You can't beat the Zuckerbots

Andrew Donaldson on his recent experience with Facebook, and Peter Boghossian's battles against the woke


LAST week, a close friend posted the following on Facebook: “When Lord Nelson died he was 5 feet tall. His statue in London is 15 feet tall. That’s Horatio of 3:1.” 

It was so dreadful I was compelled to respond, and did so rashly: “You should be hung, drawn and quoted for sharing that…” (This was wrong, I later realised; it should of course have been “hanged, drawn and quoted…”)

Sanction was swift. Facebook informed me, “Your comment goes against our Community Standards on violence and incitement. No one else can see your comment. We have these standards to prevent and disrupt offline harm.” 

A little perplexed, I requested a review, but was told: “We confirmed that your comment didn’t follow the Community Standards.”

Facebook suggested I could take the matter further. “You may be able to get an independent review of this decision if you appeal to the Oversight Board. The board is not part of Facebook. It reviews a small number of difficult decisions to help shape what is and what isn’t allowed on Facebook in the future.” 

I duly wrote to the board explaining that my comment was a riff on the American comedian and 1950s radio personality Fred Allen’s celebrated quip: “Hanging’s too good for a man that puns. He should be drawn and quoted.” 

On Monday, the board informed me that my case had not been selected for “in-depth review”. It politely noted my concerns (“humour”) and added, “The board may select your case in the future, if circumstances change. We will let you know if this happens.”

All this, coincidentally, comes at a time when an investigation by The Wall Street Journal reveals Facebook’s “surveillance advertising business model” relies on harmful content and misinformation to boost income. Algorithms, it’s claimed, aggressively trawl data to deliberately amplify divisive and racist material simply because such content is likely to keep users online for longer, thereby increase advertising revenues.

Regulars at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) suggest it’s pointless fighting the Zuckerbots on this score. Artificial intelligence, they say, doesn't do funny, let alone intelligence. Besides, if you have to explain yourself to “Oversight Boards” and the groupthink gestapo, what hope for nuanced chatter between friends?

Which brings us to Peter Boghossian. He was, until recently, assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University. A popular teacher, his ethics classes have been greatly lauded on ratemyprofessors.com, a website that allows students to provide anonymous feedback on their lecturers. One student writes, in what is a typical review: “You will not find another prof like him. He critiques what academics are too scared to and offers an insightful and eye-opening perspective.”

The point worth noting in this pithy assessment is that Boghossian enters territory others steer clear of. He has now paid a dear price for this. 

Last week, he quit his job. His letter of resignation, first published on Substack, has been widely circulated. Described as “devastating” by historian Niall Ferguson, a senior fellow at Stanford University, it can be read on platforms like American commentator Bari Weiss’s Common Sense blog and, notably, the Daily Mail’s web page. 

In it, Boghossian accuses PSU of becoming a “social justice factory” where students are taught “to mimic the moral certainty of ideologues” rather than think for themselves. 

Moreover, his comments are not merely seen as an attack on the university where he has taught since 2011, but a general broadside at academia, particularly where clashes of ideas have been quashed by a conformity of thought. His comments about PSU, for example, could apply to any South African university.

“That letter truly was the hardest thing I ever wrote, and I’ve written a ton of stuff,” he told The Times. “And then when I hit ‘send’ I never felt so free. I wasn’t going to be complicit in the system any more, a system that was ostensibly set up to help people but has betrayed the public trust. I just couldn’t bear it any more.”

Boghossian certainly ruffled feathers at PSU with his campaign against grievance culture. His rigorous interrogation of wokeism, the “dominant moral orthodoxy” on campus, resulted in numerous investigations by the university’s “global diversity and inclusion office”. 

In addition, he was harassed at work. Swastikas appeared on toilet walls with his name scrawled alongside and sometimes on the door of his office, in one instance together with bags of faeces. His colleagues, meanwhile, advised students not to take his courses. More perniciously, he faced a formal inquiry in 2016 into a series of baseless accusations from a former student. 

“Students of mine who were interviewed told me the investigator asked them if they knew anything about me beating my wife and children. This horrifying accusation soon became a widespread rumour,” he said.

It was eventually found that there was insufficient evidence that he violated “prohibited discrimination and harassment policy”. 

Nevertheless, he was no longer “allowed to render my opinion about ‘protected classes’ or teach in such a way that my opinion about ‘protected classes’ could be known”. 

Protected class is a legal term covering groups based on sex, race, creed and other categories. Or rather, in Boghossian’s terms, “somebody whose ancestors have been historically oppressed”. He believes the restriction was applied to stop him challenging campus orthodoxy.

He no longer felt it possible to teach students to think, and that “corrupted bodies of scholarship were responsible for justifying radical departures from the traditional role of liberal arts schools and basic civility on campus”. The culture of offence was such that students were afraid to speak openly and honestly, he said. 

“Professors were accused of bigotry for assigning canonical texts written by philosophers who happened to have been European and male.” Far from being promoting free inquiry, universities were now institutions “whose only inputs were race, gender and victimhood and whose only outputs were grievance and division”.

He responded with mockery.

In 2018 he wrote or co-authored several bogus social science papers and submitted them under various pseudonyms to journals concerned with what he termed “grievance studies”. 

The first of these, The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct, argued that penises were products of the human mind and responsible for climate change. Boghossian immediately revealed it was a hoax upon publication in the journal Cogent Social Sciences. This, naturally, intensified the campaign against him.

Together with two co-authors, James A Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, 20 more hoax papers were then prepared. 

“Our purpose,” Boghossian said, “was to show that certain kinds of scholarship are based not on finding truth but on advancing social grievances.” 

