Brain Gardeners: Social Justice Irony in the Irish Independent Newspaper

- By Ciaran O’Regan

- 8-10 minute read

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Fascist Wolf

The problem with a guy like me writing a piece like this is that to the neutral non-affiliated I may seem like some kind of misogynist, racist, xenophobe, transphobe, homophobe, or all of the above. From a mile high view it makes sense that the guy criticizing the seemingly virtuous and compassionate is the villain right? Then to the ideologues already gripped by the talons of political correctness, the fact that I am a straight white cis male might mean that my so-called privilege discredits my opinion. To these people, my genetically inherited membership into the oppressive patriarchy means I have nothing of worth to contribute to the discussion as my group identity apparently decides my views. Maybe reading this will help change your mind around whether a supposed member of the alleged patriarchy can have opinions of any worth. Or, maybe it won’t and you’ll think me some kind of fascist wolf in disguise trying to lure you to the dark side of the woods.

Identity Politics

It was in 2015 while living in the US that I first encountered what I now know to be identity politics (IP). The woman I was seeing at the time was attending what I found out to be an extremely politically correct 3rd level institution. She had been a collegiate athlete, and also very interested in a whole host of big ideas such as race relations, politics, and feminism. She also had quite the interesting cultural upbringing with an Irish-American dad and a mom born and raised in central Africa where she herself had actually gone to spend time doing voluntary aid work before her final year. We had countless fascinating discussions during our time together in which she taught me a lot due to her dramatically different views on the workings of the world. Over the course of our conversations, however, she was mentioning things going on in the universities that I personally thought to be odd. She would mention things like “safe spaces,” “micro-aggressions,” and “trigger warnings” when referring to certain situations that arose amongst certain students she either knew or knew of. I probed a little further and I was just left wondering, given the contexts in which I learned about these things, what use they were in an institution supposedly populated by adults? I mean, were not all students old enough to join the military and go to war? Were they not old enough to drive cars? Were they not old enough to get married? Were they not old enough to buy firearms? This institutional parenting in the universities perplexed me at the time but was quickly forgotten once back living in Ireland. Over the last few years though, this IP stuff has not just grown legs, but apparently learned to swim as it has since crossed the pond.

Prof. Jordan B. Peterson

It was in 2016 that I started reading and hearing about even weirder rumblings from the North American Universities. I lived in the US again that year and was there during the election circus. It was in October just prior to the election that I first encountered the work of the now infamous Prof. Jordan Peterson and his controversy at the University of Toronto. He was at the time embroiled in the first few weeks of scandal regarding the Bill C-16 legislation that aimed to legally compel speech around gender pronouns. Jordan was not just a practicing clinical psychologist and professor of psychology, he was a decades-long student of totalitarian regimes and so was willing to stick his head above the parapet to speak up for what he believed to be a bedrock idea at the foundation of functioning civilized society — free speech.

Prof. Bret Weinstein

A relevant highlight from 2017 was when Prof. Bret Weinstein, then professor of evolutionary theory and biology at Evergreen State University and Bernie Sanders supporter, was forced to leave his longtime university due to safety concerns as a result of roaming groups of students looking for him with alleged ill intent. This was as a result of him breaking politically correct orthodoxy at the university and speaking his mind around something he disagreed with — a mandatory day of absence for white people.

Grievance Studies Affair

A recent highlight from 2018 in this IP stuff was the “Grievance Studies affair” involving Helen Pluckrose, Peter Boghossian, and James A. Lindsay. These 3 authors wanted to test the validity of the peer review publication process in what they referred to as the “grievance studies” areas as they felt poor academic standards were undermining the integrity of the fields. Some of these “grievance” areas were that of gender, fat, and race. They basically wrote twenty hoax papers and by the time they had their cover blown, seven had been accepted (1). Of the seven, four had made it through to publication with one even having received an award, and three were accepted but not yet published (2). Of the remaining thirteen, six were rejected, and seven were still under review (2). One of the papers even contained a re-written partial chapter from Hitler’s Mein Kampf with feminist buzzwords swapped in (3). After this debacle, it is difficult to imagine having confidence in the integrity of the knowledge in these grievance fields due to the sheer absurdity of some of what the pranksters wrote that actually got accepted into these academic journals.

