Christopher Smith is afraid of the bad, big wolf


I have recently discovered a book by a chap called Mark Forsyth entitled The Elements of Eloquence. In it, he details forty-odd techniques used in written English to ‘turn the perfect English phrase’ (as the subtitle has it) and I’ve been struck by just how many rules there are in English that we know without ever actually articulating. He tells the story of a young J.R.R. Tolkien writing a story about a ‘green great dragon.’ His mother told him that there could be no such thing, though there might be a ‘great green dragon.’ And it’s true, isn’t it? With multiple adjectives, the colour will almost always be nearer the noun it’s describing than an adjective describing its size. You’d never talk about the blue deep sea, would you? But for the big bad wolf, the determining factor is the sound of the words, which dictates that the vowel order is always ‘bish, bash, bosh.’ We say and/or, cats and dogs, ding dong, ping-pong, tit-for-tat, and to put them the other way round would sound daft. Billy Joel only got away with ‘tonic and gin’ because it needed to rhyme with ‘crowd shuffles in.’

Unwritten rules are all very well if you speak the language, but you can’t half come a cropper elsewhere if you don’t know them. It’s inclined to be a problem for clergy dealing with bishops: suddenly you realize that they are applying a whole set of rules about which you knew nothing, but have inadvertently infringed. As for those meetings when ‘you can say anything’—well, there’s a minefield of rules about what you can’t really say at all.

Still, however surreal the church can be in this regard, I suspect we have nothing on the academic world. People like me have a misty-eyed view of the life of university academics: all that time to research things that interest them, pottering back and forth from libraries, pausing occasionally to listen to an undergraduate read an essay or to deliver a lecture series taken straight from one of their own books. Oh, and they get paid for doing it!

But the reality, I suspect, is less congenial, partly because of all the unwritten rules of modern academia. And it is staggering that those rules are stifling free speech in the very place it most needs to be exercised. I wrote a few years ago about the epidemic of crazed offence-taking on the campuses of many American universities—the screaming students offended by Halloween costumes and so on—but, inevitably, we now read of trigger warnings for law students at Oxford studying crime, and trigger warnings for English students at Cambridge studying Shakespeare.

Back in America, however, some brave academics have been pricking the bubble. I ought to give a trigger warning myself now, as some of the language you are about to read is not entirely suitable for children and those of a nervous disposition.

Last spring, some wags called Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay sent an article for publication to a journal called Cogent Social Sciences. It bore the title, ‘The conceptual penis as a social construct,’ and it was complete nonsense. But not only was it published, it was also ‘peer-reviewed’ by someone in the UK, at the University of Huddersfield. It is a hilarious read, and I was particularly amused by section 2.2: ‘Climate change and the conceptual penis.’ But it should simply never have been published, or at least not in any self-respecting academic journal. As its authors put it: ‘If you’re having trouble understanding what any of that means … we don’t understand it either. Nobody does. This problem should have rendered it unpublishable.’

Having had one success, they kept submitting articles during the last year or so, joined by a British academic called Helen Pluckrose. They specialized in papers in fields like gender, sexuality, race and so on, calling them ‘grievance studies.’ They made a video about their experience which you’ll find online, and there is a side-splitting moment as Dr Lindsay reads out a review of their spoof paper on the sexual behaviour of dogs in parks and its relation to ‘rape culture,’ in which ‘the reviewers were worried that we didn’t respect the dogs’ privacy while we were inspecting their genitals.’ Of course, they hadn’t been near any dogs, but the paper was published in ‘the number one feminist geography journal’ (yes, apparently there is such a thing.)

As they say, the worrying, underlying problem in the academic world is that ‘a culture has developed in which only certain conclusions are allowed,’ and if you write to those conclusions, however rubbish or bogus the ‘research,’ you’ll get published, but if you don’t, you won’t. In this world, masculinity is always a problem, and white men in particular are double trouble.

Now, it’s tempting to dismiss this as a problem for academics which doesn’t impinge much on the outside world. But we do have a problem, and it is a theological one to which I made reference in passing last month. We believe that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Does that really matter to us, or are we prepared to see the doctrine of the Trinity go floating by, half-remembered, along with reason, revelation and common sense? As Dr Lindsay said: ‘Making absurd and horrible ideas sufficiently politically fashionable can get them validated at the highest levels of academic grievance studies. [And] the work of grievance scholars goes on to be taught in classes, to design educational curricula, to be taken up by activists, to influence how media is produced and to misinform journalists and politicians about the true nature of our cultural realities.’ All at a university near you…