The mind virus killing academia
Everything is 'problematic' and nothing is real
We lost a giant last month with E.O. Wilson’s passing. A man who stood on Darwin’s shoulders, Wilson had that rare distinction of inspiring a whole discipline in the form of evolutionary psychology.
The great sense of loss did not seem to be shared by Scientific American, however, which soon afterwards put out a piece reflecting on the ‘complicated legacies of scientists whose works are built on racist ideas’. Among the ‘problematic’ aspects of Wilson’s work, the author argued, was the ‘descriptions and importance of ant societies existing as colonies’. This was ‘a component of Wilson’s work that should have been critiqued’ because ‘context matters’.
Scientific American is not Teen Vogue; it’s a journal dating back to the early Victorian period and as august as they come; former contributors include none other than Albert Einstein, with his hugely influential articles on relativity, the geometry of spacetime and ‘10 Badass Girl Bosses Sciencing the Shit out of 1920’.
If Wilson was ‘problematic’, he’s not alone, for it’s a word that has grown enormously in popularity this past decade, part of an expanding vocabulary that has broken out of academia and into the wider world – well-trodden terms such as ‘trigger warning’, ‘white privilege’ and ‘systemic racism’. There’s a whole dictionary to be written on the subject.
Among the neologisms we’ve become acquainted with is ‘intersectionality’, which came from a 1989 paper by Kimberlé Crenshaw called ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.’ Perfect bedtime reading - as Bertie Wooster might have put it, when I have a leisure moment, you will generally find me curled up with Crenshaw's latest.
In this hugely influential paper, the law professor examined three legal discrimination cases and used the analogy of a roadway intersection, or crossroads, to show how different forms of prejudice can hit someone in two different ways.
‘If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in the intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination.’
Her argument was that it is hard to know whether a black woman has been the victim of racism or sexism, or both, yet it's strange that a concept so widely, unquestionably accepted as meaningful stems from possibly the worst analogy of all time. Unless I’m being immensely dense, how often are people hit by two cars as they cross the road, coming from different directions? Has that actually happened, ever, in history?
Intersectionality is among the concepts explored in Cynical Theories, written by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay and published in 2020, with a ‘remix’ coming out this month, authored by Pluckrose and another collaborator, Rebecca Christensen. Pluckrose and Lindsay are both self-identified liberals, although Lindsay seems to have gazed too long into the Twitter pool since Covid came along (many such cases!), and the book is a defence of liberalism. So, they begin, ‘the main tenets of liberalism are political democracy, limitations on the powers of government, the development of universal human rights, legal equality for all adult citizens, freedom of expression, respect for the value of viewpoint diversity and honest debate, respect for evidence and reason, the separation of church and state, and freedom of religion.’
This is all under threat, they argue, because ‘The progressive left has aligned itself not with Modernity but with postmodernism, which rejects objective truth as a fantasy dreamed up by naïve and/or arrogantly bigoted Enlightenment thinkers who underestimated the collateral consequences of Modernity’s progress.’ These radical progressives deny that any real progress has been made, while liberals think that society is vastly better for minorities or women than it was a half-century ago.
The authors’ broad target is critical theory which, unlike traditional academic disciplines, is not so much concerned with understanding the world as changing it, and to do so redefining everything within it; this has been achieved most successfully with the framing of racism, which has evolved from the accepted definition of treating people differently based on their race to ‘a racialized system that permeates all interactions in society yet is largely invisible except to those who experience it or who have been trained in the proper “critical” methods that train them to see it.’ This is a core idea behind the Great Awokening.
They are especially critical of postmodernism, which emerged sometime between 1950 and 1970, and is ‘particularly sceptical of science and other culturally dominant ways of legitimising claims as “truths” and of the grand, sweeping explanations that supported them.’ It calls these ‘meta-narratives’ and views them as a kind of cultural mythology. The ‘central themes of postmodernism include doubting that any human truth provides an objective representation of reality, focusing on language and the way societies use it to create their own realities, and denying the universal.’
This is not the same as ‘reasonable doubt’ scepticism; it is a ‘radical scepticism’ that says ‘all knowledge is constructed: what is interesting is theorizing about why knowledge got constructed this way’. This has spread throughout the university system, I suspect, partly because it makes quite dim people sound clever, the one neat trick any idea needs to successfully replicate.
