” suddenly find themselves attacked by a hysterical mob, lose their jobs (cast adrift by their cowered and diversity obsessed university administrators), and have their hard earned careers destroyed (speech by Heather Mac Donald at Hillsdale College). Corporate employee James Damore was promptly fired for suggesting that a workplace gender bias might be explained by psychology studies on preferences and interests (James Damore at Portland State (2/17/18)). Students who resist indoctrination find themselves disciplined by their professors and the university diversity and equity administrators, and attacked or exiled by their fellow students (Lindsay Shepherd — Free Speech Battle with Laurier University). There are many more stories like these and for some of these the harm done is even greater.
The grievance studies community accuses critics of seeking to protect their “privilege” (or of being apologists for those who do). But some who are critical of the grievance studies ideology believe it is hurting those it purports to help. Affirmative action placement and hiring policies arguably disadvantage and patronize the minority groups they were intended to help while openly discriminating against others. Misinformation about the treatment of women within certain fields may put young women off pursuing a career in those fields — thus having the opposite of the intended effect (Christina Hoff Sommers “Is academic philosophy a “safe space” for women?”).
In a few short years we have seen the rise of a vicious witch-hunt mentality — both in cyberspace and on the streets — which cannot be placated or reasoned with. Identity politics, tribalism, and the victim narrative are dis-empowering people in their education, their relationships, and their working lives. Feelings are more important than facts. “Innocent until proven guilty” was first replaced by “guilty until proven innocent” and now by “guilty — will never be innocent”. Trial by jury has been replaced with trial by social media, peers, and colleagues behind closed doors. People in all walks of life are now walking on egg shells and self-censoring, eyes to the ground, for fear of becoming the next target for the mob. The word “Orwellian” has enjoyed a resurgence as many fear — with some justification — that we are sliding towards the bleak and absurd world George Orwell predicted in his book 1984.
If you think the problem in academia is only in the “social” subjects — it will not stop there. Science and other STEM fields are already under attack, as the hoaxers explain:
“… for grievance studies scholars, science itself and the scientific method are deeply problematic, if not outright racist and sexist, and need to be remade to forward grievance-based identitarian politics over the impartial pursuit of truth. These same issues are also extended to the “Western” philosophical tradition which they find problematic because it favors reason to emotion, rigor to solipsism, and logic to revelation.”
Consider the importance of having a correct foundation of knowledge for engineering, chemistry, electronics, medicine, agriculture, etc. The consequences of allowing that knowledge to become corrupted are unthinkable. Some of the biggest problems we face as a species, such as how to feed more than 7 billion people, how to ensure a sustainable environment, and how we can all benefit from emerging technologies (e.g. AI, gene editing) while avoiding the risks, can only be solved with reason and evidence — which we reject at our extreme peril.
Can this be fixed?
It is not clear how this can be fixed, or even whether it can be fixed. There is a deep connection between grievance studies scholarship and what many see as a problematic social justice movement and it is not clear how widely this problem is recognized, or whether there is the will to solve the problem. The mainstream media seem unwilling to challenge the prevailing social justice narrative. Mimicking the social media community, journalists have morphed from inquirers into interrogators — they celebrate compliance with orthodoxy and attack those who question the social justice agenda — classifying anyone who so much as questions those ideas as extremists, far-right, alt-right or worse.
Even if there is a growing recognition by some, action is difficult. It is a genuine case of the “emperors new clothes”; there is a high cost to individuals who challenge the orthodoxy, while the moderate majority remain scared and silent, and the vocal minority have free rein to exert a disproportionate influence on society and public policy, as pointed out by Claire Lehman, the founder of Quillette (What Is Marx’s ‘Conflict Theory’ Doing to Our Politics?). One of the difficulties is that the ideologies concerned are clothed in respectability and good intentions. Who can publicly object to initiatives that seem to promote diversity, inclusion, equality and fairness? Anyone who deviates from the prescribed narrative — even to seek clarification, let alone point out inconsistencies and other problems — is branded as racist, sexist, or phobic. The hoaxers express the hope that their latest project might be the tipping point — if enough sane-minded academics step forward then the boat will right itself. Whether that happens remains to be seen.
There is an important principle in philosophy — the ad hominem fallacy — which every first year student of classical philosophy learns. Essentially this says that the argument is what matters — not the person making it. For example the argument “Socrates is a man, all men are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal” is a good argument — whether the person putting forward the argument is Mother Theresa or Hitler. The broader principle to be applied here is to separate the content of ideas being discussed from the identity of the person, their position, or their presumed intention. Dismissing or refuting someone’s opinion because of their gender or race is to commit the ad hominem fallacy (in addition to being an act of sexism or racism) . Equally wrong is attributing someone with a whole set of beliefs and intentions simply because of some particular thing they say, or simply accusing them of being racist, sexist, phobic, far-right or alt-right without considering the content of their argument. These and other basic failures in critical thinking are happening to an alarming degree in the current social climate — egged on by the grievance studies community which seems intent on rejecting traditional principles of reasoning and evidence (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Feminist History of Philosophy).
The volume of academic material which has been generated by the grievance studies community is large, and it is not just sitting conveniently in one place. It goes back years, is widely distributed, highly interconnected, and deeply rooted in multiple academic subjects and in multiple universities and related institutions around the world. The process of working out what material is worthwhile and what is not would be a monumental task — if it was even possible, and those that guard the gates to this sacred body of knowledge will not lightly allow others to criticism it much less call for its removal or revision. Those who have invested their entire careers as champions of these ideologies are unlikely to back down — much less help to correct what they do not even see as a problem. Even if there were to be cooperation from within those fields it is not easy to see how this problem can be solved — much less whether the damage already caused can be repaired. Meanwhile, the university classes in these subjects continue.
But the battle to save the great legacy of the European enlightenment may already be lost. Universities seem to be losing sight of their central mission — there are indications some already rank pastoral care of students, social justice and activism as having equal or higher importance than the pursuit of learning and knowledge. Some may argue that all institutions evolve over time and that these changes merely reflect a universal trend toward greater social responsibility, but those driving this change from the inside do not see this as an evolution but as a revolution — the overthrow of a patriarchy whose methods (reasoning and science) are fundamentally flawed and motivated by a desire to hold on to power and deny the existence of others. These views are deeply misguided in a multitude of ways, and what those driving this change fail to realize is that those very things they care about are inextricably linked to the academic principles which they seek to discard or dismantle. It is the careful and thorough debates in philosophy and ethics and the methods of science which have contributed to the greatest improvements in human well-being and freedoms, not the ill-considered assertions of modern grievance warriors.
Although there are undoubtedly other factors which may be having an adverse affect on contemporary culture, something has gone badly wrong in one part of our university system which is causing untold harm and may be driving us toward a future world that none of us would like to live in. You might accuse me of catastrophizing — I would be happy to be proven wrong.
 James A. Lindsay, Peter Boghossian and Helen Pluckrose, “Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship”, Areo
 Editorial “The Grievance Studies Scandal: Five Academics Respond”, Quillette
 Andy Ngo, “Writers Behind ‘Grievance Studies Scandal’ Address Criticisms”, Quillette
 Neven Sesardic and Rafael De Clercq, “Women in Philosophy: Problems with the discrimination hypothesis”, National Association of Scholars
 William Egginton, “What the ‘Grievance Studies’ Hoax Really Shows”, New York Times
 Joe Rogan Podcast, Episode 1191 – Interview with James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian
 The grievance studies hoax — why the criticisms of the hoax don’t stack up