Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Peter Boghossian's obscene satire dismantles the New Atheism

As author of one of the first (and best, some say) books critiquing the New Atheism, I have criticized Portland State philosopher Peter Boghossian on this site before, here and here, and here and here.  I found his book on how to broadcast atheism ignorant and over-the-top: I challenged him to debate what he calls "faith" even before that book came out, and he responded petulantly (See first link). 

The man is full of bombast, but I have to admit he has a certain style. 

Recently, Boghossian and his side-kick James Lindsay (also a common visitor to Loftus' Deconstructing Christianity) have written a satire against cant-filled left-wing orthodoxy in higher education.  They submitted a hoax article entitled "The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct" to a (marginal, admittedly) scholarly journal, and it was published.   The piece, as you will gather from the title, is neither G-rated (which will thus unavoidably apply to this post, though I'll censor as need be), elevating, nor a particularly beautiful piece of writing (rather ugly by design).  But the article is funny.  And cant and hysteria are proper grist for the mill of satire.  For the two men then published an explanation of their article in which they make it clear that they regard their own literary creation as pretentious, even meaningless trash, written under pseudonyms, full of crank concepts and citations to journals that do not exist, formulated to eschew sense and coherence, and to thus expose the vacuity of anyone who would accept such pseudo-intellectual trash.  (The article was apparently approved by two scholars related to the journal before publication.)

But what I find most interesting about this piece is first that its authors seem literally (and by their own account) not to understand the meaning of what they have written.  And secondly they overlook the implications of their satire for their own worldview.  In the end, the social construct that is cut into the finest pieces of all by this emasculation of radical feminism (follow that paradox into Gender-Theory Wonderland!) is the New Atheism itself. 

Working under pseudonyms, the two men's fake bios intimate the farcical trajectory of their piece:

"While neither uses Twitter, both finding the platform overly reductive, they incorporate careful reading of the relevant academic literature with observations made by searching trending hashtags to derive important social truths with high impact. In this case, their particular fascination with penises and the ways in which penises are socially problematic, especially as a social construct known as a conceptual penis, have opened an avenue to a new frontier in gender and masculinities research that can transform our cultural geographies, mitigate climate change, and achieve social justice."

Boghossian and Lindsay take their "analysis" to the edge of exegetical darkness, then boldly push beyond it -- reminiscent of the nonsensical bloviating that leads to the final apocalypse in C. S. Lewis' most campy work, That Hideous Strength:

"Still, even as a social construct, the conceptual penis is hopelessly dominated by recalcitrant social constructions that favor hypermasculine interpretations of the penis as a notion unjustly associated with high male value (Schwalbe & Wolkomir, 2001). Many cisgendered hypermasculine males, for instance, seem to identify those aspects of their masculinity upon which they most obviously depend with the notion that they carry their penis as a symbol of male power, domination, control, capability, desirability, and aggression (Here I censor seven or eight obscene phallic synonyms, apparently inserted just to see what these naughty boys could get away with -- DM). Based upon an appreciable corpus of feminist literature on the penis, this troubling identification results in an effective isomorphism linking the conceptual penis with toxic hypermasculinity."

This satire has been praised both by National Review and Jerry Coyne: it has been a long time, I suspect, since those two found much to agree about.

The odd thing is, I think the authors fail to understand the actual meaning, and significance, of their own paper.  (As does such an uber-skeptic as Coyne.)   Indeed, Boghossian and Lindsay explicitly deny that their paper has meaning:

"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."

If the authors themselves fail to locate any point to their paper, Coyne asks, how could anyone else?  

"That last sentence is a doozy, and is so true for the field at issue. What does it say that two reviewers were taken in by this?  If the authors didn’t understand what they were saying, how could the reviewers?" 

On the other hand, if the paper itself is a lie, as Boghossian and Lindsay admit, why should we assume that their representation of it is entirely honest? 

I'm so much in the habit of disagreeing with atheists, that I'm going to have to even disagree with  the authors of this paper about the claim that it carries no coherent point.  Indeed, the disavowal of such a point may be part of their sleight of hand, though perhaps unconsciously. 

