Mesocosm

"Segne den Becher, welcher überfließen will, daß das Wasser golden aus ihm fließe und überallhin den Abglanz deiner Wonne trage!" – Nietzsche

Trolling Higher Education

with 2 comments

There’s an article in the Atlantic Monthly called “What an Audacious Hoax Reveals About Academia” which is making a stir, and I want to take a moment to respond to it. Three scholars wrote a series of fake jargony papers and submitted them to various gender theory publications to prove how intellectually bankrupt they are, and to illustrate that the underlying disciplines are likewise baseless and stupid.

Yascha Mounk, the author of the Atlantic Monthly piece, is strongly in support of their project and compares it to an earlier stunt by Alan Sokal, who got a piece accepted in the journal Social Text which included statements such as:

Feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the façade of ‘objectivity.’ It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical ‘reality,’ no less than social ‘reality,’ is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.

Mounk does not cite a similar project by three MIT students, who used an AI to generate gobbledegook papers for submission to a for-profit conference on “Informatics.” Presumably what he approves of here is not the criticism of academic resources with lax standards, but the attack on gender theory, which is a frequent whipping boy for self-styled rationalists who deride the putative relativism of the humanities, while generally lacking even a rudimentary acquaintance of what they’re dismissing.

There is a word for what our scholars did: trolling. Like all trolls, their project was successful largely because they exploited a key feature of public discourse: the presumption of good faith.

Have you ever seen Ali G or Borat, and asked yourself how people could be so stupid as to go along with the crazy premises he puts forth? The answer is they’re not (always or merely) stupid, they are operating under the substantial pressure exerted by the presumption of good faith, and the attempt to act accordingly deforms their interactions. This is a function of how communication works.

People are not taken in by trolls simply because they’re stupid or because the systems they represent are uncritical. Civil discourse presupposes that all parties are representing themselves honestly. That is why trolling has a systematic advantage in humiliating the opponent. It is a dishonest and misleading form of critique, and it highlights nothing so much as the arrogance and contempt of its practitioners.

We cannot create a society in which we all must ask ourselves at all times if the other party in a transaction or debate is simply trying to make us look stupid. That would be a hateful degradation of the entire enterprise of higher learning, and an incredible waste of time.

But there are more important reasons to reject this project.

I have a friend who is a professor of medieval French literature, who wrote a meticulously-documented dissertation on gender and sexual identity construction in the Romance of the Rose, and he at times used the specialized terminology of his discipline, which, like many forms of technical discourse, can appear to the non-specialist as nonsense.

Why did he do that work, and why did he employ those conceptual tools? Because in the last few decades we are seeing, literally for the first time in human history, an opportunity to methodically and analytically reflect on the social construction of gender identity, and the way these identities are often constructed through a collective process of ideology formation. These processes are not value-neutral, but reflect the implicit or explicit presumption of the superiority and dominance of male heterosexuals. What we call gender deconstruction is nothing more than a specialized analysis of the process by which this identity formation occurs, with a goal to freeing individuals from having their identities determined for them, in advance, as lesser, from without.

I would note that this is largely what Sokal’s putatively “gibberish” quote above says, and say that I would actually more or less agree with it. Whether or not you believe that the construction of reality by the individual merely reaches the level of social values or touches our fundamental sense of what reality is in itself, well, you can disagree, but it is not a stupid claim, and it has had important support not just in philosophy but in the sciences

The development of gender theory as a discipline is exactly contemporaneous with an unprecedented movement toward political acceptance of non-normative gender and sexual identities, and this is not a coincidence. I will not assert a causal relationship, but I will say with certainty that they are part of a common historical moment.

So what I want to emphasize is this – we’re talking about communities that have literally had no voice ever in the European tradition, and they don’t need this shit. They need space to think through some of these problems and develop their own language and conceptual vocabulary without self-styled guardians of the Western Enlightenment, which has been so goddamned enlightened for most of its history with respect to, say, gays and lesbians, holding them up for ridicule. 

Update Oct 16: This month, Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” in Hungary became the first EU country to bar universities from issuing degrees in a specific subject: gender studies.

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Written by Mesocosm

October 8, 2018 at 1:48 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. This is well said. I have seen a number of “hoaxes” over the years in neuroscience and physics that, while not always welcomed by the community, did raise some important problems with methodology which needed attention, and the dramatic flair helped get that attention. I think, in those cases, a key difference was that it was not done in such bad faith so as to completely undermine the basic validity and axioms of the disciplines themselves, and I did not appreciate that in my initial and admittedly cursory reading of the Atlantic article. Thank you for making this important point.

    Josh

    October 8, 2018 at 5:06 am

    • Well said indeed. Afraid this won’t go viral, however. Too articulate, too right on.

      Richard Thieme

      October 11, 2018 at 7:04 am


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