Bad Faith, Worse People

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What the “Grievance Studies” Hoax Actually Reveals (slate.com)

Growing up in a city has a way of making you acutely aware of any time that city’s name is mentioned in a national setting, at least if that’s a relatively rare occurrence. Given that I’m old enough to remember when M*A*S*H was winding down its original run on CBS, you’d think that I would have been inured to mentions of Toledo at an early age, but that just didn’t happen; I can still remember watching the Fox show Herman’s Head (think a live-action Inside Out, only without any cuteness except for Yeardley Smith trying, and failing, to avoid sounding like Lisa Simpson) and wondering how often the characters would mention that the titular character was born and raised, like me, in Toledo. Maybe younger people who grew up with YouTube don’t have the same experience, but hearing the word “Toledo” on a national television show still makes me take notice after all these years.

The first time I heard Toledo mentioned in a film was Michael Moore’s first breakthrough documentary, Roger and Me. In one of the film’s first scenes, Moore shows the last car being made in a General Motors assembly plant in Michigan before its closure. Moore explains, in his voiceover, that in order to get inside the plant, he and his camera operators lied to the supervisors there, claiming that instead of being a film crew for a documentary that was seeking to expose the avarice of GM executives, they were a television news crew from Toledo. Because I was so young, my first reaction to the scene was thinking about how no one there looked like Jerry Anderson or any of the other Toledo television news people I’d been watching all my life; I needed time to realize that no one from Michigan would particularly know, or care, who local Toledo news reporters were, and so Moore’s facile lie was likely going to hoodwink nearly anyone he tried it on.

Deceptions like Moore’s, in the service of trying to prove a political point, almost always catch my attention. Although I don’t seek out Sacha Baron Cohen’s work (I have a DVD of Borat, but only because it was super-cheap when Circuit City was going out of business), it’s been impossible to ignore the headlines Who is America? has been generating, to say nothing of the teaser promotional videos that were plastered all over social media leading up to its debut. I still remember reading Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them when it first came out, and thinking how idiotic Franken was for thinking he could sneak himself onto the campus of Bob Jones University simply by cutting his hair, when his voice is so easily recognizable by anyone my age and older. (Franken, by the way, came to Toledo one Labour Day weekend when I was younger, to play his Stuart Smalley character for a young fan with muscular dystrophy during the local broadcast of the MDA Telethon.) These episodes, and all like them, raise interesting ethical questions about the legitimacy of lying to people in order to draw attention to perceived wrongs, or the use of bad faith to try to achieve good results. As important as those questions are, though, they’re often overshadowed by the spectacle of how the lies play out, especially when that playing out is done in the most eye-catching, media-grabbing ways possible.

This wave of hoax academic papers certainly succeeded not only in fooling publishers as to their authenticity, but also in attracting a lot of attention through their carefully-crafted concepts and titles. Even in this past week’s insane news cycle, this story managed to generate some headlines. In that respect, the hoax was definitely successful. However, through their own framing of the purpose of this hoax, the perpetrators of this stunt have shown that the only political point they’ve proven is that they’re a bunch of overprivileged bigots.

The process by which academic papers get accepted and published in peer-reviewed journals varies widely, depending on factors like the discipline the journal focuses on and the composition of its review board. Like all things created by human beings, these processes are imperfect, and those imperfections can be vulnerable to exploitation, which is why whenever these processes fail, they must be examined and refined in order to reduce the possibility of similar failures happening again. Such are the demands of reliably generating new human knowledge, which is ultimately the goal of all these journals, and the creation of new knowledge is one of the most noble pursuits there is.

About the only people who would dare to disagree with that last statement are those who have a vested interest in opposing the generation of new knowledge, so it should be no surprise that right-wingers have long had it out for not just these journals, but higher education in general. As academia became less and less of a rich white man’s monopoly in the sixties, and as left-wing students of that era agitated for even greater changes, the then-regrouping Goldwater Republicans set their sights on college and university campuses as a crucial battleground in their efforts to grind all their opponents under their boots. Even though these battles have rarely been front-page news for very long, they’ve continued on and off since long before I was born, and will likely continue until America simply ceases to be.

At first, conservatives fought against changes in higher education by claiming that “old-fashioned” education had worked for centuries, so it wasn’t in need of “fixing” by those on the left. As many people quickly pointed out, though, academia had only “worked” for rich white men, because they were the only ones who could even go to colleges and universities (or teach at them), and so the bodies of knowledge that were taught back then had negligible, if any, perspectives of anyone other than the ancestors of those same rich white men who made up the totality of both the student body and the faculty of these institutions. As a result, this “education” often served to indoctrinate students into the ideologies designed to preserve these same rich white men’s hegemony over not just academia, but the world as a whole. Conservatives then countered this by claiming that their opponents were trying to “politicize” education, as if right-wing views and opinions were somehow apolitical; when those attempts started to fail, the new rallying cry became the left’s practice of “identity politics,” which again implied that conservative politics somehow weren’t deeply tied into their own identities.

The use of the phrase “grievance studies” might have just been seen by some of us as another rhetorical switcheroo, another way for conservatives to try to reframe the same battle they’ve been fighting for almost fifty years now, were it not for the fact that when I first came upon that phrase several years ago in reference to academia, it was being used in white supremacist literature. The authors claimed that all the academic fields under that term — women’s studies, African-American studies, SAGA studies and the like — were “erasing white identity” by highlighting the systemic oppression of minorities in America and around the world, both past and present. While there were no overt calls to violence in the essays I read, the message that the authors were trying to send was clear: These academic studies were a grave threat to the power and privilege that so many white Americans enjoy simply by being born with a certain skin colour.

I have no way of knowing if the authors of these hoax papers knew of the history of the term “grievance studies” when they used it in reference to their stunt (and their views of American academia), so to be clear, I do not mean to imply that the authors are themselves white supremacists. What I do know is that in an age where known white supremacists are literally walking the halls of the White House, and hate crimes against minorities in America continue to rise as the attackers feel more and more emboldened by our current political climate, whatever the intentions of the authors may have been in their use of that phrase, the consequences of their word choice are likely to be the same.

By trying to delegitimize the academic study of the oppression of minorities, and thus the creation of new knowledge about those areas, right-wingers are not only attempting to fortify their privilege and all the harm that the weaponized use of that privilege causes other people, but are trying to deny minorities even the basic concepts and language necessary to articulate and express the effects of oppression, not only in terms of what they presently face, but also what happened to their ancestors. This isn’t to say that everyone who apes this wretched ideology is being consciously racist or sexist or homophobic or transphobic or what have you, but again, every attempt to undermine the study of how minorities are oppressed, regardless of its intent, is likely to come to the same result.

We in academia clearly need to address the flaws in the systems that allowed these hoax papers to get published, but as important as those efforts will be, they are trivial compared to the dire need for academia not only to defend itself from the scurrilous charges made by the perpetrators of this stunt, but to attack all those who would, accidentally or deliberately, cause minorities to suffer even more in their efforts to protect and weaponize their privilege. Too many have already suffered, especially these past few years, as that suffering has been simultaneously enhanced and denied by right-wingers. For the sake of all those we care about — from strangers I may never meet in my future travels, to all my friends back in Toledo — we have to fight with everything we have, especially at a time like this.

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