Taking postmodernism to its natural conclusion, science becomes just another system organised to suit the powerful, ie those pesky white men. ‘Throughout postmodern Theory runs the overtly left-wing idea that oppressive power structures constrain humanity and are to be deplored. This result in an ethical imperative to deconstruct, challenge, problematize (find and exaggerate the problems within), and resist all ways of thinking that support oppressive structures of power, the categories relevant to power structures, and the language that perpetuates them – thus embedding a value system into what might have been a moderately useful descriptive theory.’
This idea of truth being culturally constructed ‘leads to a preoccupation with four main themes: the blurring of boundaries, the power of language, cultural relativism, and the loss of the individual and the universal in favour of group identity.’
In 1967 Jacques Derrida introduced the concept of ‘deconstruction’. By this, it is meant that words don’t refer to obvious and straightforward things that relate to the real world, but ‘instead… words refer only to other words and to the ways in which they differ from one another’.
Under Derridean analysis, if someone takes offence it’s not that they misinterpreted or misunderstood. ‘The author’s intentions are irrelevant, when those can be known, due to Derrida’s adaptation of Roland Barthes’s concept of “the death of the author”. Consequently, since discourses are believed to create and maintain oppression, they have to be carefully monitored and deconstructed.’
Unfortunately, such a way of thinking obviously incentivises people to take offence when none is intended, subsequently creating new forms of censorship and oppression; on top of this, as no one could have known in 1967, social media has empowered highly disagreeable and even dysfunctional individuals to magnify their influence, using ideology and identity as a means to bully and victimise. The result is a sort of maniacracy, or rule by the mad.
These ideas act like a mind virus, an analogy the authors use, with postmodernism ‘a kind of fast-evolving virus. Its original and purest form was unsustainable: it tore its hosts apart and destroyed itself. It could not spread from the academy to the general population because it was so difficult to grasp and so seemingly removed from social realities. In its evolved form, it spread, leaping the “species” gap from academics to activists to everyday people, as it became increasingly graspable and actionable and therefore more contagious.’
Indeed, they quote a 2016 paper in Generos: Multidisciplinary Journal of Gender Studies, which ‘favourably likened women’s studies to HIV and Ebola, advocating that it spread its version of feminism like an immune-suppressing virus, using students-turned-activists as carriers’. This strikes me as a particularly strange argument – our ideas are like Aids, but in a good way.
My own preferred explanation of radicalisation is as a form of competition. Progressivism by its nature must take every idea a step further because it is a struggle among academics to achieve status, and so when postmodernism was eventually criticised, it was only for being insufficiently postmodernist. The writer bell hooks (whose capped down nom de plume pains my order-seeking conservative brain) took things to the next stage by criticising postmodernism, postmodern theory and postmodern feminism for excluding black people, women and the working class.
Her 1990 essay ‘Post-modern Blackness’ suggested that this was all ‘problematic’ and ‘given a pervasive politic of white supremacy which seeks to prevent the formation of radical black subjectivity, we cannot cavalierly dismiss a concern with identity politics.’
And people certainly didn’t, the academic promotion of ID politics multiplying ferociously over the next three decades to encompass every combination imaginable. There were even theories ‘in which the disabled and the fat are believed to have their own embodied knowledge of disability and fatness, which is worth more than scientific knowledge’, one result being the advertising industry’s newly-found, weird celebration of obesity, a toxic validation of bad life choices.
Then, in the 2010s, ‘a second significant evolutionary mutation in postmodernism occurred’, the focus now on looking for and highlighting ‘ways in which the oppressive problems they assume exist in society manifest themselves, sometimes quite subtly, in order to “make oppression visible.”’ This competitive search for oppression in all its forms has become a core part of social justice activism in the 2010s.
We have also seen the birth of bizarre concepts like ‘research justice’ in which scholars ‘preferentially cite women and minorities – and minimize citations of white western men – because empirical research that values knowledge production rooted in evidence and reasoned argument is an unfairly privileged cultural construct of white Westerners. It is therefore, in this view, a moral obligation to share the prestige of rigorous research with “other forms of research”, including superstition, spiritual beliefs, cultural traditions and beliefs, identity-based experiences, and emotional responses.’
In the 1980s and 90s postmodernism also fragmented into ‘postcolonial Theory, queer Theory, critical race Theory, intersectional feminism, disability studies, and fat studies’. Among the most influential ideas is queer theory, which derives from postmodernism ‘and is radically sceptical that these categories [of biology] are based in any biological reality… It thus ignores biology nearly completely (or places it downstream of socialization) and focuses upon them as social constructions perpetuated in language. This does little to encourage its accessibility with most people, who rightly see it as being quite mad.’