While buried in pseudo-intellectual gibberish of the kind George Orwell wrote so crushingly about in his great essay "Politics and the English Language," I think a fairly clear general point can in fact be pulled from the rubble, dusted off, and presented for public evaluation.  As I explained on Coyne's site (though the post does not seem to have appeared -- Coyne is so vocally passionate about academic freedom and open debate that he often censors people who disagree with him):

"The article means that, while masculinity is originally a mere biological quality, in advanced society masculine traits have more complex and more damaging effects on society and on the environment."

The male reproductive organ, in other words, can be taken as a symbol for a set of human traits traditionally associated with masculinity.  Nor would it be a stretch to suggest that those traits -- say, aggressiveness, will to power, a desire to form and mold nature to one's liking (most engineers are men) -- can harm the environment if unrestrained.

Having thus explained the thesis, I would still denounce it as simple-minded nonsense, just not utterly devoid of coherence under these malarial thickets of jargon.  The authors prettied up a Manichean doctrine with Orwellian language just as Orwell warned that propaganda would, to mask the odor of the leavings under a thick layer of rhetorical muck.

What is wrong with the thesis, as thus explained?  Ironically, pretty much exactly what is wrong with most New Atheist attacks on Christianity such as those of which Coyne and Boghossian are so often guilty.

One might find ethical fault in the Sheldon Cooper-esque mixture of guile, ruthlessness, and innocence by which these two gentlemen tricked obscure editors into inviting a tiger into their lair for breakfast, then ate them for lunch.  This shifty little trick might even give paid to the hypothesis that some atheists fail to recognize the existence of God for the same reason they fail to fully realize the existence of their fellow men. 

But there is indeed a flaw to this article more fundamental than tiresome jargon, slip-shod analogies, and needless obscurity, and all editors of such journals do deserve blame when they accept articles which promote such a vision of the world. 

Image result for hunting bison from trainsPut simply, the article cherry-picks.  Any feminist who can read such drivel with pleasure, must choose to focus on everything she despises about every man in her life, and ignore the good.  

Look at the picture to your left.  Who is doing the shooting? 

Men killed the bison.  It isn't women on those trains with rifles.  But that is because it was usually men who did the hunting, and therefore brought home the buffalo bacon.  

Men cut down redwoods and (no doubt) the primeval forests of Easter Island.  But that is because men usually did the logging, built houses, and plowed land to grow crops.  That's why the Chinese word for male, , shows a field on top, and the word for "strength" 力 underneath.  That is why we tell stories of Paul not Pauline Bunyan.  It is not the organ of orgasmic masculinity that is relevant here, but muscles combined with mind.

In other words, if you're going to blame men for everything you hate, it is unjust and irrational not to credit them for, say, most science, national defense (however the Left despises this most terrifying duty), along with the hard work that Mike Rowe celebrates, and that literally paved the road to civilization -- not, of course, that women haven't been slaving away just as hard all the same time, in separate spheres with a fair Venn overlap.

But once we see B & L's central thesis, and recognize its central flaw -- whether we call it cherry-picking, or confirmation bias, or stacking the deck -- it is hard not to notice the same flaw writ large in the New Atheism movement.

Just as radical feminism rejoices in ascribing evil to men (exaggerating a "rape culture" on college campus that has led to occasional witch hunts, for instance), the New Atheists are defined by a determination to bring to light all evil that may be ascribed to Christianity ("ecrasez l'infame," as Voltaire put it), and ignore all good, even when that good is far greater or more significant.  If Christians buy and abuse slaves, as humans have often bought and abused slaves, that must be the fault of the Bible.  If Christians liberate slaves, as humans have seldom done, that was a lucky break for which we must credit the Enlightenment, even if liberation began in the first millennia, even if the liberators were often the most radical Bible-thumpers of their day (Wesley, Wilberforce, Stowe). 

