Academic philosophers have finally found a line they’re willing to hold against the discipline’s social justice contingent.
They hadn’t reached the line yet when bloggers started brigading against conferences where only male invitees had accepted invitations.
They hadn’t reached the line yet when critical theorists derided top programs as “hostile to women” while making excuses for covering up sexual harassment in purportedly more progressive departments.
They hadn’t reached the line yet when the American Philosophical Association advised professors at the University of Colorado not to criticize feminist philosophy on campus or at off-campus department events.
They hadn’t reached the line yet when academic “advocates” cowed prominent philosophers into writing struggle-session apologies or including phrases like “I think I am a good ally” – in papers about fundamental metaphysics.
But now Hypatia, a journal of feminist philosophy with explicitly activist goals, has seemingly disavowed a paper comparing claims about racial identity to claims about gender identity, and philosophers seem to have had enough.
Rebecca Tuvel is an assistant professor at Rhodes College; she received a bachelor’s degree in 2007 and a doctorate in 2014. Her essay “In Defense of Transracialism” (Hypatia 32.2 [Spring 2017], pp. 263-78) is, to be fair, not consistently scintillating, creative, or convincing. However, few philosophy papers have any of those qualities, and almost none have all three. What the paper does do is lay out relatively clearly the motivation for a fairly intuitive argument. I’ll give my version of it here:
- We have compelling reasons to accept the identity claims of transgender individuals.
- Transracial identification is relevantly similar or analogous to transgender identification.
- The reasons commonly given for not accepting transracial identification are either not compelling or not relevant.
- From 1, 2, and 3, the balance of reasons compels us to accept the identity claims of transracial individuals.
- If the balance of reasons compels us to accept something, we should accept it.
- From 4 and 5, we should accept the identity claims of transracial individuals.
Tuvel offers some support for premises 1, 2, and 3; premise 5, I think, is left as an assumption.
Other philosophers wrote and signed an open letter calling for the paper’s retraction. At the Daily Nous, Justin Weinberg shared (and critiqued) the letter as well as an apology from the editors of Hypatia and a response from Tuvel herself. (Disclaimer: I participated extensively in the comments section there.) Jesse Singal has also responded pretty effectively. But it is wrong to give the letter too much weight. It would not survive legal “summary judgment”: even accepting all its claims would not spur a normal academic journal to retract the paper. We must figure something else is at work—something visible, for example, in the Facebook posts of Nora Berenstain, now removed, but available on Twitter:
— Christina Sommers (@CHSommers) May 2, 2017
and of Lisa Guenther, a member of Tuvel’s dissertation committee, whose public, interpersonal betrayal in this case is simply execrable.
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.
The paucity of other critiques of the paper makes this clear.
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. (Compare, for example, Alexus MacLeod’s confusion in the comments section of a Feminist Philosophers post about the controversy, where he finds himself in the middle of a lecture about the racist “white ignorance” inherent in not knowing that the name “Becky” is used as an insult.)
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.
Similarly, Guenther suggests that Tuvel gives “no evidence . . . of the awareness of the context, power dynamics, or stakes of these issues for trans people and people of color.” It is not clear why this criticism is relevant, but regardless it is certainly not true. Tuvel’s starting point is support for transgender identification, and it’s obvious that she thinks such support has high moral stakes. And she makes frequent reference to anti-black racism and to possible objections that concern it: for example, she explicitly considers that transracial individuals didn’t experience racism as children (268), that their identity claims harm the black “community” (269-70), and that transracialism is an exercise of white privilege (270-2). But in each case she gives us reasons to think that these objections are not debilitating. It is Guenther, in fact, who gives no evidence of having read Tuvel’s paper!
Indeed, Guenther’s criticism in this regard seems to be something close to circular. She says we should be cautious about mounting arguments in favor of transracialism because of the high stakes it has for people of color. However, if arguments in favor of transracialism are correct, then white-to-black transracials are people of color. But if this is right, then it’s Tuvel’s opponents who are unaware of the possible effects their arguments might have: in particular, their arguments might convince people not to accept claims of transracial identity, which Tuvel suggests would be a significant harm. So it is only from an a priori rejection of transracialism that we can see Tuvel as the exclusive threat to people of color here. The analogy to the transgender case holds.
