This Is What a Modern-Day Witch Hunt Looks Like

The point of the guide, as the name suggests, is to toy around with the question of what it would mean if a few people really were — as Rachel Dolezal maintained — “transracial,” meaning they identified as a race that didn’t line up with how society viewed them in light of the ancestry.

Tuvel structures her argument more or less as follows: (1) We accept these assumptions about trans people and the rights and rights to which they’re eligible; (2) we also accept these premises about identities and identity change generally; (3) therefore, the common arguments against transracialism neglect, and we ought to accept that there is little apparent logically coherent reason to deny the possibility of real transracialism.

Anybody who has read an academic philosophy paper will probably be familiar with this form of argument. The goal, frequently, is to excite a bit — to research what we believe and why we think this, and also to highlight logical inconsistencies which may help us better understand our values and thought processes. This type of article is subjective and laden with hypotheticals — the idea would be to pull up one level from the actual world and force people to grapple with fundamentals and claims in their own merits, instead of — in the event of Dolezal — baser instincts such as disgust and outrage. This is exactly what many philosophers do.

Tuvel’s article rebuts some of the arguments against transracialism, and it is clear, during, that Tuvel herself is firmly in support of trans people and trans rights. Her argument is not that being transracial is exactly the same as being transgender — instead, it is “that similar arguments that encourage transgenderism support transracialism,” as she puts it at a significant endnote we will go back to. It is clear, from how Tuvel sets up things, that she is prodding us to more carefully analyze why we believe the way we do about Dolezal, not to question trans rights or trans identities.

Normally, an article such as this, abstract and argumentatively complicated as it is, would not attract all that much attention beyond its own academic subculture. But that is not what occurred here — rather, Tuvel is currently bearing the brunt of a enormous online witch-hunt, abetted in part by Hypatia’s refusal to stand up for her. The journal has already apologized for the guide, regardless of the fact that it had been approved through its usual editorial process, and Tuvel’s peers are busily wrecking her standing by sharing all kinds of false claims concerning the content which do not bear the scrutiny of even a single close read.

The largest vehicle of misinformation concerning Tuvel’s content comes from the “open letter to Hypatia” which has done a great deal to help spark the controversy. (Update: As of the morning of May 3, all of the names were taken out of the letter. A note on top of it reads “We’ve now closed signatories with this letter so as to send it to the Editor and Associate Editors of Hypatia.”)

The authors then list five main reasons they think the Guide is so dangerously faulty it should be unpublished:

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

2. It mischaracterizes various theories and practices concerning spiritual identity and conversion; for instance, the writer gives an off-hand example about conversion to Judaism;

3. It misrepresents leading reports of belonging to a racial group; for instance, the author incorrectly cites Charles Mills as a guardian of voluntary racial identification;

4. We endorse Hypatia’s stated commitment to “actively reflect and engage the diversity within feminism, the varied experiences and situations of women, and the varied forms that sex takes around the planet,” and we discover that this entry was printed without being held to that commitment.
What is remarkable about this letter is that, as Justin Weinberg mentioned in the Daily Nous, a doctrine site, each and each of these falsifiable points it makes is, based on a plain reading of Tuvel’s article, simply untrue or false.

It is important to understand precisely what’s happening here, and the degree to which the smoke:fire ratio is so bizarrely out of whack, so let us go through these points one by one.

Groups such as GLAAD do caution against its use, but there is literally no other single word in the English language which means the exact same thing, now that transexuality is widely viewed as outdated or offensive. The nearest English has is the unwieldy “being transgender” suggested by GLAAD — it is telling that the organization’s other alternative suggestions, the transgender community and the motion for transgender equality and approval, do not even mean the exact same thing. Perhaps due to the lack of other alternatives, there also is not unanimity on this front, even within the trans community — here is Julia Serano, a major trans advocate and author, defending the expression and arguing against the trend in certain activist communities to frequently “problematize” language and search out new terms to explain important concepts.

In terms of the accusation which Tuvel “deadnam[ed] a trans woman,” meaning that she used a pre-transition name which was then changed, the authors conveniently leave out the identity of the trans lady in query: Caitlyn Jenner. But Jenner herself hasn’t been shy about using her previous name or speaking about her life as Bruce. It is nonsensical to claim that after a very famous trans man has exhibited comfort with their old name and talking about their pre-transition life, any reference to this life or name is still verboten.

