Outrage has become the new truth

Kelly Oliver, a philosophy professor at Vanderbilt, tells us about the backstage maneuvers in the Ostracism of Rebecca Tuvel.

The dust-up on social media over Rebecca Tuvel’s article, “In Defense of Transracialism” published in Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, has given a new meaning to the public/private split central to the history of feminism. For decades, feminists have argued the personal is political, and explored the politics of our private lives. The split between what people wrote to both Rebecca Tuvel and to me in private, and what they felt compelled to say in public is one indication that the explosion of personal insults and vicious attacks on social media is symptomatic of something much bigger than the actual issues discussed in Tuvel’s article. In private messages, some people commiserated, expressed support, and apologized for what was happening and for not going public with their support. As one academic wrote to me in a private message, “sorry I’m not saying this publicly (I have no interest in battling the mean girls on Facebook) but fwiw it’s totally obvious to me that you haven’t been committing acts of violence against marginalized scholars.” Later, this same scholar wrote, again in private, saying Tuvel’s article is “a tight piece of philosophy” that makes clear that the position that “transgender is totally legit, [and] transracial is not—can only be justified using convoluted essentialist metaphysics. I will write to her privately and tell her so.”

These are working academics, who are intimidated into public silence by the mean girls on Facebook. This is how we live now. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not blaming the academics for being intimidated, I’m blaming the mean girls for the intimidation. I’m blaming the panting eagerness with which feminist women rush to batter other feminist women into submission, or just plain into bruises and pain and defeat.

But that’s not even the worst of it.

Others went further and supported Tuvel in private while actually attacking her in public. In private messages, these people apologized for what she must be going through, while in public they fanned the flames of hatred and bile on social media.

That I blame them for. Not stepping up is one thing, and joining them in the stoning is another. That’s horrifying.

The feeding frenzy in response to Tuvel’s article couldn’t have happened without social media. The viciousness of the attacks was fueled by the mob mentality of Facebook. Dissenters, even those who just wanted a civil discussion of the issue, were shut down immediately or afraid to voice their opinions in public. Some who in private were sympathetic to Tuvel, felt compelled to join in the attacking mob. The thought police were in full force. Both Tuvel and the journal were under pressure to retract the article and apologize. In a private message to me, one of my academic friends said one editor’s Facebook apology for publishing such an “offensive” article, “sounded like something ISIS makes its captors read in a hostage video before beheading them.” Joking aside, there was (and still is) tremendous pressure to condemn Tuvel and her article. Some who joined in the protests later admitted in private that they hadn’t even read the article.

They didn’t have time; those insulting Facebook comments don’t write themselves.

I have to admit, I didn’t want to enter the Facebook shit-storm and face the wrath of the “mean girls” either. I felt the need to defend Rebecca Tuvel not only because she is a friend and former Ph.D. student of mine, but also because I respect her work, which is always well argued—whether or not you agree with it—and I found her arguments compelling. I summoned up the courage and entered the fray suggesting only that Hypatia invite critical responses to the article. This suggestion was met with ridicule and derision. I then asked critics to respond with philosophical arguments rather than lobbing insults, which was met with claims that I was doing “violence” to marginalized scholars.

The right to lob insults on Facebook is the most precious human right of all.

The most vocal figures on social media claimed they were harmed, even traumatized, by Tuvel’s article, and by my defense of its right to exist. Some said that Tuvel’s article harmed them, and I was doing violence to them, even triggering PTSD, just by calling for an open discussion of, and debate over, the arguments in the article. While I readily agree that words can do harm and that hate speech exists, my call for philosophical engagement with Tuvel’s article does not constitute harmful speech. In fact, if an essay that openly supports trans identity does violence, and defense of open debate causes PTSD, then by which name should we call the physical violence inflicted on trans people and others daily? What of the PTSD caused by domestic violence, rape, and hate crimes? If an essay written by a young feminist scholar in support of trans rights is violent and harmful, then haven’t we leveled all violence such that everything has become swept up by it, and the very notion of violence has lost its meaning?

Or, even worse, haven’t we brushed aside physical violence inflicted on women as well as trans people and others daily, in order to focus on small conceptual disagreements over what it means to identify as a race or a gender?

Through every medium imaginable, senior feminist scholars were pressuring, even threatening, Tuvel that she wouldn’t get tenure and her career would be ruined if she didn’t retract her article. When I called out the worst insulters for threatening an untenured junior feminist, they claimed they were the victims here not her. I wonder. Tuvel’s article in support of transgender and transracial identities didn’t threaten anyone, and didn’t jeopardize anyone’s career. Whereas those calling for a retraction were doing just that to a junior woman in a field, philosophy, nearly 80% of which is still populated by men and which is still resistant to feminism. A senior feminist philosopher called to warn Tuvel that she should be appealing to the “right people” if she wanted to get tenure and warned her not to publish her book on this topic or it would ruin her career and mark her as “all that is wrong with white feminism.”

This is some tyrannical shit right here.

Part of the problem with the response to Tuvel’s article is that some seem to feel that they are the only ones who have the legitimate right to talk about certain topics.

In particular, some trans women (I almost never see this from trans men) seem to feel that they are the only ones who have the legitimate right to talk about being a woman, what it means to be a woman, what (if anything) it means to “feel like” a woman, what relevance growing up female has to being a woman, what it means to “identify as” a woman, and similar questions. Women are now pretty much forbidden to talk about any of that, because it all belongs to trans women. Women are always just inches away from inadvertently saying something that might, if you squint at it in bad light, have an implication a trans woman might not like. Best just to shut up then, isn’t it – or if you must talk, use your talking to attack some other woman as a TERF.

Outrage has become the new truth. At one extreme, we have Trump and his supporters proudly embracing political incorrectness, and at the other, we have the political correctness police calling for censorship of a scholarly article written by someone working for social justice.

Right?? It’s a nightmare. Assholes on our right, assholes on our left – where the hell can we find a dry spot?

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