Then there is intersectional feminism, which holds that knowledge is ‘situated’ from one ‘standpoint’ in society, ‘by which they mean one’s membership in intersecting identity groups. This, in turn, renders objective truth unobtainable and ties knowledge to power and both knowledge and power to the discourses that are believed to create, maintain, and legitimize dominance and oppression within society.’
Even disability can be seen as something imposed by society. For ‘the self-described autistic, disabled, asexual, and genderqueer activist’ Lydia X.Y. Brown: ‘Ableism might describe the value system of ablenormativity which privileges the supposedly neurotypical and ablebodied, while disableism might describe the violent oppression targeting people whose bodyminds are deemed deviant and thus disabled. In other words, ableism is to heterosexism what disableism is to queerantagonism.’
Another academic, Dan Goodley, argued that it was the ‘neoliberal system’ that forced people to be fully autonomous and that ‘autonomy, independence, and rationality are virtues desired by neoliberal-ableism’, and that ‘modes of ableist cultural production and disabling material conditions can never be divorced from hetero/sexism, racism, homophobia, colonialism, imperialism, patriarchy and capitalism.’
Inevitably, these ideas have now spread into other areas. One paper from 2015 proposed that engineers should ‘demonstrate competence in the provision of sociotechnological services that are sensitive to dynamics of difference, power, and privilege among people and cultural groups’ The book Engineering and Social Justice, published by Purdue University Press, suggested ‘getting beyond views of truth as objective and absolute is the most fundamental change we need in engineering education’. The politicisation of respected journals like Scientific American and Nature is part of the process in which no area of life is free from ideology.
Today, ‘bias response teams’ exist in 200 US colleges, and in the UK ‘more than 50% of universities restrict speech, especially certain views of religion and trans identity’, but these ideas don’t stay in academia; they become part of the wider culture war and also enter the collective subconscious as a form of anti-wisdom. People just ‘know’ it to be true that bigotry is all-pervasive, and anyone who suggested otherwise would invite knowing sneers.
So while many people assumed that students would leave these ideas behind once they’ve graduated, ‘what if they simply take their beliefs out into the professional world and remake that world to suit them?’ For example, in the early 2000s an ascendant view within feminist thought in universities was that men and women were ‘constructions or representations… achieved through discourse, performance, and repetition – rather than “real” entities’. Even talk of men and women was becoming problematic, because what mattered was gender, behaviour and performance. These obscure discussions being held by little-known academics have snowballed into perhaps the biggest debating point in the English-speaking world, the most bitterly-fought theatre of the culture war.
Pluckrose and Lindsay conclude with a cri de coeur on behalf of liberalism, arguing that: ‘Although left-leaning liberals tend to favour the underdog, liberalism across the board centers human dignity; Theory focuses on victimhood. Liberalism encourages disagreement and debate as means to getting at the truth.
‘Liberalism believes in progress,’ they point out: ‘Theory is radically cynical about the possibility of progress.’ Yet liberalism remains vulnerable because ‘the willingness of liberal systems to accept self-criticism is, in fact, the feature of liberalism that critical methods like postmodern Theory exploit to undermine it.’
I’m sceptical as whether this sort of radicalism-divorced-from-reality-or-logic is not just the inevitable result of liberalism. On the one hand, these ideas are products of liberalism’s success, often voiced by people who would have been genuinely marginalised a few decades back. On the other, they are products of liberalism’s failure, in particular its promise of true equality. As that goal has remained ever distant, so critical theory has grown in popularity as an explanation for that failure.
‘Now that racial and sexual discrimination in the workplace was illegal and homosexuality was decriminalised throughout the West, the main barriers to social equality in the West were lingering prejudices, embodied in attitudes, assumptions, expectations, and language. For those tackling these less tangible problems, Theory, with its focus on systems of power and privilege perpetuated through discourses, might have been an ideal tool – except that, as it was wholly deconstructive, indiscriminately radically sceptical, and unpalatably nihilistic, it was not really fit for any productive purpose.’
Not fit for any productive purpose, yet it has grown, spread and flourished because it still conveys status in a precarious and overgrown industry, and is protected by taboo, taboos which insulate these theories from the mockery which has corroded so many absurd ideas before. This brings power and, as the authors argue, radicalism has become ‘a hegemonic ideology: an oppressive dominant discourse that acts in pursuit of power and therefore needs to be deconstructed and countered.’ It has ideological privilege.