The ‘grievance studies’ hoaxers are back, but should we listen?

Experts unimpressed by new attack on queer theory, post-colonial theory and other forms of ‘social justice scholarship’ by controversial authors

August 25, 2020
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There was much media interest and amusement when three researchers – James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose and Peter Boghossian – took aim at what they termed “grievance studies” and managed to convince leading journals to publish a handful of deliberately ridiculous spoof papers written in opaque social science jargon and incorporating reference to genuine articles.

By the time the scam was exposed in 2018, four papers had already appeared online, including one on dog parks as places of “rampant canine rape culture” and another arguing that heterosexual men might become more enlightened by opting to “anally self-penetrate using sex toys”.

While some applauded the trio for exposing what they regarded as modish nonsense, critics pointed to the lack of a control group (to determine whether the problems were confined to “grievance studies” or applied to other disciplines as well); the ethical issues around the manipulation of journal editors and reviewers; and the danger that the prank could fuel right-wing attacks on feminism and critical race theory.

Now, however, Ms Pluckrose, editor of Areo magazine, and Dr Lindsay, a mathematician, have returned to the fray with a book titled Cynical Theories: How activist scholarship made everything about race, gender, and identity – and why this harms everybody.

The book takes aim at what they call “social justice scholarship”, including “critical race theory’s hallmark paranoid mindset, which assumes racism is everywhere, always, just waiting to be found”.

The authors also express doubts about whether “previously colonised people have any use” for contributions to post-colonial theory such as those that “argue that math is a tool of Western imperialism” or “confront France and the United States about their understanding of big black butts”.

Meanwhile, queer theory, they argue, is not only unfamiliar to most LGBT people but also “tends to render itself baffling and irrelevant, if not positively alienating to most members of the society it wishes to change”.

“We are looking at the ideas that are influential,” explained Ms Pluckrose, such as “white fragility”, “toxic masculinity” and “heterocentrism”, which she believed “have left the academy and are causing some quite significant problems”, for example in diversity training courses.

Furthermore, with the left now associated with such ideas, she worried that “people will get so sick of them that it will strengthen a right-wing pushback that is anti-intellectual and anti-equality as well as anti-social justice warriors”.

So what did people working within what the authors label “grievance studies” make of this charge sheet?

Gregory Woods, professor emeritus in gay and lesbian studies at Nottingham Trent University, felt that Ms Pluckrose and Dr Lindsay had “come very late to the party” and to battles that had been “fought many years ago”.

He also saw something insensitive in the way they had mentioned Aids only in passing and so had failed to “properly contextualise their appraisal of queer theory, and of the more general adoption of ‘queer’ as a term of creative dissent. The queer movement arose out of the fast-moving, material circumstances of a catastrophe much aggravated from the outset by homophobia: the Aids pandemic. The connection with activism was crucial: queer theory was an emergency cultural development, fired less by grievance than by grief. If these were ‘grievance studies’, the grievance was vital and fatal.”

Vinita Damodaran, professor of South Asian history at the University of Sussex, is committed to research that is accessible and useful to those outside the academy, and she acknowledged that it was “right to challenge the buzzwords, content-less assumptions, opaque writing and fashionable theory that sometimes pass for scholarship”.

Yet she also saw Ms Pluckrose and Dr Lindsay as “in danger of oversimplification, poor scholarship and even complacency when it comes to issues of colonialism, racism, social justice and discrimination integral to our modern world system…Post-colonial theory and scholarship have revolutionised the humanities in the past several decades, and a few examples of bad writing cannot undermine their immense contribution to changing the way we think about the modern world.”

Meanwhile, Elleke Boehmer, professor of world literature in English at the University of Oxford, argued that the style of Cynical Theories “makes debate on neutral ground almost impossible” because “distortions are mixed in with evaluative remarks in such a way as to obscure the operations and values of the approaches being discussed and so frame them negatively − and in an accumulative way”.

The authors had “picked some pretty extremist examples” to make their case, added Professor Boehmer, when “the great power of post-colonial approaches is how they allow an analysis of structures over personalities − so showing, for example, how racism was produced historically, or how gender and other power imbalances tend to reproduce themselves to the advantage of those in power”.

