A grave misuse of the term “harm”

The CHE has a piece by Suzanna Danuta Walters, the editor of Signson the Hypatia mess.

A young philosopher, Rebecca Tuvel, writes an article in which she considers claims to transracial and transgender identities. The result is a firestorm of condemnation — nasty emails, a petition to retract the article, and, worse, a journal that will not stand up for its own peer-reviewed articles. (That last point is complicated by an internal rift within the journal, Hypatia. The editor, Sally J. Scholz, does stand by the article. It was, she writes in a statement, the associate editorial board that disavowed Tuvel’s paper.)

“Disavowed” meaning they shat all over it.

There are scholars whose work needs to be not only critically engaged with but rendered moot, who, through fabricated data or improper vetting or suspicious funding, have produced work of demonstrable falsehood, with clear intent to mislead and to provide ammunition for retrogressive policy. The poster child here might be Mark Regnerus, a sociologist who argued the innate inferiority of gay and lesbian families, data be damned.

Tuvel’s paper — which I actually read — does not even remotely reach that bar. It uses the case of Rachel Dolezal as an entry point to explore questions of identity, the body, biological determinism, social constructionism, and analogies between racial and gender classification. It is a wholly legitimate, if provocative, philosophical endeavor. One can agree or disagree, or wish the author had done more of this or less of that. But the assertion that broaching the very subject produces inevitable harm is specious, to say the least. Indeed, the idea that any article in a specialized feminist journal causes harm, and even violence, as the signatories to an open letter to the journal claim, is a grave misuse of the term “harm.”

And we know why they do it, of course. It’s to justify their own shitty behavior, and to make Tuvel appear to deserve their venomous attack, and to pretend that they’re not poisonous colleagues and human beings. It’s to give them an excuse for doing a revolting, unnecessary, mean thing. It’s to pretend it’s ok to harm Tuvel.

By any measure, Tuvel is a committed feminist philosopher who repeatedly and clearly states her absolute support of trans rights. She is not Coulter or Murray or even the predictably contrarian Camille Paglia. Surely, Tuvel should not be immune to critique — none of us are. But to organize a petition and demand retraction should be an action reserved for work that is willfully erroneous, improperly vetted, and riven with demonstrable falsehoods. If those of us on the left are unable to make distinctions between legitimate intellectual disagreements and damaging lies, we will be hoist with our own petard. Our eyes aren’t on the prize but on mutual evisceration in the name of holier-than-thou rectitude. This isn’t substantive intellectual debate. It’s schoolyard name-calling.

Wouldn’t you think these people would be old enough to know better? And philosophical enough?

As a feminist journal editor, I am not only shocked by the policing move of the signatories and their weak, vague, and easily refutable argument. I am astonished by the immediate and hyperbolic “apology” by the associate editorial board of the journal, an apology that the editor herself did not sign and has in fact rebutted. Indeed, the apology doubles down on the notion of the “harms” caused by the publication of the article. Nowhere does this apology challenge the inaccuracies and empty accusations made by Tuvel’s critics. It simply reiterates them as if they were fact. And nowhere, but nowhere, does this “majority” of the associate editorial board defend the right of a junior feminist philosophy professor to make an argument.

Not only do the board members insult Tuvel; they undermine the whole process of peer review and the principles of scholarly debate and engagement. Hypatia presumably followed its rigorous and standard review process here. No one is claiming that they didn’t. To state, as the apology does, that “clearly, the article should not have been published” indicts the good-faith labor of peer reviewers and the editorial decision-making of the journal itself. I can’t recall a similar capitulation. Do the signatories really believe that this article shouldn’t have been published because some readers contest it? I thought edgy, challenging, thoughtful work that elicits debate was exactly what feminist journals should be publishing.

Not when it comes to trans issues. No way. On that subject you had better repeat the Authorized Formulas and nothing else.

I read manuscripts submitted to Signs every day. I read hundreds a year. So let me state categorically that this attack is way out of line; that nothing in the article merits it, and that both the attack and the apology feed into the right-wing discourse of lefty thought police, at a moment when we can ill afford it.

The right-wing discourse isn’t altogether wrong on that subject, is it.

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