This year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll’s famous novel about Alice’s absurd adventures in a world of upended logic.
Amongst her many memorable conversations is this one with the White Queen:
“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
In a novel, lack of logic is entertaining. In real life, as American philosophy lecturer Peter Boghossian discovered, it is terrifying.
After a decade of tumultuous teaching, Boghossian has just resigned from Portland State University, a mid-level institution with about 26,000 students. He explained why this week in an open letter. The quiet life of the mind had become, almost literally, a bruising contact sport. “The more I spoke out against the illiberalism that has swallowed Portland State University, the more retaliation I faced,” he declares to the university’s provost.
Boghossian is a philosopher and his passion is questioning, interrogating, arguing, doubting, arguing. He follows in the footsteps of Socrates, the Athenian philosopher who put everything in question. He is the author of A Manual for Creating Atheists and How to Have Impossible Conversations.
And therefore he is definitely not a person who is welcome at Portland State.
Why? Because he was one of the first academics to probe the assumptions of woke culture, particularly critical race theory. He complains in his letter that the university
… has transformed a bastion of free inquiry into a Social Justice factory whose only inputs were race, gender, and victimhood and whose only outputs were grievance and division.
Students at Portland State are not being taught to think. Rather, they are being trained to mimic the moral certainty of ideologues.
Why safe spaces? Why trigger warnings? Why race consciousness? What’s wrong with cultural appropriation? These were some of the dangerous questions that he asked students and staff.
His belief in free inquiry turned students against him. He was slandered, spat upon, ridiculed and harassed.
Boghossian responded by testing the limits of woke thinking. With another writer he published, under a pseudonym, an article in a peer-reviewed journal, Cogent Social Sciences, “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” (since retracted). Their intentionally bogus argument was that that penises were products of the human mind and responsible for climate change.
In 2018 he followed this up with a series of hoax articles written with Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay (co-authors of Cynical Theories). They were “absurd or morally repugnant” but, incredibly, they were peer-reviewed and accepted for publication. In one of them, they showed that there was an epidemic of dog rape at dog parks and proposed that we leash men the way we leash dogs.
It was one of the most successful hoaxes in academic history. “Our purpose was to show that certain kinds of ‘scholarship’ are based not on finding truth but on advancing social grievances,” Boghossian says. “This worldview is not scientific, and it is not rigorous.” He should have been given a medal.
But Portland State was not scandalised by the evidence of Through the Looking-Glass lunacy in the academic journals. Instead it found him guilty of “research misconduct”.
Eventually, the personal pressure on Boghossian became too great. He had to resign. “This is not the outcome I wanted,” he writes. “But I feel morally obligated to make this choice. For ten years, I have taught my students the importance of living by your principles. One of mine is to defend our system of liberal education from those who seek to destroy it. Who would I be if I didn’t?”
Boghossian’s experience suggests that you have to be crazy-brave to be an independent thinker in some American universities. This is a disgrace. Why should a modern Socrates have to put up with years of harassment and vilification for teaching young Americans not to believe six impossible things before breakfast?