In anything, the truth is much harder to find than we think. If we talk about photography, even news photos, the photo shouldn’t necessarily be taken at face value. Has the photo been doctored in Photoshop? If so, the photo is not necessarily being truthful. What were the circumstances that led to the photo being taken? What came before and after the moment captured? Is the moment captured representative of the events leading up to and after the moment that we see? Would the meaning of the photo change significantly if what was outside the frame was captured as well?
All of these things contribute to the murkiness that is the “truth” of a photograph. But then what is truth? Complete objective truth is often difficult to come by, but without having all of the information and contexts of a situation the objective truth becomes more and more difficult to discern.
Sure, maybe according to Peter Boghossian, James A. Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and their supporters they are speaking and promoting their subjective version of “objective” truths, and in their subjective truthfulness they believe they are being unjustly roasted by academics. Thinking they are being unfairly treated sounds fairly similar to a subjective grievance based on their experience doesn’t it? And they definitely want people to listen to their perspective about it. But they don’t seem to like listening to the grievances of people with different perspectives and considering that the perspectives of those who disagree with them may be valid as well. Thus we arrive at the publication of Boghossian’s and his colleagues’ hoax articles known as “the grievance studies affair.”
What are “the grievance studies”?
Boghossian and his friends use the term “the grievance studies” to refer to academic fields related to identity, with gender studies as one of their favorite targets. Most specifically, as specified by an article they authored explaining the project, the fields targeted by their hoax were: “(feminist) gender studies, masculinities studies, queer studies, sexuality studies, psychoanalysis, critical race theory, critical whiteness theory, fat studies, sociology, and educational philosophy.”
After 10 months and 350,000 words of work under fictitious pseudonyms, the real names of the hoax authors were revealed. They describe their work as sophistry—false, intentionally deceptive arguments—and a “a forgery of knowledge that should not be mistaken for the real thing.”
In that article the group clarifies their supposed purpose: “writing academic papers and publishing them in respected peer-reviewed journals associated with fields of scholarship loosely known as ‘cultural studies’ or ‘identity studies’ (for example, gender studies) or ‘critical theory’ because it is rooted in that postmodern brand of ‘theory’ which arose in the late sixties. As a result of this work, we have come to call these fields ‘grievance studies’ in shorthand because of their common goal of problematizing aspects of culture in minute detail in order to attempt diagnoses of power imbalances and oppression rooted in identity.”
The article says the project’s purpose was to “study, understand, and expose the reality of grievance studies, which is corrupting academic research. Because open, good-faith conversation around topics of identity such as gender, race, and sexuality (and the scholarship that works with them) is nearly impossible, our aim has been to reboot these conversations. We hope this will give people—especially those who believe in liberalism, progress, modernity, open inquiry, and social justice—a clear reason to look at the identitarian madness coming out of the academic and activist left and say, ‘no, I will not go along with that. You do not speak for me.’” The quotes and parentheticals within the previous quotes are from the quoted article, not inserted for clarification or emphasis.
How they thought they would “expose the reality” of these fields and “study” them while writing papers that mocked the fields is baffling. The most interesting part about this is that theoretically, if they really wanted to study these fields, they could probably just take classes and through studying in these fields they could learn more about them. Instead they decided that the best way to learn and critique them is to mock these fields of study and all who work within those fields by making up nonsense articles; and when those nonsense articles got published they hold up those examples as a reason why these entire fields of study are illigitimate? That train of logic seems heavily flawed at best, and should hardly be regarded as legitimate academic research or critique.
Yes, Boghossian has asked scholars from gender studies to have public debates with him, but it is difficult for them to do so in good faith considering that Boghossian views their entire field of study as a top-to-bottom waste of time with no academic integrity. In Boghossian’s interview with Vanderwall he clearly stated his view about faculty who teach within these fields: “I’m worried that people who are teaching these classes—I’m not going to mince words—they’re frauds. I’m worried that we’ve created a system which, all this talk of marginalizing voices, we’ve now become the thing we hate and we’re now marginalizing voices of the, of people.”
