A privileged group relative to much of the population

There’s a guest post at Crooked Timber on the Hypatia wharblegarble by Holly Lawford-Smith, a political philosopher at the University of Melbourne. She starts with a comparative versions exercise.

Something bad happened recently. Here’s what I thought it was: a member of a marginalized group within our profession (a pre-tenure woman) published a paper; a group of philosophers were angry about the paper; those same philosophers signed an open letter to Hypatia calling for retraction of the paper; Hypatia issued an apology for publishing the paper; another group of philosophers rallied in defence of paper’s author, against both the journal and the group of philosophers who were angry about the paper in the first place. This would be bad, because the way we deal with disagreement in our profession―both about form and about substance―is not to demand retractions but to write replies. Also, we generally try to encourage and support junior and marginalized scholars, not pile on in attacking them when they make mistakes.

Here’s what actually happened: a member of a marginalized group within our profession, but of a privileged group relative to much of the population (being both white and university-employed) published a paper; a few philosophers together with a great many more non-philosophers from marginalized groups within society at large were angry about the paper and expressed this in online venues; Hypatia’s initial response was dismissive; as a result of Hypatia’s unsatisfactory response an open letter to Hypatia was written, calling for retraction of the paper, and attracting more than 500 signatures; finally Hypatia issued an apology for publishing the paper; and then many philosophers rallied in defence of the paper’s author.

It’s useful, in a way, that she spells out this peculiar idea that “cis white” women are now among the oppressors. Yes, women can have many forms of privilege, as anyone can. Caitlyn Jenner makes a nice illustration of that all by herself. The house in Malibu, the gold medals, the fatal traffic accident with no prison time?

Also, that “a few philosophers together with a great many more non-philosophers from marginalized groups within society at large were angry about the paper” – really? A great many non-philosophers were angry about the paper? I don’t believe that. Philosophy papers are not a matter of interest to a great many people.

Hypatia is a journal of feminist philosophy explicitly committed to both ‘interdisciplinarity’ and ‘diversity’, positioned as both ‘accessible’ and a resource for ‘the wider women’s studies community’ (see their website). It’s true that some of the anger was directed at Tuvel, but much more was directed at Hypatia for not catching many of the offensive aspects of the paper during the review process (or, some think, for not outright rejecting the paper). The open letter was addressed to Hypatia, not to Tuvel. Journals that are explicitly interdisciplinary are bound by the norms of all of the disciplines they include, so whether a retraction of the paper is warranted is not settled by the fact that it wouldn’t be warranted in Philosophy. More importantly, Hypatia does something that no other journal in Philosophy does, with its commitment to diversity. Hypatia is like your male best friend, who calls himself a feminist and an ally, and who suddenly does something horribly misogynistic. You’re not surprised that there are misogynists in the world, you just feel betrayed because you didn’t think your best friend was one of them.

Nice illustration except that Tuvel didn’t do anything that’s the equivalent of “horribly misogynistic.” You can see examples of “horribly misogynistic” on Twitter without getting your hair mussed, and they don’t look anything like Tuvel’s paper.

What are the risks of a ‘dangerous idea’ like Tuvel’s?

First of all, trans people and activists for trans rights might worry that the structural analogy Tuvel draws between race and gender will undermine claims to the social acceptance of trans identities. That is to say, that although Tuvel herself thinks we have good reasons to accept transgender identities, and that those same reasons support accepting ‘transracial’ identities, others may take the parallel as a reductio ad absurdum. Many people find ‘transracial’ claims absurd, so drawing a parallel between the two might have the effect of weakening the former rather than strengthening the latter.

But if the two are parallel, if the two do rest on the same basic idea (a particular idea of identity for instance), then how can we not discuss them in those terms? Ideas about trans identity are very new, and it seems way too early to close off discussion of them.

Second of all, black people might worry that Tuvel’s conclusion will legitimize more Dolezal-type cases, which they find problematic for a whole host of reasons.

Ah. There we have it. Yes, so they might, but so might women. So might women, and it is not obvious that the worries of black people should be taken seriously while the worries of women should be treated as evil and contemptible.

Even if the paper had been published in Ethics, Philosophy’s problem of being dominated at all levels by cisgender white men entails that many members of marginalized groups (including trans black people) will be located outside the discipline, and so, conversely, work done outside the discipline may in fact be philosopy. In that case, the problem of whose work must be read and engaged with becomes a lot more difficult. At the very least, it should include those who identify as philosophers, wherever they work.

Really?? I thought that was one of those reductio ad absurdum claims we weren’t supposed to make, like “anybody who identifies as a pilot / neurosurgeon / dentist should be accepted as such.” There are countless Twitter jockeys who identify as philosophers; does Lawford-Smith really think their work must be read and engaged with?

Jimmy Lenman commented:

So let me see if I understand.

I write a paper which a journal’s editor, editorial board and referees agree is of the high quality to merit publication there, so they publish it. Some people then write to the journal’s editor to say my paper is offensive and incompetent. The journal’s editor is now wondering what to do. Does she rubbish my moral and professional reputation by making a public apology, endorsing the complaint? (And of course it is my reputation first and foremost that suffers here. It may have been the journal and not myself at whom the anger was targeted – “directed” – but it is me that gets the bullet as everyone concerned could very readily anticipate.) Or does she stand by me and my paper and tell the complainants to get lost?

Some will say the former. Some the latter. But here is a third view. What she needs to do is write back to the complainants and seek further information. What, she must ask, are your, er, demographics? Are you male, female, black, white, cis, trans, gay, straight, able-bodied, disabled, employed as philosophers, not so employed, whatever? Only when I have correctly put you and all others concerned in the right identity politics boxes will I be clear what would be a right or wrong course of action here. Give me one answer and hanging Lenman out to dry would be a shocking wrong and an affront to the basic norms of our profession. Given me another and doing so would really be no big deal and there would be nothing much here to make a big fuss about, “no particular need to rally in defence of our professional norms”. Because it’s really not such a big deal to kick someone in the teeth so long as you have, or the person or persons urging you on has, a special pass saying ‘marginalized group’ and they don’t.

No. Surely, that can’t be it. Can it?

Yes, sadly, it can.

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