(2) Here is Tuvel’s only mention of conversion to Judaism:

Generally, we treat individuals wrongly if we block them from supposing the private identity they want to assume. As an example, if a person identifies so strongly with the Jewish community which she wants to be a Jew, it’s wrong to prevent her from accepting conversion courses to do so. This example reveals that there are at least two elements to a successful identity transformation: (1) the way the person self-identifies, and (2) if a given society is ready to recognize a person’s felt sense of individuality by devoting her membership in the desired group. As an example, if the rabbi believes you’re not seriously committed to Judaism, she is able to block you from attempted conversion. Still, the chance of rejection demonstrates that, barring strong overriding considerations, transition to another identity group is often accepted in our society.
Not a word of the “mischaracterizes” anything. She is only making a point about identity transformation by using the example of someone expecting to convert to Judaism.

(3) Tuvel also does not come near “wrongly cit[ing] Charles Mills as a guardian of voluntary racial identification.” The only other time she references him, she quotes him as stating that in determining racial classes, ancestry is “essential not because it always manifests itself in biological racial traits but only, tautologously, as it’s regarded as crucial, since there’s an intersubjective agreement … to classify individuals in a specific way on the basis of known ancestry.”

It’s also worth noting that doctrine has a very dire diversity difficulty, even by the standards of the humanities, which might explain the whiteness of a certain paper’s citations.

In general, it is remarkable how many essential facts this letter becomes wrong about Tuvel’s paper. Either the writers simply lied about the post’s contents, or they did not read it whatsoever. Every single one of those hundreds of signatories on the open letter today has their name on a record that severely (and possibly maliciously) mischaracterizes the job of one of the colleagues. This is not the type of thing that typically occurs in academia — it is a very strange, disturbing example of mass groupthink, possibly fueled by the dynamics of online shaming and piling-on.

Others within academia criticized Tuvel’s post in misleading ways also. In his post, Weinberg highlights a popular people Facebook article by Nora Berenstain, a philosophy professor at the University of Tennessee, that has since been taken down but that read as follows (I am introducing amounts to take the new points on one by one):

(1) Tuvel enacts violence and perpetuates injury in a lot of ways throughout her article. (2) She speaks about “biological sex” and uses phrases such as “male genitalia.” (3) She targets enormously on operation, which boosts the objectification of trans bodies. (4) She describes “a male-to- feminine (mtf) trans individual who might go back to male privilege,” boosting the damaging transmisogynistic ideology that trans women have (at some stage had) male privilege.
Beginning with (1), as trendy as it is in certain academic circles to refer to particular arguments as “violence,” it is important to pause for a second and reflect on how misguided and counterproductive this kind of framing is. Trans people face the danger of actual, physical violence daily in huge parts of the nation and this world. A nerdy philosophy newspaper trying to suss out the particulars of individuality and identity-change is not an act of violence, and it is really unfortunate that this kind of “speech is violence” language has captured on granted that it makes it a lot easier for opponents of trans rights (or the rights of other marginalized groups) to sweep off valid claims of violence as mere hysteria.

As for (2), here is Tuvel’s only reference to “biological sex”: “Therefore, anyone who suggests that all women share some biologically based feature of expertise that sheds light on a shared emotional experience might need to show not just that biological sex gives rise to a distinct gendered psychology, but that there is something biological that all women share.” It’s clear from context that Tuvel does not believe that a person’s biology gives rise directly to their gender identity — that is because, again, Tuvel completely accepts the validity of trans women and men. So it’s unclear what is problematic about her use of “biological sex” here, unless one takes the exact far-fringe claim that it is an inherently offensive term to use in any circumstance.

(3), the claim that Tuvel focuses “hugely” on operation, is untrue by any reasonable standard. The terms operation or surgical look a grand total of 4 times in a newspaper the body of that is 15 pages.

In that passage, Tuvel is offering a rebuttal to the notion “that it’s a wrongful practice of chance for a white-born individual, such as Dolezal, to cross to the black racial group.” In response, Tuvel writes that “there are many difficulties with this debate as well” from the viewpoint of somebody, like her, who affirms trans rights and trans identities. “First, to the point that a white-born person could always exercise white privilege by visiting being white, I notice that the identical argument would problematically use to a male-to-female (mtf) trans individual who might go back to male privilege, perhaps especially if this person hasn’t experienced gender confirmation surgery. But the fact that somebody could potentially return to male privilege does and shouldn’t preclude their transition.”

Tuvel is, again, going out of her way to confirm the identity of trans girls. She is drawing a hypothetical about what can and can not be implied from the fact that a trans person could theoretically detransition. She’s not endorsing the claim that trans women will at any moment shed their individuality, and even throws in a “problematically” as a signpost to say “I do not actually endorse this debate personally.” Unless one is of the position that trans women do not enjoy any male privilege before transitioning — and if you’re, it means that you don’t feel that someone who simply appears male enjoys various types of male privilege, a position which would earn you a whole lot of opprobrium in the majority of progressive feminist circles — it is tough to understand what is wrong with Tuvel’s claim, especially given her attentive, hypothetical phrasing.

