When The Joke Is On You

I had no idea.

We have Charles’ five assertions. We now conduct an empirical investigation, examining all the individuals in the universe. We might suppose that Charles intends the word “Caesar” to signify or designate Prasutagus (who, as every schoolboy knows, is the husband of Boadicea). On this supposition (5) could be called true and all the rest would have to be called false. Or we might suppose that “Caesar” signifies the historical Julius Caesar, in which case (l)-(4) could be called true and (5) would have to be called false. There do not seem to be any other candidates since any number of persons must have conquered Gaul and/or crossed the Rubicon and /or used the ablative absolute to excess. And so we act on what might be called the Principle of Charity. We select as designatum that individual which will make the largest possible number of Charles’ statements true.

Wilson, N. L. “Substances without Substrata.” The Review of Metaphysics 12, no. 4 (1959): 521–39.

Apparently, the “Principle of Charity” was never named until the second half of the 20th century! My philosophy classes made it obvious that the concept existed well before then, yet apparently no philosopher had valued it enough attach a name. For those in the dark, the “Principle of Charity” is that when critiquing an argument, you should consider the most rational variation of it. You might know this better as “steel-personing.”

Most opposition to abortion relies on the premise that the fetus is a human being, a person, from the moment of conception. The premise is argued for, but, as I think, not well. Take, for example, the most common argument. We are asked to notice that the development of a human being from conception through birth into childhood is continuous; then it is said that to draw a line, to choose a point in this development and say “before this point the thing is not a person, after this point it is a person” is to make an arbitrary choice, a choice for which in the nature of things no good reason can be given. It is concluded that the fetus is. or anyway that we had better say it is, a person from the moment of conception. But this conclusion does not follow. Similar things might be said about the development of an acorn into an oak trees, and it does not follow that acorns are oak trees, or that we had better say they are.

Thomson, Judith Jarvis. “A defense of abortion.” Biomedical ethics and the law. Springer, Boston, MA, 1976. 39-54.

The Principle creates a distinct pattern: describe your opponent’s view as strongly as possible, then poke holes in it. Thomson does the entire arc in her opening paragraph, and quite a few afterward, but her entire defense of abortion is one long version of this. She makes it clear that she doesn’t think a fetus should immediately be granted full personhood, and all the human rights associated with that, but nonetheless grants it full rights. Thomson proceeds to defend abortion anyway, on the grounds that we value personal property more highly than the right to life. I definitely recommend reading her paper, as (if successful) it renders the primary argument of anti-choicers irrelevant.

This article will argue that humor, in particular irony and satire, when used in the service of criticizing oppressive power structures and especially by members of marginalized groups, is a potentially powerful tool for increasing receptivity and recognition of other ways of knowing and experiencing society. […] However, when these same ironic, satirical, double-voiced tools of humor are used by members of dominant groups to disparage, mock, or discredit marginalized groups or social justice scholarship that seeks to make oppression visible, they serve no such purpose but rather perpetuate dominant epistemologies and power structures.

Baldwin, Richard. “When the Joke Is on You: A Feminist Perspective on How Positionality Influences Satire (RETRACTED).” Hypatia. pg. 2

Which brings us to another “hoax” paper of PB&J. There’s two main points on offer here, and both of them are quite plausible.

Beyond humor’s important personal and therapeutic benefits, its role in the lives of disadvantaged groups and its iconoclastic function in society give it a special connection to social work. Throughout history humor has provided a safe way for marginalized people to criticize oppressive social orders. Because humor operates on multiple levels of meaning, its critical dimension is shielded from the punitive response that a direct critique would engender. Bowles (1994) commented: “Within the long tradition of Black comedy there exists.., the subculture which aims its criticisms and aggressions at the dominant culture in such a way that it is not recognized as dangerous, and thus passes by societal censors as non-threatening” (p. 4). Similarly, Benton (1988) claimed that 19th century Jews living in Eastern Europe and tsarist Russia invented the political joke as a way of criticizing their political oppressors in a way that would not result in destructive reprisals.

For these groups and others, humor may serve an unmasking function–showing the contrast between what something appears to be and what it is in actuality.

This unmasking can be an insightful social critique that “reveals the `dirt’ behind reputable institutions, roles, groups, and individuals: the government, the bureaucracy, the professions, the rich, the powerful, the celebrated” (Davis, 1993, p. 157). In this function, humor is similar to social inquiry approaches that attempt to make the implicit explicit and reveal the discrepancy between what is manifest and what is latent (compare Davis, 1993).

Witkin SL. “Taking Humor Seriously.” Social Work 44, no. 2 (March 1999): 101–4.

This special issue features nine articles that expand upon [William H.] Martineau’s work [on disparagement humour]. …

Ford, Richardson, and Petit first review contemporary research on the relationship between disparagement humor and prejudice. The authors conclude that initiating or reciting disparagement humor can make one more prejudiced toward the disparaged out-group. Exposure to disparagement humor initiated by others, however, does not make one more prejudiced but it does create conditions that allow one to express existing prejudice without fears of reprisals.

