Peter Boghossian has a schtick: he presents some simple, logical rules that are great for smacking down irrational claims and getting people to engage in critical thinking, and he shows how they can be applied effectively to ideas he doesn’t like. But then he pulls a switcheroo, and starts promoting his own biases, and never applies his own tools to them. It’s weird, annoying, and inconsistent, and it means I can never take him seriously. In his case, it’s obvious who shaves the barber — it’s no one, and he runs around absurdly unkempt and shaggy.
Siobhan does a marvelous and entertaining job of tearing Boghossian down. Go read that. I could just stop here, case closed, Siobhan has hammered all the high points, but I can’t help myself: Boghossian punched a few of my buttons, so I have to be all superfluous and redundant.
There’s the “It’s all the Left’s fault!” mantra, which we’ve heard from the Sam Harris wing before.
It’s fascinating. I would be lying to you if I told that I wasn’t genuinely concerned about Trump’s presidency. I think the Left bears considerable responsibility in him being elected.
I think Boghossian would have no problem dealing with an accusation that “it’s atheists like you who make people turn to Jesus!”, but somehow he can’t recognize the inconsistency here. People who voted for Trump got him elected, not the people who didn’t vote for Trump. You could legitimately argue that poor decision-making and over-confidence by the Left contributed to Clinton’s loss, but let’s not let the people who pulled the lever for the horrible plutocrat off the hook. Do you deny them agency?
But here’s another thing that bugs me: what side are you on? If you yourself are a left-leaning, social justice, anti-racism and misogyny type (as they all say they are), why are the complaints always phrased as “they lost the election” rather than “we lost the election”? These guys always refer to the losers in the second or third person, distancing themselves from the outcome. If you’re aligning yourself with the right wing, be confident and say so. Again, apply your reasoning to yourself. Are you willing to bear some of the responsibility for this election? What will you do in the future? Besides blaming everyone else.
Then there’s his small-minded version of post-modernism.
Disciplines such as gender studies don’t have a dialectic. They’re not truth seeking enterprises. They think they’ve already found they truth and exist to indoctrinate students. There is no dialectic at the core of those disciplines like there is in philosophy. And there are profoundly negative consequences for peoples’ views of reality — it untethers them from what’s real.
This is so completely, utterly the reverse of the truth. Post-modernism does have a very severe dialectic, and in fact is all about dialectics, which I’ll remind Boghossian is the discipline of investigating or discussing the truth of opinions. It is actually the very heart of skepticism, although most people who call themselves skeptics are more interested in bigoted dismissal than, you know, investigating it. I’ve written about postmodernism before, so I’ll just quote Michael Bérubé here:
Sokal’s admirers have projected almost anything they desire–and they have desired many things. In early 1997, Sokal came to the University of Illinois, and quite graciously offered to share the stage with me so that we could have a debate about the relation of postmodern philosophy to politics. It was there that I first unveiled my counterargument, namely, that the world really is divvied up into “brute fact” and “social fact,” just as philosopher John Searle says it is, but the distinction between brute fact and social fact is itself a social fact, not a brute fact, which is why the history of science is so interesting. Moreover, there are many things–like Down syndrome, as my second son has taught me–that reside squarely at the intersection between brute fact and social fact, such that new social facts (like policies of inclusion and early intervention) can help determine the brute facts of people’s lives (like their health and well-being).
I love that counterargument. People like Boghossian like to thunder about how they know precisely what a fact is, yet never seem to recognize how strongly shaped their version of “fact” is conditioned by their social world, and never consider the possibility that social facts can represent a significant truth. Consider race, for instance. Race is scientific nonsense; people’s perception of “race” does not coincide with the patterns of descent they purport, and ought not to be used to justify the discrimination and prejudices they endorse. But at the same time, race is a social fact, and ignoring those perceptions has “profoundly negative consequences for peoples’ views of reality”. Declaring that all humans came from Africa is true, but doesn’t do a thing to negate the harsh realities of how society’s have judged humans on the basis of their skin color.
Denying social facts, as Boghossian does, is harmful.
Boghossian’s specific rant in this case is about gender, and again, he scores an own goal by failing to perceive his own social facts. In response to a quote from a transgender studies professor who rightly points out that biological sex is a complex, messy topic that doesn’t divide neatly into the boy-girl binary, he makes this ranting non-argument.
That is the most asinine, ridiculous, preposterous piece of ideological tripe. The only way someone could possibly believe that is they’ve been sufficiently indoctrinated by radical Leftists. I was once covering a lecture for a colleague and this topic came up. I said: “If sex were really a cultural construction, why don’t men menstruate? Why don’t men have babies? Why are there no women on professional football teams?” And an individual from the back of the class got up and started yelling, “Fuck you,” gave me the middle finger, shouted at me and stormed out of class.
That student did the right thing, and I give them credit for speaking out. Professors are supposed to be informed on a subject, and Boghossian just outed himself as an ignoramus.
He’s a philosopher, for dog’s sake, and he just proudly created an ontological framework and declared it to be an absolute. Women are people who menstruate, have babies, and don’t play football; men are people who don’t menstruate, don’t have babies, and play football.
Is he even aware of how intensely socially constructed his list is? Does he consider all the exceptions? He’s blitheringly oblivious. If I declared that, for example, women have long hair and men have short hair (which is not as absurd as it sounds — Americans of my parent’s generation took that as a fact), then I have just made Rachel Maddow a man and Fabio a woman. If you bounce back and rightly explain that there are multiple factors, not just one criterion, then you have admitted that the gender binary is already false. Thanks for doing my job for me.
And if you try to play the “biological reality!” card, I’ll just point out all the exceptions to your claims that women menstruate (not all do), women have babies (childless women aren’t men), XX chromosomes (not always), and anatomy.
Boghossian is not a biologist, yet he’s always claiming biological authority for his narrow-minded views. He’s a lot like creationists that way.
Boghossian ends by citing his supporting sources, which is a good idea, but in his case, undermines everything he says. Who supports him? Dave Rubin, a right-wing pundit on youtube. Christina Hoff Sommers, anti-feminist hack and lackey of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. Joe Rogan, misogynistic and unfunny comedian. And a Twitter account I’d never heard of before, @RealPeerReview, which is nothing but a person loudly laughing at gender studies articles they don’t understand. Some of those papers are terrible, I agree, but I seem to have frequently found papers in biology that are terrible (it’s actually not hard to do at all), and yet I don’t think all of biology is wrong, because I understand the theory and the evidence behind what I criticize. I can’t say that for Boghossian’s sources.
Goddamn, but organized atheism has enabled a lot of cocky asswits who like to hide behind “objective reality”.