In October 2018, the New York Times reported that four papers had been published, three had been accepted for publication, seven were under review and six had been rejected.

One paper, published in a journal called Sex Roles claimed that its author had conducted a two-year study involving “thematic analysis of table dialogue” to determine why heterosexual men enjoyed eating at the Hooters restaurant chain

According to the NYT, this paper identified themes of “sexual objectification, sexual conquest, male control of women, masculine toughness, and (as a minor theme) rationalisations for why men frequent breastaurants”. 

Its purpose, the hoaxers said, was “to see if journals will publish papers that seek to problematise heterosexual men’s attraction to women and will accept very shoddy qualitative methodology and ideologically-motivated interpretations which support this”.

One paper, published in Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work and entitled Our Struggle Is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism, merely stuffed passages lifted from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf with modern academic jargon.

Another, Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks in Portland, Ore, by one “Helen Wilson”, was published in Gender, Place & Culture. Purportedly based on observations of dogs having sex and how their owners reacted to draw conclusions about human sexual behaviour, it “found” that humans intervened 97 per cent of the time when male dogs were “raping/humping” other male dogs, but only 32 per cent of the time when a male dog was mating with a female. At such times, humans laughed out loud 18 per cent of the time.

“Wilson” warned: “Because of my own situatedness as a human, rather than as a dog, I recognise my limitations in being able to determine when an incidence of dog humping qualifies as rape.” When news of the hoax eventually broke, The Wall Street Journal’s headline declared: “Fake News Comes to Academia.”

Another paper, Who are they to judge? Overcoming anthropometry through fat bodybuilding, appeared in Fat Studies, an interdisciplinary journal of body weight and society. Its abstract read as follows: 

“While fat activism has disrupted many dominant discourses that causally contribute to negative judgments about fat bodies, it has not yet penetrated the realm of competitive bodybuilding. The author introduces fat bodybuilding as a means of challenging the prevailing assumptions of maximally fat-exclusionary (sports) cultures while raising fundamental ontological questions about what it means to ‘build a body’. Specifically, he advocates for imagining a new classification within bodybuilding, termed fat bodybuilding, as a fat-inclusive politicised performance and a new culture to be embedded within bodybuilding.” 

The “author”, one “Richard Baldwin”, was identified as “an emeritus professor of history at Gulf Coast State College who has dedicated his retirement to fighting oppression and promoting social justice. He is a professional bodybuilder with more than 50 years of experience in the sport.” Fat Studies later retracted the article.

Such work has been applauded by many academics. Yascha Mounk, a political scientist at Harvard, has said: “What [these authors] have shown is that certain journals, and perhaps to an extent certain fields, can’t distinguish between serious scholarship and a ridiculous intellectual hoax.”

The duped editors of such journals were obviously not as thrilled. One such academic, Nicholas Mazza, who accepted a paper for The Journal of Poetry Therapy, pointed out in his defence that the work was based on supposed personal experience. “Although a valuable point was learned regarding the authenticity of articles/authors,” he said, “it should be noted that the authors of the ‘study’ clearly engaged in flawed and unethical research.”

The article in this instance was entitled Moon Meetings and the Meaning of Sisterhood: A Poetic Portrayal of Lived Feminist Spirituality. Its authors later described it as “a rambling poetic monologue of a bitter divorced feminist, much of which was produced by a teenage angst poetry generator”.

Other critics accuse Boghossian of being “fundamentally” mean-spirited, childish and merely “trolling” for cheap laughs — although, as he points out, it is perhaps the scholars engaged in grievance studies who should be accused of trolling as they were the ones fanning the flames of the culture wars. Their only aim, indeed the sole purpose of cancel culture itself, is to attack those whose ideas threaten their own. 

It’s for this reason he has taken to Twitter to stir debate on academic freedom: “Extramural criticism is one of the few avenues left now that academic journals have become echo chambers that reinforce and promote specific ideological lenses.”

Since his resignation, Boghossian has been inundated with messages of support from academics and invitations for media appearances. Sadly, though, in the US, this interest has only come from one side of a fractious political divide.

“There’s been a feeding frenzy to get me on conservative news shows,” Boghossian told The Times. “I don’t consider myself a conservative! Not a single liberal or left-of-centre show has invited me. And I put out a message [on Twitter] saying I would love to have a conversation.”

He has tried engaging with his critics — but without success. “I [once] invited my colleagues from the women, gender, and sexuality studies department to join me on stage . . . and then again at an on-campus public event days later. They declined or ignored the invitations.”

This “non-engagement” with critics is a defining trait of wokeism. “I teach the arguments for the existence of God. But I’m an atheist, I don’t believe those arguments. So I try to bring in people who believe those arguments. That’s what education should be.

“It is built into the Bible in 1 Peter 3:15 that you should be able to give a reason for your faith. It is exactly the opposite with the woke. It is baked into their ideology that you don’t talk to Nazis. Even having a conversation is looked at as empowering. And so there’s no point in having a conversation with someone, particularly if they’re privileged . . . They have different rules of engagement.”

The debate, if that’s what it is, has moved into popular culture. The Netflix comedy-drama, The Chair, starring Sandra Oh and Jay Duplass, deals with the upheavals faced by the newly-appointed head of an English department at a fictional American university. Among them is the cancelling of a lecturer who light-heartedly uses a mock Nazi salute to demonstrate ironic intent in a class.

The scenario seems heavy-handed. But, in truth, it’s probably a case of art not being heavy-handed enough in imitating life. The good news, though, is that we have not heard the last of Boghossian.