Similarly, my friend the atheist John Loftus, who has often featured the anti-religious writings of Boghossian and Lindsay on his Debunking Christianity site, has said if for no other reason, he denounces Christianity because of the harm he claims it has done to women.  Six years ago, he posted a cartoon of a woman in a dungeon cell surrounded by oppressive Bible verses about women remaining silent in Church and the like.   In response to that and other such claims, for the past several years I have conducted an extensive research project into four key questions: (1) how does the status of women in societies influenced by Christianity compare to the status of women in non-Christian countries?  (2) What does the Bible as a whole, and Jesus' teachings and example considering every single relevant passage, have to say about women?  (3) What do key non-Christian texts say about women?  (4) What role have Christians played around the world in changing the status of women?  In the process of seeking answers to these questions (still working on it) I reviewed UN research on the status of women in 97% of the world.  I carefully studied almost every passage in the Bible that bore on women, along with the entire Quran and Hindu, Buddhist, and Confucian texts.  As a scholar of missions history, I then described the impact the teachings and example of Jesus had in fact had on transforming the world for the better, liberating billions of women around the world, in a series of articles on this site.  (And more I am working on.) 

Such a systematic approach avoids the danger of confirmation bias.  And that is the only kind of approach that is legitimate for answering such sweeping questions as, "Are men more trouble than they're worth?" or "Is Christianity basically a force for good or evil?" 

Hundreds of skeptical responses have appeared so far to my arguments about Christianity and women alone, on this site and elsewhere.

What have I seen in response?  For the most part, anecdotes.  Excuses.  Obfuscations.  Insults.  Attempts to change the subject.  At best, an occasional book recommendation or reminder of the more troubling Bible verses. 

What I have yet to see in response has been any systematic attempt to deal with the copious evidence I have so far cited, to prove it false, irrelevant, or the smaller part of some larger body of more damning evidence against the Christian creed. 

Of course it would be possible to mount a serious argument either against men, or against Christianity.   

It is (in theory) possible that masculinity is more harmful than not, and that humanity would be better off without those "dicks" who carry XY chromosomes.  Maybe in the future, we would be wise to clone women, get rid of boys, and allow the dawning of a universal sisterhood of peace and harmony to spread over the planet, cool the atmosphere, and save endangered species.   

It is also possible that Christianity is more plague than panacea.  Maybe if we do as Voltaire, Marx, and John Lennon suggest and abolish religion ("It's easy if you try"), the world will run much more smoothly. 

But a scholarly article should be more intellectually persuasive than a pop song or a Marxist or deistic rant.  To be so, it must take opposing arguments and universal bodies of data into account.  A big hypothesis against men, or against religion, becomes a narrow orthodoxy, a cultic hollow in the rocks in which fanatics hide from the sun, if it does not expose itself to great bodies of facts that challenge it. 

Aside from such intellectual cowardice, there are two other problems with the article, as opposed to its central thesis as I understand it, and the narrow tenor it reflects among scholarly orthodoxies. 

Image result for swimming la brea tar pits
"Just keep swimming!"
First, the language is God-awful.  It is pretentious, ugly, and a veritable tick upon the listening ear.  (Such ugliness may constitute part of the beauty of the satire, as a gnarly stump may make good carving wood.)  Reading such a flood of abstract polysyllabic verbiage is like trying to swim in the La Brea Tar Pits.

Secondly, the article is obscene.

You may have noticed that the title mentions the male reproductive organ.  I think everyone noticed.  It's not the sort of thing you overlook.

And of course that is what attracted the feminists who approved this article.  Not the pornography itself.  (Well, maybe that too.)  But the game of exposing oneself while pretending not to, of talking about sex in such a "scholarly," clinical manner that one can pretend we're not all talking dirty in public.  Despite its utter lack of sensual appeal, the article is deliberately obscene in a clinical, "I dare you to deny my scholarly objectivity while I talk like a junior high school brat" style tone.

If satirizing such woolly intellectual smut makes some of it go away, then a blessing upon the heads of Peter and James, true apostles (in this case at least) of Christ.

But it seems that in misunderstanding their own article, they too fall victim to its obscurity.  And can one doubt that they are also using naughty words to play little boys' games?  Maybe it is time that scholars in the public forum in general grew up.

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