Short Take: In Defense of Grievance Dogma

At Arc Digital,* Roderick Graham takes his best shot at defending the honor of what he calls “critical studies,” that strain of “scholarship” taken to task by the Sokal Squared hoax. Deep into his argument, he questions why non-academics, outsiders to critical studies, give a damn about whether it’s a legit field of scholarship.

Many who denounce critical studies are political grievers. Research identifying more instances of racism, sexism, homophobia, and so forth bear with them implications. At the least, it accuses whites, men, heterosexuals, and cisgendered people as a class — though not necessarily as individuals — as being in need of change. At the most, the research suggests adoption of policies that reduce racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. People who benefit from the status quo, or who are otherwise opposed to changing it, are less inclined to explore its flaws.

Political grievers are usually outside of academia and other forms of knowledge production, and often have only a passing interest in the actual production of knowledge.

Meanwhile, the principled grievers object to critical studies because they believe the research is not of a high quality, and they worry critical studies’ practices are influencing other types of research for the worse. However, this measures the conclusions of critical studies through a lens of the traditional scientific method.

It’s a fair question, and one that an old lawyer should address up front: because law, reform and the ability to address the myriad failings of a system depend upon brutal reality if they’re going to work now, and be sustainable over the long term as opposed to the fix of the moment based on the delusion of the moment, only to be replaced the next time hysteria strikes and SOMETHING MUST BE DONE.

In other words, relying upon transitory self-indulgent “lived experiences” that unearth exactly what grievance studies scholar desperately want to find to prove their worth to society isn’t a particularly good foundation for effective change. And to some extent, Graham concedes as much.

My goal in this essay is to add nuance to the public’s understanding of the knowledge produced in the disciplines labeled grievance studies. I orient the essay towards those who freely employ the grievance studies label or agree with the overall sentiments the term suggests. They levy at least two major criticisms: (1) the research produced by grievance studies is at best inferior to other fields, at worst outright false, and (2) the research is overtly political.

These two criticisms are misplaced. First, while the research is indeed less rigorous if one applies the yardstick used by standard research methods, these fields are deliberately attempting to produce a different kind of knowledge. It is different, rather than inherently worse (or inherently better). Second, the research is indeed overtly political. This is a feature, not a bug. It is meant to be that way. And while these fields embrace it more than others, politics is embedded in all research, grievance or no.

In social science laboratories, this sort of rhetoric might not merely fly, but be applauded for its deep insight. But as a discipline, a course of study to be taken seriously as scholarship, it’s got some problems.**

The political bias and lack of objectivity makes many of their findings a forgone conclusion. Would anybody in Women’s Studies be taken seriously if they were to conclude that a field having fewer than 50% women is the product of self-selection rather than discrimination?

The irony is that, as a lawyer, my anecdotal experience is that racism and sexism is very much a problem screwing with the system, and as such, very much demands hard solutions to address. But critical studies isn’t producing real answer, and just makes things worse by indulging its delusions at the expense of the damage it causes by promoting its agenda.

I don’t care about the race or gender of the accused, but I damn well care if they’re being railroaded based on a fashionably bullshit narrative that no one can question without being a toxic pariah. Graham’s effort at justifying critical studies is worth a read. It’s why we end up with facile trendy answers that can’t be challenged, and why we will be as misguided in reforming law as we were when life plus cancer was the thing that would save society from crime for sure.

*Credit to Berny Belvedere, AD’s founder, for giving real estate to Roderick Graham to make his case.

**The thread from @iamcuriousblue raises good questions, but, significantly, raises a core problem with solutions to delusions:

Many of the people in this field quite openly call for a lowering of free speech, due process, and other rights to other citizens insofar as they’re white/male/straight/cis. It seems to me that an overwhelming standard of evidence is required before we consider doing this.

Or to put it differently, when the outcome is all that matters, the solution is to do away with any process that could produce an undesirable outcome. That fails as academic rigor. That fails as law. But unlike @iamcuriousblue, there is no amount of evidence that justifies the eradication of due process, the ability to be fairly and fully heard.

24 thoughts on “Short Take: In Defense of Grievance Dogma

  1. Denverite

    From Hannah Arendt on the utopian impulse: “The law of progress holds that everything now must be better than what was there before. Don’t you see if you want something better, you lose the good. The good is no longer even being measured.”