Google Memo

Unsurprisingly, this IP stuff didn’t stay on college campuses. A famous example of this jump from the ivory tower to the corporate ladder was in 2017 when James Damore was fired from Google. He got into trouble for presenting a memo containing data around differences in interest between men and women as a possible explanation for why there were more males than non-males in certain areas of Google. All the data was referenced with the relevant psychological literature — but this didn’t help him keep his job. The idea of men being from Mars and women being from Venus was once a part of common parlance. Now, however, it is apparently controversial that the sexes might actually have differences. An example of data that supports the existence of differences in interest between men and women is a recent study in the journal Psychological Science. It looked at data from 472,000 teenagers from around the world that presented quite the paradox in the study of gender. The paradox arose because the results showed that the more perceived gender equality in a society, the greater rather than lesser the differences became between men and women in academic choice (4). A key thing to note here, is that the difference in men and women in choice of career path was not related to competence as women were equal if not superior to males in 2 out of 3 countries in STEM field performance, which suggests that the different paths were due to women making choices for reasons other than their STEM ability such as quality of life (4).

Social Justice Flavored Word Soup

Cutting to the 22nd of November 2018, I sit in a coffee shop and pick up the Irish Independent to enjoy alongside a marvelously soupy cup of black coffee. In it, I find a 12-page special segment dedicated to what I can only describe as social justice flavored word soup. Those 12 pages were full of sentences and paragraphs with very little of any clear substance being said. Words like “inclusion”, “diversity”, and “equality” were brandished about with figurative hand waiving and with no clear definition of terms. “Equality”, for example, could refer to equality of opportunity OR equality of outcome which are light years apart conceptually. The difference between them is not in scale or semantics, the difference is chalk and cheese. One aims to remove barriers where at all possible and let individuals compete on a level playing field with personal choice and competency deciding the outcome. The other denigrates competency in favor of creating barriers that repel the allegedly oppressive while absorbing the supposedly oppressed. And so, which are they referring to when they say “equality”? Without clear definitions of terms or precision of language, how do we have any rudder for not just intellectually honest discourse, but society-wide planning and implementation? As an example of the kind of text in the piece, let’s look at a single chunk of a paragraph:

“There is no doubt in my mind that gender bias, often unconscious, is one of the many underlying reasons for the current imbalance in many professional areas and in business leadership.” — Carol Andrews in the Irish Independent 22nd Nov edition.

The above quote from Carol is just an example of the kind of flowery language thrown about in the 12-page piece. The insidious problem with this kind of thing is that it is not that obvious it is something we should be concerned about. However, here are a few points to consider:

  1. To claim that gender bias can be “unconscious” is an enormous claim to make and she has not provided any solid research evidence to support such a bold statement. Even if she was to provide evidence, it would likely need to be from an academic journal not associated with the aforementioned “Grievance Studies affair” in order to have any sort of credibility.

  2. To so casually push the idea that gender bias can be “unconscious” is also dangerous as it takes away a persons ability to use reasonable discourse to refute an accusation of alleged sexism. This is because the accuser can simply throw the words “unconscious bias” back in the face of the accused in an attempt to discredit their point of view regardless of the facts of the situation.

  3. If gender bias is “one of the many underlying reasons for imbalance”, where does it rank in terms of the potency of the role it plays relative to the other reasons? Is it the most important reason? The second most? Tenth most? One hundredth most? We need precision here or else we do not know what we are actually facing in terms of prioritizing our actions.

  4. This is more of a general metacognition point, but for Carol to say that there is “no doubt in my mind” in the above context is very disappointing. The only thing which I personally have no doubt about is the fact I should remain skeptical of all knowledge and opinions — especially my own. To have “no doubt” about anything other than the need to remain uncertain is to be ignorant of one’s own inescapable limitations as a human. We reach lower degrees of uncertainty, not certainty itself.

