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Artillery Row

The rise of academentia

Mere transgression is being elevated above genuine insight and creativity

In late 2000, I was visiting a friend who was studying film. One of her tutors was presenting a work “on queer love” and my friend invited me to come along. She felt that as someone taking an arts PhD, I would be into this sort of thing. Certainly, I identified as that kind of person. By the time the film ended, I was less sure.

The whole thing seemed more than a little bit … pro-sexualising very small children. Was it me? Was I seeing things? Nothing was being done to the children featured, but images were spliced in a way that seemed, well, dodgy as hell. After the film ended, the room was silent, the tutor standing before us, smiling in a way that seemed to say “yeah, you all see it — but you’re not going to dare say it, are you?” And nobody did. I felt a brief flash of rage towards him, but quickly corrected myself. Maybe I was wrong. I had to be, didn’t I?

“In academia today,” writes Laura Favaro in an article published this month in the Spanish Cuestiones de Género, “it is difficult to raise concerns about the queering of childhood without being associated with ‘think of the children’ rhetoric, which is not only dismissed disdainfully as conservative but also denounced as fundamentally anti-queer.” I thought of that film again when reading Favaro’s work —  and of other experiences, some humorous, some disturbing, many of them both. I wondered what sort of person I’d have become if I’d stayed in academia. It’s a moot point —  I was a terrible student — but would I have passed the integrity test? Or rather, would I have failed it, which seems to be the route to success, at least in the fields I would once have been most desperate to defend. 

The title of Favaro’s piece is “Let us be free from ‘academentia’”. It’s a term coined by the radical feminist Mary Daly “to capture the stultification of the mind in patriarchal education”. Favaro uses it to describe “the push towards queering at universities” and its disturbing consequences. These include a fear of asking questions, the persecution of feminists and, yes, child sexual abuse apologism. It makes for a frightening read, not least because it is so well-evidenced (evidence being another thing those in the grip of academentia do not care for so much).

As someone who, according to certain family members, wasted years of her life studying pretentious books for no reason whatsoever, I am familiar with all of the insults thrown at those doing “meaningless” research from their ivory towers. I used to rage at the way in which the right-wing press would misrepresent a call for papers, or hone in on the title of a journal article, in order to “prove” academics — especially those in the arts and social sciences — were churning out pretentious, if not actively harmful, nonsense. This irritates me still (when Nigel Farage disparages non-STEM degrees, for instance, there’s no interest in the detail — it’s simply a claim such things shouldn’t exist). And yet I agree with Favaro that there is a significant problem. All of the things that the worst, most fear-mongering philistine claimed academics always were, some of them have become — and just like the tutor in the film presentation, they trust that no one on “their” side will say anything. Most of the time, they don’t. 

Favaro first became aware of the extent of the problem when she conducted research into “academia’s gender wars”, work that was made public in Times Higher Education in September 2022. When she started her research, she wanted to explore exactly what was happening between so-called “gender critical” and “gender affirmative” feminists (and those in-between). What she discovered was that those on the “gender critical” side were being hounded, while many of those in-between were too frightened of being denounced to develop, let alone voice, an opinion on issues such as child safeguarding and single-sex spaces. This outcome clearly surprised those on the gender-affirming side, who saw themselves as heroes and had expected to be portrayed as such. 

Needless to say, Favaro herself was hounded. Pro-gender academics who had taken part in her research made grandiose apologies to trans people who would “be harmed as a result”, while “others with no association whatsoever with the research called for an end to [her] career”. Thus far, Favaro remains ostracised, for making the very point that her ostracism proves. 

Favaro’s initial distinction of “gender critical” and “gender affirmative” feminism was, she found, more accurately expressed as one between “feminism” — as a movement that recognises sex as a biological reality and gender as a mechanism “that functions to naturalise, enforce and perpetuate the subordination of female people to male people” — and genderism, a movement that “is sex-critical and pro-gender”. Viewed in this light, there is no conflict between feminists in academia, nor even any dominance of one form of academic feminism over another. Mainstream academia has become profoundly anti-feminist and anti-woman. This is something that Daly predicted would happen in the 1970s, and so it has come to pass. 