Ford, Thomas E. “The Social Consequences of Disparagement Humor: Introduction and Overview.” HUMOR 28, no. 2 (January 1, 2015). https://doi.org/10.1515/humor-2015-0016.

Those two citations were drawn from their paper, the latter of which builds on about forty years worth of prior scientific research. At first, this looks like another example of PB&J taking a plausible idea and painting it as absurd. But dig a bit more, and you find they’re aiming for something else.

Purpose: To see if journals will accept a blatant double standard where it comes to criticizing fields dedicated to social justice. (As Hoax on Hoaxes 2 demonstrates, this hypothesis wasn’t entirely wrong.)

There’s two versions of this paper; the first, “Hegemonic Academic Bullying: The Ethics of Sokal-style Hoax Papers on Gender Studies,” was so poor it never made it past an editor’s desk and was retired. Rather than give up, PB&J changed the thesis to focus on humour and buried the hoax-related portions at the back, a milder version of what the “Dog Park” paper did with the “training men like dogs” bits. The same charge of hypocrisy was smuggled into version two-point-zero.

Purpose: There is simply no acceptable way to critique social justice scholarship, even if one engages fully and knowledgeably with the ideas to the extent of having a paper on them published in a leading academic journal.

So their true argument is more along the lines of this:

  1. Humour can be a useful tool for social justice activists when critiquing societal power structures.
  2. Humour used to disparage social justice scholarship perpetuates the power structures that scholarship is examining.
  3. Ergo, social justice scholarship cannot be critiqued.
  4. Via reductio ad absurdum, either points 1 or 2 must be false.

But that can’t be exactly it, because “humour” and “critique” aren’t synonymous. Both versions deal with hoaxes, one explicitly and one tangentially, so we can steel-person the argument into something more plausible.

  1. Humour can be a useful tool for social justice activists when critiquing societal power structures.
  2. Humour used to disparage social justice scholarship perpetuates the power structures that scholarship is examining.
  3. Academic hoaxes are a form of humour.
  4. Ergo, social justice scholarship cannot be academically hoaxed.
  5. Via reductio ad absurdum, either points 1 or 2 must be false.

Except even that isn’t quite there. “Humour” isn’t created equally, the most toxic form of it appears to be irony and satire. PB&J continually reference those two instead of the generic case, and their citations for point 2 are all on disparagement humour. So let’s steel things further.

  1. Disparagement humour can be a useful tool for social justice activists when critiquing societal power structures.
  2. Disparagement humour used to disparage social justice scholarship perpetuates the power structures that scholarship is examining.
  3. Academic hoaxes are a form of disparagement humour.
  4. Ergo, social justice scholarship cannot be academically hoaxed.
  5. Via reductio ad absurdum, either points 1 or 2 must be false.

You can see why they were desperate to get this one published, it feeds directly into their hoax and their charge of “grievance studies.” Alas, even in the strongest version of their argument every single premise is false.

  1. “Can be” is a hypothetical; I could reduce the prevalence of sexual assault by killing half of all men, but there’s a billion good reasons not to. Their citations for the use of humour by social justice activists doesn’t establish the common usage of disparagement humour. Finally, disparagement humour gets its teeth from denigrating classes of people for attributes or behaviors they don’t possess; mocking systems, or individuals and classes of people who do unethical things does not qualify as disparagement humour, yet it’s precisely that sort of humour that social justice activists tend to engage in.
  2. Disparagement humour targets classes of people, not systems, so you cannot disparage “scholarship.” You might be using “scholarship” as a proxy for “scholars,” much as “Islam” can be a proxy for “Muslims,” but if that’s the case you’re not actually using point 2 as a premise.
  3. Not all academic hoaxes are disparagement humour. SCIgen shaded that way, perhaps, but all the other academic hoaxes I’ve mentioned didn’t. Even PB&J’s own “hoax” was framed as a “serious ethnographic inquiry” rather than a prank. If not all hoaxes are humour, then some hoaxes are legit critiques.
  4. We’re using inductive reasoning, so deductive logic isn’t guaranteed to work. Consider: Nearly all US citizens are not the FLOTUS. This person is a US citizen. Ergo, they are not the FLOTUS. We can repair that by saying “they are almost certainly not,” but the same logic applies to point 4. “Is difficult to” and “cannot be” have distinct meanings.
  5. The prior point also defeats this one. In addition, reductio ad absurdum relies on reaching a contradiction. There’s no contradiction here, because “critiquing power structures” and “disparaging social justice scholarship” are two different contexts. Consider a jester throwing a pie at the queen, verses a queen throwing a pie at a jester; the former is poking fun at the powerful, the latter is bullying the weak. The power differential makes all the difference in the example, and it’s the same for points 1 and 2.

Even if we artificially strengthen their argument, it can’t even follow the basic rules of logic. So it should come as no surprise to also learn PB&J don’t even understand the Principle of Charity.

