Threshold concepts and feminism

On Spiked Brendan O’Neill writes:

“… it seems to me that internet trolling, particularly the vile sexist stuff, is an unwitting by-product of the cultivation in recent years of a stringently emotionally correct society.

…In response to such linguistic stricture, such moral straitjacketing, some men, usually sad fucks, are going to seek out a space in which they can let their id go crazy and scream out certain words or thoughts – ‘cow!’, ‘slut!’, ‘rape!’, whatever. The emotional slovenliness of the trolls is in direct proportion to the suffocating emotional correctness of society at large.”

If by ’emotionally correct’ and ‘moral straitjacketing’ he means taboos, I’d agree. I’d also agree that defensive advocates too often resort to theatrical outrage and manufactured controversy which censure expression rather than explore the sentiment.

But there may be a different angle to these distressing and frightening outbursts. In my line of work we sometimes refer to education in terms of ‘threshold concepts’.

A threshold concept may be seen as a crossing of boundaries into new conceptual space where things formerly not within view are perceived, much like a portal opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. (Land, 2013)

I know it isn’t a good idea to deal lightly with theories, and the social world is different from formal educational settings but – with that in mind and this being just a blog – I’m sometimes drawn to thinking of feminism (and other isms close to my heart like veganism, anti-racism) as founded on threshold concepts. One example might be the idea of indirect discrimination. Another might be the distinction between intent and effect, or the person and the act. Another might be the notion of non-human animal sentience. And by way of comparison, in physics, heat transfer; in economics, opportunity cost; in accounting, depreciation. All of these are ‘threshold’ because they are core beliefs without which it is impossible to develop or deepen an understanding. Their apprehension is transformative, requiring the knower to abandon familiar, taken-for-granted perceptions or (in the social world) norms and begin to think like an anti-racist, or a feminist, or an anti-speciesist.

Not always a comfortable or straightforward experience, you might guess. Perkins (2006) sets out five kinds of ‘troublesome knowledge’ which interfere with threshold concepts, summarised by Land,

“…knowledge might be troublesome because it is ritualised, inert (unpractised), conceptually difficult and complex, counterintuitive, alien or tacit, because it requires adopting an unfamiliar discourse, or perhaps because the learner remains ‘defended’ and does not wish to change or let go of their customary way of seeing things.”

As Richard Palmer points out (2001) learning can be deeply unsettling, leaving you bereft of your illusions. “The quicksilver flash of insight may make one rich or poor in an instant”. There’s a sense of loss, sometimes even grief. It’s then easy to become ‘stuck’ in an insecure ‘liminal’ state between relinquishing the old perceptions and acquiring the new ones. I frequently perceive this unsure state in myself, and in many reticent observers of the recent debates on feminism and immigration – the ones who don’t bring up the subject and who discuss it cautiously. There’s a mimicry of understanding, but it isn’t an authentic way of thinking. In this liminal state they’re incapable of defending a principle against the sacreligious attacks that Brendon O’Neill is trying to explain (not that they are merely sacreligious – I take them more seriously than he does).

I wonder if the liminality also brings a vulnerability to societal power relations in the form of competing  threshold concepts. Perhaps – thinking about the Twitter rape threats – the liminality is so unpleasant that some people spasmodically throw it off and rebound back to the comfortable world view they held before, decisively sealing this by expressing their vitriol against the people they perceive represent the concept they rejected?

So what?

Well, I’m out of my depth.

Daniel Dennett writes in his book Intuition Pumps (2013) that:

“…philosophers should seriously consider undertaking a survey of the terrain of the commonsense or manifest image of the world before launching into their theories of knowledge, justice, beauty, truth, goodness, time, causation, and so on, to make sure they actually aim their analyses and arguments at targets that are relevant to the rest of the world.”

Fair enough, but it relates to a pre-liminal settled knowledge and doesn’t relate to liminality, which is disorientated and bereft of commonsense. Ray Land makes some suggestions which for good reason assume students and teachers – but in any case he views threshold concepts as markers rather than tools.

I’ve reached the bottom and the end.

Incidentally, the recent mainstream media coverage of the stem cell burger with little or no discussion of cruelty indicates that views about animals are depressingly – or to use Perkins’ term – ‘defended’.


