Laura Bates is something of a media celebrity and the author of books including Everyday Sexism and Men Who Hate Women. She is guaranteed uncritical acceptance on daytime TV and I have yet to see her asked a remotely challenging question. That is a pity because her most recent book, at least, is ‘full of holes’ and she is long overdue her Naomi Wolfe moment when the first intelligent question exposes a major flaw in her ‘research’ (see here for the famous Naomi Wolfe moment). Laura sees evidence of sexism everywhere and believes misogyny pervades our society. Indeed, the saying attributed to Mark Twain ‘to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail‘ – could be updated for the modern age to – ‘to a feminist with a grievance everything looks like misogyny.’
Other commentators have noted that many media feminists come from similar backgrounds; private school followed by English Literature at ‘Oxbridge’ (see post of October 2020 ‘Feminist Glass Escalator‘ for an incomplete list). No surprise then that Laura Bates read English Literature at St John’s College Cambridge. I am curious to know more about the process of radicalisation that occurs along that axis of privilege.
One glimpse comes from the podcast Two for Tea presented by Iona Italia. I particularly like the open-ended curiosity that Iona displays when she interviews her subjects. Episode 65, of October 2020, finds Iona interviewing Helen Pluckrose following publication of her book, ‘Cynical Theories – how activist scholarship made everything about race, gender and identity- and why this harms everybody. In the discussion at about 15:30, Iona and Helen turn to their time at University studying English Literature and how, according to Iona, ‘the meaning of text was infinitely up for grabs‘ because the author was (usually) dead and the meaning of the text was in the eye of the interpreter. Consequently, you could read the text ‘against the grain of the author’s assumed intentions‘. In turn, this could lead to radical feminist readings of the text. Such readings start from the conclusion that there is misogyny and you only have to find it. And find it they do. Helen and Iona gently ridicule this approach to literature and even as students they viewed it as a playful exercise that was not to be taken too seriously. However, I wonder if some impressionable young adults are seduced by this intellectually questionable enterprise and continue that perspective into their careers in journalism and writing.
Neema Parveni makes a similar point in an article in Quillette ‘The Stifling Uniformity of Literary Theory‘. According to this article, in most university departments, literature has to be analysed according to predefined ‘theories’ (since they are not falsifiable they are not theories in the scientific sense of the word). Those theories demand analysis according to a set of a-priori beliefs as to who the victims and oppressors are and the societal structures in which they operate. The ‘sieving’ of text, for examples that support those beliefs, is an exercise in confirmation bias rather than scholarship. Neema Parveni, divides these literary theories into the categories listed in the table below. As you might expect, feminist theory with predefined oppressors (men), predefined victims (women) and an assumed societal structure (the patriarchy) high on the list.
|Post colonial theory||Coloniser||Colonised||Power|
|Race Theory||White people||People of colour||White supremacy|
|Queer theory||Straight people||Gay people||Heteronormativity|
It seems to me, that feminists such as Laura Bates, have internalised this simplistic binary worldview of victims and oppressors operating within invisible societal structures and it is the lens through which they view the world. In the next post, I will present evidence that contradicts the notion of pervasive misogyny with men as oppressors and women as oppressed. I think the data points to a complex and nuanced picture that bears little resemblance to the mainstream narrative.
An additional problem may be a peer group that lacks diversity. English literature is very female-dominated and Oxbridge being what it is, privately educated women will predominate. There is nothing wrong with that on an individual basis but I suspect that lack of variety has a limiting effect on what viewpoints are permissible.
There is troubling evidence university humanities departments may not be healthy intellectual environments that encourage good habits of thought. For example, the Policy Exchange Report – Academic Freedom in the UK revealed a disturbing state of affairs where left-leaning academics predominate. According to the report, academics are prepared to openly discriminate against colleagues with a different point of view. The data also showed that female academics were twice as likely as their male colleagues to support discrimination in a job application, against a leave-supporting academic (see post of April 12, 2021). Similar data has emerged from a study by Glen Geher, Politics and Academic Values in Higher Education, that shows that research that conflicts with the aims of ‘social justice’ even if objectively true, may be suppressed. Women and academics in the humanities were more likely to prioritise ‘social justice’ over academic rigour. I proceed with care here because this is only two studies and I have not conducted any kind systematic review with meta analysis of all the available studies. There is, however, at the very least, cause for concern. As the plaque at the New York Library says, ‘Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good persons is but knowledge in the making.’ If we do not have diversity of opinion, that threatens ‘knowledge in the making‘ and we end up with feminist ‘mesearch’ of the sort conducted by Laura Bates.
I acknowledge that much of this post is speculative and my knowledge of how English Literature is taught in universities is sorely limited. Sciences were my field and perhaps that is why I write so badly. Nonetheless, I think some kind of study of the radicalisation process that occurs along the axis of privilege from private schools to university humanities departments is overdue.
Finally, this post should not be seen as an attack on English Literature as an academic subject. I have a love of literature and my biggest influence in life studied English at University. I am sure literature can be, and often is, studied in an intellectually rigorous fashion and the relationship between literature, history and ideas can illuminate our present.