Tuvel’s peers are busily wrecking her reputation

Jesse Singal has written a blast against the public trashing of Rebecca Tuvel’s article.

In late March, Hypatia, a feminist-philosophy journal, published an article titled “In Defense of Transracialism” by Rebecca Tuvel, an assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College in Memphis, as part of its spring 2017 issue. The point of the article, as the title suggests, is to toy around with the question of what it would mean if some people really were — as Rachel Dolezal claimed — “transracial,” meaning they identified as a race that didn’t line up with how society viewed them in light of their ancestry.

Tuvel structures her argument more or less as follows: (1) We accept the following premises about trans people and the rights and dignity to which they are entitled; (2) we also accept the following premises about identities and identity change in general; (3) therefore, the common arguments against transracialism fail, and we should accept that there’s little apparent logically coherent reason to deny the possibility of genuine transracialism.

Anyone who has read an academic philosophy paper will be familiar with this sort of argument. The goal, often, is to provoke a little — to probe what we think and why we think it, and to highlight logical inconsistencies that might help us better understand our values and thought processes. This sort of article is abstract and laden with hypotheticals — the idea is to pull up one level from the real world and force people to grapple with principles and claims on their own merits, rather than — in the case of Dolezal — baser instincts like disgust and outrage. This is what many philosophers do.

Fortunately for us, because it’s a good idea to probe what we think and why we think it and to highlight logical inconsistencies that might help us better understand our values and thought processes. One of the things I loathe most about the “SHUN HER NOW” school of non-thought is the way it forbids all that and insists that thinking has to be replaced with formulas and that the formulas have to be repeated exactly or dire punishment will follow. In short I loathe the banning of thought and probing and questions. I think I knew I couldn’t stay at FTB any longer when the goons started mocking me for daring to say it made a difference whether we were talking about ontology or politics. Fucking hell, if we can’t make distinctions as basic as that how can we think at all?

Tuvel is now bearing the brunt of a massive internet witch-hunt, abetted in part by Hypatia’s refusal to stand up for her. The journal has already apologized for the article, despite the fact that it was approved through its normal editorial process, and Tuvel’s peers are busily wrecking her reputation by sharing all sorts of false claims about the article that don’t bear the scrutiny of even a single close read.

The biggest vehicle of misinformation about Tuvel’s articles comes from the “open letter to Hypatia” that has done a great deal to help spark the controversy. That letter has racked up hundreds of signatories within the academic community — the top names listed are Elise Springer of Wesleyan University, Alexis Shotwell of Carleton University (who is listed as the point of contact), Dilek Huseyinzadegan of Emory University, Lori Gruen of Wesleyan, and Shannon Winnubst of Ohio State University.

It’s shocking. What the open letter people are doing is shocking.

Singal goes through the open letter and lists the many mistakes and false claims in it. I recommend reading the whole thing.

All in all, it’s remarkable how many basic facts this letter gets wrong about Tuvel’s paper. Either the authors simply lied about the article’s contents, or they didn’t read it at all. Every single one of the hundreds of signatories on the open letter now has their name on a document that severely (and arguably maliciously) mischaracterizes the work of one of their colleagues. This is not the sort of thing that usually happens in academia — it’s a really strange, disturbing instance of mass groupthink, perhaps fueled by the dynamics of online shaming and piling-on.

Others within academia criticized Tuvel’s article in misleading ways as well. In his article, Weinberg highlights a popular public Facebook post by Nora Berenstain, a philosophy professor at the University of Tennessee, that has since been taken down but which read as follows (I’m introducing numbers to take the new points on one by one):

(1) Tuvel enacts violence and perpetuates harm in numerous ways throughout her essay. She deadnames a trans woman. She uses the term “transgenderism.” (2) She talks about “biological sex” and uses phrases like “male genitalia.” (3) She focuses enormously on surgery, which promotes the objectification of trans bodies. (4) She refers to “a male-to- female (mtf) trans individual who could return to male privilege,” promoting the harmful transmisogynistic ideology that trans women have (at some point had) male privilege.

