What is this “harm” of which you speak?

A piece by José Luis Bermúdez in Inside Higher Ed a week ago asked a necessary question about the open letter attacking Rebecca Tuvel and the apology by the Associate Editors: what are they talking about when they talk about “harm”?

This is not the place to discuss the merits or otherwise of Tuvel’s article, which I would encourage you to read (it is clearly written, and pleasantly free of jargon) before reading the open letter and the statement. There is a persuasive analysis of the weakness of the complaints made in the open letter in this article by Jesse Singal in New York magazine. At a minimum, Tuvel appears to have been significantly misrepresented.

I want to explore a much more general issue raised by this whole affair. This has to do with concept of harm, which keeps being raised. The main charge against Tuvel is that the very existence and availability of her paper causes harm to various groups, most specifically to members of the transgender community. This is a puzzling and contentious claim that deserves serious reflection.

The editorial board statement specifically refers to “the harm caused by the fact of the article’s publication.” As the concept of harm is standardly used in legal contexts, this would be a tough claim to defend. It is certainly possible for someone to suffer material or tangible loss, injury, or damage as a consequence of a 15-page article being published in an academic journal. The article might be libelous, for example. But there is no such charge here. The only individual mentioned by name besides Rachel Dolezal is Caitlyn Jenner, and it seems implausible to say that Tuvel has harmed Jenner by “deadnaming” her (i.e., using her birth name), given how public Jenner has been about her personal history.

I think we have a rough idea what they mean by it, from long unpleasant experience of the kind of thing they say. The idea is that uttering anything other than the Currently Mandated Doctrine [which shifts constantly and among doctrinizers, but never mind] causes harm to trans people because it inspires or motivates violence against them. Getting the Doctrine wrong causes people to beat up and murder trans “folk.”

I don’t think that’s true. I think the kind of people likely to attack or murder anyone for being trans are not likely to read philosophical articles about what it means to be trans anything or to identify as anything.

The authors of the editorial board statement have nothing to say about how they understand harm. This already should give pause for thought. Philosophers, whatever their methodological orientation or training, usually pride themselves on sensitivity to how words and concepts are used. This makes it odd to see no attention being paid to how they are understanding this key concept of harm, which is central to many areas in legal and moral philosophy.

Well you see it’s a term of art, like “trigger” and “violent.” It doesn’t mean what it means in either ordinary discourse or philosophy and law; it has a special, political meaning, that has to do with the need to shun and punish a perceived Bad Person aka a Harmdoer.

Surely something else has to happen for harm to occur. Most obviously, the comparison might cause someone to behave in a way that brings about some sort of injury to a specific individual or group, for example. But then, in order to substantiate an accusation of harm, Tuvel’s accusers need to explain how her juxtaposition, in a single article, of transgender people and Rachel Dolezal might reasonably be expected to have this effect.

We’re just supposed to know. We’re supposed to be woke enough to understand instantly the kind of harm that’s at issue and the mechanism by which it takes place. Failure to be that woke could mean it’s your turn to be shunned and punished.

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