Let’s be real about something important: nobody actually cares what feminist scholars think or why they think it. Truth be told, this isn’t surprising. Feminist scholarship is a peculiar academic backwater that nobody should pay any attention to—and it’s probable that nobody would if it weren’t becoming so painfully influential.
That outsized influence is also unsurprising. People care very much about gender equality and about women’s rights — in both the US and the UK, gender equality enjoys the support of roughly four out of five people. This sets up a problem. With the exception of other feminists, more or less the entire world completely ignores feminist theory, and they have done so for decades, which has let it go quite far down its own self-referential rabbit holes. That this scholarship has gone ignored while developing what looks like a storied academic pedigree is why feminist theory endures and exerts so much control over academia and society, which is to say it’s a rather huge problem.
You may think I’m exaggerating to say that it’s a major problem to ignore an apparently relatively inconsequential corner of academic pursuit. Well, check your privilege and look around because it’s leaking out of the theory departments.
— Everyday Feminism (@EvrydayFeminism) January 1, 2018
It is true that gender studies, which conceptually encompasses feminist theory, maintains almost no representation within the one thousand most significant academic journals (Gender & Society, the top among them, proudly ranks 824 among all academic journals), but it’s difficult to ignore many of the more recent real-world applications of feminist theory. I could point to obvious egregious abuses here, like the shameful excesses on college campuses and outsized moral panic about sexual harassment, yet I’m even more compelled by “shrill” feminist popularizer Lindy West’s recent tirade against men in the the New York Times. Even more worrying, this screed echoes feminist scholar Lisa Wade’s weeks-earlier definitely-not-man-hating assertion that “the problem is not toxic masculinity; it’s that masculinity is toxic,” and that “we need to call masculinity out as a hazardous ideology and denounce anyone who chooses to identify with it.” For those who don’t realize, “toxic masculinity” is a technical term originating from within feminist theorizing, not some cute turn of phrase invented by edgy writers with an axe to grind.
At this point, we must really pause to ask ourselves how feminist theory is leaking into popular culture, and the reason is that it’s activism-driven scholarship. It has an agenda: this agenda, to remake society in its own image. Though the wide support for gender equality does not filter efficiently into support for feminism of this sort (only roughly one in five Americans and fewer than one in ten Britons identifies as a feminist), it provides an entryway for feminist theory to reach the public. The gateway through which this happens has mainly been the university, where feminist theory is not only generated but is applied in practice. This has occurred primarily in two ways. First, as centers of culture and learning, feminist theory has slowly (and largely intentionally) leaked into the educational curriculum and university culture, which has led to it spreading into media (which preferentially showcases it), business (with its new emphasis on diversity and inclusion), and society at large (which has broadly internalized a surprising amount of critical theory). Second, it gets applied directly through the frighteningly expansive applications of Title IX, which originated as part of the Civil Rights Act but was expanded under President Obama’s tenure in ways that seem both distinctly illiberal and at odds with the overarching goals of the university.
Given the overwhelming positivity for gender equality and its applicative epicenter within the university, it is remarkable that everyone, especially non-feminist academics, is so demonstrably underwhelmed by feminist theory. Granted, it’s seemingly a bit dull and arcane, as it is the complex academic theorizing, largely philosophical in nature, that seeks to understand the nature of gender inequality. This isn’t the reason feminist theory has proven successful, however. That honor goes to it having made itself insular and, for lack of a better term, un-care-about-able. The solution to this consequential problem therefore is not to start caring about feminist theory because that’s all but impossible. It isn’t just that feminist theory isn’t something people care about; it’s that it’s the kind of thing almost nobody can care about. Worse, even if you manage to somehow care about it, nobody will care about that, and you’ll suffer alone.
Like the myriad details describing the island universe of a video game you’ve never played, or the theological nitty-gritty of a religion you don’t believe, or the explanation of a really trippy dream someone else had and insists on telling you about (“we were together at our house, but it wasn’t this house, it was some different house, but it was our house in the dream, and you had two forks…”), feminist theory bears almost every hallmark characteristic of the un-care-about-able:
- It’s properly esoteric like many well-developed academic disciplines.
- It seems to describe an alternate universe that looks kind of like ours but fantastically distorted in a way that makes it hard to suspend one’s disbelief (and this is consequential).
