The monstering

Justin Weinberg wrote a piece at Daily Nous about the monstering of Rebecca Tuvel.

In the paper, Professor Tuvel takes up the question of whether the considerations that support accepting transgender individuals’ decisions to change sexes, which she endorses, provide support for accepting transracial individuals’ decisions to change races. She defends an affirmative answer to that question.

The result has been an eruption of complaints from a number of philosophers and other academics, expressed mainly on Facebook and Twitter. Among the complaints is the charge that the paper is anti-transgender.

That charge may come as a surprise to some readers, as it comes through quite clearly in her paper that Professor Tuvel supports accepting transgender individuals’ decisions to change sexes. For example, she writes:

Trans individuals’ claims to self-identify as members of another sex did not always receive societal uptake, and unfortunately many still struggle to receive it today…

Thankfully, there is growing recognition that justice for trans individuals means respecting their self-identification by granting them membership in their felt sex category of belonging…

Which makes it all the more ironic that she’s being monstered.

Nonetheless, in one popular public Facebook postNora Berenstain, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Tennessee, says the essay contains “discursive transmisogynistic violence.”

If you say “discursive” that justifies calling a philosophy paper “violence,” apparently.

Also, “transmisogynistic” should not be a word, especially not to philosophers. It mashes two different things together as if they were one thing; that is not useful. Opposition to some claims of some trans women (like “die in a fire” for instance) is in no sense misogyny, indeed it’s usually misogynist claims that are being opposed (like “die in a fire” for instance). It’s also not necessarily hostility to trans people, aka not the equivalent of misogyny but aimed at trans people rather than women. It’s certainly not a blend of the two, because what would that even mean?

She elaborates:

Tuvel enacts violence and perpetuates harm in numerous ways throughout her essay. She deadnames a trans woman. She uses the term “transgenderism.” She talks about “biological sex” and uses phrases like “male genitalia.” She focuses enormously on surgery, which promotes the objectification of trans bodies. 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. 

Whether it’s harmful or not, is it true? If it is true, people shouldn’t be berated for saying it. If it might be true the same applies. It’s not an “ideology” that males have male privilege even if they don’t want it; it’s a factual claim about hierarchical relationships. It may be wrong, or incomplete, or right sometimes and wrong others, but none of that makes it an ideology, let alone a harmful one.

In short Berenstein is spouting political rhetoric, not philosophy, and she’s doing it in aid of bullying an untenured young philosopher. She’s claiming that her younger less powerful colleague “enacts violence and perpetuates harm in numerous ways throughout her essay.” That’s a horrifying thing to say.

Weinberg goes on to quote and discuss the open letter (which has now been taken down but is archived in various places).

Having read the article, I was surprised to see this particular letter get the support it has, although perhaps not all of the signatories agree to all of the points. Point 2 is a stretch.

Here is point 2:

2. It mischaracterizes various theories and practices relating to religious identity and conversion; for example, the author gives an off-hand example about conversion to Judaism;

Weinberg quotes what Tuvel says about Judaism:

Generally, we treat people wrongly when we block them from assuming the personal identity they wish to assume. For instance, if someone identifies so strongly with the Jewish community that she wishes to become a Jew, it is wrong to block her from taking conversion classes to do so. This example reveals there are at least two components to a successful identity transformation: (1) how a person self-identifies, and (2) whether a given society is willing to recognize an individual’s felt sense of identity by granting her membership in the desired group. For instance, if the rabbi thinks you are not seriously committed to Judaism, she can block you from attempted conversion. Still, the possibility of rejection reveals that, barring strong overriding considerations, transition to a different identity category is often accepted in our society.

It is not clear how this is a mischaracterization. Nor is it “offhand” in any objectionable way.

One would think. I think it’s at least partly wrong, but I’ll save that for a separate post.

The open letter continues:

It is difficult to imagine that this article could have been endorsed by referees working in critical race theory and trans theory, which are the two areas of specialization that should have been most relevant to the review process. A message has been sent, to authors and readers alike, that white cis scholars may engage in speculative discussion of these themes without broad and sustained engagement with those theorists whose lives are most directly affected by transphobia and racism.

I contacted Hypatia to ask whether the paper had undergone their standard reviewing procedure, and the editors there stated that it had. The paper made it through double-anonymous review with at least two referees.

But the Associate Editors decided to grovel anyway, and to throw Tuvel to the wolves.

The speed with which this has all happened is extraordinary.

The apology is in the form of a public Facebook post from Cressida Heyes, Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Gender and Sexuality at the University of Alberta. She notes that the associate editors “don’t make editorial decisions but we do advise the editors on policy.”

And they do apparently feel entitled to throw young untenured colleagues to the wolves.

And then there’s Tuvel’s statement.

UPDATE (5/1/2017): The author of the article in question, Rebecca Tuvel, has issued the following statement:

I wrote this piece from a place of support for those with non-normative identities, and frustration about the ways individuals who inhabit them are so often excoriated, body-shamed, and silenced. When the case of Rachel Dolezal surfaced, I perceived a transphobic logic that lay at the heart of the constant attacks against her. My article is an effort to extend our thinking alongside transgender theories to other non-normative possibilities.

The vehement criticism has already raised a number of concerns. I regret the deadnaming of Caitlyn Jenner in the article, which means that I referred to her birth name instead of her chosen name. Even though she does this herself in her book, I understand that it is not for outsiders to do and that such a practice can perpetuate harm against transgender individuals, and I apologize. The deadnaming will be removed from the article. I also understand that some people are offended by my use of the term transgenderism. My motivation for using it came from a blogpost by Julia Serano, as I find her defense of the term persuasive. A valid reproach is that my article discusses the lives of vulnerable people without sufficiently citing their own first-person experiences and views.

But so much wrath on electronic media has been expressed in the form of ad hominem attacks. I have received hate mail. I have been denounced a horrible person by people who have never met me. I have been warned that this is a project I should not have started and can only have questionable motivations for writing. Many people are now strongly urging me and the journal to retract the article and issue an apology. They have cautioned me that not doing so would be devastating for me personally, professionally, and morally. From the few who have expressed their support, much has been said to me about bullying culture, call-out culture, virtue-signaling, a mob mentality, and academic freedom.

So little of what has been said, however, is based upon people actually reading what I wrote. There are theoretical and philosophical questions that I raise that merit our reflection. Not doing so can only reinforce gender and racial essentialism. I deeply worry about the claim that the project itself is harmful to trans people and people of color. These are, of course, wide and varied groups, some of whom experience offense and harm at the idea of transracialism, and others who do not. People of color and trans individuals are not of one mind about this topic, of course, and online publications attest to this. For instance, Kai M. Green has defended the importance of grappling with the question of transracialism. Adolph Reed Jr., Camille Gear Rich, Melissa Harris Perry, Allyson Hobbs, Angela Jones, Ann Morton, BP Morton, among others, have also expressed more sympathetic positions on the topic. The philosophical stakes of this discussion merit our consideration.

Calls for intellectual engagement are also being shut down because they “dignify” the article. If this is considered beyond the pale as a response to a controversial piece of writing, then critical thought is in danger. I have never been under the illusion that this article is immune from critique. But the last place one expects to find such calls for censorship rather than discussion is amongst philosophers

Wouldn’t you think?

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