The Overlooked Messages of the Sokal-Squared Hoax

Few people seemed to have noticed that it was a put-down of academics concerned with racial issues, write Joel P. Christensen and Matthew A. Sears.

October 30, 2018
 
 
Istockphoto.com/Irina Griskova

By now we have all read too many summaries, critiques and defenses of the so-called Sokal-squared hoax perpetrated by a trio of self-declared liberal humanists who published some faux journal papers to unmask what they see as the absurdity of “grievance studies.” Some well-known academics have celebrated such performatively noble work, and conservative voices have lauded it as illuminating the nonsense and cultural rot that characterizes the intellectual labor and politics of the left wing of the academy.

Critics have rightly noted that the presentation of the project is deceptive -- the majority of their papers were rejected, and even those published were done so with significant criticism. Other people have pointed out that, while the trio has talked about postmodernism and identity politics in general, the focus in their publications has been on gender studies in particular. Yet most voices in the mainstream press have either not noticed or failed to point out that race is central to their project and that they specifically discredit and insult scholars who call attention to the social and cultural factors behind racism.

Concerns with race, however, pervade the trio’s work. In their mainstream reveal piece, they take aim at progressive stacking with puerile pranks, they jokingly rewrite Hitler’s Mein Kampf, they specify as among their targets “critical whiteness theory” and they have specifically mentioned “white fragility” -- linking to Robin DiAngelo’s seminal article on the topic. The rhetorical trick they are playing with this move is to sully the reputation of DiAngelo’s work implicitly by getting everyone to think of it in the same mind-set as their satirical dog rape without actually engaging in the substance of DiAngelo’s work. That is the academic equivalent of the fraudulent hit pieces on Planned Parenthood carried out a few years back which, although entirely disproved, remain popular in certain political circles.

For what it is worth, DiAngelo’s article is nothing like the work these authors have created or are specifically targeting. It is clearly written, with little jargon; it is well researched and transparently supported. Its contents might be upsetting to some readers, but that provides even more reason to engage with its conclusions carefully. To dismiss such theories as “buzzwords,” as one of the authors did recently, is disingenuous, at the very least. The authors’ invocation of DiAngelo’s work constitutes neither a sustained interrogation nor even a cursory examination: it is a cloying and underhanded condemnation by association with their own patent nonsense.

But we do fear that something darker is lurking in the background of this project. As anyone who has spent much time in online discussions can tell you, conservatives and their sympathizers often use “postmodernism” as a critical catch-all aimed at the modern academic and philosophical apparatus that supports, again, what they dismiss as “identity studies” and the like. Even though postmodernism is a term that embraces a range of often contradictory theories -- and is misunderstood by many of its critics -- it is used in opposition to a set of values that are upheld instead as “timeless,” “universal” and “true.”

And these values are also often characterized as “Western.” Many white nationalists and their allies assail postmodernism as their academic foe just as their less intellectually inclined peers attack diversity, multiculturalism and affirmative action. So when we see that the authors of this hoax repeatedly and deceptively attack the scholarship that explains concepts like white privilege and that they position postmodernism as their own personal bogeyman, it is not surprising that one of them is also a regular collaborator of an avowed white nationalist.

One of the three hoaxers, Peter Boghossian, who teaches philosophy at Portland State University, has appeared in the YouTube videos of Stefan Molyneux, who is notorious for his alt-right viewpoints. To be sure, Boghossian tends to speak about atheism with Molyneux, instead of Molyneux’s other favorite topics, like white nationalism and the supposedly lower IQ levels of black people. But the two are so fond of each other that Boghossian wrote the foreword to one of Molyneux’s books, while Molyneux provides a promotional blurb for Boghossian’s book.

As is becoming increasingly evident, one of the aims of the so-called New Atheist movement is to champion the kind of detached “rationality” that encourages us to ask whether genetic determinism, rather than oppression and discrimination, lies behind, say, the relative poverty of black Americans. It strikes us as troubling, to say the least, that one of the perpetrators of the hoax has worked so closely with one of the internet’s most prolific champions of “race science.” And, as we mentioned earlier, undermining the legitimacy of modern approaches to race and racism seems to be part of the hoaxers’ mission. For their part, the other two authors of the study, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, have co-opted and decontextualized the words of Martin Luther King Jr. to argue that King would have stood squarely against “identity politics,” a common tactic of those who worry about “reverse racism” against white people.

Part of the hoax of this hoax is that many journalists and a wide-reading audience have accepted that its authors are disaffected liberals who have learned the bitter truth of the lie of their fields. That may be the case -- but we have encountered many white nationalists who claim they used to be liberal until they learned about “reverse racism” (or something like that). If they read DiAngelo’s article carefully, they would understand that, in fact, they are feeling the deep disappointment and rage created by their own privilege. When confronted with a complex world where their expected success and accolades never materialize, some of our white peers fail to look to themselves for explanations.

The strategy this trio has executed is one that has become increasingly common: adopt the language and form of critical theory in a reductio ad absurdum and then clap your hands together and claim it is all wizardry and nonsense to begin with. That is not valid argumentation or scholarship, but it does make for good headlines and high click counts. It is why provocateurs continue to get space online and in print: they attract controversy and help struggling publications. But just because they attract attention does not mean they have anything substantive to say. It is bitterly disappointing that publications that focus on higher education are either so easily hoodwinked or eagerly in on the fix.

It is crucial to call out the racial aspects of this hoax and its put-down of academics who study and are concerned with racial issues. Either the authors do not understand the rhetoric they are engaging in and the harm it can have on others, or they fully know what they are doing. If the former case is true, they are naïve and need to be engaged in deeper conversations. If the latter is the case, then they should have to acknowledge the full implications of their aims.

Bio

Joel P. Christensen is associate professor of classical studies at Brandeis University. Matthew A. Sears is associate professor of classics and ancient history at the University of New Brunswick.

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