“Tortured in Jail”

After reading this segment, I continued on. It was on p.37 that I encountered my tipping point. In the bottom right-hand corner was a roughly 2 inches wide by 3 inches tall rectangle of text with the headline reading Saudi women’s rights activists ‘tortured in jail’. The below text is directly from the Human Rights Watch website (5):

“sources say that masked Saudi interrogators tortured the women during the initial stages of interrogation, but it was unclear whether they were seeking to force the women to sign confessions or merely to punish them for their peaceful advocacy. Following the interrogations, sources said, the women showed physical signs of torture, including difficulty walking, uncontrolled shaking of the hands, and red marks and scratches on their faces and necks. At least one of the women attempted to commit suicide multiple times, the sources said.”

The roughly 180–200 words of text on p.37 relating to the above despicable events gave a token mention to state-driven violence against women and represented a ridiculous case of irony given the content and volume of the segment just a few pages before. Think about it, in the same newspaper we have a full segment addressing supposed gender relation issues in Ireland such as gender bias that can be apparently “unconscious” according to the aforementioned Carol Andrews, then just a few pages later a tiny corner dedicated to genuinely horrific atrocities being committed on women by an actual oppressive patriarchal tyrannical regime in Saudi Arabia.

Hanlon’s Razor

Hanlon’s Razor relates to the idea that we should never immediately attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence. Usually, I like to refer to this aphorism and so am not sure what to make of these 12 pages given the unknowledge about the circumstances of the individual content producers. Is it that the content producers genuinely mean well but are simply ignorant to the complexity of the situation while also lacking perspective on what an actual patriarchal oppressive tyranny looks like? Or, is it that this segment is a dozen page dose of the associated companies and organizations feeling that they need to keep up with the neighbors in presenting a certain public image? Could it be a mixed bag of both maybe? In brutal honesty, my immediate emotionally driven reaction about the 12-page segment was that it came across as some kind of Compassion Olympics in which participants competed in a vulgar display of virtue signaling that involved brandishing moral superiority from atop their high horses.

Perspective

Ireland of 2018 is by no means a perfect utopia and there is obviously more work to do, but look at it compared to what it was just a few decades ago. The Ireland of today with marriage equality and pro-choice legislation is a different planet to the days of industrial schools, Magdalene Laundries, and the church selling stolen babies to the wealthy. As a society, we need to develop a greater perspective on how far we have come, as well as a perspective for what else is currently going on worldwide. A nation with as much political and social stability as 2018 Ireland is the exception for a human to have lived in, not the rule — we need to remember this.

Perpetual Group Divisiveness vs Individual Sovereignty

My major problem with IP is that it is perpetually divisive. If we identify people primarily by their group such as gender, race, ethnicity, sexual preferences etc., where does the division end? There is literally an infinite number of ways to divide people up by group identity depending on how you define a group. We need to be removing the barriers between people, not building more. It is the self-owned sovereign individual that matters most. Any group identity an individual may have is just commentary.

Brain Gardeners

It would be ludicrous of me to insinuate that discrimination based on group identity has not existed in the past or does not currently, not just in the workplace, but across broader society. However, steps like trying to guide government and corporate planning with the kind of flowery and imprecise language in that 12-page segment, or the planned female only professorships for academia recently presented by Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor, are woefully inappropriate. The lack of temporal or comparative perspective, along with the apparent attempt to address such complex issues with such blunt measures, is absurd. These people are attempting to address high-resolution problems with low-resolution solutions. They are performing brain surgery with garden tools.

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References

1. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/06/opinion/grievance-studies-hoax.html

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grievance_Studies_affair

3. https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/hoax-papers-the-shoddy-absurd-and-unethical-side-of-academia-1.3655500

4. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797617741719?journalCode=pssa

5. https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/11/20/saudi-arabia-detained-women-reported-tortured