- It involves tragically two-dimensional Manichean struggles of good (allegedly emancipatory feminism) against evil (human nature, masculinity, men, “patriarchy,” women being themselves, “oppression,” science, pornography, media portrayals of essentially everything, emojis, and so on).
- It sounds like conspiracy theories (because it utilizes several, such as “patriarchy,” “hegemonic masculinity,” “rape culture,” and “hegemonic femininity”).
- It gets presented in obscurantist technical jargon (like that you only disagree because of your “privilege-preserving epistemic pushback”) and its own specialized colloquial language that excludes the uninitiated.
- It’s filled to the brim with confusing turf wars (materialist/Marxist feminist, radical feminist, intersectional feminist, gender critical feminist; liberal feminist).
- It goes almost completely unread, not only by everyone outside the field, but also by almost everyone inside the field too (more than 80% of its papers do not receive a single citation).
- It absolutely refuses to listen to anybody else.
Perhaps the first truly overwhelming criticism applicable to feminist theory came from biologist Paul Gross and mathematician Norman Levitt in 1994 in their book Higher Superstition, which sought to save the academy from the growing excesses of the academic Left. The problem, ultimately, (and here I know I might lose half my readers for the thematic reason behind this essay) was that feminist epistemology and feminist science studies had blossomed under such apparent luminaries as Evelyn Fox Keller and Sandra Harding. These women, inter alia, sought to expose science and knowledge production as sexist and to remake them bent more firmly to the feminist will (Harding even referred to Newton’s legendary Principia as a “rape manual” (p. 113), though she later regretted saying so).
Thus, arose “the Science Wars,” and the first major salvo on the side of sanity was Gross and Levitt’s admirable stand against what can only be described as a serious bid to initiate a new feminist Lysenkoism. Gross and Levitt, in turn, inspired Alan Sokal, famous for writing the academic hoax that inspired our own and leading to a book with Jean Bricmont called Fashionable Nonsense — a brilliant title which also succinctly describes why feminist theory lies beyond human concern.
THE CONCEPTUAL PENIS AS A SOCIAL CONSTRUCT: A SOKAL-STYLE HOAX ON GENDER STUDIEShttps://t.co/7HrFFslFET
— Peter Boghossian (@peterboghossian) May 19, 2017
These Science Wars should have been definitively ended by Steven Pinker in 2003, when he published his devastating book The Blank Slate. As you’ll no doubt have noticed, feminist theorizing did not stop in 2003, or 2004, or even 2005, though the Science Wars did slide out of the spotlight. Rather than ending the strains of feminist theorizing that it should have thoroughly embarrassed, The Blank Slate more accurately ended any reasonable belief that serious engagement with or criticism of feminist theorizing would slow it down.
Far from being fatalistic histrionics on my part, by the way, this result was recently demonstrated by Charlotta Stern, using Pinker’s book as a benchmark. Stern’s discovery? Feminist theory is very insular and guarded from outside criticism — to the point of fittingly being the academic equivalent of Themyscira, the inaccessible island of the Amazons in DC Comics Wonder Woman universe. It isn’t merely that feminist theorizing isn’t interesting or intelligible to outsiders, it’s that it evolved in a way that sequesters itself away from the majority of other rational thought. Put another way, feminist theorizing has never been short on critics, but, through the deflective power of accusations of potential sexism, it responded to this selection pressure not by responsible academic correction so much as making itself un-care-about-able to the outside world while blinkering itself so that it might continue as though all criticism of it is, indeed, too sexist to be worth noticing.
As a result, in May of last year, working with philosopher Peter Boghossian, I attempted to bring attention to the problem of academic feminism by publishing a ridiculous satirical academic hoax called “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct,” which proved slightly controversial and drew many criticisms. Among other criticisms of the hoax of varying worth, many scholars became upset with us that we attempted to do a hoax at all rather than engaging feminist scholarship directly and in an appropriately dignified and scholarly way.