To further clarify, here Boghossian, “not to mince words,” suspects that teachers of “(feminist) gender studies, masculinities studies, queer studies, sexuality studies, psychoanalysis, critical race theory, critical whiteness theory, fat studies, sociology, and educational philosophy” may be frauds. Not to mince words, but for someone concerned about how other people feel about him and his work, his claim that teachers whose lives have been dedicated to any of these fields of academic pursuit could be frauds is a very steep, and inherently problem-prone, allegation.
An “open, good-faith conversation” requires both sides having an openness to listen so that the other takes them seriously and respects them enough to believe that the conversation is generally intended to be productive and constructive in the pursuit of greater understanding; but Boghossian and his colleagues spend so much time attacking the validity of these fields and the professors within them that it’s not surprising those same fields might not want anything to do with him or his invitations.
If Boghossian, Pluckrose, and Lindsay are “liberal lefties,” why is the left so critical of them?
According to an article written by Pluckrose for Areo Magazine, the digital publication she is editor-in-chief of: “The principles of liberalism, while diffuse, are strong enough and consistent enough to have become dominant throughout the whole of the western world. They are so widely held that the majority perceive them as sufficiently natural and self-evident that they neglect the need to defend them.”
“Western world,” references a common theme with Boghossian and his colleagues. The values of liberalism are dominant enough throughout the world that France nearly elected far-right nationalist Le Pen, Brazil, the U.S. looking to yet again engage in South American regime change in Venezuela, and Italy’s legitimately out-and-proud return to an alarming embrace of fascism. “Western” does not refer to Indigenous Americans—North, South, or Central. Pick up a copy of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Concise History of Western Art. By the looks of it, only Europeans and white Americans made significant artistic contributions after the Aztecs and Incas in the 1500s until Frida Kahlo in the 1900s. Which is a significant falsehood. Despite that it is one of the most iconic and recognizable images in the world, Juan Diego’s tilma (cloak) with the image titled The Virgin of Guadalupe does not receive a single mention in either the “Western Art” text or their companion textbook titled a Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global Perspective. Diego was a Nahua, indigenous person from Mexico. That textbook is the required introductory text for lower level art history classes and thus perpetuates widespread false ideas about what artistic contributions come from the “Western world.” Despite Boghossian and his crew’s claims that identity politics are the dominant dogma of academia, there seems to be a significant amount of exclusionary curriculum that is indeed holding out “against the creep of Social Justice ideology” (quoted out of context using recurring language from Lindsay). However, perhaps the exclusion of Indigenous Peoples of the Americas is intentional because the concepts of the “Western world” and “Western” ideals of liberalism established in the enlightenment were never intended to include them.
The authors are big fans of enlightenment-based liberalism. It is important to note that the period of enlightenment ended before 1800. It’s been over two hundred years since the enlightenment ended, and over three hundred years since it began—Kant died 215 years ago, let’s let him and his racist foundational beliefs die too. Other thought has, thank goodness, developed since.
I would hope that thinkers would take into account new modes of thinking that have developed since before the foundation of the United States, the maintenance and abolition of slavery, the segregation of Indigenous and Black peoples, the rise and fall of the Nazis, the colonization of India by a “Western” country, territorial possession of Puerto Rico, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum.
I would definitely hope that new modes of thinking would have erupted and become more dominant modes of thought among liberal people after the assassinations of MLK, JFK, and Vietnam. I would hope that we would take the AIDS crisis and how different communities were affected seriously. I would hope that the forced removal of Native American children and the forced separation of those children from their cultural identities would prompt us to learn. I would hope that all of these instances may prompt people—like Boghossian, Pluckrose, and Lindsay—who claim to care about marginalized and under-supported communities and individuals to develop new modes of thinking that take into account the different experiences that people in this country have had, are having, and may continue to have specifically because of their different backgrounds and identities.