There’s simply been an explosive quantity of misinformation circulating online about what is and is not in Tuvel’s article, which few of the most vociferous critics seem to have even skimmed, according to their inability to correctly describe its contents. Since the right has captured on Rachel Dolezal for a goal of gleeful ridicule, and as a way of earning opportunistic arguments against the fact of their trans identity, a whole lot of professors who really should know better are attributing to Tuvel disagreements she never produced, simply because she joined those two topics in an academic post.

However, it’s quite clear from her own words Tuvel does not believe it is an apt comparison to make Breitbart-y arguments about Dolezal and trans men and women. Here is what she says in her very first endnote: “Significantly, I’m not suggesting that sex and race are equivalent. Rather, I mean to demonstrate that similar arguments that encourage transgenderism support transracialism. My thesis is based in no way upon the claim that sex and race are equal, or historically constructed in precisely the same manner.” She’s creating a very specific, narrow debate about individuality in an academic doctrine setting, all while imagining, every step along the way, that she believes trans men and women are who they say they are, and that they should be entitled to the full rights and recognition of the individuality. This pile-on is not even close to justified.

Regrettably, Hypatia simply surrendered to this continued misinformation effort. Among other things, the apology notes that “[I]t is our position that the injuries that have ensued in the publication of the guide could and should have been prevented by a more effective review procedure.” Like the critiques themselves, the apology profoundly misreads and misinterprets the first post: “Perhaps most fundamentally,” write the editors, “to compare ethically the lived experience of trans people (from a clearly external standpoint) primarily to one instance of a white man claiming to have embraced a black identity generates an equivalency that fails to comprehend that the history of racial appropriation, while also linking trans individuals with racial appropriation.” Rather, the whole premise of the guide is to analyze what real cases of deeply felt transracialism would inform us about identity and individuality change in light of the progressive view of trans rights. Early on, she even effectively places Dolezal aside, writing that she is not especially interested in what Dolezal actually feels, since that is unknowable, but is quite interested in dissecting some of the underlying issues about identity in a more hypothetical way — “My concern in this guide is less with the veracity of Dolezal’s claims,” she writes, “and much more with all the arguments for and against transracialism.”

It’s very remarkable for an academic journal to, in the aftermath of an internet uproar, apologize and suggest one of its posts caused “injury,” all while failing to push back against brazenly inaccurate misreadings of the article — especially in light of the fact that Tuvel said in a statement (readable in the underside of the Daily Nous post) that she is dealing with a wave of internet abuse and hate mail.

Various other academics have already responded angrily to the degree to which Hypatia rolled over in the aftermath of this outrage-storm.

I confess I have never seen anything like this in academic philosophy (admittedly most signatories to the “open letter” aren’t academic philosophers, but a few are). A tenure-track assistant professor submits her article to a journal, it passes peer review, it’s printed, others take offense, and the Associate Editors of this journal declare that “Obviously, the guide should not have been printed” and that the abuse to which the writer is being exposed is “both predictable and justifiable.”
An article in the current issue of the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia has created such a controversy within the last several days that the members of its board of associate editors have now issued…

@paulbloomatyale I can not even wrap my mind around what happened here.

People have a right to be offended by academic posts and to express outrage at these posts, clearly, and trans individuals obviously have a right to contest malicious or false representations of them and their lives made in any forum. Surely Tuvel’s article was not perfect, and surely one can make valid critiques of it with respect to its treatment of trans people and their identities. The point here is not to suggest otherwise.

Rather, what is disturbing here is the way many countless professors signed onto and helped disperse utterly false claims about among their colleagues, and the degree to which Hypatia, confronted with this kind of outrage, did not even bother trying to sift legitimate critiques from honestly made-up ones. A massive number of those who haven’t read Tuvel’s article now believe, on the basis of the trumped-up open letter and unfounded claims of “violence,” which it’s so deeply transphobic it justified an odd apology from the journal that published it.

We ought to want professors to write about complex, difficult, hot-button issues, including identity. Online pile-ons can’t, however righteous they sense, dictate journals’ book policies and the way they treat their writers and articles. It is really disturbing to see this type of thing unfold in real time — there is such a stark disconnect between what Tuvel composed and what she is supposed to have written. This entire episode should worry anyone who cares about academia’s capacity to participate in difficult problems at a time when outrage can propagate faster than ever before.