    1. SHG Post author

      The old adage, “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” may not apply well here. I have grave doubts that the grievance studies path leads to good or perfect, but rather favoring one race or gender, or combo thereof, over another.

  2. Laches

    The piece was an interesting read but it reminds me of the attempts to defend bite-mark matching and other forms of junk science that law enforcement has been using for years, even though they have been shown invalid, or at least called into serious question.
    Graham similarly seems to want these grievance studies fields accepted as a form of science, even they are not subjected to the scientific method.

    1. SHG Post author

      It “defends” grievance studies in the negative rather than the affirmative. It has little good to say for it, but tries to rationalize away criticism.

  3. Richard Kopf


    I read Professor Graham’s piece. I notice that the phrase “lived experience,” explained and defended by the good professor, a black man, also appears in Dean Lester’s letter announcing that a pariah will no longer lecture at Columbia.

    Setting aside the philosophical question of whether one can experience something without living, the use of the phrase by authors described in each of your posts is worth considering. Graham is at least honest about his uphill struggle attempting to define and defend the phrase in academic circles. Lester either has no clue what it means or doesn’t care because it suits her purposes.

    Ironically, Lester is a privileged white cisgendered woman who, it could be argued, appropriated the phrase from the marginalized. She might give Professor Graham’s piece a read before she uses it again to market the law school that pays her handsomely. The Dean wouldn’t want to be known as a craven silly.

    All the best.


    1. SHG Post author

      The beauty of using “lived experience” as a substantive metric is that no one can deny it, even if no one shares it. Kafka approves.

      1. Richard Kopf


        Poor Kafka. He was, after all and sadly, a mere lawyer and not an academic. Thus, he (like you and me) would be incapable of understanding the sublime subtleties of modern critical studies in the Academy. This, despite his tepid attempt in Der Process (The Trial).

        All the best.


  4. DaveL

    Ah, I see now. The horsemeat being passed off as beef is in fact merely a different kind of beef.

      1. Fubar

        If two counts for two each is your plea,
        Two plus two served consecutively
        Equals in for all four,
        But they’ll show you the door,
        If you’re on good behavior, in three!

  5. Stephen J.

    The irony is that, as a lawyer, my anecdotal experience is that racism and sexism is very much a problem screwing with the system, and as such, very much demands hard solutions to address.

    Which then leads to the basic caveat of anecdotal and “lived” experience, which is that it doesn’t in itself indicate how representative of the statistical mode it is. We’re inherent projectors; we always tend to assume what happens to us is the way things “really” are “everywhere”, and any appearance to the contrary is either illusion or deception. Likewise, people whose job is to troubleshoot a problem will generally both (a) see far more instances of the problem than most, and (b) will have a much different reported experience of true vs. false positives than most — there’s a reason most cops acquire the habit of dividing the world into “cops”, “definite crooks”, and “probable crooks”.

    There is also the question of whether there even exists a solution to the problem of unjust bias that is (a) effective, (b) feasible to implement, and (c) does not create worse problems than it solves — viz. the reaction of many male managers in refusing even to associate with female employees so as to avoid vulnerability to harassment accusations, which is far more of a setback to women in the workplace in general than the actual intermittent harassment itself ever was.

      1. Stephen J.

        I may have confused the two. I’d always assumed that “anecdote” was basically taken as shorthand for “something I personally saw / went through”, which seemed like the same thing as “lived experience,” but terminology has tripped me up before.

        1. SHG Post author

          My understanding is “lived experience” is indisputable reality that must be accepted by others. Anecdote is always disputable and means nothing to anyone else.

          1. Stephen J.

            Ah, I get it. Classic technique, actually: I have “lived experience”, you have “anecdotes”, he has “privilege blindness”.

  6. B. McLeod

    in addition to due process, “free speech” and “other rights” are called “rights” for a reason. If they could just be taken away to “solve” some perceived problem, they would not be “rights.” In my opinion, all Graham manages to do here is to show that the criticisms he calls “misplaced” are not misplaced at all.

  7. Pedantic Grammar Police

    Our university system no longer offers education; it offers religious instruction, complete with the Inquisition to deter heresy. The fact that we put up with this abuse of tax dollars combined with debt slavery just goes to show how stupid we are. Don’t blame us, we spent 12+ years going to school to learn how to be stupid.

  8. David Matthews

    “[T]his measures the conclusions of critical studies through a lens of the traditional scientific method.”

    The same traditional method that gave us solar panels, cell phones, and sex reassignment surgery.

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