One Summer in 1967—during the civil rights movement, the year before MLK was murdered—showcased the two very different experiences of Americans at the time. The Summer of Love was a time of hippies in San Francisco with sexual and drug experimentation, music, art, spiritualism, and political protest against the Vietnam War. However, that same summer was very different for another side of the country: The Long, Hot Summer of 1967 race riots spread across the U.S. in protest of the prevalent racism and discrimination against Black Americans. However, despite the fact that Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian are indeed very smart, they think the study of these different experiences is a waste of time and that the teachers who teach about these subjects and explore the intricacies rooted in the varying identities that make up the diverse story of U.S. history may be frauds.
I’m sure there are problems with some of the research some professors are doing somewhere in some of these fields; just as I’m sure there are problems with the research done in fields like philosophy, physics, mathematics, literature, and art. Getting bogus articles published within a field doesn’t remove the entire field’s legitimacy.
In an interview with Vanderwall, Boghossian told him he wasn’t envious of the task Vanderwall was undertaking because of how complicated the situation is. Yeah, extremely convoluted, and most of the context surrounding Boghossian is not widely known. I would rather do a lot of other things with my time, including tending to my own degree, instead of responding to a response to an article about Boghossian. I have no vendetta or personal quest to destroy him, this is not a hit piece. Unfortunately, as executive editor of this magazine, I have an ethical obligation to respond to the article written by Van Vanderwall because despite Vanderwall and Boghossian’s concerns about censorship being valid, it is absolutely necessary to place Boghossian within his proper context. It is personally irresponsible for me to write this, but it is, unfortunately, necessary for the societal responsibility of this magazine that the record be set a little straighter and that Boghossian is a little further contextualized. I don’t stalk Boghossian’s Twitter account, and I don’t follow the circus of his controversy shrouded spotlight, but I care about the PSU community. Events largely unknown to the vast majority of people at PSU and those beyond—in addition to other things I am probably not aware of—are probably what led the collective to publish their op-ed anonymously.
Boghossian’s reckless actions previously put a PSU student’s safety at risk for no reason.
My name is on this article. I know this to be an absolute objective fact. Boghossian put an individual’s life at risk by spreading absurd falsehoods. Vanguard let an editor go surrounding the editor’s decision to misrepresent—through omission and incomplete contextualization—the statements of a student leader. Boghossian took those misrepresented statements and then spun his own horrific lie about the student leader’s statements that weren’t even remotely rooted in either the statements made by the student leader or the misrepresentations by the former editor.
The student leader was then the subject of targeted online harassment including calls for physical violence, their death, and more questions about why the student leader was still breathing than I cared to count. Boghossian may not be the sole reason the student leader feared for his life, but his actions exacerbated the situation and did nothing to prevent unjust calls for violence against a student at our school. Boghossian’s actions in that situation showed a reckless disregard for the safety of PSU’s students; but they also showed a complete lack of interest in the truth.
If I were one of the individuals in the collective who decided that the hoax was the straw that broke their ability to keep their distance any longer, I too would probably prefer to remain anonymous. If Boghossian had that level of disregard for a student’s safety, why risk it.
Boghossian posted a video responding to arriving at work and seeing the paper with the news and anonymous op-ed. In this video he stated, “…It just is utterly incredible to me what the university has become when you have to publish an anonymous hit piece on people.” The anonymous collective stated at the bottom of their piece: “None of us wish to contend with threats of death and assault from online trolls.” Boghossian is absolutely correct: It is a terrible shame that the university has become a place where people are afraid to speak out against Boghossian because they do not wish to receive “threats of death and assault from online trolls.” As of writing this article, The Pacific Sentinel and I are not regularly receiving any threats online. And yes, I am definitely concerned that will no longer be the case after this article is published.
Hoax author Lindsay wrote an article and called the anonymous collective cowardly, and in the same article published in December 2018, Lindsay also wrote “The question comes down to what working scientists and other academics who are concerned about Social Justice ideology can do about any of this. Here are a few suggestions. Do as much as you can feel safe doing. That may mean making anonymous posts on message boards, social media or elsewhere. It may mean signing your name to the same, if you think you can.”
