Interview with Helen Pluckrose
‘POST TRUTH’, SHITTY SCIENCE & INTELLECTUAL TRIBALISM
Helen Pluckrose is a political writer, editor of Areo magazine and co-author Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody. She is one of three intellectuals (with Peter Boghossian and James A. Lindsay) that have recently come into international infamy by publishing a number of fake academic papers in a hoax known as ‘The Grievance Studies affair’.
The author’s intention was to expose ideologically driven biases in academia and highlight the problems in ‘grievance studies’. All the papers focused on queer, race, gender, fat, and sexuality studiesand by the time a journalist from the Wall Street Journal revealed the project, 4 of their 20 papers had actually been published in peer-reviewed academic journals. ‘The Grievance Studies affair’ questioned the integrity of modern academia and served as a miserable reminder of the post-truth era.
We spoke with Helen to better understand what is going on and how this was possible?
Can you briefly describe what the grievance studies hoax was?
We tend to not call it a hoax. What we did was take a lot of the ideas that are already out there and bought the worst of them together to argue even worse things, to show what they justified. We wanted to see if the certain claims we were 'testing' needed evidence - is there an ideological bias? They excepted quite a few of our ideas and we wanted to show people, mostly leftist academics, who aren't in support of this stuff but are very reluctant to admit that its really there and that’s its a problem.
Could you give us an example of one of the papers - actually can you tell us specifically about the one entitled 'Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks'? Still can’t believe it was accepted.
Its funny, everyone is interested in that one because it’s the funniest, it’s the silliest.
Yeah, in that one we argued that by looking at the way people interact with their dogs in dog parks we could conclude that both dog parks and nightclubs were both rape-condoning spaces, and that men could benefit from being trained like dogs. We were actually asked to include black feminist criminology in this and so we used various kinds of theories. But what we were really testing was this implicit bias thing going on now and the idea that racism and sexism is so deeply imbedded in society and in us that we don't even see it, so we're trying to dig it out in various ways. And we thought we could do something with that by discovering it in the way people respond to there dogs and make some type of argument that men have this deep sort of misogynistic bias in them which comes out in not so obvious ways, then they would except that. And they did. That one got a special award.
"They said we couldn't have examined 10,000 dogs genitals"
Was that the one where they said they didn't feel tricked because the paper actually made sense?
They said that about quite a few of the papers. They said we couldn't have examined 10,000 dogs genitals, so that was the criticism of that one, but its so ridiculous to suggest that if we had examined the genitals and made the notes that we claimed we made, then it would have been reasonable to claim that we should train men like dogs.
One of the papers that isn't getting any attention at all because its so dense, our flagship paper, called Hoax on Hoaxes. It makes an argument that there is no way to criticise social justice scholarship or activism and any attempt to do so is just an attempt to preserve privilege, and academic hoaxes are the epitome of this and they don't actually prove anything. We knew that this would essentially be the response to our work, so we got it out there, and that was the one that got accepted the quickest. And it really is quite alarming - it's saying that there just isn't a legitimate way for anyone not on-board with this ideology to criticise it.
Postmodernism keeps popping up as a major issue contributing to this new-era of intellectual tribalism, especially with identity, language, power, sexuality etc. Why do you think the postmodern narrative is so appealing and why is it still so prevalent?
It comes from a very specific conception of society, from the postmodernists, which got more explicitly politicised - in which society is dominated by systems and structures of power and people are positioned within them, depending on their race, their gender, their sexuality. So you know, as with all things there's a kernel of truth in that, we don't have to look too far back to see it being quite normal that men were more suited to leadership roles and that black and Irish people couldn't be trusted to do any brainwork - those ideas have been out there. But very often it kind of feels as though the social justice activists and scholars at the moment are talking to a 1950's society that doesn't really exist anymore. Of course there is still racism and sexism, but this idea that it's so deeply imbedded in society that we have to try and dig it out of everything is going a bit too far.
Many people that align themselves with the narrative of social justice clearly think they're on the right side of history and that they're of the same ilk as the civil rights movement. How are the two different?
James [James A Lindsay] and I wrote a piece called Identity Politics Does Not Continue the Work of the Civil Rights Movement, to address this specifically and released it a couple of days before the reveal - because we knew this was something that they were going to say to us. So when we look at the civil rights movement, what we're looking at is an appeal to universal human rights, there wasn't this 'well women should have rights because we're women' it was 'everybody should have rights, women are denied some, we need to sort this out, it isn't fair'. And that appeal is to human nature to people who want to think of themselves as liberal and as fair. You know, why are we excluding women, people of colour, why can't gay men have consensual sexual relationships? That’s what the civil rights movement was about, it wanted to give rights to people who didn't have them when they should have them.
Identity politics takes a very different tactic because it's looking at much more intangible ideas of power and privilege that are assumed to exist and it runs counter to the whole idea of universality of shared humanity and of individuality. Whereas the mainstream liberal idea was that everybody is an individual and they must have access to all that our shared society has to offer, some people don't, this is wrong, we have to fix this. But what we've got with identity politics is everybody has a different knowledge, a different experience based on their identity, only they can speak to this knowledge - there are special needs for every group that needs to be considered - what we think of now as true science and reason is just one construct and we need to get other ways of knowing in there. This is a very different conception. It's not the universal liberal conception that focuses on the individual.
It is a bit weird and dispiriting that we're in this situation, feels like a step backwards. What actually caused the rise of this social justice/identity politics movement?