Purpose: … This paper is also to anticipate and show understanding of the feminist epistemological arguments against our project and demonstrate their high estimation in the field by having them accepted in the leading academic journal of feminist philosophy. …

That’s a setup for invoking the Principle, but notice what’s missing: the follow-through. The whole point of building up the strongest version of your opponent’s argument is to tear it down, yet the only tear-downs they offer are “the concepts are absurd” and “constructivism is wrong.” That which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence, so there’s no actual tear-down.

What they’ve done is built up a strong counter-argument to academic hoaxes, over the course of months of study and effort … then continued their academic hoax! That’s deeply irrational, even more so than the Trump supporter who insists Trump was against the war in Iraq despite contradictory evidence, because that supporter didn’t dig up the contradictory evidence themselves.

Purpose: … Also, that we could publish a paper criticizing “The Conceptual Penis” which actually cites us (again, not entirely wrong).

Purpose: … That is, to criticize our work that way, they have to cite us. It is also ironically titled “When the Joke Is on You.”

When the Joke Is on You” is only ironic if PB&J’s goal was not education, but satire or humiliation. Think about it: why would other scholars “have to cite” them? Their argument isn’t very novel, their own citations show all the pieces have been sitting around for decades. But imagine the mindset of a scholar that’s going to respond to their hoax, only to find the best argument against it was written by the hoaxers themselves; that would be quite humiliating, if it occurred. PB&J were pretty desperate to get this paper published, so much so that they attempted a second version despite declaring the first to be a failure and retiring it. Every other paper got less effort, and wasn’t revived after being retired … with one notable exception.

= “White Mein Kampf” or “WMK” =

Purpose: To see if we could find “theory” to make anything (in this case, selected sections of Mein Kampf in which Hitler criticizes Jews, replacing Jews with white people and/or whiteness) acceptable to journals if we mixed and matched fashionable arguments.

Status: Rejected after Peer Review.

= “Fem-Mein Kampf” or “FemMK” =

Thesis: … It is just an adaptation to feminism of the first draft of “White Mein Kampf.”

Purpose: To see if we could find “theory” to make anything (in this case, sections of Mein Kampf in which Hitler criticizes Jews, replacing Jews with men or patriarchy) acceptable to journals if we mixed and matched fashionable arguments, in this case following popular pieces being written by feminist writers and scholars.

Status: Retired.

= “Feminist Mein Kampf” or “FMK” =

Purpose​: That we could find Theory to make anything (in this case, part of Chapter 12 of Volume 1 of Mein Kampf with buzzwords switched in) acceptable to journals if we put it in terms of politically fashionable arguments and existing scholarship. Of note, while the original language and intent of Mein Kampf has been significantly changed to make this paper publishable and about feminism, the reliance upon the politics of grievance remains clear, helping to justify our use of the term “grievance studies” for these fields.

Status: Accepted.

As I pointed out before, their use of Mein Kampf was a sophomoric stunt that drew inspiration from Mad Libs. There was no real critique of scholarship here, yet they made three attempts at getting it published. This is tough to explain unless their goal was to humiliate rather than educate. PB&J are even aware of this humiliation argument, as they invoke it against themselves.

Lindsay and Boghossian’s article characterized toxic masculinity in terms of a “conceptual penis” that seeks to aggressively exploit not only women’s bodies but also the natural world and can ultimately be understood as the root cause of global warming (Lindsay and Boyle 2017). This (attempted) hoax’s explicit purpose was to delegitimize gender studies (Boghossian and Lindsay 2017), and it received considerable support from the political right, including initiating overt political agendas against feminism, gender studies, postmodernism, the humanities, peer-reviewed scholarship, and even climate change (The Australian 2017; Killoran 2017). Of note, the joke seemingly was on the hoaxers in this case, as their attempted hoax was universally heralded as a failure (even by Alan Sokal) because of the journal’s low standards with respect to the peer-review process (Sokal 2017; Taylor 2017; Torres 2017). […]

Consistent with Fleming and O’Carroll’s general observations about hoaxes and hoaxers (Fleming and O’Carroll 2010), James McWilliams addressed the “Conceptual Penis” hoax in a piece for The Week. Titled “The Hoax that Backfired,” it draws particular attention to the authors’ positionality and tone. He observed, “This is the rhetoric of humiliation.” He continued by noting the power structures in play: “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” (McWilliams 2017, n.p.). This attempted hoax—in which the joke was on the hoaxers—thus reveals itself as a form of superiority/disparagement humor, a tactic of privilege-preserving epistemic pushback, and a shadow text.

Baldwin. pg. 16-17

This paper really blew my mind. It isn’t the Principle of Charity at play, nor just another “absurd” paper, it represents something far more troubling. To cleanly and deliberately criticize hoaxes as humiliating their targets, while carrying on a hoax to humiliate your targets, is a level of irrationality I’ve never encountered before. Either this is a colossal blindspot worse than any I’ve seen in a creationist, or I was being too charitable when I argued PB&J were pursuing “a paycheck they believe in.”

Maybe they really are scam artists after all, more interested in power and fame than serious scholarship.