According to Lindsay, the collective of teachers who disagree with the hoax authors and their work is cowardly, but if others want to advocate anonymously against social justice ideology, that would be good?
Hoax authors’ views should be known
Boghossian and his crew think Portland’s decision to condemn, identify, and understand the legacy and impacts of white supremacy and alt-right hate groups is worthy of the eye-rolling eye rolling tangible in telling Portland to “get a grip.”
In 1857 Oregonians voted to enact as part of Oregon’s constitution a law: “No free negro or mulatto not residing in this state at the time of the adoption of this constitution, shall come, reside or be within this state or hold any real estate, or make any contracts, or maintain any suit therein; and the legislative assembly shall provide by penal laws for the removal by public officers of all such negroes and mulattoes, and for their effectual exclusion from the state, and for the punishment of persons who shall bring them into the state, or employ or harbor them.”
That law and language remained included in Oregon’s constitution until 2000, when voters finally decided to repeal it. Because of federal laws it hadn’t been enforceable for decades, but its inclusion in the constitution could hardly have felt welcoming to Black Americans. There were many other ways, legal and illegal, that Oregon has sought to marginalize communities of color in our state. So a commitment to being aware of the history of white supremacy and the ability to identify it hardly seems like something not worth taking a look at. 2000 was only 18 years and 4 months ago. White supremacist hate groups have not gone away, but have continued to spread. A U.S. Coast Guard officer and white supremacist was found to have 15 guns and over 1,000 rounds of ammunition stocked up to “murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country.” We still have work to do.
One post about gender studies retweeted by Boghossian’s Twitter is a video that features the phrase “Sex, Gender, and Bullshit” on an animated book that features a cartoon illustration of the woman and man who are speaking in the video. The woman featured claims that if women want equality they ought to be advocating for longer prison sentences.
The group of hoaxers claims that identity studies’ “worldview is not scientific, or rigorous.” But I would very strongly disagree. Once again, just because academic journals accepted your hogwash articles doesn’t mean the entire fields of study related to those journals are hogwash too.
Boghossian is not being persecuted
He still has a job and will likely keep his job. The work the hoax authors did and are continually engaged in doing is far from radical or brave. In their own words they are moderate liberals who advocate for the maintenance of the status-quo liberalism that is, as Pluckrose said, “dominant” throughout the western world. If the views they are advocating for are, according to themselves dominant and so widely held, why do they feel the views of the fields of study they disagree with are actually dominant and thus dangerous to themselves and others? They say they believe in progress, but their approach seems more rooted in regression and maintenance rather than progression.
Two major points of contention the anonymous op-ed collective held is that Boghossian acted outside of professional codes of conduct and wasted the time and effort of a lot of people. Both of those points are objectively true.
Vanguard did reach out to Boghossian for comment. Twice. Before and after the initial article was published. Boghossian told Vanderwall in their interview that one reached out to him, which is not true.
This response has sought to adequately contextualize who Boghossian is and why we should be concerned that the added context of this response is not more widely discussed.
The only thing I would add is that since Boghossian, Pluckrose, and Lindsay all claim to be concerned with social justice as left-leaning liberals who want to make sure society doesn’t let marginalized people slip through the cracks, I would strongly encourage them to spend more time listening to the very people they don’t want to slip through the cracks—not just the ones they agree with—and less time talking. Maybe instead of rolling their eyes at academic papers, they could take the classes from some of their colleagues who’ve spent their lives dedicated to work they’ve attempted to categorize as foundationally fraudulent. Perhaps they could get coffee privately with them and have productive “open, good-faith” discussions in a private non-confrontational setting. Although it may take some work on their part to rebuild whatever little trust they had prior to this latest fiasco before that’s even remotely possible, if they truly cared, it would be worth it. That’s what these studies they campaign so obsessively are about: listening and doing tough work. Who knows, maybe if they approached these fields of study with a mind that is actually open to learning and helping academia progress instead of being bent on discrediting, they could actually help to improve them. But we all have to be students before we can teach, no?