The Hoax That Backfired: How an Attempt to Discredit Gender Studies Will Only Strengthen It

The latest academic stunt to receive widespread coverage raises interesting points about vanity journals and peer review, but we must also question the motives of the authors.
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The latest academic stunt to receive widespread coverage raises interesting points about vanity journals and peer review, but we must also question the motives of the authors.
The visitors center at Portland State University, where Peter Boghossian is an assistant professor of philosophy.

The visitors center at Portland State University, where Peter Boghossian is an assistant professor of philosophy.

The most recent stunt to roil the academic waters took about 3,000 words and focused on the penis. The authors, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay—a philosopher and a mathematician—co-authored a purposefully bogus paper ("The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct") in which they promoted the proposition that "The penis vis-à-vis maleness is an incoherent construct."

The piece, as intended, is complete nonsense. Parodying postmodern jargon, the authors explain how "penises are not best understood as the male sexual organ, but instead as an enacted social construct." The paper posits that "manspreading"—the habit many a gentleman has of sitting with legs wide apart (usually on public transportation)—"is akin to raping the empty space around him." The authors even insist that, via manspreading, the "conceptual cause" of global warming is, you got it, the penis. They do not call for publically sanctioned mass castration. But, had they done so, it would have fit within the paper's general tone and thematic vision.

The spoof was accepted by a peer-reviewed journal called Cogent Social Sciences. Needless to say, the authors' revelation of their hoax rankled critics supportive of gender studies. More than any other point, the critics argued that the open-access journal that accepted the article was a pay-to-publish junk job, and therefore not an accurate reflection of the discipline itself. As Salon explained, "It is, of course, in the pecuniary interest of pay-to-publish journals to accept papers regardless of quality terrible articles that should have never passed peer review are published in these journals all the time." Slate noted—quite correctly—that the hoax was hardly a takedown of gender studies per se (as the authors themselves suggested it was), and then hypothesized, somewhat haphazardly, that the hoaxers probably have some sort of "phallic anxiety."

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However the authors might feel about their own genitalia, their move will most likely backfire. The condemnation of the vanity journal that published their ridiculous article—although important—is only a starting point for understanding the paradoxical implications of this stunt. One should, for starters, assess the authors' intentions. They purport, in their trumped up revelation, to have damaged the credibility of the entire intellectual project known as gender studies (they also, to be fair, have a lot of sensible points to make about peer review and vanity journals). Based on their claim to have harmed gender studies, one might reasonably conclude that these scholars disapprove of studying gender—at least the way it's often done—and that, therefore, they explicitly intended their hoax to inhibit progress in that direction.

But by the authors' own acknowledgment, such a justification is misguided. Such hoaxes—even when done well—do nothing to halt the popularity of the discipline. In one of the few assessments of the long-term impact of the famous Sokal hoax—an exquisitely executed trick that took aim at the jargon clotted field of cultural studies—The Weekly Standard concluded that, "No lessons seem to have been learned from the hoax: The trends that Sokal spoofed remain trendy in academic liberal arts." Boghossian and Lindsay concede as much, writing, "As a matter of deeper concern, there is unfortunately some reason to believe that our hoax will not break the relevant spell."

So here's what can be said for certain about the authors' intentions: Boghossian and Lindsay made it clear that they have real problems with gender studies; they had a suspicion that their gambit would not harm gender studies as a field; and yet they proceeded with their hoax anyway, wanting so badly to carry it out that, after the paper was rejected by one journal, they persisted in finding a home for it in the pay-to-publish swamp. It thus stands to reason that there must have been another intention driving this hoax.

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To hypothesize our way toward what that might be, it's worth paying attention to the tone of the authors' post-publication assessment of their hoax:

It gets worse. Not only is the text ridiculous, so are the references. Most of our references are quotations from papers and figures in the field that barely make sense in the context of the text. Others were obtained by searching keywords and grabbing papers that sounded plausibly connected to words we cited. We read exactly zero of the sources we cited, by intention, as part of the hoax. And it gets still worse....


We didn't try to make the paper coherent; instead, we stuffed it full of jargon (like "discursive" and "isomorphism"), nonsense (like arguing that hypermasculine men are both inside and outside of certain discourses at the same time), red-flag phrases (like "pre-post-patriarchal society"), lewd references to slang terms for the penis, insulting phrasing regarding men (including referring to some men who choose not to have children as being "unable to coerce a mate"). ... 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.

This is the rhetoric of humiliation. According to Neel Burton, writing in Psychology Today: "To humiliate someone is to assert power over him by denying and destroying his status claims. To this day, humiliation remains a common form of punishment, abuse, and oppression." Humiliation, furthermore, can also serve to "enforce a particular social order." It follows that, in light of these motives, "humiliating someone, even a criminal, is rarely, if ever, a proportionate or justified response." It is, most critically, a fundamentally different beast than embarrassment.

In the most recent scholarly effort to define humiliation precisely, the authors conclude: "humiliation is defined by feeling powerless, small, and inferior in a situation in which one is brought down and in which an audience is present – which may contribute to these diminutive feelings – leading the person to appraise the situation as unfair and resulting in a mix of emotions, most notably disappointment, anger, and shame."

This, I would suggest, is what Boghossian and Lindsay were attempting to achieve when they submitted their bogus article for publication. They wanted to do something completely different than discredit the entire field of gender studies. They wanted to humiliate all those who are in it. Which is to say, they were being bullies.

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That's where the stunt backfires. According to the Tyler Clementi Foundation, bullying targets victims "on the basis of their sex, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical appearance and/or disability." Boghossian and Lindsay are white men working in the most male-dominated academic fields (philosophy and math) attempting to humiliate through bullying one of the few academic fields dominated by women. In our current political climate—thriving as it does on shamelessness and humiliation—this scenario, as the motives become increasingly transparent, only calls for kind of scrutiny and understanding that gender studies can provide.