This is long and complicated. I'd direct you to two pieces of mine, How the French Intellectuals Ruined the West, its a bit clickbaity but the essay itself is much more measured and No, Postmodernism Isn't Dead. That traces the stages of it. We had the original postmodernists in the late 1960s, there was a disillusionment with Marxism which has been the defining ideology of the left and this new intellectual current came about with a small number of very prolific writers from the late 60s to mid 80s and they just wanted to deconstruct everything, they thought there were so many meta-narratives out there; Christianity was one, Marxism was one, science was one - everything was just hung together and wasn't real - they wanted to pick it apart to see the problem with it. And then from the mid 80's we saw a second wave of it with intersectionality, Judith Butler, post-colonial studies etc., pointed out that you can't actually do anything with postmodernism - it takes things apart but there’s no aim to it and so they wanted to move it on to a politically actionable phase. There were a number of essays that come in the late 80's from various disciplines, saying 'ok, we need to take some of this social constructiveness and truth as a product of power being perpetuated by language etc. - that’s all good we want to keep that, but we've got to be able to do something with it'. Then there came 'we have to accept an objective truth that discrimination exists and that systems of power exist'. And then we have a change, we're seeing less of the dense theoretical texts pulling everything apart and we're seeing instead intense focuses on identity and systems of power and how they're working in society. This has come on at the end of the civil rights movement, so as feminism, gay pride and the civil rights movement had achieved legal equality, it started to show diminishing returns and what was left to sort out was the social stigmas of things - we can say that you cannot discriminate against race or sex but people can still be prejudice and that can still effect society, so there was still some work to be done. And this social justice formation and collection of academic theories that were coming out at the time made that much more actionable, it gave it a framework. Its a strange thing where it come away from Marxism in the first place, went into postmodernism, then its come back again and joined with social movements right at the time where we're seeing the end of Jim Crow, the fall of empire - people are looking back at this very recent history with an awareness of how wrong it has been and wanting to do something about that. This new actionable social justice movement coming on top of that gives a direction.
So what can be done to bring about the end of all of this identity politics?
Because its rooted in postmodernism and there isn't one truth, its going to tear itself apart anyway and we're seeing it doing that. There’s going to be conflicts between, for example, a support of various cultural groups, LGBT rights and those that don't support LGBT rights. So its fragmenting itself, its getting increasingly ridiculous, more and more people are seeing the problem with it, but there’s still some reluctance to speak out about it, because who wants to be against social justice? Nobody. What I think we need to do is look very closely and very clearly at the problems and that’s what we've tried to do. We've tried to say, 'yes gender equality is important, racial equality is important, LGBT equality is important, but it needs to be done properly it needs to be done with an eye to evidence and consistency. Universal human rights; this is what the majority of people want. There was a big survey recently in the US which showed that something like only 12% of people think that identity politics and the political correctness branch is a good idea, that means the majority of us don't think that, we just want things to be fair.
That makes sense - people that are pushing these ideas have the loudest voice and get a lot of attention. I didn't know that statistic, but it doesn't surprise me that it’s only 12%.
Yeah I think that it was 12% of people are far left and 8% of people are far right, so there’s a great big per cent of people who are not extremists at all and who really need to be pushing back at both the irrational and illiberal extremes. James and I wrote A Manifesto Against the Enemies of Modernity, which criticises both the far left and the far right - I mean, I'm not a great fan of Horseshoe Theory to be honest.
Your colleague Peter Boghossian has spoken about just how bad the backlash has been with the hoax, how he has been threatened and shunned on and off the college campus he works at. He was spat on as well wasn't he?
Have you also experienced anything similar and did any of you expect this?
I'm fairly secluded, I'm just outside London and I'm not going on to campuses so I get most of my abuse over the internet. But when I went to Portland to do a talk with James Damore I saw exactly what Peter is dealing with. It was surreal, we had to have conversations with the police regularly about whether or not threats of grenades, bricks and dirty nappies were credible or not, we had to turn up early and be hidden in a back room, we had to hire bodyguards, we had to be escorted by police. And all we wanted to say was that equal access to tech for both men and women is important but men and women might have different interests on average, so it may not ever be 50/50 - and that there other ways to attract more women into tech - if we actually pay attention to psychology. But Portland is a strange place and I am very worried about Peter. He had someone follow him into the bathroom of a pub - and Peter's thing is "lets talk, lets talk to everybody, everybody needs to talk' - Peter said to him 'why wont you just talk to me' and the guy said 'I don't want to talk to you, I want to hurt you'. So yeah we're most worried about Peter to be honest.
Concerning the 'post-truth' era Yuval Noah Harari wrote 'to get reliable information, read peer-reviewed academic articles and books published by well-known academic publishers and the writings of professors from reputable institutions'. Is this still good advice?
Well no. Not generally. You need to look at what’s being said, I think people like Robin DiAngelo are very reputable, but Areo have just published a couple of good breakdowns of her methodology and her general approach and the problems with it. So it depends what you are looking for, that’s really what its about, are we looking at evidence based epistemology or is it theory mixed with ideology? What we're finding coming out of these disciplines is really just a mix of theory and ideology that is built on itself. So you can say well look at all the research, look at everything that’s out there - but you see that it’s all citing each other. Its actually very similar to how theology developed and how it got so complicated - you start with a premise and then people are just building on that premise, and there’s a kind of internal logic, but the starting point isn't substantiated.
Illustration and artwork by Steven Morgana