Dennett, D (2013). Intution pumps and other tools for thinking. London: Allen Lane.

Land, R (2013). Discipline-based teaching. In Hunt, L and Chalmers R (2013) University Teaching in Focus: A learning-centred approach. London: Taylor and Francis.

Palmer, RE (2001). The Liminality of Hermes and the Meaning of Hermeneutics.

Perkins D (2006). Constructivism and troublesome knowledge. In Meyer J and Land R (2006). Overcoming barriers to student understanding. Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. Oxon: Routledge.

11 thoughts on “Threshold concepts and feminism

  1. Draw and quarter me, but I absolutely refuse to agree that Internet changed our behavior. It made easier to measure it (the behavior) and come up with statistics, but trolling existed before internet. And I don’t mean the trolls under the bridge and stuff like this.

    Anyway, I came here to congratulate you (us) with that first stem cell burger, and here you are, already mentioning it. By the way, if (the idea belongs to Robert Sheckley, if I am not mistaken) the initial stem cells used for the vat-grown meat will be human, will it cause a reconciliation between us? I mean on the subject of you know what.

    • Depends. No suffering, great . What about the environmental impact. They’ve long said that people who want to make a personal positive impact to alleviate environmental degradation stop eating animal products. How does the stem cell stuff fit in?

      Incidentally loads of people can’t tell the difference between soy products and animal anymore. So why bother with the test tube meat?

      And is it patented? If so then forget it.

      Did you hear about the human milk icecream in Soho?

  2. Thoughtful post, cheers.
    I think we all have thoughts crossing our mind from time-to-time, which are not very nice. They are hopefully fleeting and discarded, as if the thoughts just had to be aired to ‘get them out of us’ and purge them. E.g. “I could kill him…her…it…”; “I wonder what…x, y, z,…would be like?”.

    I call it the toilet or mirror rant. Have a moan in the loo or at the mirror and move right along. We would never/ hardly ever say these things to someone’s face.

    The trouble with these ‘pieces of work’ on the internet, is that they think they are still in the loo or at home acting out in front of the mirror and the ether gives them a invisibility cloak.

    They’ve always been here. Unable to just self-rant, they get riled and feed themselves with more and more from other ranters, narcissists and exhibitionists. Instead of collecting nasty videos and sitting at home in a deluge of fast food wrappers or a wipe clean marble palace, they troll because they think they can and often get away with it.

  3. Why, the environmental data on this kind of meat is clearly very positive, so what was said was said about raising “natural” meat sources. The stem cell products are very clean on this account.

    As for soy products: I shall withhold my opinion for now. I had once a mushroom burger and can testify to its general acceptability, but then I became hungry in an hour or so…

    Yep, I heard about that icecream thing. Shocking to what lengths people go, and anyway I was never a milk user. Cheeses, on the other hand… oops, sorry 😉

    • Was your mushroom ‘burger’ simply a mushroom, by any chance? And did you get tricked into paying nearly as much for it as you would have for a beef one?

      (Leave this admittedly ordinary perversion involving cow mammaries out of the food chain, I say.)

  4. Incidentally loads of people can’t tell the difference between soy products and animal anymore.

    Which products? I like tofu, despite eerie thoughts about its phytoestrogens, which I am quite willing to admit are more the products of male paranoia than evidence, but I’ve never eaten a soy food that tasted like meat. Indeed, I’ve tended to suspect that hoping that vegetarian foods will taste like meat is liable to bias one against something that is quite nice on its independent merits.

    • Can’t argue with your last point. Just to say that most cheapo veg food is more grain-based than soy-based. For those raised on cheap processed meats heavily bulked with rusk, the mouth feel is pretty similar. And the taste too: salt and onion.

  5. All I could discern (and I wouldn’t swear to it, not being skilled in kitchen work anyway – aside of putting stuff in a dishwasher) were some blackish mushrooms and some connecting goo. But tasty it was. And now, the meal didn’t skin us, it being Vietnam.

    Being addicted to high-cholesterol cheeses like Danish Blue, I can hardly leave this specific perversion. But since this addiction will soon off me anyway, you can see it as an addiction bringing its own cure 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s