I read Berenstein’s post yesterday, more than once. I find it skin-crawling. It’s still readable on Google’s cache. Singal notes a fraction of what’s wrong with her post too, and then comments:

I could go on and on. This is a witch hunt. There has simply been an explosive amount of misinformation circulating online about what is and isn’t in Tuvel’s article, which few of her most vociferous critics appear to have even skimmed, based on their inability to accurately describe its contents. Because the right has seized on Rachel Dolezal as a target of gleeful ridicule, and as a means of making opportunistic arguments against the reality of the trans identity, a bunch of academics who really should know better are attributing to Tuvel arguments she never made, simply because she connected those two subjects in an academic article.

But it’s quite clear from her own words Tuvel doesn’t believe it’s an apt comparison to make Breitbart-y arguments about Dolezal and trans people. Here’s what she says in her very first endnote: “Importantly, I am not suggesting that race and sex are equivalent. Rather, I intend to show that similar arguments that support transgenderism support transracialism. My thesis relies in no way upon the claim that race and sex are equivalent, or historically constructed in exactly the same way.” She is making a very specific, narrow argument about identity in an academic philosophy setting, all while noting, every step of the way, that she believes trans people are who they say they are, and that they should be entitled to the full rights and recognition of their identity. This pile-on isn’t even close to warranted.

So why are they doing it? Because it’s so much fun? Because they’re fanatics? Because they’re afraid? I don’t know. I don’t get it. I never have. The venom directed at me was out of proportion too, and I never got that either.

(It started with Dolezal in my case too.)

Unfortunately, Hypatia simply surrendered to this sustained misinformation campaign. On April 30, one of the journal’s editors, Cressida Hayes, posted a lengthy apology to Facebook, later posted to the journal’s Facebook page as well, from “the members of Hypatia’s Board of Associate Editors.” Among other things, the apology notes that “[i]t is our position that the harms that have ensued from the publication of this article could and should have been prevented by a more effective review process.” Like the critiques themselves, the apology deeply misreads and misinterprets the original article: “Perhaps most fundamentally,” write the editors, “to compare ethically the lived experience of trans people (from a distinctly external perspective) primarily to a single example of a white person claiming to have adopted a black identity creates an equivalency that fails to recognize the history of racial appropriation, while also associating trans people with racial appropriation.” At no point in Tuvel’s article does she come close to doing anything like this. Rather, the entire premise of the article is to examine what genuine instances of deeply felt transracialism would tell us about identity and identity change in light of the progressive view of trans rights. Early on, she even effectively sets Dolezal aside, writing that she isn’t particularly interested in what Dolezal really feels, since that’s unknowable, but is rather interested in dissecting some of the underlying issues about identity in a more hypothetical way — “My concern in this article is less with the veracity of Dolezal’s claims,” she writes, “and more with the arguments for and against transracialism.”

They’re interesting. Some people are interested in such things. It shouldn’t be treated as a crime.

It is pretty remarkable for an academic journal to, in the wake of an online uproar, apologize and suggest one of its articles caused “harm,” all while failing to push back against brazenly inaccurate misreadings of that article — especially in light of the fact that Tuvel said in a statement (readable at the bottom of the Daily Nous article) that she’s dealing with a wave of online abuse and hate mail.

Some other academics have already reacted angrily to the extent to which Hypatia rolled over in the wake of this outrage-storm. On his Leiter Reports philosophy blog, for example, Brian Leiter, a philosophy professor, writes

…what you already know he writes, because I posted about it yesterday.

[W]hat’s disturbing here is how many hundreds of academics signed onto and helped spread utterly false claims about one of their colleagues, and the extent to which Hypatia, faced with such outrage, didn’t even bother trying to sift legitimate critiques from frankly made-up ones. A huge number of people who haven’t read Tuvel’s article now believe, on the basis of that trumped-up open letter and unfounded claims of “violence,” that it is so deeply transphobic it warranted an unusual apology from the journal that published it.

We should want academics to write about complicated, difficult, hot-button issues, including identity. Online pile-ons cannot, however righteous they feel, dictate journals’ publication policies and how they treat their authors and articles. It’s really disturbing to watch this sort of thing unfold in real time — there’s such a stark disconnect between what Tuvel wrote and what she is purported to have written. This whole episode should worry anybody who cares about academia’s ability to engage in difficult issues at a time when outrage can spread faster than ever before.

I second that.

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