Genderists are much more honest about their anti-feminism than they perhaps realise. One interviewee — a late-career academic — tells Favaro that her role is to be “with the margins”: “for me, ‘women’ was the margins, but actually, it’s not the margins anymore”. Women, it seems, are old hat. As Favaro asks in her latest article, “who will be next?”:

Presumably it won’t be all those struggling to pay rent or put food on the table. As is the case with women, the poor appear to have been largely relegated to the status of ‘passé topic’. It is also far too large a population to be valued politically as ‘margins’, or as ‘niche’ in terms of research. With its focus on marginality and deviance, the queer approach helps academics get ahead in the compulsory race for an external grant or journal publication.

For all its mystification, the queer theory approach is also an intellectually unchallenging one. Misrepresented as an “upgraded” feminism, it is, as Favaro notes, a rejection of it, and of “empiricism, objectivity and materialism in favour of the pseudoreligious, subjective and idiosyncratic”. Its purpose is to affirm feelings and to break things, not to ask, to test or to explain. As another interviewee says, “it’s a matter of politics, not of scholarly elucidation”. Or another: “we need to step back from finding the right answer […] I’m a post-structuralist, so I don’t understand gender. I don’t understand any of the words I use per se”. Which is quite handy if you never want to be held to any of them. 

Everyone loves a gender binary-smashing vagina person who nods along without letting too many real thoughts trouble her pretty little head

In a strange way, I can understand the appeal of queer theory to female academics, especially the most insecure amongst them. The way it makes women feel — the way I felt after watching that film — recalls all of the stereotypes that have been used to exclude female people from intellectual life in the first place. Because it doesn’t make sense, and because at its far reaches, it promotes the demolition of sexual and generational boundaries, it unsettles. But because you cannot afford to question it, you turn on yourself. You must be wrong, but if you’re wrong, that means you’re stupid, morally inferior, not one of the initiates, just some female with a body only fit for breeding. Instead of accepting that, or taking the risk to disagree, it is easier to project all of these fears onto feminists. Then once you’ve taken that step — to abandon reason and integrity — why not go further? Call those feminists genocidal. The people who matter, who are male, will like you even more (everyone loves a gender binary-smashing vagina person who nods along without letting too many real thoughts trouble her pretty little head). 

Of course, if you do allow yourself the intellectual space to question it, queer theory can be seen as both dangerous and ridiculous to the point of hilarity. Favaro quotes Jack Halberstam telling us, in full Rick from The Young Ones mode, that we must be “willing to turn away from the comfort zone of polite exchange in order to embrace a truly political negativity, one that promises, this time, to fail, to make a mess, to fuck shit up, to be loud, unruly, impolite, to breed resentment, to bash back, to speak up and out, to disrupt, assassinate, shock and annihilate” (crikey!). Then there’s the queer-adjacent Mad Pride, informing us “we’re here, we’re insane, and we’re ready to burn down the system!” (quick, let’s all look terrified). Alison Phipps, meanwhile, ends the “mainstream feminism” (read: feminism) bashing Me, Not You with a John Lennon-esque call to imagine there’s no prisons, no violence, no “reactionary focus on male biology”, no national borders, no private property (before getting herself in a tizz about what this means for groups whose lands have been taken from them by colonialists). All in all, these are not serious people. Yet the impact they are having on both free thought and the rights of women and children is serious all the same. 

Proponents of academentia are dangerous not because their thoughts are original, norm-breaking or even very interesting. They are predictable. The same pattern is applied to everything. The film I watched all those years ago was dull. Once you’ve seen one shot of toddlers playing swiftly followed by a shot of adults fucking, you’ve seen them all. “But I’ve got a reaction out of you” proves nothing (tantrumming children get reactions, and tantrums are boring, too). Anyone can make a mess. Anyone can churn out novel statements if evidence, logic and material reality have become an irrelevance. Anyone can shock if human suffering — and particularly compassion for children — are just embarrassing normie concerns.

What is hard is creating new things, original concepts, better lives, using the raw materials of the world — and the bodies — that we have. True academic feminists have sought to do this. They have disagreed with one another precisely because this is such hard work, but that is what makes it valuable, too. Right now, it is utterly dismaying to see those most devoted to this work being driven out of academia, viewed as problematic, outdated or even hateful. Their genuine creativity and intellectual rigour are needed more than ever. 

Favaro is one such academic, and she has paid an enormous price for her courage. She is generous to those who do not dare to speak out. I am not sure I would be in her position. Then again, I’m not sure if I’d have ever been brave enough to get there to start with.

The way I behaved two decades ago certainly suggests not. I can tell myself it would have made no difference if I had said something. But what if other people had, too? Isn’t time more of us who care about thinking actually dared to do it? 

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