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: ‘Grievance studies’ hoaxers back in fray

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Reader's comments (16)

Why does this article only cite critics of the authors, and not a single argument which suggests that these criticisms of progressive and neo-Marxist cultures may have merit? There is one possible nod of agreement from Vinita Damodaran, but it is so vapid and vague as to be meaningless. Is there no space for critique of these doctrines? Isn’t critical theory meant to expose hierarchical power structures and the effects of dominant structures and ideologies? Why not shine that torch back upon what progressivism has now become? We need more than internal narratives and denial if we are going to address the very big problems these ideologies are now creating in our universities and right across society, including racial and gender divisions, intolerance and escalating violence.
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'The ‘grievance studies’ hoaxers are back, but should we listen?' Why would the presumption be not to listen, is critical theory sacrosanct? Because, by driven a coach and horses through theories and embarrassing some, then critiques of critical theory should be marginalised? I hope it spurs further critique and critical discussion. I too would have liked THE to survey a greater range of opinions rather than just ones that are critical of the ‘Cynical Theories’ book. I read this website to gain an deeper understanding of issues in education and a seemingly one-sided critique of this book does nothing to help my understanding of this subject. In most respects critical theories serve the purpose of activism and all its scholarship is seemingly subsumed to predestined conclusions. That theory seems to be in thrall to this activism does not bode well at all for any form of truly ‘critical’ inquiry. In my own university’s department (politics) critical theory seems to have charged out of the woodwork over the past decade. It now comprises about 40% of first and second year theory courses, yet does not seem to possess the same universal explanatory power as more traditional theories. That critical theory can provide rich illumination of certain issues is beyond doubt and do have a place in our institutional intellectual tool kits. But given its one sided view of the world (a self-serving narrative?) I question its academic value as being more anything more than of niche interest. But its utility to activism is considerable – is this an indicator of the direction of travel in the political world-view of our emerging academic cohorts? And what if one does not subscribe to either critical theory’s idea of 'power structures' or its non-traditional epistemological underpinnings? The article states “how racism was produced historically, or how gender and other power imbalances tend to reproduce themselves to the advantage of those in power.” How does one disagree or disprove this? I don’t think that is facilitated within the framework of critical theory. Overall, I would like to see a more in depth article trying to explain the attraction of critical theories to academia, especially considering their relatively rapid appearance and ubiquity across institutions over a relatively short period of time. We really don’t understand the potentially corrosive long term effect of activist-led scholarship. Is critical theory meant to solve problems or does it create or exacerbate problems? What are the ramifications to free inquiry? Does critical theory’s political world view prove the charge that academia today are ‘left wing madrassas’? I do not necessarily think so, but let’s have an open inquiry and discussion on the ramification of critical theory on the academy.
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I won't rehash previous comments, except to say that I agree with them in the main. What I find equally disturbing to the lack of any diversity of thought in the experts quoted, is their vagueness of their criticisms. "Late to the party?" "In danger of over-simplification?" How about engaging with the the facts of their assertions? If they are wrong, provide some counter-examples. I realize this is not a full-scale book review, but if you're going to only give one side, perhaps they could shore that viewpoint up with something other than generalities. I think this book is going to open many eyes to the ways that the academy has become totally enthralled to a doctrinal viewpoint that refuses to challenge itself in any meaningful way.
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the style of Cynical Theories “makes debate on neutral ground almost impossible” because “distortions are mixed in with evaluative remarks in such a way as to obscure the operations and values of the approaches being discussed and so frame them negatively − and in an accumulative way”. Even when criticising an admirably clear, understandable, book they churn out meaningless word-salad. They just can't help it. I rest my case
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Debate on neutral ground is already impossible in the often highly-charged enviroments that surround issues of race and gender. There is a view that if you dare disagree with anything said by those who say they are disadvantaged, you are racist, sexist, homophobic or whatever, even that if you remain silent you are complicit in doing harm. I'm part of a group at my university looking at 'decolonising the curriculum'... and there's at least one person there uncomfortable with practical suggestions like resources for teaching medicine that deal with skin colour changes as a result of illness... this doesn't play into wanting to proclaim that all things any white person says and does is automatically wrong, the view that it has to be black vs. white, gay vs. straight... when we ought to be reaching out to enrich the curriculum by embracing wider ideas, viewing this whole thing as a matter of fairness to all, a human rights issue, a collaboration not a conflict. And never, ever, throwing the baby out with the bathwater :)
