I’ve been thinking for a few days about whether I had anything worth saying about the publication of Rebecca Tuvel’s “In Defense of Transracialism” in Hypatia. I don’t know whether what follows is worth saying, or worth your time to read, but I did decide to say it.
First things first: when I read the paper, I was troubled that it was published. I was surprised and dismayed by the deadnaming of Caitlyn Jenner, and disappointed by the apparent lack of engagement with the literature in trans philosophy and critical race theory. I’m one of the people who believes that the paper should not have made it through review, and that it was a mistake for Hypatia to publish it in its present form—or maybe any form in which it could be said to be the same paper. I say these things with no relish whatsoever; I consider Rebecca Tuvel a friend (though we’ve only met in person once) and a decent human being who cares very much about social and interspecies justice. (We came to know each other through our common interest in animal liberation theory.)
But my own reaction to the paper is far less important than these two facts: (1) Many trans people and people of color feel that the paper trivializes and even contributes to their oppression through its methodology and its deadnaming of a trans person, and (2) many, many people who know the literature on trans theory and critical race theory much better than I do say that the paper fails to engage with that literature. These facts are important because on both counts, these other people are much better positioned than I am to know what they’re talking about. If someone says their experience of oppression has been trivialized and even exacerbated, we should be inclined to believe them. And if peer review means anything at all, then when a large number of people who work on the scholarly topic at issue say that a paper falls short of a key standard and shouldn’t have passed review, we should take that claim very, very seriously.
So my question to those who don’t work on trans issues or critical race theory, but defend either the substance of the paper or its publication or both, is: how are you in any position to know what you’re talking about? Sure, I have concerns about the paper myself, as I just said. But if I’d been asked to referee it, I’d have told the editors that they should look around for someone who’s actually qualified to review it because bringing me on would be Amateur Hour. No one ought to care very much whether I or any other non-specialist thinks the paper should have been published, but they should care a great deal about the opinions of those who actually know what they’re talking about. The prevailing view among those people seems to be that the paper shouldn’t have been published.
Many people seem to be characterizing this as a witch-hunt against a philosopher who defended a verboten thesis. My impression, at least of the criticism I’ve seen, is that this characterization is a very bad one. Critics of the paper, and of Hypatia, do not universally oppose the paper’s thesis, much less the decision of a journal to publish a paper defending that thesis. Instead, they object to what they see as an author’s failure to engage with the scholarly literature on the topic in question (a literature produced largely by people whose scholarship is informed by the racism and transphobia they experience daily) and to a journal’s failure to ensure that a published article situates itself within a literature with which authors and readers should be at least somewhat familiar. This isn’t thought-policing. It’s a demand for scholarly rigor in an area in which real people’s lives and well-being are implicated in the questions asked and answers given. If one wants to argue that the article is rigorous, is adequately situated in the relevant literature, then one should make that argument. Don’t fall back on the lazy assumption that this is a case of the “intolerant Left” devouring its own when they simply say the wrong thing. We’ve seen that tired old move before.
In fact, from what I can tell, a fair few of the paper’s vocal critics actually do believe that the topic and the thesis (or something close to it) are important. They (and I, by the way) think that at least some opposition to the idea of a person being trans black sounds an awful lot like the sort of garbage we hear from trans-exclusionary radical feminists: that trans women are not women but instead self-loathing or mentally ill gay men in a world where gender is determined at birth. TERFy opposition to the notion of trans blackness gives me serious pause. I don’t have a settled position on trans blackness, though my unsettled position on it is skepticism. All I can say, right here and now, is that to reach a settled position I would have to ground the question in the concrete realities of blackness and its history—realities reported by the very people who experience them. And I’m certain that I don’t know nearly enough to write a paper on any of this.
That observation about intellectual humility brings me to my next point. People who see their own marginalization manifested in the article’s publication, and their own experiences of oppression trivialized in the article’s argument, are angry about it. This anger is valid, and when it’s expressed we should all hear it and make a good faith effort to comprehend it—if at first we don’t understand—and to learn from it. And we shouldn’t always expect that people will express that anger in ways that make immediate sense to the rest of us. The fact that some of these expressions have been heated and vigorous doesn’t really bother me.
But I am bothered by the self-righteousness of philosophers and others who speak from positions of relative privilege—white and/or cis and/or masculine and/or tenured—acting as if they’re so woke that they would never make the kinds of mistakes they’ve charged to Tuvel. To those folx, I say get over yourselves. Take this opportunity to reflect on your own epistemic limitations. Me, I can say that among the many reactions I have to this case is a strong “there but for the grace of God” type of sentiment.
I know I’ve written at least one poorly researched paper on a topic I should have approached much more carefully, using philosophical methodology that was insensitive to historical and contemporary realities. I even presented it twice at conferences (refereed both times, mind you!). One time it was met with interest, the other time with anger and even a sharp scolding from an audience member. I managed to convince myself that the more receptive audience had the better measure of the paper, and submitted it unsuccessfully to a couple of journals. I eventually let the paper die one of those quiet, unmarked paper-deaths, and I can now say with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight that that’s the best thing that could have happened to it, and to me. But I got lucky. I’d wager big money, which I don’t even have, that I’m not the only one whose negative felt response to Tuvel’s paper has the ring of a pretty painful self-critique.
And that’s to say nothing of the hate mail Tuvel says she’s received. If you’re sending harassing or threatening emails to her, then you’re some kind of new punk, period.
Finally, I was rather amazed at the speed at which all of this happened. I actually saw people on social media essentially saying, within a day or two of the article’s publication, “when will we hear from so-and-so on this?” and “why has the editorial board been silent?” The fact that it’s now possible for people to weigh in on a situation within minutes or hours of the initiating event does not mean that it’s always reasonable to expect them to do so. Perhaps so-and-so isn’t glued to their social media accounts the way others are. Perhaps the editorial board is comprised mostly of people who didn’t see this coming and needed time to figure out what the heck had happened and to think about how to respond. The rush to form and disseminate views about this whole matter, and the expectation that others should do the same, kind of unnerved me. On the one hand, I understand that a great many people were hurting and wanted answers, but on the other hand, there could be many reasons why answers were not always immediately supplied. The associate editors, for example, took a day to correspond with each other in order to construct a response. Think what you will, good or bad, of their response, but the fact that they took time to think about it before issuing it strikes me as a good thing.
That’s all I have. Thanks for reading this far.