gender studies rule, boys drool: “the conceptual penis” and sexist attempts to discredit feminist scholarship

I’ll be perfectly frank: when I first read “The Conceptual Penis” and the authors’ accompanying article explaining their hoax, I was SUPER pissed. I was a women’s and gender studies major in college; the discipline changed my life and my understanding of the world. I hold it in very high esteem (though that’s not to say there are no problems with the field, or with academia as a whole). Gender studies is very important to me personally, and it’s an extremely important addition and subversion of more mainstream and well-established academic departments. As you can tell, after cooling off for a couple of days, I’m now only a little bit pissed.

The hoax, which was published by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay (under pseudonyms) in the journal Cogent Social Sciences, was a play on a similar “hoax” by the physicist Alan Sokal in 1996. Sokal submitted a fake paper to a peer-reviewed journal as a prank that aimed to show that any article could be published in even fancy journals if it was filled with enough big words and run-on sentences to please postmodern academic sensibilities, and if it aligned with postmodern (left-of-center) ideology.

Inspired by Sokal, Boghossian and Lindsay submitted an article to Cogent titled, “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct.” In a piece that they wrote to explain the hoax, they say:

The paper was ridiculous by intention, essentially arguing that penises shouldn’t be thought of as male genital organs but as damaging social constructions. We made no attempt to find out what ‘post-structuralist discursive gender theory’ actually means. We assumed that if we were merely clear in our moral implications that maleness is intrinsically bad and that the penis is somehow at the root of it, we could get the paper published in a respectable journal…After completing the paper, we read it carefully to ensure it didn’t say anything meaningful, and as neither one of us could determine what it is actually about, we deemed it a success.”

Aside from the arrogant, smarmy tone of the piece (which is annoying but not really a substantive problem), there are some serious issues with the premise of their “hoax”:  it is, at its heart, a sexist attempt to discredit gender studies and not a genuine academic exploration; their theorizing is not, in fact, as silly as they make it sound; their own positionalities and ideologies prevent them from seeing the limitations of their “hoax;” and it’s simply bad scholarship with a conclusion that lacks supporting evidence and authors who intentionally obscure any evidence that contradicts their ideology, which is the exact crime they accuse gender studies of committing. To put it bluntly, they’re full of shit and are having a power trip by creating a sexist caricature of gender studies.

First and foremost, this is not an objective academic exercise or a genuine effort to expose problems in academia. It is an attempt to discredit gender/feminist studies as an overly emotional, man-hating field. Their primary criticisms of gender studies are that gender studies is too full of “academic puffery,” and that scholars in the field of gender studies are unable to do adequate intellectual work because their ideological biases (particularly their supposed anti-male bias) are too strong to overcome. (This, by the way, plays into longstanding, sexist stereotypes about women and other feminine folks being too emotional and irrational to be respected or agential people.)

Though they are certainly right in asserting that some gender studies scholars get off on writing dense and obscure theory, there is varying quality of research in every field of study so pointing out of the worst aspect of a discipline is not a particularly convincing argument that the discipline itself is broken.  I also agree that “academic puffery” is a problem, but please, show me a department that doesn’t have that problem! There has never been a time during which the academy was suffering any lack of arrogant, hyper-intellectual turds. This is not a gender studies problem. It is an academia problem.

If they were serious about exposing ideological biases in academic work, they could have picked any discipline or area of study because all academic work is done with specific values and ideologies in mind. I would argue that it would have been a much more interesting study if they had targeted a more mainstream field, given that most academics deny their biases, while gender studies scholars tend to be open about struggling against their ideological biases.  They chose to pick on gender studies, a department which is already marginalized within most academic spaces and certainly not a particularly powerful force in mainstream conversations or ideologies, in an attempt to…speak truth to power? Spare me.

Additionally, the way Boghossian and Lindsay frame their critique of gender studies is unbelievably patronizing and designed to make feminists and gender scholars look overly emotional and irrational. Though they claim otherwise, they clearly DO know something about poststructural gender theory, and by saying that they “made no attempt to find out” what it is, they delegitimize it as a serious body of theory by implying that any academic could come up with an acceptable fake article in that school of thought.

