In 1996, Alan Sokal, professor of physics at New York University, submitted an article entitled Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity to the fashionable American cultural-studies journal Social Text. It was accepted and published in an edition devoted to rebutting criticisms levelled against post-modernism and social constructivism by several distinguished scientists.
In fact the article was a spoof, a parody of the work proliferating in post-modern studies, and was chock-full of absurdities and blatant non-sequiturs, while asserting an extreme form of cognitive relativism. Immediately following publication, Sokal revealed the hoax, provoking a firestorm of reaction. Enthusiastic academics were no doubt furious – they’d been had, taken in, in front of their colleagues, and even the wider world, because the scandal was reported on the front pages of the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Observer and Le Monde, among others.
This was from an academic in the field of theoretical physics, who would be expected to have his papers peer-reviewed and subject to demonstrable proof. How much more amenable would the social sciences be to such pranks?
So when I was told that Douglas Murray was being reported to the police with regard to his latest book The Madness of Crowds, I was rather concerned. I had just ordered my own copy, and wondered if I should prudently keep my head down, in case they might come for me next.
It was only when I followed up the story that I found the denunciation was also a spoof, from the pen of Titania McGrath, the ‘ecosexual vegan radical intersectionalist slam poet, committed to feminism, social justice and armed peaceful protest’ created by comedian and satirist Andrew Doyle. In her fictitious CV, McGrath studied Mod Langs at Oxford, before completing an MA in gender studies, for which she wrote ‘a ground-breaking dissertation on technopaganism and the corrosive nature of cis-masculine futurity’. Echoes of Professor Sokal . . .
The article, published in Unherd, is a compilation of the woke-est of utterances, spiced up with sheer absurdity and ludicrous contradictions, and is hilariously funny, as only the best satire can be. I especially enjoyed her put-down of the author: ‘Murray’s ideas about gender and sexuality are so outdated that they are genuinely embarrassing to read. He relies on a whole range of pseudo-sciences such as “genetics”, “endocrinology” and “facts”. If he’d bothered to take even a basic course in Gender Studies he would realise that all these superstitions have long been discredited. He completely fails to understand the fundamental point that gender is an arbitrary construct, and has absolutely nothing to do with “biology” (except in the case of trans people who have been born in the wrong body).’ This comes close to out-parodying Sokal.
To its discredit, Twitter has suspended McGrath’s account for hate speech four times, notably on 9 December 2018, only for it to gain 20,000 followers after it was reinstated a day later. As of 1 September, her account had 330,000 followers, and yet on 15 September, it was again suspended for seven days for a post which ‘violated Twitter’s terms of service’. It seems that the Twitter algorithms don’t do parody.
Other media giants have failed to see the funny side. Facebook has censored the satirical news site The Babylon Bee, and the woman-centric site Reductress was suppressed for being ‘clickbait’ for a post which was intended to lampoon clickbait! And as Douglas Murray points out, the Twitter-based character Godfrey Elfwick, a self-confessed genderqueer Muslim atheist, also became a victim of his own success and was barred from Twitter last summer.
More disturbingly, the Mini AOC accounts, which posted videos mocking the US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes, have been deleted, this time by eight-year-old Ava Martinez’s family. Her stepfather Salvatore Schachter said: ‘Ava will not be doing any more Mini AOC content. The Left’s harassment and death threats have gone too far for our family. We have been getting calls on our personal phone numbers. For our safety and our child’s safety, we deleted all the accounts.’ I for one will miss them.
As Douglas Murray says, ‘some people are finding it increasingly hard to discern satire from reality’. Satire, the use of humour, irony, exaggeration or ridicule, has long been harnessed to expose and criticise stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics, and now increasingly in the sphere of progressive social science. If Chaucer, Rabelais, Voltaire or Jonathan Swift had had Twitter or Facebook accounts, would they too have been taken down for ‘violating their terms of service’ or been the target of death threats?
The problem with the censorship of ideas and opinions, especially in this new age of the Thought Police, is that genuine intellectual challenge is stifled. Without regular exposure to such challenge, things get more and more extreme and out of touch, absurd indeed but without the laughs.
Happily some remain undaunted by outrageous and infantile attacks. Galen Milne, the Lib Dems’ candidate for Banff and Buchan, ranted that ‘Johnson, Fox, Davis and Rees-Mogg should be hung, drawn and quartered, with each quarter being sent to the four corners of the UK to be burned at the stake.’ Rees-Mogg took this with a pinch of welcome satirical salt, replying: ‘As Lord President of the Council, I am entitled to the privilege of being beheaded.’ Brilliant!