Assistant Professor Peter Boghossian's event focused on student stories rather than his own experiences, facilitating discussion from the audience as opposed to the podium. Justin Grinnell/PSU Vanguard

‘Boghossian Explosion’ hits Smith

Freethinkers of PSU, Peter Boghossian hold student ‘Reverse Q&A’ on social justice


When Peter Boghossian announced via Twitter that he would be debating social justice at Portland State, one follower simply replied, “Brave man.” 


Boghossian, an assistant professor of philosophy at PSU, is no stranger to controversy. In 2017, a team of authors—Boghossian and colleagues James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose—attempted to defraud academic journals by submitting intentionally faulty papers regarding gender, race and sexuality with hopes to be published. Formally titled the “Grievance Studies” affair, the event eventually took shape as “Sokal Squared,” a nod to similar work done by Alan Sokal 10 years prior. Yet this event, co-hosted by the Freethinkers of PSU, was much more civil than anticipated. 


The discussion, formatted as a reverse Q&A, took place in Smith Memorial Student Union from 6–7:30 p.m. The floor was initially opened up to current PSU students, both graduate and undergraduate, but the discussion quickly roped in students and professors from years past as well. Topics ranged from the #MeToo movement to issues of houselessness, and eventually even landed on Colin Kaepernick. 


“Personally, I wish we were able to get more students with a perspective that wasn’t negative towards social justice,” said Blake Horner, a PSU student and Freethinkers representative. “I was really looking forward to that, and I tried to market [the event] so we got those different perspectives. I still think the conversation was productive.” 


“We engaged the students, and that’s all I cared about,” Horner said.


When Boghossian first entered the room, accompanied by a police officer, some were initially concerned it was a sign of a tense event ahead. 


“I posted about the event on Twitter. We put up posters which were destroyed,” Boghossian said. Expecting to simply invite students to share their stories and experiences regarding social justice, the philosophy professor said he was not disappointed. “I’m just glad that we got to listen to people.” 


The evening began with an invitation for students to tell their story in front of the room. After a brief pause, a volunteer grabbed the mic and began the conversation. The first speaker spoke of her disdain for feminism. The next spoke about veterans and his experience with the G.I. bill. Topics varied from drug counseling to discrimination. One student spoke of his disdain for Facebook after being ostracized and called a nazi online.


Ben Gonzales, a student at PSU and a leader of the Portland State Psychedelics Club, said he drew great benefit from the event. 


“I’m all for creating discussion and trying to get people with different points of view to join,” Gonzales said. His only recommendation for future events like this was structure. “It took a second for the night to get rolling. I like the idea and spirit of it, but I felt like it could have been prepared a bit better.”


While most students described a particular event or experience, one former student spoke about their history with social justice overseas. They said they had been outside of the country multiple times and had recently discovered that social justice was nonexistent in underdeveloped countries, because citizens were too concerned with surviving on a day-to-day basis to worry about these other issues. The student explained this was the reason social justice was a form of entitlement. 

After the event, Boghossian talked with members of the event who spoke. Justin Grinnell/PSU Vanguard Justin Grinnell/Portland State Vanguard

“We have an institution that is run by an ideology,” Boghossian said. “One that has no evidence for it and actually has evidence against it.”


For Boghossian, evidence holds incredible weight but is typically misinterpreted. 


“Asking someone for evidence is not a microaggression. It’s not causing anyone trauma. In an academic sense, it is someone’s duty when they want to implement a policy to provide evidence for those claims. Evidence is the key.” 


The Freethinkers of PSU have weekly discussions on Fridays addressing a wide array of topics, not all concerning social justice, and hope to provide future events for interested students. The group focuses on tackling issues involving freedom of inquiry and student acceptance. 


“Our schedule all depends on what the students care about and what they want to see and discuss,” Blake Horner said of the upcoming schedule for the student group. 

Those interested in the group should contact [email protected] or follow their Twitter account, @PSUFreeThinkers.