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.
Philosophy is the heart of the university. All the sciences sprang from it and return to it, like brilliant but wayward children, when they need theoretical justification or correction. Philosophers wonder what it means to be good, to be beautiful, to be true, to be free, to be conscious, to be human. So how could the line in the sand fall this close to the surf?
There are many parts to the explanation; I can only sketch a few here. One is the split between “analytic” and “Continental” philosophy. The pernicious influence of the latter, which was first felt in America in social sciences and humanities disciplines other than philosophy, is now making itself felt in generational ways rather than by virtue of argumentation. (One commenter on the Daily Nous fretted, roughly: “What will the anthropologists think of us?”)
Another concerns the methodology of philosophical ethics. Much of ethics is quasi-scientific: it involves investigating our intuitions about particular cases and generalizing them into a broadly explanatory theory. However, different people have different intuitions. Norms about the nature of intuitive reasoning (e.g. “reflective equilibrium”) and about how much weight philosophers should give to other people’s intuitions have never quite taken hold, except in the “experimental philosophy” movement. In the modern academy, with its myriad specializations, it is easy to put together a “relevant subfield” of philosophical ethics not by linking together a set of situations, puzzles, or theories but by finding a group of people who share the same intuitions about cases. The actual difficult work of ethics is completely removed, because people with deep disagreements can, if they wish, simply read different journals, go to different conferences, and so on. I will leave a comparison to the state of American politics as an exercise for the reader.
A third but related reason is exhaustion and pessimism surrounding the intractable nature of philosophical problems. If one accepts that no correct answers about philosophical puzzles are forthcoming, it is not a large leap to accept further that not only ethics but metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language, and so on should be vehicles for political activism, and that demographic problems within the discipline should take priority over its classic conceptual problems and paradoxes. After all, what other use do they have? This explains why so many outspoken philosophers of our time seem not only unphilosophical but hostile to philosophy as a self-motivating search for truth.
In Tuvel’s case, one form this takes is skepticism about in-kind response. And indeed here there is some cause for skepticism. Tuvel thinks the reasons she has given for accepting transracial identity outweigh the reasons others have given for rejecting it. Her critics feel differently. How ought we to actually perform this weighing or balancing? What practice do we have for it? Legal decisions often turn on balancing tests: of interests against interests, of interests against rights, or of rights against rights. But the hysterical attitude taken by social justice advocates, and their propagandists in the academy, makes such adjudication impossible. How much does it harm the black community if we accept transracial identity? Well, we’d be erasing them or denying their lived experiences or invalidating their existences. And how much does it harm an individual if we refuse to accept their claimed identity? Well, we’d be erasing them or denying their lived experience or invalidating their existence. The radical backdrop does not even provide answers to the relevant moral questions. Tuvel, for instance, is very much a member of the academic and political community that has mobbed her. Rather, the apparent answer emerges when mob leaders take extreme positions regarding harms to one group of people—which we might call an “ingroup”—and then find ways (what Tuvel’s detractors would call “willful ignorance”, a form of “epistemic injustice”) not to listen when others mention harms to other people or other groups— what we might call an “outgroup”.
Maybe philosophy, and philosophical ethics, cannot work at all; maybe it’ll never be more than warring intuitions. But if it is to work it certainly cannot work this way. Ethics concerns difficult choices and difficult choices present themselves when various courses of action all seem to make demands on our consciences that all seem absolute. The French existentialists knew this and said: just do what you want; it sucks, but that’s freedom. For all its vocabulary and all of its frameworks, the philosophy of social justice has never improved on this answer, only ignored the hard realities that prompted it. In doing so, its practitioners have pushed their obtuseness and vindictiveness past a line in the sand. It is now up to all of academic philosophy to rescue the discipline before it goes the way of so many others.