They also call postmodern feminist theory “morally fashionable nonsense,” and assert that they suspect “gender studies is crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil. On the evidence, our suspicion was justified.” Powerful white men say the darndest things! First of all, WHAT evidence? They published one article in one journal. Who gives a hoot? (I mean, I do, obviously. But it doesn’t “justify” anything from the standpoint of the all-powerful scientific method.) Second of all, if this is what they think of feminist theory, I have to imagine that they’re only reading feminist theory written by shitty, oppressive pseudo-feminists, but– surprise!– feminists have more complicated thoughts than “maleness is the root of all evil.”  I know there are some gender studies scholars and feminists who think that way, but it is a dishonest way to represent gender studies as a whole to people who may not be familiar with it. Responsible gender studies scholars should also be incorporating analyses of race, class, sexuality, citizenship, etc., and hopefully by this time, have a more nuanced understanding of gender than male = evil. Feminism is for trans men and masculine-of-center people; feminists have long advocated for the rights of men to embrace less violent masculinities. It is utter bullshit to say that gender studies has an “almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil.” It seems as though perhaps Bossinger and Lindsay are the ones with an almost-religious belief that gender studies and leftists are the root of all evil…too far? Sry.

Secondly, though they may think their conclusions are “ridiculous,” that doesn’t mean that their conclusions are, in fact, ridiculous. It means that they don’t believe in those conclusions, or that they don’t understand their own fake theorizing (or both), which is not the same as being untrue or nonsensical. What follows here is an example of their writing, about which they say, “No one knows what any of this means because it is complete nonsense. Anyone claiming to is pretending. Full stop.”

We conclude that penises are not best understood as the male sexual organ, or as a male reproductive organ, but instead as an enacted social construct that is both damaging and problematic for society and future generations. The conceptual penis presents significant problems for gender identity and reproductive identity within social and family dynamics, is exclusionary to disenfranchised communities based upon gender or reproductive identity, is an enduring source of abuse for women and other gender-marginalized groups and individuals, is the universal performative source of rape, and is the conceptual driver behind much of climate change.

I do agree with them that this is somewhat hyperbolic and problematic. Of course the penis is a literal sexual organ, and by now, I hope that feminists know that penises are not intrinsically connected to men (although the TERFs and the pink pussy hats are out there in force).  But reading this simply as a critique of hegemonic or traditional masculinity, it is perfectly reasonable. Masculinity (of the toxic varietyis damaging and problematic for society and future generations. The particular variety of capitalism we face, which is completely intertwined with the kind of gender system we have, is a main driver of climate change and environmental disasters. Competition, dominance over that which is perceived as weak, and certain forms of violence are all deified under both capitalism and patriarchy. I just don’t understand what is sooOOOOooOoOo absurd about this claim (but then again, I’m just a silly little girl without a Ph.D!).  The whole article is like this: problematic and exaggerated at times, but ultimately, it draws relatively unoriginal and innocuous conclusions about the harmful nature of hegemonic masculinity.  It strikes me that perhaps they just aren’t smart enough to grasp it. Irony!

Lastly, Boghossian and Lindsay are white men who are, respectively, philosophy and political science professors, two fields that are particularly notorious for racism and sexism.  Boghossian is also heavily involved in New Atheism, which is replete with misogyny and racism. It is really hard for me to not be suspicious of their motives and of their ability to write this kind of critique of gender studies.

Please don’t misunderstand me: it is absolutely possible for a white man to theorize about gender in interesting and thoughtful ways. Their identities do not preclude this, and I would never want someone to disengage from gender studies because they think they don’t have a place in it. I firmly believe that everyone should care about power, violence, oppression, and social identity, regardless of their own identities. However, this is not an example of thoughtful, interesting theory. This is an example of people who come from a world that is designed to affirm their identities, experiences, and worldviews being willfully ignorant about the impact of oppression on material realities, mental and physical health, self image, and more.  This is an example of people who are uncomfortable with the insights that postmodernism and feminism have to offer about themselves and their understandings of the world.

