Let’s grab the, er, ‘flower by the thorns’ and talk about being PC
Negotiating one's way between the reactionary bigots and the well-intentioned activists can be a challenge
I like a good hoax as much as the next heteronormative cisgender male, but the Sokal Squared hoax had an unfair advantage.
Sokal Squared is a collective of three academics – editor Helen Pluckrose, mathematician James Lindsay and philosopher Peter Boghossian – who spent what must have been an enjoyable year composing deliberately terrible spoof academic articles and submitting them to peer-reviewed cultural studies journals.
They wrote and submitted 20 articles, using flawed or nonexistent methodology to arrive at prefabricated conclusions, generally that something needs to be done about heterosexual masculinity. One article investigated dog parks in Portland, Oregon, considering them toxic spaces in which a culture of canine rape is condoned, queer canine performativity is oppressed, and speculating that men in society might themselves profitably be trained like dogs.
One article (Going in Through the Back Door) expressed disapproval that heterosexual men do not more regularly penetrate themselves with dildos, and recommended that they be encouraged to do so immediately as a first step toward making them more feminist and less transphobic.
The collective successfully published a section of Hitler’s Mein Kampf (with the pronouns changed) in a journal of intersectional feminism, and their hoax was only exposed following the successful publication of an article recommending that white university students be regularly gagged and chained and forced to lie on the floor during lectures as part of “experiential reparations” for slavery.
Of the 20 articles they had submitted by the time they were rumbled, seven had been accepted, six had been rejected or sent back for more work, and another six were still under editorial consideration. (In case that doesn’t sound impressive to a lay audience used to writers trotting out a magnum opus every week, seven peer-reviewed publications in a year of academic work is an astonishing success rate.)
The hoax has obviously been celebrated by enemies of political correctness around the world, and equally obviously excoriated by the woke and those wanting to let their pals know how woke they are, (as well as being greeted with quiet enjoyment by people like me), but whatever your criticisms of the exercise – and for me it was more valuable as an entertainment than as a scientific experiment – the motivation of Sokal Squared wasn’t to argue that it’s not worth addressing racism and sexism and the rest, but rather that those things are so worthwhile that they’re worth doing well.
Sokal Squared’s argument is that the blind elevation of identity and subjective experience as the yardstick of truth – “feelings over facts” – promotes a kind of intellectual blindness that allows bad reasoning, bad methodology and terrible conclusions. Social justice is served by a search for truth, they argue, rather than ideology, however well-intentioned: “We need solutions that work, and this is more likely if they are firmly tethered to reality.”
But this is why their hoax had such an unfair advantage – because in today’s world their deliberately batshit articles had no chance of standing out from some of the lunacy that passes as socially progressive policy in the universities of the world.
I’m sure you’ve read about the resolution passed by the National Union of Students in the UK, calling for clapping to be abolished on the grounds that the noise could be triggering for students with anxiety issues. At Manchester University’s Fresher’s Week, the officer of Liberation and Access Sara Khan scolded handclappers and applauders for not being sufficiently inclusive. All student groups, societies and the students’ union are instructed to swap out audible clapping for jazz hands.
Now, I don’t have anxiety issues myself, but if I were to find myself in a crowd of young people silently wiggling their hands around over their heads like an earnest cult of sea-anemones whenever a speaker made a good point, I think that might change. Besides, what about blind people? What about blind orators? Imagine the anxiety of giving an impassioned speech about blindness or whatever, and being greeted with silence at all your big applause lines. I know that blind people’s hearing is supposed to be more acute, but can they discern the wiggling oscillations of fingers through the air? Do blind people know the sound of no hands clapping?
Last year Oxford University had to apologise for publishing a list of racist microaggressions that included the crime of not looking fellow students in the eye when talking to them. Did they apologise because this was unenforceable nonsense that takes no account of the fact that most young people nowadays can barely meet the eyes of their own parents or anyone who isn’t on their phone screen, or the fact that in many places – for instance, the Afrikaans bar in the Karoo I visited this weekend – persistent eye contact from strangers isn’t respectful and affectionate, it’s goddamned scary? Did they apologise because a campus where people hold each other’s unblinking gaze like earnest drunks or Chucky dolls, terrified to look away lest they be called out on Twitter, is in fact a dystopian lagophthalmic hellscape? No, they apologised because they were being discriminatory against the autistic, who don’t like meeting people’s eyes. But can autistic people not be racist? Why should autistic whites be given a free ride? Is this not more unearned autistic white privilege? This no doubt will the hot topic debated on campus in 2019.
It’s obviously unfair to cherrypick these examples and laugh at the well-intentioned young, but it’s fun, so here’s one more: the University of Glasgow has started issuing trigger warnings for theology students, telling them that they will be encountering upsetting images of violence that might be triggering. Any theology students who might be traumatised by – I’m not joking – images of a man being crucified are given the opportunity to leave the lecture theatre in good time.
It’s also quite fun to make fun of PETA, even though they’re a violently intolerant lunatic fringe of humourless extremists whose loopiness alienates people from what should be an otherwise compelling cause. You must have seen their press release this week in which they called for an end to anti-animal idioms, and suggested more vegan alternatives.
Instead of “take the bull by the horns”, they suggest, we should rather be saying “take the flower by the thorns”, which somewhat loses the point of the original (it’s more effective to take the bull by the horns, rather than try to sneak up on it from the side, which is more likely to result in a stomping and a goring; it seems pretty unnecessary and counterproductive to take a flower by its thorns).
My particular favourite commandment on their list of speech crimes is to replace “kill two birds with one stone” with “feed two birds with one scone”. Despite having used that expression many times in my life, I have never myself been tempted to try kill two birds with one stone – my throwing aim is so poor, I would have to somehow find a stone large enough, and then try to Wiley E Coyote-like drop it on top of two birds while they are distracted by a cuttlefish – but I know that even if I were to try, it would probably cause less harm than feeding birds a scone. Scones are a kind of bread, aren’t they, and haven’t we all been warned against feeding bread to ducks? Don’t we all know by now that they expand in the ducks’ belly, leaving no room for other more important forms of avian nutrition? And what about aspergillosis, a fatal lung infection caused by mouldy bread that has been known to wipe out entire flocks? For god’s sake, why will no one think about the aspergillosis?
That PETA would encourage a practice that is actually genuinely harmful to animals in pursuit of stamping out thought crimes that do not affect animals at all seems to be a sadly appropriate metaphor for some of the lunacies of the overexuberant progressive causes.
This is all obviously nuts. (By “nuts”, in case you happen to be a PETA head-case with a can of paint and my street address, I obviously mean to approvingly endorse the vegan diet, not to make an offensive slur against the mentally differently abled.) And what is so annoying about it is that it does such a disservice to good causes. Because in fact I do think the world is better for being kinder, and that sometimes we have to wrangle the kindness out of people, and I do think that in most cases “politically correct” is another way of saying “considerate and compassionate”, and when given the choice between standing with the loons who go too far in trying to be less hurtful, and the swaggering arrogant who insist on their right to be hurtful bullies, I’ll stand with the kids, but I do wish those weren’t the only two choices.