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Burn the Heretic!

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Academic Philosophy [embedded content] Rebecca Tuvel, an untenured assistant professor at Rhodes College, recently published “In Defense of Transracialism,” at Hypatia, ...

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Academic Philosophy

Rebecca Tuvel, an untenured assistant professor at Rhodes College, recently published “In Defense of Transracialism,” at Hypatia, a feminist journal. In that article, she argues we have more or less the same reasons to accept transracial identities as we do to accept transgender identities; the arguments on behalf of accepting the latter apply roughly equally as well to accepting the former.

Fair enough, right? Seems like a rather common style of argument you see in many philosophy papers. Maybe in this case it’s a good argument. Maybe it’s not. But it passed peer-review and was published in what is arguably the leading feminist philosophy journal. You’d expect that if a scholar disagrees with it, that scholar would just write a critical article.

Nope. You see, certain subfields are politicized, and the people within them no longer behave like academics or scholars. They are hell-bent on getting philosophy to go the way of the humanities in the 1980s. Many of these people are activists first, scholars second.

150 or so people, including a number of senior scholars, got together and signed a petition denouncing the article. They demand it be retracted, claim that the article “causes…harm” (no evidence given, of course), and demand that Hypatia revise its editorial practices so that this kind of thing doesn’t get published again.  Their complaints:

While it is not the aim of this letter to provide an exhaustive list of problems that this article exhibits or to provide a critical response, we would like to note a few points that are indicative of the larger issues. We believe that this article falls short of scholarly standards in various areas:

1. It uses vocabulary and frameworks not recognized, accepted, or adopted by the conventions of the relevant subfields; for example, the author uses the language of “transgenderism” and engages in deadnaming a trans woman;

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;

3. It misrepresents leading accounts of belonging to a racial group; for example, the author incorrectly cites Charles Mills as a defender of voluntary racial identification;

4. It fails to seek out and sufficiently engage with scholarly work by those who are most vulnerable to the intersection of racial and gender oppressions (women of color) in its discussion of “transracialism”. We endorse Hypatia’s stated commitment to “actively reflect and engage the diversity within feminism, the diverse experiences and situations of women, and the diverse forms that gender takes around the globe,” and we find that this submission was published without being held to that commitment.

Many published articles include some minor defects of scholarship; however, together the problems with this article are glaring. More importantly, these failures of scholarship do harm to the communities who might expect better from Hypatia. 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.

Even if all these charges were true (no evidence is given that the article caused harm), they would be, well, underwhelming. Usually papers get retracted for things like plagiarism or falsifying data, not for failing to write in the preferred style of or failing to cite the preferred authors among some heterodox ideological and methodological minority. Discussion at Daily Nous reveals that many of the criticisms are unfair, or at least plausibly rejected.

Personally, I’d say that failing to fully engage critical theory is a feature, not a bug, of the paper. After all, questions of race and gender identity are important and serious questions, while “critical” (sic) theory is predominantly low quality, politicized, morally and intellectually unserious pseudo-scholarship. If anything, there is a moral obligation to approach these topics with the tools of standard philosophy and the social sciences, that is, with rigor and intellectual openness, with data and evidence, and with a commitment to seeking the truth no matter where it lies and no matter how unpleasant it turns out to be. But even if I were wrong about that (of course I’m not), obviously there are a plurality of ways of doing philosophy, and there isn’t an obligation to work within some heterodox and fringe framework that hardly anyone in philosophy pays attention to.

The associate editors at Hypatia responded badly. They apologized for publishing the paper, claimed that the article is harmful, and declared that obviously the paper should not have been published. 

As Brian Leiter points out, it looks like Tuvel has a defamation case.

Leiter on how unusual this behavior is:

I confess I’ve never seen anything like this in academic philosophy (admittedly most signatories to the “open letter” are not academic philosophers, but some are).  A tenure-track assistant professor submits her article to a journal, it passes peer review, it is published, others take offense, and the Associate Editors of the journal declare that “Clearly, the article should not have been published” and that the abuse to which the author is being subjected is “both predictable and justifiable.”    Even the Synthese fiasco in 2011 did not involve behavior this egregious by the editors (and all the editors there stepped down not long after that fiasco).

….I would encourage someone to set up a petition to denounce the outrageous treatment of Prof. Tuvel by the Hypatia editors.

To the signatories of the letter, and to the associate editors of Hypatia who wrote the piece quoted above: This is unacceptable, unprofessional behavior. This is not how scholars treat one another. You need to apologize to Tuvel and retract your abusive statement immediately.

I’ll end by quoting my colleague Thomas Mulligan, who says it better than I can:

I hope that senior members of our profession come to Prof. Tuvel’s defense. It is to our disgrace that we have tolerated behavior like this from the fringe, feminist left for so long–the bullying, the intellectual emptiness, the self-indulgence. Surely, if we know anything about rational inquiry, we know that it is wrong to assess work on the basis of facts about the author’s race or gender.

Whatever our reasons for toleration have been, they are no longer viable. Our universities and our profession are under attack by those who claim that we simply produce left-wing cant. This open letter and the statement of Hypatia’s Associate Editors only bolsters their case. Important public policies, like the fight against climate change, are being ignored because we have as a culture lost respect for objective truth and rigorous inquiry. And we have a new–and in my view dangerous–President, elected in large part because hard-working, honest people were tired of being berated by the privileged, the whiny, and the non-contributing.

Most of us have known for a long time that this emperor has no clothes. Even if we haven’t always aired the view, we’ve known it. It’s time for us, as a profession, to do something about it.

Final note: Many people in this camp tend to dismiss others’ points of view, saying things like, “Oh, you just think that because you’re white.” Well, there’s a way to test that thesis scientifically. I describe the best method for doing so here. You’ll notice, if you bother to read the crit theory literature, that they usually just assert it without evidence.

UPDATE: By the way, despite the point I made in the last paragraph, I expect the main reaction from the angry crowd who wrote this petition will be something like, “How dare this racist, cishet, cisgen white male offer an opinion?” I don’t blame them for this, since it’s their only tactic to “win”. After all, they won’t win a reasoned debate.

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

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