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I find it deeply concerning that so many members of higher education have been taken in thrall by critical theory. I was always told that a theory that explains everything with or without data isn't a theory - it's a religion. Critical theory, in stating that everything is driven by racism or supremacy or whiteness or whatever, falls squarely into that. Name any single issue, and they can make it about their particular brand of oppression (men, whiteness, colonization, heteronormative behavior, whatever) - but if everything is X then X is meaningless. Further, the lack of awareness is disturbing. The hoax papers should have been a welcome study - highlighting flaws and allowing for legitimate research to stand on it's own merits and provide value to these fields. Instead, those in these fields are doubling down and acting like priests confronted with the fact that the sun is not a perfect sphere instead of researchers seeking truth.
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Critical Race Theory “makes debate on neutral ground almost impossible” because “distortions are mixed in with evaluative remarks in such a way as to obscure the operations and values of the approaches being discussed and so frame them negatively − and in an accumulative way”. Interesting when both side are using similar arguments. Both not getting to the real problem. Economics and past injustices causing people to not be able to achieve what they would achieve otherwise. I am white yet one of my parents was a refugee from his homeland and the other an economic migrant. Did not have the advantages of native born though I was luck to have a stable family life and able to get to University. Did not have the advantage of others who had parents to get them summer jobs and jobs after university through family connections. My dad was a janitor. Not going to get a managerial job or consulting position through his connections, is that racial discrimination. My kids on the other hand take advantage of my connections to get well paying summer jobs that added to their resumes. That would be called white privilege wouldn't it or is it economic connections and networking.
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Should we listen? What kind of academic only "listens" to that with which he agrees? (The answer is, in case you're wondering -- not a very competent one.) Acknowledging disparity in thought is essential to growth, in any realm. Any theory that leans on perception will be inherently flawed as a matter of course, because perception is a uniquely individual experience. Doesn't matter how "structural" the argument. When we knowingly choose to leave out part of any argument in order to present our truths, we are presenting solutions that are not really solutions at all, but rather, collectivist lies that underscore our own perception and confirmation bias, and thus contribute to the very issues we are attempting to bring to light. Frankly, I'm really quite disenchanted with the idea that many of our most brilliant academic minds are eating a big bowl of excrement for breakfast every day and calling it ambrosia. I am just not able to see the nutritional value in that.
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In a way it is very based on American and possibly British or European Societies. E.g. racial inequality emerges from the social, and economic differences that white people create to maintain white interests in labour markets and politics, giving rise to poverty and criminality in many minority communities. Does not seem to apply elsewhere. Very limited in scope. E.g. can you apply it to India, China, and Africa (Rhodesia) where currently not really a lot of whites. Assumes there are not minorities in those areas.
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This article does seem fairly biased. Having now read cynical theories, I think the authors have done their best to dissect a complex milieu of ideas to pinpoint how we arrived at the current point in history. It did not come across as anything but an earnest attempt at a difficult task, and I found it a pleasure to read and very clear.
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One-sided article - it is clear that the author is sympathetic to critical theory rather than to enunciate the core issues in the debate. All I see are quotes from people making dismissive claims without engaging the core concerns. For example, how can a method that makes the subjective as essential ever result in cumulative knowledge base (i.e., different people giving 'true' subjective opinions only results in a noisy marketplace without coordinated focus)? That is why the only thing proponents of such 'grievance studies' can do is just to make unsubstantiated claims and opinions - no difference from a public opinion (e.g., who likes coffee? Who likes tea?). If liking smoking is as 'right' as eating vegetables then it does not help public health policy. Are such academic 'experts' worth funding using taxpayer dollars? It does not take much skill to take opinion polls - even non experts do it all the time. 'Grievance studies' are just full of sound and fury but signifying nothing...
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Unlike so many comments on subjects covered in the THE I actually enjoyed reading these, it seems there are others who question 'the blob', long may it continue.
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DEFUND the police, or university humanities departments for switching from education to indoctrination and so losing any claim on the general taxpayer who almost certainly expects free critical thought from a 'university'? No to the BBC licence fee is surely a precursor to resentment at funding Woke soaked 'tutors' throughout the humanities and social scientists - all who lack any sense of humour or their own absurdity. Tatiana McGrath's works are now the pre term guide for all freshers. Are there any history courses on intra African tribal warfare and enslavement? Or the record of the British Navy suppressing the huge Red Sea Arab slave trade in the 19thC ? Of the British suppressing Arab enslavement of black people in Sudan? Thought not. So in the light of lack of diversity in our humanities departments, it is time to withdraw taxpayer funding, this is now a private club of zealots on a political mission, not education.
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This is an academic site. You will not be taken seriously if you ' ask a stream of questions and then answer it your self with "Thought not. " in the same comment- it's just crass.
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Surprisingly, (well, maybe not) the comments seem to me much more intelligent than the article (and fair too).
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Has the Times also fallen into a spiral of Wokeness? Bizarre article citing cultists as 'experts', god help us.

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