Ideological alignment dressed up as intellectual expertise

At Quillette, Oliver Traldi on the Rebecca Tuvel uproar.

The letter he refers to is the open letter explaining how Tuvel was wrong wrong wrong.

The letter’s most important point is hidden in the first complaint: that Tuvel “uses vocabulary and frameworks not recognized, accepted, or adopted by the conventions of the relevant subfields.” In the Daily Nous comments, academics in these subfields struggled to identify precisely which arguments Tuvel failed to cite or address, or where her thinking might have gone wrong on a more than superficial level. Indeed, many philosophers of both gender and race have come out against retraction. But “the relevant subfields” are not really the academic studies of gender and race. They are the political interests and values associated with a certain conception of those topics. The real complaint is that anyone who publishes in a journal like Hypatia, itself a blatantly activist organ, ought to share those politics. In turn, the necessary politics are built in to the “vocabulary and frameworks” used by the academics. This is ideological alignment dressed up as intellectual expertise.

That is exactly what I’ve been chewing over all along. I’ve been trying to figure out in what sense these fundamentally (and obviously) political ideas are “subfields” in philosophy. I’ve been trying to figure out in what sense they’re academic, and what “peer review” can mean in connection with them, and why other academics are trying to punish another academic for getting them “wrong.”

Tuvel was criticized for not citing enough black or transgender scholars. Such a complaint could be leveled at virtually any philosophy paper. But Tuvel’s critics think it is especially relevant here, because they believe black and transgender scholars would have alerted her to the problematic elements of her work. In her response, however, Tuvel cited both Julia Serrano and Adolph Reed, Jr., who seem to share her methods or contentions; and black and transgender philosophers alike have come out in support of Tuvel in the face of the mob. We are back at a standard paradox of identity politics: its most fervent practitioners often seem most trapped in the delusion that marginalized groups are homogeneous.

That too. It was drearily obvious that the issue wasn’t quantity, it was viewpoint. She didn’t cite “enough black or transgender scholars” saying the approved thing.

Rather, it is Tuvel’s critics who don’t seem to know the feminist literature. Trans-exclusionary positions are actually quite popular among the reigning generation of feminist philosophers, who often hew to Simone de Beauvoir’s dictum that “gender is the social meaning of sex.” Sally Haslanger, the most notorious feminist metaphysician and a leader of several online mobs in her own right, gives an account of gender that both explicitly analogizes it to race and seems to have trans-exclusionary implications. (Tuvel adapts her theory in one part of the paper.) One wonders why the purported opponents of power would attack a young assistant professor at a small school in Tennessee rather than the most prominent writer in the field and a fixture on the faculty at MIT.

By which he means one doesn’t wonder at all, one realizes they are bullies and chickenshits.

In the same way, Tuvel was criticized for not focusing on “lived experience”—the idea being that testimony from the lived experience of black and transgender people would have spurred her to a different conclusion. Guenther similarly but not equivalently talks of Tuvel’s commitment to “ideal theory” rather than “the network of power relations that shape particular historical contexts and meanings.” But to someone who hasn’t rejected out of hand the possibility of transracialism, Tuvel will seem exquisitely attuned to a certain kind of lived experience: the transracial experience. She writes about this experience with great empathy and imagination, but her opponents offer it only ridicule and opprobrium. What then could we say about the reactions of Guenther and others? Well, we might say, for example, that they are themselves unknowingly agents of a network of power relations which we might call cisracial privilege, and that their critiques here serve not only to mock and deride transracial individuals but to marginalize, silence, and erase transracial narrative and experience. The fervency of the reaction we might call evidence of cisracial fragility. For example.

But we had better not be untenured academics if we do.

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