They also seem to think that it’s possible to do research and to theorize without bias and ideology, which is just untrue. Hard as it is to believe sometimes, academics are people, too, and all people have values, biases, experiences, and ideologies that shape how we interact with the world and how we perceive it. It’s simply impossible to leave that at the door when conducting research. True objectivity is a standard that nobody can reach. However, it is possible to mitigate the influence of internal biases and values in research when the researcher is willing to acknowledge and grapple with them. Feminist research methodologies explicitly advocate for this. If they truly think that political scientists and philosophers don’t have biases that come out in their research and theorizing, they’re deluding themselves. No one is exempt! Do you exist in the world? Do you have particular experiences and do you have any political beliefs? Then, yes, you do have biases. So do I. For example, I tend to think that dudes like Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay are turds who don’t have any business in shaming feminists until they get their acts together.

Additionally, they seem to think that it is undesirable in the first place to allow ideology or experience guide research in any way. While I’m not advocating for a lack of academic rigor or the use of anecdotal research to definitively answer research question, using an explicitly feminist lens is a central piece of feminist research. That doesn’t mean hating all men (a simplistic mischaracterization of feminists and feminism that tends to be used by misogynists and is almost never expressed seriously by feminists themselves), but rather analyzing the data produced during research with attention to power dynamics, gender, sexuality, race, class, nationality, and violence. It also means critiquing systemic oppression, and using research in a political way to further fight for justice.  I just don’t really see the problem with adhering to certain moral and ethical views. Morality and values need to have a place in schooling and research; Boghossian and Lindsay are taking issue with “leftist moral orthodoxy” in particular because they don’t see why these values are important, though I would guess (and hope) that they think other, more widely accepted ethical and moral standards for research are important.

I would also like to revisit the issue of “New Atheism” and want to draw attention to the fact that they published their explanation of the hoax in Skeptic magazine, which was founded and is edited by Michael Shermer, a very prominent atheist and science advocate. New Atheism, as a movement, is profoundly sexist and racist, and Shermer, as an individual, has been accused of rape. The idea of publishing a critique of feminist or gender studies in the magazine that represents a grossly sexist and racist movement and that is edited by an alleged rapist who has not been held accountable in the slightest by his community, shows a complete disregard for the serious problem of sexual violence. How can they be trusted to make reasonable critiques of gender studies when they collude with people who are known to hurt and hate women?  It is especially irksome that Shermer wrote this note above their article on the Skeptic website:

Every once in awhile it is necessary and desirable to expose extreme ideologies for what they are by carrying out their arguments and rhetoric to their logical and absurd conclusion, which is why we are proud to publish this expose of a hoaxed article published in a peer-reviewed journal today. Its ramifications are unknown but one hopes it will help rein in extremism in this and related areas.

Not only does it disgust me on a personal level that he would pretend that his ideology is pure truth while other ideologies are “extremist,” but it also really erodes the credibility of Boghossian and Lindsay’s entire effort! How can they think they are carrying out good scholarship by 1. targeting a small and marginalized discipline, 2. drawing extremely grand conclusions for a single experience, and 3. publishing in a magazine that characterizes gender studies as “extremist,” with no evidence? (And, by the way, if Shermer wants to play this game, here’s the “logical and absurd conclusion” of New Atheism: all religion is evil, atheists are the most oppressed minority in the United States and maybe the world, and science and scientists are neutral and objective. Well, guess what, Mikey?? Religion is just one of many human ideologies that has been used for good things and bad; an atheist won’t be president anytime soon, but atheists aren’t at any higher risk of interpersonal or structural violence, you big baby; and science is used most frequently in the service of the powerful, meaning that it was and continues to be a tool to oppress people using fake and shitty research. Ha, ha, your extremism is more ridiculous than mine!!!)

Even if I didn’t already care about gender studies, the fact that it pissed these two white dude academics off so much would be enough to pique my interest in the field. Their sexism and condescension won’t win, and their work will not stop anyone from seeking justice and striving for a better world.  And, since they love rationality so much, they would do well to remember that their one data point of bad scholarship is not a pattern, nor is it a cause for a moral crusade against gender/feminist studies.

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