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What the 'Grievance Studies affair' says about academia's social justice warriors

What the 'Grievance Studies affair' says about academia's social justice warriors
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On April 20, some may celebrate the 131st birthday of a man who helped define the 20th century. An artist, philosopher and successful author and motivational speaker before his election to national office, he valued expertise. Once in office, the leader chose a cabinet of PhDs, lawyers and military officers. A vegetarian in his later years, his government broke new ground in animal rights and wildlife conservation.  

For all his (dubious) achievements, in 2018 the long dead Adolf Hitler gained an honor that eluded him in life: publishing in a peer-reviewed scholarly journal. Such publications earned me tenure at two universities. Given the intellectual climate in parts of academia, nowadays Hitler also might earn tenure. Segments of the Fuehrer’s “Mein Kampf” (My Struggle) — rebranded as “Our Struggle is My Struggle,” with postmodern jargon and citations arguing for solidarity among women, rather than Germans as in the original — earned publication in a feminist journal.  

Hitler was a posthumous beneficiary of the “Grievance Studies affair.” In the 10 months before the Wall Street Journal outed mischievous writers James A. Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose and Peter Boghossian, the trio had seven fake papers survive peer review in social justice-oriented scholarly journals, sufficient research productivity to earn tenure at most any university. The work of Lindsay, et al. makes a strong case that today’s social justice warriors (SJWs) in academic fields such as gender studies share unfortunate commonalities with the late Führer.

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Like Hitler, SJWs focus on “grievances”; hence, the appellation “grievance studies.” Hitler obsessed over supposed sins against the German people committed by parliamentary democracy, a free press and, most of all, Jews. SJWs obsess over toxic masculinity, white privilege and, well, Jews or at least Zionists. Just as “Mein Kampf” constantly castigated enemies, the grievance studies manuscripts targeted those omnipresent evil-doers: white heterosexual males.  

To be clear, we should never censor SJWs — indeed I have learned from and even produced some social justice-oriented writings. Yet, no responsible scholarly movement stands above criticism from opponents. Too much of today’s social justice discourse adopts a Manichean worldview, prejudging people as members of social groups rather than as individuals to be judged on their individual merits. Indeed, SJWs see merit as an inherently oppressive concept, and likewise oppose free speech as offensive. This renders scientific inquiry impossible, and generally accords more with totalitarianism than pluralism.  

German solidarity against oppressors served as a key theme for Hitler, who found mere “half-measures” in pursuit of group (i.e., social) justice unacceptable. Similarly, in much SJW discourse, entrenched, white heteronormative males can be defeated only through solidarity and relentless social justice campaigns. One grievance studies manuscript under “revise and resubmit” at a feminist journal advocated reparations-based teaching in which white males would sit in chains on classroom floors, ignored or derided, to atone for their centuries of privilege. A peer reviewer praised the paper for making “a strong contribution to the growing literature on addressing epistemic injustice in the classroom.” Can reeducation camps or worse be far behind?  

Such worldviews permit little humor. Another grievance studies paper, accepted for publication — “When the Joke Is on You: A Feminist Perspective on How Positionality Influences Satire” — portrayed even satirical critiques of social justice as illegitimate since they defend “privilege.” It takes little imagination to see how such arguments justify banning and burning offensive books, just as Nazis did.    

Grievance studies works routinely paint research by white males as inherently suspect, such as a widely cited (real) article calling for a new “feminist glaciology” to counter male ways of understanding ice. It is now common for some to be admonished to “Check your privilege” when critiquing the research of others. Does this really differ from Hitler’s supporters denouncing Albert Einstein’s ideas as “Jewish science,” rather than debating their merits? In short, just as patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, some use identity politics to hide shoddy scholarship. 

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As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt show in “The Coddling of the American Mind,” SJWs have had significant effects on academia, in speaker dis-invitations, Twitter mob denunciations, censorship, and by limiting the employment prospects of politically incorrect professors. Before any higher education bailout, Congress must hold hearings exposing these behaviors. State legislatures should follow suit.

Yet this is not just a failing of higher education and the left. Many on the left, including Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama: Republican Party members believe 'white males are victims' Texas warehouse where migrants housed in 'cages' closed for humane renovation North Carolina — still purple but up for grabs MORE and Joe BidenJoe BidenHarris says she has 'not yet' spoken to Pence Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year Obama: Republican Party members believe 'white males are victims' MORE, have spoken out against ideological uniformity. Outside the ivory tower, some on the right oppose free speech and intellectual diversity. 

On this anniversary of Hitler’s birthday, both inside and outside academia, across ideologies, people need to ask whether their actions might resemble those of the Führer, whether we celebrate intellectual solidarity or diversity. We can all do better, and professors should lead the way.   

Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. He co-edited “The Politically Correct University.”