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I read about it two years ago on The College Fix. An academic article called “Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon” had been published in a feminist journal. It was about “dog rape,” apparently. Were college professors actually writing—and publishing—stuff like this? Right-wing education sites buzzed about it for days until the punchline hit: the doggy piece was a hoax.
But what a hoax—the brainchild of three liberal professors who set out to test the limits of academic credulity. Of the 20 spurious papers they wrote (with titles like “An Ethnography of Breastaurant Masculinity”), four were published, three were awaiting publication when the whistle blew, and five were under consideration.
The serious purpose behind the high jinks was to expose the sophistry of “grievance studies,” in which all social problems came down to oppression by white males. Stated the hoaxers, “[A] culture has developed in which only certain conclusions are allowed … and put social grievances ahead of objective truth.”
The university crowd was not amused. One of the three, philosophy teacher Peter Boghossian, immediately went under investigation for research misconduct. Another, Helen Pluckrose, now declares herself “an exile from the humanities” and resides in England with her family. The third, mathematician James Lindsay, has been promoting the book he wrote with his colleague Pluckrose, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody.
According to the authors, it began in the 1960s—like so much else—with the broad acceptance of postmodernism as an academic philosophy. “Po-Mo” asserts that objective truth can’t be determined, that knowledge is socially constructed, and that dominant forms of knowledge always favor the dominant. So, for example, it’s pointless to read Shakespeare for his insight into humanity; the only purpose in studying Shakespeare is to “deconstruct” him, to determine how he privileges his own class and identity as a white male.
The problem with postmodernism was that, by rejecting absolutes and objective truth, it had no moral core. But beginning in the 1980s, academics seized the limp philosophy and repurposed its main tenets. If knowledge was a social construct benefiting the powerful, we must make room for other “ways of knowing.” If science was a tool of the white patriarchy, it couldn’t be trusted. If indigenous groups, people of color, LGBTQs, and the disabled had been kept down, it was time for them to step up.
That’s how theory became Theory—not a discipline, but a dogma. After destroying literature, it marched through the social sciences and eventually invaded the STEM fields as well. And now, after two decades of indoctrinating graduates whose diplomas grant them access to high ranks of culture, corporation, and government, Theory is everywhere. The Motion Picture Academy unveils diversity guidelines for Oscar-nominated movies. Corporations sponsor retreats for white males only, where participants confess “I am a racist” or write apology letters to female colleagues. American schoolchildren learn that their country was built on racism and owes its wealth to slavery.
President Trump has issued an executive order meant to purge diversity training, based on Critical Race Theory, from federal agencies. That’s a step in the right direction, but compared with the depth of the problem it looks like the tortoise just crawled off the starting line. It took decades for an inert academic philosophy to rise to rowdy life as activism and will take decades more to defeat it. Lindsay and Pluckrose, both agnostics, wistfully hope for a return to liberal progressivism, of the kind that welcomes all opinions to the public square and privileges none.
But humans don’t operate that way. Societies need absolutes and moral standards. The spinelessness of postmodernism is exactly what allowed activists to hijack it and now prevents them from moderating their own radicalism. The blunt narrative of oppressor and oppressed won’t stand the test of time but can wreak a lot of havoc before it falls.