— Massimo Pigliucci (@mpigliucci) August 29, 2017
This is where the high-minded theorizing of the academy runs headlong into the brick wall of reality, however, for three significant reasons. Firstly, feminist theory is un-care-about-able, so had we engaged with it more seriously, no one would care. Secondly, high-minded scholarly engagement with feminist theory fares poorly against the reality of the situation: all charlatanry benefits from serious engagement with the peers it hopes to emulate. Creationists want to debate biologists for the simple reason that some of the imprimatur of biology accidentally scrapes off on the creationist from the moment the debate is scheduled. “See, I’m doing science too! This scientist wants to debate me!” Feminist theorizing, not unlike theology, in this way benefits but is not injured by engagement with mature philosophy and science that attempts to treat it on its own terms. “We’re feminist philosophers and sociologists! We inspire and participate in academic debate in those fields!” We need to think very carefully about whether this is something we want to do. The alternative, by the way, is to refuse to engage its premises on its own terms and to reveal it to be an unsophisticated and inadequate model for understanding reality.
Thirdly and most importantly, criticism of feminist theory, from within feminism itself, is worse than un-care-about-able. It’s arranged so that substantive criticism makes no impact. How could it? It has set up a self-protective system (as do nearly all conspiracy theories) in which criticism of feminist theory is understood to validate feminist theory. Take, for example, the commonly heard claims that “criticism of feminism is why we need feminism.” Under feminist theory, which is deeply dependent upon postmodern thought, knowledge is believed to be constructed by “dominant discourses,” and feminism, particularly intersectional feminism, is taken to be the true defender of marginalized voices, including those allegedly of women. Worse than this, because of its beliefs about these structures of power, to criticize feminist theory is to violate a moral taboo against gender equality. Critics of feminist theory, even in purely scholarly terms, are easily derided as being complicit in sexism, and the moral architecture of the post-1960s academy left other academics (and administrators) particularly weak against these charges. Thus, feminist theory perpetuated and concentrated, making itself simultaneously less connected to reality and even more un-care-about-able.
Criticism of feminist theory therefore cannot work in the normal way. From within, it can only be seen as evidence that the dominant discourses it seeks to overthrow are still dominant, thus need opposing even more strongly. Interpreted from within the scholarly architecture of feminist theory, critics like myself, Peter Boghossian, Paul Gross, Norman Levitt, Alan Sokal, and Steven Pinker are just white males exercising our epistemic pushback, like every other man who disagrees. (Nota bene: Women who disagree suffer from “internalized misogyny” and, in an attempt to maintain favor with “the mens,” engage in the same epistemic pushback, once removed — so there’s no winning here, only agreeing with the feminists, being used as evidence of the rightness of feminism and the need for more feminism and feminist theory, or being ignored.)
This makes two potent forces that have allowed feminist theory to endure beyond the endurance of responsible scholarship. First, it deflects all criticism by abusing a loophole in the academic and cultural Left’s moral architecture: an overwhelming need to distance itself from anything anyone could conceivably call bigotry, which is a need outdone only by an even stronger impulse to throw clear virtuous signals proving the uncrossable magnitude of that distance. Second, it makes itself un-care-about-able by retreating to a fantastic academic island, like theology. The trouble is that the island has made itself well-armed and we’re well within range of its missiles. Given that this is occurring within a wider environment of almost complete indifference to feminist theory for the very good reason that it is producing very little that is comprehensible, coherent or substantive, this is indeed a problem.
The upshot of this grim view is that it gives us an out. It doesn’t leave us in the position of trying to care about feminist theory — that’s almost impossible and then worse. Rather, it should leave us asking some serious questions about what it means that feminist theory is simultaneously un-care-about-able and yet enormously consequential in the hands of the activists it churns out.
I’ll suggest that the answers to those questions render it outside the demarcation of responsible scholarship, however scholarly it appears. Scholarship that refuses to be criticized isn’t scholarship; it’s an age-old mimic known as sophistry — the kind of philosophical-looking poppycock that assumes its conclusions and writes endlessly in circles trying to hide that fact. It doesn’t need to be this way. Feminist theory and gender studies more widely could be both worthwhile and interesting if they valued evidence and rigor and accepted criticism. Currently, they do not. If we can accept this, then the way forward is clear. If feminist theory isn’t scholarship at all, we have no obligation to treat it as such.
James A. Lindsay has a doctorate in math and background in physics. He is the author of four books, most recently Life in Light of Death. His essays have appeared in TIME, Scientific American, and The Philosophers’ Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @GodDoesnt